The end of an era

Monday, 17 December 2007 

In review, 2007 marks the end of an era in Australian politics.

The defeat of the Howard government signals that many of the rules of Australian politics over much of the last century are now redundant. It didn’t all happen in 2007, it has been building up for a decade. But several factors came together in 2007 that have brought it to the surface and is now becoming very clear with the new Rudd government:

1) the change in the international situation
For six years, Australian politics has been suspended while the War on Terror gave the Howard government an ability to have a sense of purpose, and Howard himself to appear as a conviction politician. The growing unrest over Hicks’ incarceration was a sign that the War on Terror’s domestic impact was starting to fade. The clearest sign that Howard was losing the ability to use the issue against Labor was Rudd’s ferocious censure motion over Howard’s Obama comments in February. The Haneef fiasco in August showed that the war on Terror was even losing support from sections of the state that would have been critical in imposing anti-terrorism measures in Australia.

2) the leadership crisis in the Liberal party
In hindsight, the turning point came in July 2006 when the leadership issue erupted on the revelation of McLachlan’s notes claiming that Howard had promised to step down. It exposed that Costello’s challenge was a sham and effectively locked the Liberal party behind Howard until the end. Even when Howard left himself vulnerable during APEC in September and defeat was clearly imminent to the party leadership, there was still no-one capable of removing him. It exposed once and for all the political vacuum in the party that was behind Howard’s control of it. With Howard gone, that leadership crisis has not gone away but is now in the open.

3) a new leadership of the ALP
After a tortuous decade of leadership convulsion, the election of Rudd/Gillard in December showed that a new ALP was forming that would have fundamental differences from the party that bore the same name in the 20th century. From the start, Labor’s first non-union sponsored leader broke internal precedents with his no longer attending the meetings of his faction (along with Gillard) and over-rode them with the appointment of his shadow front bench and later his Ministry. He distanced himself from his predecessors association with the unions’ campaign against Workchoices and made a political show of expelling trade union leaders. Most importantly, he hitched Labor firmly with the international agenda on climate change. While this transformation was obscured during the campaign, it has now accelerated after the election.

These three developments have not by themselves shaken up Australian politics, but rather have exposed the underlying trends that have been present for over decade, namely that the historical issues that dominated Australian politics over the last century, such as industrial relations, federalism, foreign policy and indigenous affairs, as well as the role of the political parties that conducted them, are either fundamentally altered or have come to an end.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 17 December 2007.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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