Straws in the wind

Monday, 14 January 2008 

While the consolidation of power by the Labor leadership over the party and the unions is fairly clear, even if barely alluded to in the media, the political agenda it will use to do so is just developing. At this stage there are some signs of what will be important and what will not.

What may have been central to government policy in the past may no longer be the case. Let’s all hope that the politically astute former Treasurer turns out be of some use when he shuffles off to the corporate world, because he is certainly not much use in the political one. Even after the coalition’s loss in an economic boom, he still doesn’t get that the economic debate has changed and been down-graded. His criticisms of Swan telling off the banks for hiking borrowing rates miss what the new Treasurer was doing. This is not about Swan stopping the banks from raising rates, everyone knows that he can’t. Costello’s claim that he did when he was Treasurer is just bluster. Treasurers lost control over what the banks did when monetary policy was handed to an independent Reserve Bank. The myth of the government’s control over the economy was exposed in last year’s campaign as Howard’s 2004 interest rate promise rebounded and the economic impotence of government is now much clearer. What Swan was doing was showing empathy and acting like a glorified consumer advocate. The only real response he has to higher rates is to promise to further constrain spending on Labor’s programme to satisfy the RBA.

If government is no longer able to control interest rates, there are perhaps other areas it can have an impact. There may be some who think that Cabinet Ministers should be worried about more important things than plastic bags. But they would be missing how, now that environment has become a leading global political agenda, even the most mundane and trivial matters of domestic life can become something of national importance. This ties in with an agenda flagged by Garrett before the election in You Tube ads that gave lessons on the right way to shop for groceries, fill the car with petrol and suck eggs. Unlike monetary policy, plastic bags are fairly easy to control and banning them by the year-end should be possible. But adjusting people’s domestic habits may be harder.

Even emotions are now a target for the new government. To her portfolio of industrial relations and the Education Revolution, Gillard has now also added tackling loneliness. Apparently. Social problems in the outer suburbs are part of her social exclusion brief. This is the third part of her portfolio that has received the least comment in the press, but may have the most far-reaching consequences.

This will be the first Labor government in history where unions will not play a significant role in its mandate. In a nutshell, Gillard’s job is to fill that gap. The under-funded Education Revolution is an important part of that, but her social exclusion portfolio is also about repositioning Labor’s connection with society. It is also a concern for business as well. Gillard states pretty clearly the new role social exclusion will have in replacing the dead IR issue:

I spent a lot of 2007 in corporate boardrooms where I would be talking about our industrial relations policies and plans, but there people wanted to talk to me about our social inclusion agenda … they want to work with disadvantaged communities.

As part of this agenda, Gillard has indicated that she will lift Howard’s gag on charities commenting on public policy. This gag said less about Howard than the increasing voice that charities have had in public policy over the last decade. While they conflicted with Howard’s program, they are likely to be an increasing important part of Labor’s.

This sounds all very well but it should be remembered what a change this is for the ALP. In the past there would be a bit of double-edged relation between left-leaning parties focussed on social programs and charities that would more see issues on an individual basis. This focus on individual behaviour now seems to be an underlying theme of Labor now as well. This is an implicit conclusion from Gillard’s comments that these people cannot blame the economy:

The analysis would lead you to believe that if economic growth alone was going to fix the problems of those communities, it would be fixing them by now. The truth is economic growth alone is not fixing the problems of those communities and they’re getting left behind.

None of these political trends are especially unique to Australia. A focus on individual behaviour through issues like social exclusion and environmental activism has already appeared in government policy in the US and the UK. In Australian politics this manner of looking at social problems as being behavioural problems is, of course, well established in indigenous affairs, which is clearly a social problem but now keeps coming back to the behaviour of indigenous people, no matter how inappropriate. This was the basis for the NT intervention and the report that kicked it off, both of which had broad cross-party support. It will be interesting to see how far this is now extended beyond the indigenous communities.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 14 January 2008.

Filed under The Australian state

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