The media has basically parroted the beliefs of the diviners. This does two things. It reflects those views back on the diviners. It makes people (whether in outer-urban marginals or not) think that major-party responses to such views are all there are, and all there can be, to modern politics.
As ever, the traditional media is reporting a new and different politics but it can't tell what it is. It can't tell because none of their existing sources spell it out for them, and because press gallery experience counts for fairly little they can't see it either. The marginal seats for this government are no longer on the periphery of the major cities (with one exception, which I'll get to later). The next election will be decided in rural and regional Australia.
The phenomenon of treating the outer-suburbs as a homogeneous constituency began with Whitlam Labor in the late 1960s and was vindicated by his 1972 victory. Since then, every time the government has changed, outer-suburban marginals have gone with the winning side. Look at this list of electorates won at the last election (thanks to Antony Green and to the tweep who pointed this out): the ones marked (**) are those with new MPs with different party alignment to those elected in and before 2010. Many of those, like Lindsay and Robertson (NSW) or Petrie (Q) or La Trobe (V) are pretty much standard outer-suburban marginals.
Students of political behaviour tend to be more reliable than pollsters, and they note that marginal seat MPs tend to get re-elected at least once. There are exceptions, of course, like Maxine McKew and whoever denied Kevin Rudd in 1996, but basically most of the (**) crowd can expect to hold the line next time. This leads people to assume that Abbott will have at least two terms in office.
Nothing is better as a result of this government having been elected, not a scrap of "glad confident morning" for anyone other than gloating loyalists who waited too little and gained more than they can handle. It has applied the reverse-Midas touch to every issue facing the nation. The idea that this stuff-up squad will be able to deftly outmanoeuvre the entire union movement as unemployment rises is the stuff of fantasy.
In every new government is the seeds of its destruction. Malcolm Fraser won office by outfoxing Labor with the Governor-General, and lost it when Labor outfoxed him as he went to the Governor-General again. The people who voted for Howard in 1996 voted for Rudd in 2007 on much the same basis. In 2013, the seats to watch were not the outer-suburban marginals - but for lasting impact you have to watch two regional seats, Indi and Fairfax.
The campaign for Indi, with its combination of grass-roots community activism, marketing savvy and social-media acuity, has been covered here and there and elsewhere. McGowan ran the sort of community campaign that Bob Katter threatened to run but never did. That result has put the wind up the entire Nationals organisation, and exposed them as a hollow shell where a vibrant community party once had been. It has put the wind up rural Liberals like Bill Heffernan; once regarded as a wily old bull but now just an old man with nothing useful to say, and no time to start again.
The Coalition holds the majority of rural and regional seats by default and has nowhere to go but down. Members in those seats have almost all had more than one term in office (Barnaby Joyce, newly elected to the House, does not count as a newbie; watch him squirm at State of Origin time), they've had a fair go. Drought, and issues like fracking or water-use conflicts, will see more community-based activism and less resort to the blandishments of the Coalition.
This government thinks it's good at playing up issues through brinkmanship, but it isn't. Abbott's negotiations for government in 2010 showed how bad they are, and how little they've learned since. The 'debt crisis' has been utterly negated, as has the idea that the carbon tax is killing the economy. The people who've learned most about brinkmanship are the Nationals. They are at the abyss, it is two minutes to midnight for them, and anything that pushes this government into decisions where the rural/regional members don't want to go means the whole government goes over the edge.
This country has long promised to be "the food bowl of Asia", providores of fine food in bulk to a hungry and growing region. Insofar as this government can be said to have any policies at all, this was one of them. It is fair to start judging them against that record.
If we are to succeed as exporters of high-quality food, we need high-quality food handling and processing companies. We need people who understand Asian food markets, and there is scant proof that such persons exist and/or are being developed through a career path in target-market countries. The people who ascend to run Australian food companies tend to be cost-cutting accountants.
Graincorp is a badly-run Australian company (spun off from a government entity, a corporate history designed to cultivate the dumb arrogance of a big private sector company married to the inertia of a government department - see also Telstra). In theory, it would be overtaken by a better-run competitor; in practice, Archer Daniels Midland was prevented from putting Graincorp out of its misery without other misery-abatement solutions being available.
It was cheeky of Coca-Cola Amatil to ask the federal and Victorian governments to bail out SPC Ardmona, but both those governments did bang on about food exports and jobs in rural areas, so it was worth a shot. Is the government serious about that "food bowl" stuff, and if so where's the proof? Rural MPs' brinkmanship is being explicitly invoked in the neighbouring seat of Murray, because party discipline is so tight that no allowance can be made for a long-serving local member to go off pop at a decision affecting their electorate.
