Sunday, 17 February 2008
To get a feel for how the political landscape has changed since Rudd’s apology speech, you only have to compare his confident performance on Thursday’s Lateline with that on The 7.30 Report a week earlier. Australian politics is undergoing the sort of realignment that only happens once in a generation. A sure sign of that is the renegotiation of indigenous affairs, an issue that goes to the heart of what the political class is about.
Until the apology speech, the Rudd government had been more concerned with internal consolidation against the party (and probably the bureaucracy), mainly using the inflation scares to do so. Even allowing for whether there actually is an inflation crisis (it should be noted that the latest headline inflation figure, the one that actually needs to be in the RBA’s 2-3% band, is still in it), the government’s case that the previous government is responsible for it, is weak. If poor productivity through a lack of attention to skills training and education really was to blame, it would take a decade to sort out, not the 18 months Swan thinks it will take to get inflation under control.
The fact is that the main instrument government used to increase productivity (i.e. clamp down on wages), the union movement, has gone. So Rudd’s productivity campaign was always a bit of a sham. It was mainly an internal device that the media saw as an attack on the coalition. It is no wonder that when the time came for Swan to take this inflation scare directly to the coalition in Parliament last week, he became a bit nervous.
Yet while the media saw an internal device mainly as an attack on the coalition, Rudd’s real attack on the coalition was mainly seen as a conciliatory gesture. Rudd’s ‘war cabinet’ on indigenous affairs forces Nelson in on an issue on which he cannot hope to take over the leadership. Furthermore this is not confined to indigenous affairs. The indigenous debate encompasses welfare, child protection and the whole role of government for indigenous and non-indigenous communities, and as Maklin said, the government is intent on extending the war cabinet’s remit and so locking the Liberals in behind the government’s leadership. It is no wonder they are starting to try and wriggle out of it.
The irony of all of this is that the Liberals are getting caught in exactly the same trap that Howard tried to catch Rudd in with the NT intervention last year. It was clear that Howard initially tried to draw out Labor’s land rights lobby against the intervention and use it to knock Rudd off course. When that didn’t work, Howard could at least use the intervention to gain the moral high ground and use the consensus to effectively shut down what was becoming Rudd’s increasingly effective anti-politics campaign against the Howard government. Brough was also starting to extend the debate to other issues such as conditional welfare payments to non-indigenous parents and draw Rudd in behind it.
Rudd could turn it back on the coalition because they started something they could not finish. The coalition was not as prepared as Rudd to break with the political traditions of the past required for such a shake-up. As seen by the way Rudd has pushed the ALP agenda out of the way, including on his support for the intervention, he is finding it much easier to break with the political traditions on his side than Nelson is with getting his lot to disown the political traditions of the past.
Having said that, Nelson probably didn’t do as badly as some commentators seem to think. Michelle Grattan’s view that Turnbull probably did not make much capital from Nelson’s manoeuvres on the sorry debate seems sensible. The potency of Turnbull’s challenge came from his earlier willingness to disown the agenda of the past. The potency of Turnbull’s challenge does not come from the agenda he wants to replace it with, mainly warmed up left-overs from the Keating years. The hidden message behind Rudd’s apology is that that agenda is now over and Nelson’s error was to tell everyone at the wrong time. With the apology out of the way, Rudd now intends to focus on ‘practical measures’ and the starting point of this is not Keating’s reconciliation but Howard’s intervention.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Sunday, 17 February 2008.Filed under Tactics