Abbott goes full Trump as Coalition tries out election strategies | Australia news


Once upon a time, in fact not all that long ago, there was a national conversation in Australian politics. If you followed the breadcrumb trail of the national story and the national contest, it would serve as a guide for who would win the federal election.

Increasingly, that idea is anachronistic. Now, political parties narrowcast to win elections. Rather than speaking to a broad constituency of swinging voters, targeted communications get directed at people in specific geographical locations, or in particular demographics.

Marginal seat campaigning is obviously not new. The backroom that powered John Howard to victory four times between 1996 and 2007 pioneered the marginal seats campaign as a big picture concept, but technology – the rise of data mining, with the insights operationalised by sophisticated field operations – is transforming the prototype of the 1990s and early 2000s into a precision art from.

The increasing professionalisation and sophistication of targeted campaigning inside definable enclaves is rendering the national election conversation almost meaningless, a quaint ritual from another political age.

Apart from me blowing the whistle on the declining value of most federal election coverage – this preamble is necessary to tell you one thing that’s useful for you to know as federal parliament resumes next week after the winter recess.

The folks returning might be in Canberra, but they are thinking about somewhere else. Right now, the major parties think the outcome of the next election will be decided in Queensland’s marginal seats.

Here’s a second thing to know. Coalition MPs are more nervous now than the last time they saw each other.

Before parliament broke for the winter, MPs inclined to optimism thought they were limbering up in a contest where the government’s two party preferred position was improving in the polls and Malcolm Turnbull’s personal approval ratings had picked up.

But the walloping the LNP endured in Longman a couple of weekends ago has disrupted the qualified optimism. Qualified optimism has been replaced by incipient fretfulness.

Here’s a third thing to know. As a consequence of everything being a bit more protean, there is another observable phenomenon playing out in national politics.

Different players in the Coalition are auditioning alternative federal election strategies in front of their colleagues. If you watch closely, you’ll see there’s an implicit beauty parade underway.

So let’s run through our contenders for the #auspol equivalent of a Mr Universe pageant and the options they represent. We could categorise the offerings as Better Angels, Aussie Donald, and Let it Rip.

Malcolm Turnbull thinks he can in 2019 win on the back of being preferred prime minister in an improving economy, on the not unreasonable rationale that if people feel better about their own circumstances they won’t risk a change of government.

If the prime minister can emerge through the current jockeying with a deal on energy policy, or a partial deal and a partial fight with Labor on the degree of ambition in the emissions reduction target in the national energy guarantee – that would help too.

It would be a legacy to point to, peace in our time, with just enough conflict to have something mildly spicy to talk about during a campaign. Turnbull and his energy minister Josh Frydenberg are optimistic they can close that deal despite the static.

Then there’s Tony Abbott. Don’t roll your eyes. Abbott is still on the chess board, and positioning to be the person who comes through the middle in the event the sotto voce disquiet in government ranks escalates to full tilt panic as we approach the end of the year.

Abbott’s pitch to colleagues is simple and he makes it on 2GB most weeks: I’ve turned climate change into a bare-knuckle cost of living fight against Labor, and won an election. I can do it again. I know how to beat Labor, because I’ve got the stomach for the knock out punch.

Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.



Could Tony Abbott do a Kevin Rudd and get redrafted as a late leadership replacement before the next election? Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

So here’s a mind-focussing thought. If the Neg story ultimately ends in disaster for Turnbull, one result of the rout could be the resurrection of an emboldened Abbott, who is not the Abbott of 2013, but the Abbott of 2018.

Abbott18 – egged on rapturously by the conflict merchants of the disrupted media landscape, prowling the national affairs terrain like it’s hunting time in the zombie apocalypse – wants to go full Trump: build new coal fired power stations, abolish what’s left of the renewable energy target and withdraw from the Paris accord.

Federal Labor, keen to stand on Turnbull’s throat because #politics, and some of the progressive stakeholders running around trying to kill the Neg because they imagine the return of a beefed up renewable energy target in some future fantasy parliament – might want to bear that prospect in mind.

It’s true that fellow government MPs are enormously frustrated with Abbott and his addiction to wrecking, and the chances of this particular Lazarus rising remain, frankly, low.

But recent history shows us when marginal seats holders start to panic they hold their noses and do whatever they think will save them. We’ve seen that happen only a few years ago. Kevin Rudd was redrafted to lead the Labor party in 2013 despite the fact that most of his colleagues loathed him.

So that’s Abbott. And there’s also Peter Dutton, who gets a boost in the pecking order if internal panic hits and coalesces around a we must “save Queensland” focal point.

Dutton has one speed. He promises an election mining the fault lines on migration, on race and on national security. Let’s call this election the whatever it takes/let it rip election.

Why the resort to this? Fundamentally, the Coalition has a problem. It doesn’t know how to speak to the disaffected voters defecting to One Nation and other populist insurgencies, and the fact is when One Nation does well, the Coalition does poorly.

Labor is courting this group with an economic agenda that speaks to them, peeling back primary votes and harvesting preferences.

The Coalition currently has no economic narrative that speaks to these voters. In Longman, it tried Bill Shorten tells lies, things aren’t so bad, and would you like a personal income tax cut less generous than Labor’s alternative, with a bit of Duttonism at the edges – and the results were less than stellar.

So if you’ve got no economic agenda to court the voters you are in danger of losing, there’s a temptation to open Pandora’s box and hope what tumbles out is enough of a distraction to work.

Duttonism at its heart is a come to Daddy appeal to voters unsettled about the pace of change, uprooted by it, and casting around for someone to blame. Stoking division sanctions blame, and rancour and blame flames through the febrile media landscape and the cacophonous social media eco-system like a small wildfire.

All pretty grim, isn’t it?

While the Coalition wrestles with itself and the face it wants to present to voters, Labor is not without its challenges.

The positive result in the super Saturday byelections has put Shorten in a comfortable position as parliament returns, when a different result would have created combustible internal pressure that would just be erupting now.

Labor has more or less settled the campaign it wants to take to the people next year, but what it doesn’t yet know is whether the messages that worked in Longman and Braddon will work in seats where the demographics, experiences and aspirations are different, or whether different messages will be required, and how you nuance those differences.

That’s the task of the next few months. The government’s challenges give Labor time to mull.



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