Napoleon Bonaparte once observed, ‘never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake’.
Politics can be defined as war conducted by other means. Bonaparte’s dictum applies to politics too.
After two years in the poll position, Labor’s Bill Shorten is making mistakes aplenty. Ever since he declared there’s nothing to see here in regard to Labor MP’s citizenship, Shorten’s looked less like a PM in waiting and more like a bumbling Mr Bean. Monday’s personal attacks on PM Malcolm Turnbull’s self-made wealth for toil was stupid enough, but Shorten’s unilateral declaration that he in government would repeal the Coalition’s as-yet unpassed company tax cuts for medium-size businesses, made without reference to shadow cabinet let alone the Labor caucus, is stupid squared.
Not only is the big end of town is in Shorten’s class warfare sights, but he is attacking the very middle-sized service, manufacturing and agricultural businesses employing tens if not hundreds of workers, that are the economic bedrock of marginal seats across the country, let alone the five seats up for by-elections on 28 July.
Anthony Albanese’s Shellharbour shellacking of Shorten’s politics and politics of envy strategy deservedly earned splash coverage over last weekend and has framed Shorten’s every statement since. As Nick Cater showed in Wednesday’s Australian, stripped of its rhetoric Albo’s speech was just another cut of the Rudd-Gillard years of paternalistic big government. But that rhetoric, with its message of co-operation over class war, policy over politics, and the political class working together to find viable and pragmatic solutions to national problems, was exactly what a jaded Australian public wanted to hear after nearly a decade of Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull.
Politically, Albo erred in making his leadership-focused speech at this time. By sharpening the policy and political gulf between he and Shorten, Albanese needlessly brought Labor leadership tensions into play when Labor’s focus should be entirely on winning all its contested by-elections and keeping their poll momentum. Albo should have kept Napoleon’s wisdom in mind and bided his time.
But his error is nothing as to the Coalition leadership group’s. Malcolm Turnbull and his chief political warrior, Christopher Pyne, are gleefully talking up Albo’s speech as a full-blown leadership battle. In question time and in media appearances since last Friday, Pyne particularly has been going all-out to pitch Shorten as a leader in crisis and Albanese as his nemesis just waiting to strike, stoking the fires at every opportunity.
Never mind Labor leadership election rules make it almost impossible for Albanese to challenge Shorten this side of an election unless Shorten resigns and Albanese stands unopposed, as did Bill Hayden in giving way to Bob Hawke in 1983. Make hay while the sun shines is the Coalition ‘strategy’ and Pyne is in his element as a mischievous haymaking sprite.
Pyne always has loved the game of politics for its own sake. As he himself declared last year, he loves being in the ‘winner’s circle’. He is adept at political tactics and lives for the contest, whether the enemy is in the other party or his own, but he is no political strategist. Neither is the Prime Minister nor, it seems, any in their circle of political advisers.
A genuine political strategist would realise that if the Coalition is to have any shred of a chance of winning the general election that can come on any time after 28 July, Shorten is their man. He is consistently more unpopular than Turnbull in the polls, and as the months roll on his temperament, judgment and character are being severely tested and increasingly found wanting by the electorate. With a Labor election win still looking likely, people are looking very closely at Shorten as the nest prime minister and increasingly don’t like what they see.
Albanese, on the other hand, pressed buttons voters disillusioned with both sides of politics wanted to hear in his Shellharbour speech. Many already admire him for his passion and the impression he actually stands for something and remember that, as Labor ate itself alive in the Rudd-Gillard years, Albo famously put loyalty to the party above his factional and personal allegiances. He is a more likeable and engaging man than Shorten and, at least superficially, therefore a much more attractive electoral prospect than the current Labor leader.
Yes, the Coalition should highlight that Labor isn’t an entirely happy ship. But to go to town, as are Turnbull and especially Pyne, on Shorten v Albanese is, besides sounding shrill, strategically stupid. Turnbull’s best interests are served by keeping Shorten in post all the way to the next election, and working so hard as he is to set the stage for Brother Bill potentially to fall on his sword should Labor fare poorly on Super Saturday simply highlights the Coalition’s own leadership weaknesses and ensures Albanese is Labor’s Bob Hawke to Shorten’s Hayden.
And that trying to play up leadership tensions on the other side when your own is dangerously split and divided on its own leadership, policy and direction, with the former PM rolled by the current threatening to cross the floor on energy policy, simply highlights the folly of the Coalition’s throwing stones in its leadership glass house.
Turnbull, Pyne and the Coalition leadership group would do far better by simply focusing on Mathias Cormann’s remarkable success in getting the Government’s ambitious personal tax cuts through a shark-infested Senate, and continue to make the job and wealth-creating case for company tax reform – whether or not populist Shorten Labor and its allies succeed in blocking it this week. Overdoing their schadenfreude over Shorten’s self-inflicted leadership problems might be fun, but it can and will explode in Turnbull and Pyne’s faces, and help create the conditions for the rise of a Labor leader with far more electoral appeal than the floundering incumbent.
Is that what Team Turnbull really wants? As Bonaparte might have put it, when it comes to over-egging Labor leadership tensions the Coalition’s best advised to s’il te plaît ferme ta gueule.
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