We keep reading claims that Tony Abbott is a low-grade politician who would be wiped off the face of Australian politics if the ALP could only get its act together. Since Abbott has already knocked off one of Australia’s most popular prime ministers and taken another to within an inch of election defeat, it seems more likely that he knows what he’s doing.
The latest evidence of Abbott’s cluefulness has come over the Christmas break. He has adopted a piece of communication that can take him a good way towards the next election:
“We can be better than this”
If the Coalition plays it right, this short and sharp line could be the “It’s Time” of 2012. It manages to go not just beyond criticism of the government but beyond conservative politics as well. It’s a line that can underpin his transition from “negativity” to producing the thing he is shortest on, which is actual policy. It can appeal to middle-of-the-road voters who glance at politics only from time to time. It’s a claim about the Coalition, but also about the nation. It’s ideal for the world of the three-second media grab, but can work in longer statements too. It’s personally ideal for Abbott, with his strong moral streak and his belief (not universal among modern conservatives) that government is a high calling. It can underpin everything he says.
And it has been particularly well-suited to the past week, when even the most uninterested voter will have noticed that the ALP seems to be having a rather messy domestic argument.
No doubt many people will accuse Abbott of hypocrisy, dark intent, attempting to take Australia back to a mythical 1950s White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant-picket-fence era, etc etc. That misses the point. “We can be better than this” is a terrific way to communicate your commitment. Labor could have used it equally well in 2007.
And it’s good for politics to have politicians arguing that politics and Australian democracy should have a high moral aspect. Just as one example, repeating that “we can be better than this” makes it hard to spend the rest of your time saying “turn back the boats”.
There’s surely a lesson here for the ALP, whose most memorable line from the past week is the Infrastructure and Transport Minister’s disclosure that his life’s calling is “fighting Tories”. I understand the temptation, and have enjoyed the activity myself from time to time. But as a message to a jaded public, it’s pure poison. Yet it was still being quoted with enthusiastic approval this morning by Senator Doug Cameron. Thousands of listeners no doubt wondered what has happened to aspirations to run the country well. (Others no doubt wondered what a “Tory” is: the term is far less common here than in the UK or Canada.)
The PM, like her predecessor, seems to understand that people want leaders with great public purpose. Hence the lines in her address yesterday:
“When [the public] look at politicians, actually the doubts that they have is that we are in it for a purpose. That we are in it with some courage to get behind a purpose that we believe is right … I intend to be a stronger and more forceful advocate of what we are doing and what we are achieving for the Australian people.”
Gillard’s address has much to recommend it. It also suffers from the problem which Peter Brent has neatly titled Too Much Meta: Gillard has been explaining that she plans to win back the public, instead of actually winning back the public.
With luck, though, the PM’s address is just the necessary prelude to the renewed focus on governing well which is now so vital to the ALP’s long-term success. Governing well is something Gillard is perfectly capable of doing. It also represents Labor’s best chance to win back the public.
Oppositions can talk about how good they will be. Governments get to show it, which creates a far deeper and more lasting impression.