A new dynamic, for now

Thursday, 28 June 2007 

The Australian reports that senior pollsters are sceptical that the NT intervention will not be positive electorally.

In this blog’s view they are wrong. The intervention gives significant support to the Howard government, at least in the short term. It stops what was a potentially damaging opposition strategy dead in its tracks.

To get an idea of this, it is useful to review the dynamics of this ‘unofficial’ election campaign over this year. It can roughly be divided into phases separated by three decisive events that have altered its momentum: Howard’s comments on Obama in February, the Therese Rein affair in June and now Howard’s NT move. To look at the phases of the election campaign in turn:

1. (Dec 06 – Feb 07) Nothing ever changes …
In the first months after Rudd’s ascension last December, the state of politics was widely perceived to be unchanged from the dynamic in the 2001 and 2004 electoral cycle. This was despite the unusually high polling of Labor and Rudd, which commentators ascribed to little more than a normal honeymoon period for a new Opposition leader. The degree to just how much things had changed since 2001/4 didn’t really come to the surface until February, when Howard suggested terrorists would be supporting the election of US Democrat hopeful Obama.

2. (Feb 07 – May 07) Rudd’s balancing act
In previous times Howard’s crude comments about Obama could have been dismissed as no more than a gaff. However, Rudd’s censure motion over it on 12 February exposed that Howard had lost the Iraq war and national security as issues that could give a positive sense of mission for the government. With that political cover gone, it exposed a profound vacuum at the heart of the government’s policy agenda. It meant that despite media expectations that Howard would erode Labor’s lead through using Iraq, character issues, immigration or even a popular budget, they were ineffectual. This was especially so as Labor had a positive mission of its own, on climate change.

However, in a way it was understandable that commentators did think Howard would eventually find an issue against Labor because there was a sense in which Labor were sitting ducks. The problem for Labor was that it still hadn’t solved its ‘union problem’. This is not the problem resulting from excessive union influence, actually the reverse. Labor’s union problem comes from the fact that it is internally organised around institutions that no longer have much social weight in Australian society. It means every time it deals with internal needs, it runs the risk of appearing irrelevant to most of the Australian electorate. Labor had dealt with this through a Rudd/Gillard double act over attacking Workchoices, with Gillard talking tough for internal needs and Rudd translating this to a ‘fair go’ to the rest of the electorate. It worked, although there was a danger that Labor was starting to exaggerate the electoral impact of Workchoices, especially after the NSW election.

Ironically, after continually mis-calling the end of the Rudd honeymoon, when it did end, or at least tone down, the commentators mostly missed it.

3. (May 07 – Jun 07) Rudd on the move
The Therese Rein affair ended the double act over IR as it exposed that Labor’s opposition to Workchoices was largely a sham. However, it also enabled Rudd to start to get to work on Labor’s union problem. Almost immediately Rudd started the process of ditching the unions with high profile expulsions and being more open over the acceptability of individual contracts and the marginal role that unions will play in any future government. This has reached the point where Gillard has even been reported as agreeing to the right to prevent unions entering workplaces, about the last objection Labor had to Workchoices.

This may have impacted its primary vote and reminding everyone of the union issue may have not worked with some swinging voters. However, it was setting Labor up in a much stronger position. In ditching its special interests, Labor was also starting to turn it into a principle of conduct and attacking the government on the link between political interests and the state. The Kirribilli furore showed the power of this attack, wiping the government’s union attack off the front pages with the potential to be highly embarrassing if the AEC had not blocked it.

The government was vulnerable on this issue for the same reason Howard was vulnerable to the charge of being a ‘clever’ politician – the government’s policy vacuum made it appear it was in power for its own sake and the spoils of office. This has now been addressed at least for a while with the NT intervention.

4. (June 07 – ?) Howard’s second Iraq
Using emotive, but largely unsubstantiated claims of an epidemic of child abuse in the NT indigenous communities, Howard has revived a sense of mission to the government that has been absent since the Iraq intervention became bogged down in the streets of Baghdad. It has allowed Howard to not only assume leadership of federal politics but over (most of) the states as well. With this consensus there is nothing Rudd can do but tag along as close as possible. It has ended his strategy of taking advantage of Howard’s policy vacuum (we will hear at lot less of Howard being a ‘clever’ politician).

There are strong similarities to Bush’s Iraq intervention; the dubious use of evidence to justify it, the way it has been used politically to bring other governments (the states) in line, the lack of clear programme once the forces get there (even using Rumsfeld’s favourite homily against planning ‘this is a time for action not talk’). However, there are important differences as well. Child abuse is obviously much more emotive than Saddam’s regime, so the ability to challenge the premise of this intervention initially will be much harder. But controlling the message and the way this will be reported is much easier in a military intervention thousands of kilometres away than one that is going on just up the Stuart highway. Doing this on home soil not only means that it will be harder to manage the political impact, but this is one intervention with no exit strategy.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 28 June 2007.

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