Bursting the bubble

Tuesday, 4 March 2008 

Rudd’s main achievement in his first 100 days was nicely summed up when Piers Ackerman got caught out on Insiders on Sunday.

Dismissing Rudd’s actions like ending the Pacific Solution and the apology as meaningless, he was reminded that he didn’t seem to think so when they were issues under Howard.

In a way Ackerman has a point, of course. It is debatable whether it is a great step forward for human rights to be transferred from one of Howard’s mandatory detention camps in Nauru to one of Keating’s on the mainland. But it was Howard who made a big deal out of where the immigrants ended up as one of the many ‘stunts’ that defined his government. There was only one real issue for Howard during his eleven and half years, the war in Iraq. But even that, as shown up by Obama’s slapdown of Howard this time last year, was more a token presence than a real commitment. Other than that, it was an IR reform that business barely used and a sales tax. The rest was just gestures.

Right-wing cultural ‘warriors’ like Ackerman may comfort themselves that Rudd’s government has so far been about making symbolic gestures, but in reality he has been doing the reverse. It is more accurate to say Rudd has been clearing the decks of Howard’s symbolic gestures that by the end had been hollowed of any meaning. Probably the clearest example is the apology. It was something Howard refused to do to show his rejection of a reconciliation agenda that had in fact died years ago. How meaningless was Howard’s position was shown by the way Rudd could so easily make the apology while at the same time maintain support for Howard’s intervention.

It was because these positions had become so pointless, that when Rudd got rid of them, the Liberals, after initial hesitation, had no choice but to follow. Even their position on Workchoices and IR, an issue that goes to the very heart of what the Liberals are about, had to be abandoned in an attempt to regain support with their business backers. After coming to power with the support of the right as an alternative to the Keating-lite agenda of Turnbull, Nelson’s problem is that the right’s agenda has since dissolved under him. His 7% rating comes from being dumped into a vacuum that was twelve years in the making.

However, Rudd’s most effective achievement in the last 100 days has been how he has exposed the vacuum on his own side as well. It has been astounding how well he has got away with it. George Megalogenis put his finger on what just was at stake when he described on Insiders Rudd’s position when he came to power.

It is a crummy time to be a new government because there seems to be this huge budget surplus and a Labor government would think “imagine what we can do with this sort of money”, but they’re handcuffed with those tax cuts … and inflation about to get back out of the box.

The irony is that there has never been a time in the last century when Labor has come to power with such an ideal opportunity to pursue its spending programme – and it has disappeared under a non-existent inflation crisis. That it has done so suggests it wasn’t really there in the first place. The tax cuts are the giveaway; if there was a real Labor program there would have been some resistance to spending $34bn just on a pre-election tactic to ape Howard. In reality the acceptance of this economic story reveals the political bankruptcy of the ALP, which Rudd has now confirmed to the world with the need to hold a 2020 Summit to generate ideas.

But the media have their own problems with this. They have gone slavishly along with the inflation scare and papers like The Australian have all parroted the line that economic management will be the crucial decider for the government’s success in its first term. This is the same paper that still can’t work out why it wasn’t for Howard in his last one. The fact is that in a hundred days we have seen the collapse of the political agendas that defined Australian political life over the last century, while papers like The Australian think the main issue is knocking a percent off the inflation rate. They still don’t get it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 4 March 2008.

Filed under Key posts, Tactics

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