NOTE: This piece was published by the Huffington Post on Sept. 10, 2013.
Good day, mates! I’m going to do something that’s been done by every pundit in Washington, some of whom have made a career out of it.
I’m going to write on something about which I know absolutely nothing.
In this case, it’s the Australian elections. Conservative Tony Abbott led his Liberal-National coalition to a smashing victory over Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Saturday, leaving the Labor Party at a 100-year electoral low point.
How did he do this? For clues, I looked to his victory speech.
“I now look forward to forming a government that is competent, that is trustworthy…a government that says what it means and means what it says.”
Hmm. The Labor government must have done a whole lot of not meaning what they say and not saying what they mean.
Politicians secretly count on voters to realize that their promises will not be kept. You expect the worst, and so they give it to you. Hooray!
Sometimes, however, voters punish such behavior. When President George H.W. Bush broke his promise to not raise tax rates (“read my lips!”) he was abandoned by Republicans, who loved the pledge, and attacked by Democrats, who hated it. His opponent, Bill Clinton, could talk about the need for higher taxes in the morning, then run ads lambasting Bush for raising taxes that night. In Oz, it looks like Kevin Rudd was Bush, while Tony Abbott played Clinton.
“…a government that understands the limits of power, as well as its potential.”
This is standard conservative populism. The underlying message is that governments cannot change human nature or dictate human choices. Those that try usually incur dreadful unintended consequences. Government is best when it keeps the order and protects freedom, or “libertas” in Latin — hence, the Liberal Party.
In America, George W. Bush’s “liberal” message of “trust the people” won a (much closer) election victory in 2000. The last two GOP nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, drifted away from the idea. Abbott’s election is proof that the people are hungry to be trusted again — not nagged, nudged, chided, or sued. President Obama, take note.
“In three years’ time, the carbon tax will be gone, the boats will be stopped, the budget will be on track for a believable surplus, and the roads of the 21st century will finally be well under way.”
Beware: campaign speeches are not for pushing policy. It’s too late for that. They are for persuading voters that a candidate is nice and non-threatening, and therefore it’s safe to pull the lever.
Only the most popular and poll-tested ideas survive to the late stages of a campaign. So it’s safe to assume that the carbon tax, refugee immigration (“the boats”), and budget deficits (for five straight years) were quite unpopular among Australians.
Indeed, Rudd and Labor ran away from their own record. The man who once signed the Kyoto Treaty said he would abolish the carbon tax. Under pressure, Rudd opened a controversial refugee detention center in Papua New Guinea (with free mobile phones!). And the Labor Party said it would peg federal spending to the inflation rate, a move which would make Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid hug each other in terror.
“A good government is one with a duty to help everyone to maximize his or her potential: indigenous people, people with disabilities, and our forgotten families as well as those who Menzies described as lifters, not leaners. We will not leave anyone behind.”
This is the empathy section of the speech, mandatory for conservatives to show they aren’t greedy supremacist haters. Interestingly, Abbott quoted post-War Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who derided “men without ambition” who “grow flabby” and “readily become slaves.” “Lifters vs. leaners” was echoed in America by Rep. Paul Ryan’s “takers vs. makers” dig that did Republicans no favors last November. Abbott may want to cool it.
If you really want the straight skinny, check out the candidate videos made for the reality TV show Big Brother Australia. The progressives, Rudd and Christine Milne of the Green Party, spoke primarily about gay marriage, moving the housemates to tears. Other issues were largely ignored.
Abbott did them one better, raising no issues at all. Instead, he stood between his grown daughters, Frances and Bridget, looking like Lyle Lovett caught between Angelina Jolie and Kate Upton. He called them “my best asset,” and asked the housemates to vote for “the guy with the not-bad-looking daughters.”
Time will tell whether Tony Abbott and his daughters will win the hearts and minds of the young. But for now it’s clear he’s got the backing of a proud, fed-up country.