The Coalition: A Question of Strategy

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There’s a question lawyers must ask, when deciding whether or not to pursue a matter… is there a reasonable prospect of success?

If the weight of the argument to be made doesn’t offer that prospect, they must not proceed. To do so vexatiously; to harass and injure, would be as Lord Blackburn warned, an abuse of the system.

It’s a long recognised principle; demanding prosecutors consider the availability and quality of evidence, the credibility and character of witnesses and the potential costs and interests before proceeding.

It’s a principle former lawyers on the opposition benches including Julie Bishop and George Brandis would be familiar with. The opposition’s embarrassment over Godwin Grech in 2009 surely demonstrated, that it should also have a place in the maelstrom of politics. Yet if efforts last week are any indication, it’s a principle the Coalition has unwisely chosen to ignore.

They’ve continued prosecuting their campaign, implicating Julia Gillard in an affair dating back seventeen years. A campaign that has yet to offer any compelling evidence. A campaign whose chief witnesses include the Prime Minister’s former squeeze and a self-confessed fraudster, each offering different recollections. A campaign that comes at the ongoing expense of the electorate’s faith in this country’s political discourse.

Were this tawdry campaign battled out in court, it would be the Coalition’s legal ethics, rather than Julia Gillard’s in 1995 facing scrutiny, by choosing to pursue arguments that fall so manifestly short of the standard, the principle demands.

This is Parliament though, not the courtroom. The campaign against Gillard never a genuine effort to promulgate a sound case, but a clumsy attempt at mud slinging. Driven by the hope that if enough was thrown, some will stick long enough to the PM’s character come polling day.

It’s a symptom of a bigger problem for the Coalition, a problem of strategy and ideas, on the eve of an election year.

The Coalition had good reason to doubt whether the Gillard government would survive a full term. An election in controversial circumstances, delivering an equally controversial result, spelt weakness. Gillard’s policy reversal on carbon pricing, ongoing ruminations about the Labor leadership and voter discontent with state ALP governments delivered plenty of ammunition.

The assumption was that the Gillard government would come to an end sooner, rather than later. Meanwhile the Coalition was the legitimate government-in-waiting, biding its time until voters had their opportunity to reject Labor.

Its relentless focus has been on making that wait as short as possible; destabilising a delicate balance at every opportunity and painting Labor as tainted, dishonest and illegitimate.

For the Coalition, this focus has become an idée fixe – which is a problem since it always had a use-by date. The longer the Gillard government survived, the more the Coalition’s campaign could be interrogated, the more it becomes susceptible to changing circumstances and the more difficult it would be to sustain.

This is particularly true of the carbon tax, an issue at the fore of the coalition’s efforts. Since the tax arrived in July, the outcome hasn’t tipped in the Coalition’s favour. It hasn’t sent businesses and families broke nor wiped towns and industries off the map. Abbott’s Nostradamus-like powers of prediction were found wanting, and though he’s continued recycling the argument against the tax, the argument no longer has traction with voters.

The tide against Labor at a state level has abated, with the ALP making gains in the recent ACT election, and sentiment towards new Coalition governments in New South Wales and Queensland turning sour.

Circumstances are changing. The Coalition can no longer expect the next election to be primarily a retrospective judgement of Labor, yet their focus thus far has been on little else.

They would be wise to recall a blunt warning from John Howard in 1995:

“the more you talk about the past, the more you proclaim your embarrassment about the present, and that you have nothing to say about the future.”

As we come to the end of 2012, the Coalition remains ahead in the polls, but the future is less certain than it once seemed.

It’s time for a new strategy and new ideas that look beyond the current political battle of attrition.

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