Denial

Tuesday, 4 December 2007 

Just over one week on, a cute game has broken out in some corners of Australian politics and commentary.

Those who spent most of the year denying that a change of government was coming are now starting to deny one has happened.

Gerard Henderson who enigmatically predicted that the polls would prove to be wrong (not really) shows the way the game is played. It usually starts with a bit of Howard-bashing. Since the election, Henderson has been leading the new breed of Howard haters from the Right who argue that it is all because the old man hung around too long. It wasn’t really new policies the public wanted, just Rudd’s fresh face.

Former senior Liberals have also been trying this one on, although the politically astute former Treasurer managed to stuff it up on Friday’s Lateline, which is surprising given that you would have supposed he’d have given this particular issue a bit of thought. Costello got caught up in this revealing exchange:

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Rudd’s] immediate success in the polls must have been something that galvanised your thinking. Was that part of why you were arguing forcefully with your colleagues for generational change? Because the people the polls clearly liked him first off and that didn’t change. Did that start to spook you?

PETER COSTELLO: I actually think, Virginia, if you look at the polls, Labor was getting a lead even under Beazley. Labor was in front under Beazley. When Rudd was elected, I think it confirmed that trend. My view is that from some time late last year, a substantial proportion of people had decided they wanted a fresh government or a fresh face at the top of the government and really nothing we said after that cut through.

Hang on, when did Beazley become fresh? Beazley and his ‘black hole’ typified the legacy of the Keating government that Labor could not move beyond. Costello had to make up Beazley’s freshness because, in blaming the Liberal party for not accepting his, he had to pretend that that was the reason he argued for a new leader.

Of course this is not what actually happened. Costello didn’t make a pitch because he thought the government was in trouble from Beazley freshness, nobody at that time did (least of all Labor, which is why they dumped him). Costello simply thought he had been promised the leadership and it was his turn to have a go. The trouble is that he had no alternative to Howard, other than his fresher age, so it was barely a pitch at all. It was also why when it was clear this year that the government was in trouble, the Liberals were paralysed to do anything about it.

It is this profound policy vacuum that the Liberals still cannot see, even now when they have a leader who can’t seem to remember why he left Labor to join the Liberal party, narrowly beating someone who doesn’t even sound as though he is in it (as usual the Nationals descend even further with a deputy who really isn’t in the party!). Policy emptiness has been a feature of the Howard government since the beginning, nicely brought out in a Channel 9 review of the Howard years which noted how Howard even needed the GST to fill the hole. A hole that persisted until the leader of a hapless Australian government saw the transformation in a hapless US government when visiting it on 11 September 2001.

If the Liberals have trouble coming to terms with the vacuum that existed through the life of the Howard government, it must be especially tough for right-wing intellectuals like Henderson who have made a career out of conducting a faux cultural war with left-wing straw men over the last decade, which for Henderson has now even descended to getting huffy with those criticising the dead of the 1914-1918 War.

The Liberals’ policy vacuum is the main reason for the government’s defeat; it is why Howard’s age finally became an issue but also why he wasn’t that unpopular. It meant even Beazley could have possibly won, certainly Labor’s election campaign looked like his (by the way, it is strange the way people keep going on about how really brilliant Labor’s campaign was, it must be one of the few really brilliant campaigns where the party lost support through it).

However, while the right’s policy vacuum is not being recognised, there is an additional factor which commentators are even more struggling to acknowledge. It is where Rudd made the difference and what makes the change of government highly significant. It was submerged through the campaign but is now coming out as Rudd takes power – anti-politics. His latest example of sending MPs out to schools and the homeless is classic Rudd. Never mind that MPs must visit schools about as many times as Rudd did himself in the last month, nor that it will be only schools in Labor seats that the government will get informed about, nor even that there might be a whole bureaucratic army of inspectors whose job is precisely to inform MPs what is happening. The political message is clear, and probably appreciated by the electorate, politicians are out of touch and need to get out into the ‘real’ world.

Labor has spent a decade in opposition getting used to a policy vacuum, which the Liberals are now just starting to face, and Rudd is the culmination of that process. He is now starting to sweep away the structures of the party that have been in place since its inception and creating a new party that is no longer representing specific social interests but more identifying with the state itself. Despite the unprecedented nature of the Labor government that is now taking shape there cannot have been a Labor government with less discussion about what it will be like. All the attention has been focussed on getting Howard out. Keating summed it up when he said he wasn’t happy about the election result, just relieved at the end of Howard’s ‘toxicity’. Henderson is wrong that the expectations of Labor supporters are high in the Rudd government; some of them seem barely able to look at it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 4 December 2007.

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