Crunch time

Monday, 30 June 2008 

Climate change is the biggest economic challenge that the global community faces.
K Rudd Parliament 24 June

Climate change is the biggest economic challenge the global community faces.
W Swan Parliament 25 June

I note that there will be a fall off of jobs in the old polluting industries. But, you know, aren’t workers going to be better off? Isn’t their health going to be better? Isn’t their spirit going to be better?
B Brown 26 June 2008

The Gippsland by-election may have finally given some in the media something tangible from which to call an end to the Rudd honeymoon that continues to be denied them in the national polls. That’s their problem. In reality the main national implication of the result is to show that the federal government has yet to consolidate its themes that would have prevented it becoming the local issue campaign it largely was. Yet there was something about the 10% swing in the Labor-strongholds of the Latrobe valley that sharpens the edge about what’s coming up in Canberra.

In hindsight, the by-election will probably be seen as a product of a political period that is now passing. The events of the last week suggest the framework is starting to shift. While the media got into a tiswas about the Budget and the petrol excise fuss following it, the change in the petrol debate last week presaged the real Budget due to be handed down this week that will define this government.

The Liberals U-turn on climate change in the run up to the release of the Garnaut report this week could mark an end of a period in politics that goes back to before the election campaign. Since the November election was called, both parties have engaged in holding operations that largely relate to the problems of their traditional supporter base.

For the Liberals, theirs is a problem of a supporter base that is drifting off to a social agenda they don’t recognise. They are reminded of this every time they see the Member for Wentworth and recall what sort of campaign he ran that made him one of the few coalition MPs to improve their vote at the last election. This dilemma between the party’s traditional program and what their many of their core supporters actually believe lay behind the Abbott v Turnbull leadership contest. Their inability to resolve it brought Nelson to the top.

But that dilemma remains unresolved and while it keeps Nelson there, it undermines his leadership. This is unsustainable and, at a guess, it is starting to go back in the old leadership’s favour and if anyone succeeds Nelson it is likely to be someone of which Howard would approve rather than Turnbull. The reversal of Howard’s earlier unenthusiastic concession on climate change signals that. The Gippsland by-election has not reversed this situation, merely taken away a convenient excuse they could have used to dump Nelson.

While the Liberals are faced with a dilemma they can’t resolve that turns them into an uninteresting debating society, Labor on the other hand is a party in transformation. Rudd’s anti-politics technocrat agenda finally resolves where the party can go having lost its social base and historical role during the Hawke/Keating years. The Rudd-Gillard team may have posed themselves as union-friendly and mobilise the party for the election by opposing Workchoices, but the reality after the election should have surprised no-one. Except perhaps the ACTU, who after wasting $30m of its members’ dues on a campaign to buy influence with the Labor leadership before the election is now wasting more money trying to get the government leadership to change their minds after it. It was not just the unions. The party’s internal factions have also been dealt with, especially the most powerful, the NSW Right, as signalled by the fall of that glamour couple of the Central Coast.

Where Labor was going was not clear in the early days when it focussed on the inflation ‘crisis’ that seemed like politics as usual but was actually about undermining the legitimacy of the spending programs of both the former government and the ALP. That tactic largely ran its course by the Budget, when the media discovered a hole where a traditional program was supposed to be. The Budget marked the end of the media’s honeymoon with the new government. Media disillusionment was compounded when we had a small moment of truth about what the Rudd government was really about when he admitted there was little it could do about higher petrol prices, but before he had laid the political grounds for doing so.

Those political grounds are coming and it is climate change. The Liberals’ early U-turn has galvanised the government leadership and cohered it behind a program that will take the ALP and Australian politics to a different place.

The climate change agenda challenges the old preconceptions about left and right. It is not just because political thinkers of the avant-garde left like Rupert Murdoch have embraced it, or that independents like Tony Windsor in blue ribbon rural seats like New England can make it core to his election case. Most telling was the breakdown of questions asked by Essential Research, the new joiner to the polling organisations, which has been kindly made available by Pollbludger. When asking 1014 voters whether the Rudd government was doing enough on climate change, they got the following response:

Doing too much (Voting Labor 3%, Voting Coalition 7%, Total 4%)
Doing too little (Voting Labor 39%, Voting Coalition 67%, Total 56%)
Doing enough (Voting Labor 58%, Voting Coalition 26%, Total 40%)

There are two points to make on this. Firstly, upping the ante on climate change will be much easier than the media is currently portraying. Secondly, on this evidence coalition supporters appear to be much more keen on action than Labor voters. Even ignoring the views of traditional Labor voters in the coal industries of the Latrobe Valley, perhaps this should not wholly surprise. The right have always been more comfortable with the idea of natural limits to society. Part of the reason it has had a left-wing edge until now was that opposing the Europe-led climate change agenda was a major foreign policy driver for the neo-con’s project to recover US political leadership. That having failed, both the left and right wings of the US political class are now working out how to muscle in on the climate change agenda.

A few months ago this blogger had the opportunity to see a prominent catalyst for this change in the US political class, Al Gore, give his well-rehearsed climate change speech. It was interesting in that it was only partly about climate change. After breezily running through the science, he got to the main point of it, how he lost the US election, the fall from grace as VP, being converted to the dangers of global warming and then vindication as a Nobel Prize winner. It was a story of political revival and how mobilising against global warming can give a new sense of political purpose. Here in Australia, we are about to see if he is right.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 30 June 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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