A realignment, not a honeymoon

Monday, 10 March 2008 

The media are now proposing that Rudd’s honeymoon with the electorate could come to an end when the next Budget is being handed down.

Does this sound familiar? It is of course exactly what the media said before last year’s Budget when Rudd’s popularity was supposed to evaporate before the political panache of the former Treasurer. Once again, the media believes the lack of substance behind Rudd’s popularity will be tested as he faces the ‘hard reality’ of the economy and government spending.

But in political terms, there is no ‘hard reality’ in the Budget, as much as it offers a choice between political agendas. Just as Costello’s last Budget showed the lack of a political agenda from him, Swan’s first Budget is unlikely to show much of a distinct political agenda from the other side. There is no better example of the lack of political substance in spending priorities than the very issue that is supposed to be causing Rudd his problems, the funding of carers. It was Howard who promoted carers at home as an alternative to Labor’s emphasis on the government funding of state-run institutions. Now Rudd has reaffirmed their importance even more and is likely to do so in the Budget.

This little episode (and its leaking) suggests that the real issue in the run up to the Budget is not a real slashing of expenditure to deal with an inflation crisis. Firstly, because the inflation crisis doesn’t exist, but also because the economy is running so strongly that revenues will probably not make it necessary to cut very deeply for the government to get its surplus target. All of this is really about what the economic debate has been about since the election, Rudd clamping down on sections of the ALP getting its hands on the surplus for their own agendas.

Time looks to be running out for the government leadership to use the inflation ‘crisis’ to clamp down on the party. The RBA in the latest rate increase started to tone down the likelihood of another as it noted the dampening factor that had been there all along, the slowing international economy. When Rudd talks about the international slowdown it is not to suggest that it might offset any inflation problem, but instead making economic management even trickier. As the RBA states the obvious, this might be harder to do.

It probably won’t matter anyway as the by the time the Budget is brought down much of the realignment undergone by Australian politics over the last two years will be in place. Julie Bishop brought out the nature of that realignment on Insiders, when she said:

But for the first 12 months I think we really need to focus on ideas, we’ve got to win the battle of ideas in order to win the political battle.

But the core of politics isn’t a ‘battle of ideas’. We don’t send 150 intellectuals to Canberra every three years, we send representatives. The basis of Australian politics is the representation of particular interests on the national stage. However the parties wanted to rephrase it to gain a national mandate, the core groups being represented over the last century were the unions and business. As the representative role of political parties has declined, so has it been matched with increasing intellectualising of politics and the rising influence of ‘think tanks’ for left and right.

The Liberals may not have any ideas now, but they never really did. Any they had were in order to represent business interests. As marked by the timely death of the Tree of Knowledge, the unions’ representation in national politics is over – and so is business’s need for the Liberals. The Liberals’ IR reforms have become no more than a political symbol on which they can’t decide whether they need or not. But either way, business doesn’t care. As an internal Liberal document suggested, they might even be a barrier for its business backers. Not only was IR of little interest to business, but as the BCA’s Budget submission last month complained, Howard’s government didn’t have its spending priorities right either. The US’s new right-wing warrior apparently spent too much money on “social support” instead of handing it back to business. Any interest business has in the coalition is on a personal level, rather than as a political organisation, so it may be why the former Treasurer is reported to be struggling to find a job.

This is not a honeymoon, this a realignment of Australian politics. It is about government institutions adapting to the fact that Australia’s political parties no longer stand for anything in society. Rudd‘s job is to sweep away all the political symbols that were left over from Howard’s time and clamp down on any political agendas that may still be left in the ALP. He has done so swiftly and has brought the government in line with political reality. It is why to the country, he looks so comfortable in the job and is currently polling so well. The problem for the Liberals is that Labor, with its closer state ties, is better suited to this role of functionaries. The Liberals are left to become nothing more than a debating society. On display yesterday on the right were the Howard-lites, coyly led by Julie Bishop, and on the left, the Keating-lites led by Turnbull. Left in the middle is Nelson to chair a debate that unfortunately, nobody has any interest in.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 10 March 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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