At the end of law school you undertake ‘practical legal training’ to develop the essential skills of advocacy our adversarial common law system demands. This same system forms the basis of our Westminster system of government. It’s what stands democracies like ours apart from socialist regimes and why democracies have lasted for so long.
During this practical legal training, could you imagine if our legal professionals taught us budding graduates to simply adopt a strategy moving forward where we (when it gets a bit hard) capitulate and agree with the other side’s arguments they’re proposing; agree with the other’s sides facts but try to persuade the judge and jury that our submissions are better because they’re typed up neater and delivered with a charming smile?
This sounds ridiculous, right? What would be the point of an adversarial system? Is this delivering justice? Why the need for lawyers at all?
But this is essentially, from a political perspective, what the Federal Government has done with Budget 2017. Frankly, this Budget is an admission of defeat which probably won’t deliver the political dividend the government (and every staffer around the country) hopes for at the next election.
Although it may win some swinging voters (key thing to remember is that these voters do swing their vote), it will not motivate the conservative base in a political party that already has serious issues when it comes to grassroots campaigning on the ground.
I love the Liberal Party, I’m a former Federal staffer and have run campaigns in marginal seats that we’ve won. But I’m increasingly worried. People often say conservative voters ‘will still vote for us because they will never vote for Labor’. Firstly, I think this is an incorrect and outdated assumption. But, more importantly, will they campaign for us to ensure others do too? Probably not.
And that’s the problem the Liberal Party has. The key to winning elections in modern Australia is campaigning on the ground commonly referred to as ‘grassroots’ campaigning. This is how you cut through and show voters how your party’s polices and vision are different to the competitors’. This is how you get people to listen by making the effort to engage with them directly. It’s like being a barrister and talking to the jury in your case.
Anyone can send out a letter, make a radio or TV ad or hand out ‘how to vote’ cards on election day for a couple of hours and repeat ‘Vote Liberal!’ ad nauseum.
But it’s the tiring, all-day door-knocking; the random, cold calling householders who respond ‘How dare you call at this time during tea!’; standing freezing on train stations at ungodly hours and waving signs to various profanities being screamed from a passing car – all with a smile. This is how you win elections.
But how do you get people to do this?
You give them something to fight for – that is, a policy agenda that is different from the Opposition’s. One that reflects our core party values, which is why people join, campaign and vote for us in the first place. This is where the Budget fails. It fails to inspire party members and conservatives to campaign, and does little to inspire faith in the government. I’ve heard the meaningless phrase ‘soft sell’ used to explain how the Budget will be sold. That’s the equivalent of a lawyer in court adopting a strategy to go really soft and friendly in cross-examination because this will, you know, obviously be the clear strategy to win the case for your client…
Yes, the Senate is problematic. It’s no longer the house of review but a highly obstructionist and populist mess. The government tried to change it, but couldn’t. Falling short of abolishing the Senate entirely, we can’t sit around flogging a dead horse. While we need to be able to constructively work with these ‘independent’ Senators, at the end of the day, the party with a majority in the House of Reps forms government and has the upper hand. They form government because they’re a major party and enough swinging voters to win 76 seats.
They have ‘their base onboard’. Political parties only get to the point of negotiating with the Senate once they’ve won the Reps. That’s the basics. We need to go back to them.
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