The Mandarin’s coup

Friday, 30 November 2007 

So it seems that a decade of slavish devotion to the Liberals gave right-wing pundits little insight into how the party actually works and those who predicted Turnbull’s success were wrong. The Liberals have ended up with what you get after any implosion, not very much. Nelson’s answer to Kerry O’Brien’s question as to why he switched from Labor to Liberals in the early 1990s seemed to have something to do with paying his bills. Oh well, that will have to do for now.

Of more interest to the Mandarin is his own party and he completed his anti-politics coup on the party yesterday, after flagging it at party conference in May and laying down the rules in more detail on election night. The issue is not whether ignoring the factions changes the make-up of the ministry, he has no reason to prefer one faction to the other; the point is the way it was done. By appointing the ministry himself, he has stripped the faction power brokers of one of their major leverages of influence in the party, by appointing celebrity candidates over their heads, he has removed another.

The power of factions had declined as the real influence of the unions that formed them has declined. This is the real significance of Gillard’s ‘super portfolio’. It is not actually that ‘super’ if the boast she made back in May that the unions declined quicker under the last Labor government than under Howard continues under the current one. The Australian’s Sid Marris was right that linking education to industrial relations makes the link between any union claims to productivity explicit but that is probably more relevant to Keating. Under Rudd it is more about replacing industrial relations, a dying issue, with education as the main route for aspirational working people. It is incredible to think that there was a time when that was supposed to be the unions. Rudd and Gillard will use education to bury the unions.

Wrapped around all of this is the straight-jacket of the economy and the end of the major parties’ (and their internal factions) long tradition of using government spending for political purposes. This is what Rudd means by a much greater role for Treasury and something he flagged at the party’s launch.

While the factions have been hollowed for some time what has made it possible for Rudd to burst the bubble is the change in the international situation. Whatever the role of Stephen Smith as Foreign Affairs Minster (it sounds like he will be entertaining a lot of minor Asian Ministers in Perth from what Rudd said) the real job will be with Penny Wong to manage the way that the environment has become the language of diplomats in constructing the new world order around climate change. Internally she will be doing a similar thing on federalism with Premiers over water. While these have been taken away from Garrett he will still have an important role. How did Rudd put it? Garrett will deliver on programs on water and energy efficiency, i.e. he will bring in austerity measures, already practiced by state Labor and flagged by federal Labor in ads on the web in the run up to the election. Garrett will play a key role in laying the moral foundation for the changes in the international order at home. Make no mistake, this will change the way politics is conducted.

By over-riding the factions, Rudd is now creating a core of Labor MPs who are almost wholly reliant on him for patronage, centred on an inner circle that includes Gillard, Wong and Faulkner. However, there is one problem with getting rid of the factions. It has removed the structure by which the Labor party, and the individuals in it, had conducted themselves, something that had its uses during the demoralisation of the last decade and prevented the instability that the Liberals are about to go through. The placing of ambitious new entrants like Shorten and Combet to shadow their ministers looks a little too clever and may create problems at some time in the future.

All that is left is to clear the path of any debris left over from the age of business/union political parties that is now coming to an end. This especially means the major policy failure of the last fifty years, the stolen generation. An apology is apparently forthcoming for something that happened fifty years ago and members of the current government did not support, but not for the intervention of six months ago that the members of the current government did. This may seem the height of hypocrisy but then this is not about indigenous peoples but is all about the reinvigoration of the Australian political class.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 30 November 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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