Why the wedge is not working

Sunday, 29 July 2007 

On last week’s Insiders, Barrie Cassidy had been giving Lindsay Tanner a hard time over Labor’s unwillingness to criticise government action over Haneef, when the following exchange took place:

BARRIE CASSIDY: Just how fearful are you and Kevin Rudd and others of taking Government on, on national security issues?

LINDSAY TANNER: We’re not fearful at all, there is a simple response to that and that’s Iraq. The Government has seriously compromised our national security by its continuing subservience to George Bush’s adventure in Iraq. Seriously compromised our credibility in the wider world, seriously undermined Australia’s good standing and our ability to devote resources to the serious national security issues in our region. We’ve no problems in debating national security with the Howard Government.

Barrie Cassidy promptly forgot Tanner’s reply as did most other media commentators over the last week as the Haneef case unravelled. Yet Tanner was making an important point on why Howard’s wedges are not working.

Labor’s supposed vulnerability on being wedged presumes that it can be too well intentioned for its own good sometimes and that Howard can cause trouble by appealing to the electorate’s darker nature. Not only does this have a rather romantic view of the ALP (and a cynical one of the electorate) it suffers from taking such ‘wedge’ issues at face value. Labor becomes vulnerable on wedge issues when it exposes that it is on the wrong side of the more important issue behind it.

For example, Labor was vulnerable on Tampa because it had nothing to say on the more important issue of the breakdown in international relations at the time that meant Indonesia was becoming less inclined to stop illegal refugees passing through its waters.

This time, however, it is Howard who is on the wrong side of the real issue, the political ineffectiveness of the War on Terror that is unravelling in Iraq. It is because the government is losing the argument on Iraq (and what that means for the US alliance), which is why the Haneef affair is causing him problems. It is certainly not because Haneef was held with insufficient evidence. Terrorist suspects are constantly being detained on insufficient grounds in the UK and US and then released without becoming an issue. Howard’s problem is that he can’t pull together a consensus for using the extraordinary powers in the first place.

One of the key constituencies that Howard is losing is the legal profession. It was a Brisbane magistrate overturning the legislation’s intent on bail that forced the government to get directly involved and it was the legal background of the Queensland Premier that encouraged him to criticise the government’s handling of the case. This actually created quite a serious ‘wedge’ in the ALP between the Labor leader and the leading political figure of his home state, something that Howard claimed was simply Beattie speaking on Rudd’s behalf. So weak is Howard’s position that having created the wedge, he ended up denying it existed!

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Sunday, 29 July 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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