Let’s all forget about 2004

Thursday, 23 August 2007 

As the commentary follows the government in trying to turn the coming election into a political non-event, one of the latest, and strangest, examples is a proposal to look at the swing for the coming election not against 2004, but to use instead the previous 2001 election as a ‘normal’ base. This idea to effectively discount any swing to Labor by taking away the swing against it in 2004 has even been suggested by the ABC’s reputable election expert Antony Green.

How on earth the 2001 election, one a few weeks after the most defining political event of the decade could be regarded as ‘normal’ escapes this blog. What this seems to be more about is treating the swing in 2004 as an anti-Latham aberration. There are some things that have changed since 2004, and this blog has gone out of its way to emphasise them given the tendency over the year, until recently, to wait for a decline in Rudd’s popularity as happened to Latham. The most important is Iraq, Labor’s confusion over which triggered the end of the Latham honeymoon, but nowadays gives so little advantage to the coalition it didn’t even rate a mention in the PM’s ‘vision thing’ speech a few days ago. Conversely, the new international agenda of climate change, which was barely an issue three years ago, plays much better in Labor’s hands than the government.

But there is quite a lot of continuity with 2004 that is being overlooked. Labor still has the same problem it has had since Keating, it is internally organised around a union movement that now has only a marginal role in Australian society. As Labor’s internal structure has less connection to Australian society, its leaders have less links to Labor’s internal structure. Both Latham and Rudd, more than Crean and Beazley, not only represented a break with Labor’s past but also are detached from the party itself. This is why they both place such an emphasis on ‘values’, which with Latham seemed to be about reading to your kids, for Rudd it is apparently some Christian thing. Since these values are vague, yet have some personal reality, they are pretty hard to attack (the Australian Christian Lobby’s forgiveness of Rudd’s strip club visit is a sign it has not damaged his Christian image) but they don’t really count for much in the electorate. They are no substitute for the type of real relations in society that can drive policy.

This leads to the second way their detachment from the party comes across, making policy. The problems over Latham’s snap decisions on policy, over troops in Iraq and the Tasmanian forests, arose because he by-passed the old internal processes of Labor that would have created the necessary compromises. Rudd is also by-passing normal party decision-making but this time using it to keep on track with Howard rather than distinguish himself, something he can do because he has the international agenda to do that for him.

While Rudd’s tactics are better, neither leader has created a domestic agenda that is distinctive. But then neither has the coalition. Without the war on Terror to hide behind, Howard’s policy vacuum is now much more obvious than 2004. When Howard said on Tuesday night “love me or loathe me, people accept that I stand for something” you could have heard the dogs howl in Parramatta with the silence in the studio. What was he talking about, ‘aspirational nationalism’? Well, exactly. Although Rudd is now re-making the ALP to make what will turn out to be a very different Labor government than what has gone before, so far the Labor party going to this election under Rudd is not really that different than the one that followed Latham. But the immediate news of this election will be to see exposed federally what has already happened in the states, the crisis of the Liberal party.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 23 August 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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