Anti-politics clampdown

Monday, 10 December 2007 

Two weeks after taking power the initial restrictions on political activity in the Rudd government are in place. There are three main pillars so far to his clampdown:

1) clampdown on political behaviour

This varies from the subtle, such as sending MPs out to schools and homeless shelters, with the implicit message they are out of touch, to the less subtle banning of shareholdings by ministers as part of a sweeping code of conduct. This code of conduct is not especially in response to any major breakdown of ministerial propriety in the previous government (Santoro and Reith notwithstanding). Rather it is in response to a mood that politicians should not represent any particular interests.

Of course, this has been the basis of Australian democracy for the last century but with those sectional interests (unions/business) no longer politically relevant, parties have had to adjust. Howard, who caught the anti-political mood in 1996, had the problem that his party was unable to adjust to this need for politicians to detach themselves from sectional interests. Judging by Bishop’s cautious response to Rudd’s code, it looks to be a problem the Liberals still have.

The clampdown that has received less attention but probably with the most far-reaching implication is the way it has gone right to the top with the halting of any political entertaining at official residences. This followed the effective attack Wong made this year on Howard’s Kirribilli entertaining. It essentially makes a sin of linking the state apparatus to political interests.

2) clampdown on political spending

The severing of political parties from the functions of the state goes further with the ban on political appointments to the RBA board. Why a democratically elected politician should not be able to influence a key part of government policy, that political parties used to be elected on, is something not really discussed these days. It is just assumes that, as political parties don’t really represent any economic agenda, any fiddling with it will just be for the purposes of their re-election.

In hindsight, Costello’s moaning about Howard’s pre-election spending was feeding a growing resentment of a political practice of pork-barrelling that, again, had been a mainstay of Australian politics for a century. Howard’s switch to talking up economic threats to create fear about Labor’s spending on its political program halfway through the campaign, rebounded on Howard because as Rudd showed at the Labor launch, Labor didn’t really have a political program that demanded spending. What Labor did have was an anti-political pitch, which Rudd rammed home with his call that “this reckless spending must stop”. Ironically, this anti-politics attack on government spending was reinforced by Rudd using the coalition’s over-hyped inflation fears, which Swan has been happy to run with since.

3) the international clampdown

Almost immediately after coming to power, Rudd locked Australia into the biggest anti-politics agenda of them all, the global warming agenda. When the founder of the NGO, World Future Council, said in Bali that “political action must do justice to the scientific facts”, he neatly sums up the straight-jacket that is now being placed around national political agendas and economic policy in international forums.

This agenda is now coming home. The degree to which Australia accepts the interim emission targets will be based on how confident Rudd is on implementing that agenda in domestic politics. Garnaut’s recommendations will be an important step, but Garrett will probably also have a much more important role than commentators are now expecting in popularising it. If they are dismissing Garrett’s presence in the cabinet as token, it is because they are unaware of what Rudd will be bringing in his luggage when he comes back from Bali.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 10 December 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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