Australia Post will not become the fifth pillar of the banking system. It will not develop innovative payment solutions as a hub for local communities. It will not even become a dynamic delivery service like DHL did. It will become a bloated irrelevance and will have to be killed off, because of this government's limited vision and capacities.
As for Fairfax: one of the Coalition's toughest and smartest backroom boys, James McGrath, fled before the prospect of contesting the seat. His replacement was edged out by Clive Palmer - one of Antony Green's (**) MPs - probably because of gems like this:
... more jobs, higher wages and better services for all Australians ... keep fortnightly pension and benefit increases, help small business employ people, get the Budget under control ... Only the Coalition offers our country a competent, experienced and united government that is focused on delivering real change for our country.That hasn't even worked for Ted, never mind anyone else.
Every rural/regional MP, within the Coalition or without, now knows that if they go to this government for help with a major employer in their electorate they will be sent away with a clip over the ear. A government handout will cultivate self-reliance in some people, while other programs do the opposite. Every rural/regional MP inside the Coalition, and every wannabe Coalition candidate, knows that if they promise to stand up for their community Peta Credlin and Joe Hockey will screech at them, and background journos that they're not team players anyway.
The government will dish out little projects to MPs who behave, which will be taken for granted by all sides the next election. Coalition MPs and candidates are sitting ducks waiting to be picked off by independents and stuffed about by the wide boys in both party head office and Canberra.
This government doesn't have a job-creation strategy. The job-shedding strategy with Holden and SPC will look nihilistic, but only if Shorten starts framing Abbott thus right now, so the impression sinks in and cannot be shifted.
In the horse-race politics of someone like Michelle Grattan, what's bad for the Coalition is good for the ALP. Labor holds few regional electorates and its head offices are not geared to win many more. Its preferences can boost independents standing against the Coalition in those seats, but absent compelling strategies and candidates it cannot win them. Labor's power structure is such that nobody will fail politically for failing to win seats the party has never held. Labor's shadow minister for agriculture and rural matters is Joel Fitzgibbon; enough said about his abilities, and about Shorten's foresight for wasting a promising role on such a drongo. You'd have to fancy an independent to knock him out of Hunter.
Labor does hold some regional seats - many of whom are women - but, um, yeah. It should target the following seats but it doesn't know how:
- Gilmore (NSW)
- Cowper (NSW)
- Wide Bay (Q)
- Hinkler (Q)
- Leichhardt (Q)
- Forde and/or Flynn (Q)
- Lyons (T)
- Gippsland (V)
- Grey (SA)
- Durack (WA) and Capricornia (Q) - representing communities disrupted by FIFO miners
We are going to end up with a sizeable number of independent rural/regional MPs in the next parliament, acting as 'honest brokers' between the urban parties. Major parties hate 'honest brokers' much more than they hate their opponents. Maybe the Abbott government will be returned but it won't get the benefit of the doubt. Imagine Margie-and-the-girls at rural-town shows, professing delight at steers and giant pumpkins in a feeble attempt to smooth over real concerns about education and jobs and water: here, have a brochure.
As it deals with its new paradigm the Coalition will probably have to do without one of its key personnel. With his knuckle-headed comments about Filipino porn stars and nobbling the ABC (the same ABC that gave the government its pretext to investigate the CFMEU), Mark Textor has clearly lost a plot that was always a mystery if you never took him at face value. What did Dick Wirthlin teach us about social media? Nothing, and the sheer depth and breadth of that nothing is swallowing up someone whom gullible Liberals, press gallery mouth-breathers and dills generally, regard highly and will miss without being able to properly articulate why.
Recently Textor took a holiday from politics to do some bicycle work and gobble up their website with pictures of himself. Nobody seemed to realise that the very dickheads who bully and injure cyclists are those he's spent his career cultivating: oafs, Alan Jones listeners, and other incorrigible morons. If Frank Luntz is having doubts then the post-Textor age of Australian politics is surely drawing nigh.
Shorten is hoping to give Labor the benefit of the doubt, but hopefully he brings other more tangible benefits too. He is more likely to adapt than Abbott to the new regionalism, where the Nationals fall away and are replaced by independent taskmasters. Adaptation to said taskmasters being the key lesson here - and while the Coalition have their own taskmasters, we'll see about them.
Update 2 Feb: it isn't only in Federal politics where regional electorates are the new marginals, as Farrah Tomazin explains.