More than five cents worth

Monday, 2 June 2008 

George Megalogenis sums up the confusion in some parts of the media over what happened last week.

It was not about Labor’s 3.8c off petrol versus the Liberal’s 5c cut. It was about the political class renegotiating its relevance with the electorate in a period when political parties have lost their meaning.

It has been forgotten that what sparked it off was Rudd’s comment that government could not do much to deal with petrol prices. This openness of the limits to government powers was largely unprecedented in Australian politics, but it was the basis of Rudd’s campaign against the Liberals, and his own side, last year (the Insiders panel are totally wrong to say it is comparable to what happened with Howard on interest rates last year – Howard never admitted there was little he could do). What we saw last week was the Liberals’ difficulties, as we saw last year, in coming to grips with this new openness.

Nelson is doing quite a few things wrong but what he is at least attempting is the empathy thing, and trying to make the government look out of touch. There are grounds for making that claim at some point because this government has no social base. However, he has not yet found the way, or rarely had the opportunity, to make it. He thought he had an opening when Rudd said there was no silver bullet for petrol prices, but in fact Rudd was merely stating the obvious. The weakness of Nelson’s alternative, the excise cut, just proved Rudd’s point. That Rudd responded with the possibility of a small cut of his own only serves to show that it is all fiddling around the edges. Megalogenis’s article misses the fact that such trivial measures just reinforces Rudd’s main political message – there is little governments can do.

The impotence of government underpins Rudd’s anti-politics message. It is why he is on a winner with his attacks on the public service. However he deals with them internally, the external political message that they must work harder is totally in tune with his agenda, and those in the press thinking that publicising such complaints are undermining the government are actually supporting it. There is little reason why Rudd and Labor’s popularity will be affected by what happened last week.

It is also why, at a guess, this government is likely to break tradition with recent ones and not go for an early poll. If anything, Rudd will campaign for a fixed term to take elections out of the hands of politicians. Nelson’s talk of an early poll is for the same reason as for so much of what he does – to maintain some cohesion behind him.

The overwhelming need to keep the Liberal party behind Nelson is undermining his bid for empathy as the party leadership worries about the damage such ‘caring’ does to the prestige of the party with its core support base. It is why Nelson can never get the tone right and sounds shrill when he cares, he has no political basis for empathy in the party he leads. In fact it is likely, with the Turnbull threat receding, that the party leadership will be more inclined to change tempo and go in hard. Big mistake.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 2 June 2008.

Filed under Tactics

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