Gillard has a good-news story but is failing to communicate it
This op-ed originally appeared in today's Australian.
One of my favourite films is Cool Hand Luke. In it Paul Newman plays a prisoner who refuses to submit to the brutal regime imposed by the prison's governor.
In one scene Luke is in a chain gang. His guard tells him that the chains he's wearing will be a useful reminder that he is a prisoner and as such is powerless. Recognising this fact, says the overseer, will be for Luke's own good. Luke replies: "I wish you'd stop being so good to me, Captain" and is beaten by his guard. Looking down on Luke as he lies in a ditch, the guard says, "What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach." It didn't matter what the officials said or did; Luke was never going to accept their authority or give them any respect.
The Gillard government faces the same problem as those prison guards. It is failing to communicate. Like Luke, a stubborn Australian public just won't listen to anything the government is saying.
The possible change to superannuation benefits is a case in point. With six weeks to go before the budget, the government is refusing to rule out changes that may affect the superannuation entitlements of some Australians. That's another six weeks of speculation, anxiety and growing resentment as the opposition takes the beater to this issue.
Now, those of us who follow these things closely know that if there are changes, they will be restricted to the wealthiest Australians. But most voters don't follow politics that closely. What they pick up is an impression that the government is going to attack the savings of hardworking Australians. That means it could be them disadvantaged by any changes now or in the future. So the idea just jars with voters.
Meanwhile, over in Liberal Land, Tony Abbott has a policy that would see three million lower-income Australians lose $500 a year in superannuation benefits they will receive from the mining tax, even with the lower than expected revenue raised from that tax. That should be twin positives for the government -- it is the Opposition Leader who is in the business of "class warfare" and good things do come from the mining tax.
However, the Gillard government is losing this argument as all the focus goes on what may happen under its rule -- the uncertainty of Wayne Swan's plans is the problem. The ministers can't even go out and lay the groundwork to justify the new superannuation arrangements because they're worried about flagging what may be in the budget.
This puts them in the worst possible position. They have a failure to communicate and once again Abbott is the beneficiary of this confused approach.
The problem for the government is that it desperately wants to rein in the looming budget deficit. In doing so the prescribed cure looks like being worse than the disease. The best thing the Prime Minister can do now is rule out any changes to superannuation and get on with telling a good story about preserving superannuation benefits for all Australians.
She can then open up the attack on Abbott's plans and, in doing so, show how the mining tax is benefiting average Australians. She should abandon the class-warfare stuff and leave it to the experts -- the Liberal Party.