Falling, not pushed, from power

Monday, 12 November 2007 

It is a sign of how lacklustre Labor’s campaign has been up till now that even its most unsuccessful leader in living memory feels he can chip in.

Me-too on policy is political reality, me-too on tactics is not. Objective conditions are undermining the Liberals grip on power so Howard’s tactic is to obscure those conditions and break the campaign down. Labor’s tactics should have been to clarify what those conditions are. For the sake of record it is worth recalling why the government is on the way out, because so far the Labor campaign has not done so.

1. The government has no agenda

From day one in his government, Howard’s problem has been that his program had already been carried out by the previous Labor government. Howard has spent 11 years scrabbling around trying to find something to be a conviction politician about; GST, gun laws, Iraq, terrorism and now Workchoices. They may not always have been popular but standing for unpopular policies is better than standing for nothing at all, especially against a Labor party whose agenda had also been exhausted.

By 2005-2006, as the Iraq debacle became obvious, Howard tried Workchoices, but as it was introduced even that was shown to be a non-event. Support for Labor’s opposition to it also fell away and undermined Beazley’s leadership. Rudd had been better than Beazley at exploiting the exhaustion of the government’s program by talking more about ‘fresh ideas’ than Workchoices. Unfortunately Labor’s decision to now revive their exaggeration of the impact of Howard’s IR reforms helps cover up the hole in the government’s program.

2. The Liberals in crisis

The clearest sign of the depth of the Liberal crisis is the leadership. The fact that the party was unable to replace Howard when defeat looked imminent illustrates that there is no alternative to Howard, and especially not from Costello. This stalemate of a challenge with no challenger is best summed up by Howard’s confused retirement announcement in order to stabilise the party. This was needed because of a loss of confidence in his leadership but only possible because there was no immediate challenge to it. It was highly detrimental electorally as it now made a direct link between Howard, the government’s biggest asset, and the exhaustion of its programme.

When the announcement was made, Labor ran quite a good ad about. It is an extraordinary indictment of how feeble Labor’s campaign has been since then that they have not run a single ad mentioning it again! This is a godsend to Labor’s campaign but they have not used it and instead pretended there was life after Howard with a dynamic Costello ready to take over and bring in his own program. Milne reports that Labor research has now discovered that Howard’s retirement is a liability for the Liberals. Where have they been for the last two months?

3. The international situation is changing

Iraq disappeared from the political debate when it became clear that the government could no longer use it. The loss of Howard’s most important ‘conviction’ issue is the most significant difference between now and the last two elections. Let’s leave aside why Labor should ignore it as well. Labor under Rudd has correctly identified climate change as an issue to erode into the coalition’s heartland both in the cities and in rural areas. It also pinpointed the two points to press on this issue, belief in it (Garrett’s appointment) and using it to end Australia’s isolation on the international circuit (sign Kyoto).

The Liberals mis-read this issue and tried to counterpose their approach as more pragmatic and responsible for the economy. But this is not a pragmatic issue, it is an anti-growth global agenda that is yet to have a domestic edge. Labor therefore had no need to be defensive about Garrett’s gaffes, as they confirmed the passion for the issue that is electorally required. What Rudd should have done is made clear that while Garrett is enthusiastic, the leadership will be there to keep a check. He could have also compared such passion to the government counterpart who sees each issue in terms of his Prime Ministerial ambitions (or saving his own seat). Garrett should not have been left to fend for himself as happened, confirming what seems to be a tendency for Rudd to distance himself when things get a bit awkward.

4. The growth of anti-politics

Without a political program to implement, much of what used to be regarded as normal political activity by the government loses its justification and feeds into a mood that politicians are a waste of money and space. This has been one of the most difficult developments for Howard to deal with this year as seen by his clumsy reaction to such issues as Kirribilli entertaining, aircraft expenditure etc.

There has always been an anti-politics mood in Australia (we have the only Parliament in the world where the public can walk over the top of their politicians) and it has been used before both by Howard against Keating and Latham had an effective go at it on MPs super in 2004. But Rudd has turned this attack up a notch and it is when he is at his most effective. Last week it was the best part of his response to the interest rate rise; sympathy over a housing affordability crisis that the political class won’t acknowledge and contempt for Howard’s apology/sorry word game, a disastrous mistake that shows Howard is losing his political touch.

Where Rudd has been more cautious about using this anti-politics mood is where the government has been more effective with it, keying into the dissatisfaction with state service provision. The Liberals’ local campaigns against the state governments have been virtually unchallenged by Labor even when they get given golden opportunities like the Mersey Hospital fiasco. The problem seems to be that 1) Rudd will have to talk about something that is new, his new federalism and 2) take control of the debate as he did with the hospitals and assert leadership over the states.

This sums up the problem with Labor’s campaign so far, they have responded to the government’s agenda but cannot take it over. In their advertising this is summed up by their continued use of the ‘ads within an ad’, a good tactic against negative government advertising but carried on too long. Commentators like talking about the ‘It’s Time’ factor in the electorate, a metaphysical explanation of the government’s coming defeat that explains nothing. It is worth remembering that the original ‘It’s Time’ took twenty-three years to happen, the last six of which the government was in crisis. It did not happen until there was a reformed Labor party ready to take power. Given the weakness of the government this is unlikely to be necessary this time. But the campaign shows that this is a Labor party whose transformation is still incomplete and up against a politician who is better than anyone at running on empty.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 12 November 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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