Listening very carefully

Monday, 7 April 2008 

Rudd’s talk of an independent Australian diplomacy may have excited Australian foreign policy experts, whose jobs presumably rely on there being such a thing, but as he tours the globe, Australian foreign policy continues to look as though it will be doing what it has always done for the last 60 years, follows the US’s as closely as possible. Rudd can present it as a new way only because US foreign policy itself is undergoing change as it tries to recover what it lost through the Bush presidency.

Australia’s role, and for the new PM in particular, is to sensitise itself with those changes and realign Australian foreign policy accordingly. To do this it has been important to meet and listen to not only Bush but also his likely successors (just how quickly Australian foreign policy has needed to adapt is shown by the fact that one of those three successors being considered by the US political establishment to lead it was someone who, only a year ago, the then Australian Prime Minister implied was Al Qaeda’s candidate of choice).

But Rudd is not only formulating foreign policy through this trip, it will hopefully help towards creating an agenda for domestic consumption. He will need it, because the one that the new government has used since coming to power, around the economy, is starting to run its course. George Megalogenis is right in Saturday’s Australian, Swan’s message is becoming so mixed and contradictory, as Labor’s inflation scare succumbs to economic reality, that it is hard to see how it will survive the Budget.

One problem with Labor’s message that inflation was out of control while interest rates were hurting families, was that it was not very flattering to the RBA which was responsible for both. Last week the RBA’s Glenn Stevens hit back, saying that both of these were being exaggerated. Gillard’s claim for evidence of mortgage stress as coming from what she heard on the street was pretty lame, but Labor couldn’t come back hard on the RBA while respecting its independence. At the bottom of this conundrum is Labor still trying to make an economic argument when it has already admitted that an economic policy is no longer possible, something Rudd has confirmed by motivating his world tour as an alternative to watching the economic crisis unfold on CNN.

Rudd’s world tour to find an agenda is certainly likely to be more productive than his opposite number’s tour of the nation’s ‘servos’ for a similar purpose. It must be fairly disconcerting to true blue Liberal voters, only a few months after they voted for a party to carry out its program, to see its leader now touring the country asking voters what exactly it is. Especially as he seems to be doing so by hanging around in the sort of places where he is more likely to be listening to the thoughts of die-hard Labor voters than anyone else. Shouldn’t he be shooting the breeze in the cafés of Burnside and Toorak instead?

The trouble with Nelson’s cringing Ozzie Ocker act and his excruciating personal revelations is that he is aping Rudd’s tactics as opposition leader without knowing why they worked. The unprecedented personalized style of Rudd’s campaign and claims that the government was unaware of real hardships of Australian families were effective not because his personal story was that interesting or that those hardships were any worse than before. It was because both underpinned the charge that the Howard government was out of touch which in turn was a product of Howard still carrying as though he had an agenda when he did not, summed up by that annoying piece of IR legislation that business didn’t need.

If there is one thing Rudd has been careful of since coming to office is of not appearing to have a programme that he doesn’t have. He has gone out of his way to present himself as open to new ideas, even if at the risk of side-lining and humiliating the ALP. Any undermining of his authority as a politician by admitting that he has no program, is countered by his ability as a technocrat to use the state apparatus to either gather together the best and brightest, or send him off around the globe, in order to find one.

For Nelson, without such means at his disposal, such a listening tour just ends up undermining his authority in the electorate. His is also undermining his authority in the party. This is despite the old leadership still not ready to move against him until they are sure the Turnbull threat has receded. Nelson’s tactics have only accentuated the vacuum in the party’s leadership of which there is no clearer sign than the revival of hopes for the politically astute former Treasurer.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 7 April 2008.

Filed under International relations

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