27 May 2016
by Ben Eltham

No Ideas And No Idea: The Barnaby Joyce Show

The Deputy PM’s inelegant attempt to draw attention back to immigration policy shows just how lacking in ideas his government remains.

The Deputy Prime Minister is not known for his eloquent oratory; he has a tendency to mangle his expressions in a way that can be endearing and incomprehensible in turn.

But last night’s outburst connecting the banning of live cattle exports to Indonesia with Australia’s ever-controversial border protection policies has got Joyce into more trouble than usual.

Joyce was speaking a debate between regional leaders of the three largest parties on Wednesday night. Amid the usual argy-bargy over policies and positions, Joyce let off an unguided missile about the live export ban that crippled the northern pastoral industry in 2011 (in the wake of devastating revelations of cruelty on the ABC’s 4 Corners program).

“Might I remind you that when we closed down the live animal export industry, it was around about the same time that we started seeing a lot of people arriving in boats in Australia,” the Deputy Prime Minister mused.

It could be argued, of course, that this is just one of Joyce’s typical gaffes. He is after all fighting an unlikely war of words with Johnny Depp over the Hollywood movie star’s quarantine apology. Quite what this contributes to the Coalition’s re-election campaign is difficult to discern.

But Joyce’s comment implying that blame for asylum seeker arrivals should be placed on Indonesia has serious foreign policy implications. Needless to say, the brain explosion has raised eyebrows in Jakarta. Indonesia’s former foreign minister, Marty Natelegawa, called the accusation “shocking”.

“At best, it represents an over-analysis of the subject,” Natelegawa told Fairfax Medfa.

“Worse still, it is shocking to suggest that the Indonesian government would risk the safety and lives of innocent asylum seekers in making the treacherous journey to Australia simply to make a point.”

This morning, Joyce failed to clarify his comments, saying in a media interview that he was “just stating the bleeding obvious.”

“You don’t want to basically, what they would determine, insult another country by overnight ceasing the supply of a major requirement of their dietary intake which is meat.”

If that made no sense, no matter. Joyce’s remarks were enough to start a cycle of media coverage that refocused the campaign, however briefly, on border security – the Coalition’s favoured terrain.

By lunchtime today, Bill Shorten was calling for Joyce to leave foreign policy “to the grown ups in the room.” And so the sideshow moved on.

Joyce’s intervention has caused momentary discomfort to the government, but it will likely be forgotten when the next faux-gotcha moment appears. And the next outrageous attack will appear quite soon, because the Coalition is actively manufacturing them.

By this stage of hostilities, the pattern of the campaign has become clear.

The government has realised it is losing the debate on policy. So it has thrown the switch to vaudeville – abandoning policy announcements for a series of attack stunts.

As with Peter Dutton’s moment of dark malevolence last week, the point is not so much to make a sustained policy intervention, but instead simply to say something provocative enough to occupy a day of the media cycle.

Some are calling it the “dead cat on the table”, a tactic known to politics nerds as the signature move of the Crosby-Textor campaign playbook.

For those who don’t know or care, the idea is that throwing a “dead cat” on the table means seizing the subject of the media cycle, by means of an outrageous stunt. As no lesser authority than Boris Johnson once wrote:

The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

The Coalition has been throwing a few of these recently, with the transparent aim of derailing substantive policy discussion during the election campaign. The advantage of these outrages is that, even if they don’t throw Labor off balance, they still stir up emotions and polarise a campaign that has been drifting.

So, after Dutton, we had Tuesday’s “black hole“gag from Mathias Cormann and Scott Morrison. The “black hole” was easily imploded (or should that be transcended?) by the Canberra press gallery, who enjoyed themselves immensely poking fun at Morrison and Cormann’s rubbery figures. Was it $67 billion, or $32 billion? Was it a black hole in a black hole? Again, it didn’t really matter, because the point was we were talking about Labor’s costings.

Even though the Coalition lost some paint with the costings assault, it kept the discussion pointed at Labor’s alleged budgetary shortcomings … and away from health policy, which has been badly hurting the government during this campaign.

This points to a broader truth of the campaign so far. The Coalition has settled into a strategy of attrition. Going negative was probably the government’s preferred posture from the beginning, and it will now settle in for a sustained, all-out assault on Labor’s credibility, throwing as much mud as it can. The Coalition is trailing, but there are five weeks to go.

It’s not working – yet. But the polls have stabilised in the last fortnight. This suggests many voters have not yet engaged with the election. The Coalition will keep lobbing grenades for the next five weeks, in the hope of doing enough damage to Labor’s public standing that a handful of marginal seat voters will change their minds about turfing the government out.

For its part, Labor needs to keep the focus squarely on policy issues, especially health, education and affordable housing. If there is a single aspect of the Coalition that has crystallised in voters’ minds, it is that this Prime Minister and his government are out of touch with middle Australia. That is the Coalition’s weak point. Labor will need every ounce of discipline and confidence to turn attention to it.

One of the reasons this campaign has seemed so anodyne and uninspiring so far is that the clumsy paraphernalia of the campaign has disguised a hidden contest of ideas.

The contest is there for anyone who cares to look closely: Labor’s policy platform is quietly radical, with incremental but surprisingly progressive plans to wind back inequality in Australian society. But the surface veneer of the campaign has obscured that contest. The banalities of campaign buses and the theatre of costings “black holes” have given us little understanding of the underlying differences between the major parties, which are significant.

Of course, there are policies on which the government and the opposition are in furious agreement. One of these is asylum seeker policy, where neither Labor nor the Coalition will show a scintilla of human compassion, lest they be accused of “starting the boats”.

Even if voters are fed up with the games and the rhetoric, they won’t get much else in this campaign. Those lamenting a boring election often fail to realise that voter disengagement is what drives the stage-managed and scripted nature of modern campaigning.

Negative campaigns work, particularly for incumbents. Attack messages can cut through when more subtle and positive ideas can’t. Even mutual damage can be a net gain for a government that needs to drag the debate in its favour.

Expect to be outraged by many more dead cats during this campaign. The Coalition’s attack machine is just warming up.