Flaws in the machine

Thursday, 12 June 2008 

Writing about the potential weaknesses of the Rudd government is by no means to join in the wailing media pack who thinks they are already fully evident (to all except the electorate). They are not. The government is only in the process of consolidating power.

However, as the main points of Rudd’s agenda start to take shape, it is fairly easy to see some potential problems.

Australian politics is undergoing a major realignment. Its roots lie back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the union movement began to lose its political influence and undermine the basis of the political system Australia has had for much of the last century. Its impact on the old political order was evident in Keating’s last term and Howard’s first, but suspended by the War on Terror. A reason why this blog was started was on the belief that the fading of the War on Terror would see that realignment rapidly resume.

Rudd’s agenda in a nutshell is to accommodate Australian political institutions to that realignment and the declining role of the major political parties. He has done it in three ways, discrediting the old political process, lowering expectations about what government can achieve and bringing global politics more directly into the Australian domestic scene.

However, in a way, that realignment is more like a political crisis where the major parties have lost their role but with nothing yet to replace them. The Liberals may be the most tangible sign of that crisis, but its epicentre is the ALP. Rudd’s government has accommodated to that crisis but has not yet resolved it and replaced it with something else. This is the source of the government’s weakness of which we have already had small indications.

The most serious weakness of the new government is its lack of social base. By social base it does not mean electoral support or even core supporters. Rather it is that section of society that clearly sees its interest reflected in the political party and ultimately guides its policy.

For the Liberals the clearest sign of the problem with their social base was Workchoices. Not because of how it upset the ‘Howard Battlers’, that mythical working class support base that conservatives periodically like to flatter themselves they can appeal to. But because business didn’t need it, given the weak state of the unions. The fact that after a decade of flogging AWAs they were still a minor part of work contracts showed that business no longer had any need for Howard’s faux Thatcherite agenda. When business doesn’t need anti-union legislation, it doesn’t need the Liberal party.

For the ALP, its social base is, of course, the unions, or rather, the union bureaucrats. It was the diverging interests between the union bureaucrats and their members in the Hawke-Keating program that triggered the decline of the unions. The loosening grip of the unions over the party they founded is reflected in the leadership’s greater flexibility with the platform, which was evident in the policy-on-the-run of both the 2004 and 2007 campaigns.

The lack of this social base, and its policy priorities, is what gives the government a slightly hollow feeling and gives the Liberals confidence to accuse the government of ‘spin’. Not because it is especially good at media management (it has not been sparkling so far) but because it appears driven by nothing else. We had one small flash of the problems this lack of direction can cause with the couple of days in March when the government was paralysed over a small issue like carers’ bonuses. The lack of a core base in society to rely on when times get tough is also evident in the government’s caution in handling interest groups and underpins the New Sensitivity. It also means that Ministers can be in danger of being off-message, requiring greater centralised control over what they say.

This leads to the second potential problem area for the government, internal discipline. This is probably the least worrying, but likely to be most easily picked up by the press. The translation of the decline of a base in society is the decline of factions inside the party, which was a key platform in the Rudd-Gillard pitch for power. The declining power of the faction bosses (shown most amusingly by Rudd’s requirement that the MP wife of a right-wing faction boss seek therapy for being rude) may have removed barriers to leadership control but has also removed a means of disciplining members. It offers the potential not for major rows, but for fragmentation. Although going by the recent example with Ferguson, the problem appears for now to be less in the party than in the bureaucracy they are running. Besides it is unlikely to be a problem while the Left remains so closely implicated in the Rudd agenda.

The third potential problem is the uncertainty of international events. Rudd’s opening up of domestic politics to international geopolitics when it is in a state of flux is rare, and for a good reason. It can be dangerous for the political class of a middle power like Australia to reveal how little influence they have over international events. The rapid back away from the anti-Japanese whaling campaign highlights that there are limits to how much Rudd can throw his weight around. This is one area where the media’s portrayal of Rudd’s preference for symbols has a point. Such gestures like visiting Hiroshima and speaking in Mandarin are essential for a government that needs to appear to have an international impact when it really does not. Yet the international role is vital for a government that has lost it at home. It is well it is in the hands of an experienced diplomat.

Footnote: Three cheers to the ABC for having only one of the 30 complaints made by residents of Mutitjulu over a Lateline program technically upheld by the ICRP. The reading of the details of the ruling, however, reveal it for the shoddy piece of journalism it was and a useful precursor to that other piece of social worker prejudice the ‘All Children are Sacred’ report and the NT intervention a year later. We still await the arrests.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 12 June 2008.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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