Denial – an update

Wednesday, 23 July 2008 

Is someone setting the Liberals up?

It otherwise seems very careless of Rudd to agree to launch a book that has let out one of Labor’s most closely guarded and politically damaging secrets – that they dread the possibility of Costello as leader of the Liberal party.

Costello can be a highly amusing parliamentary performer. Specific instances do not come to mind, but certainly he managed to achieve what is normally very difficult to do in the partisan environment of the Australian Parliament, to get those on the opposite benches to laugh at him as well.

Some might think that this meant he was regarded as a bit harmless, or a “low altitude flyer”. We do know that he was used ruthlessly by Howard as a way of managing discontent over his leadership by promoting Costello as his obvious successor – no one better to have next in line for power than someone incapable of taking it.

Costello’s name has been surfacing again as a feasible leader in the last few days for two reasons. The first is because the old leadership is itching for a resolution to a problem they see as one of ‘brand’, but more a need to justify the party’s existence. The problem is to stop the rot by replacing Nelson, but without letting it get even worse under Turnbull. The last few weeks have seen urgent background moves by the old leadership to reassert control and while not ideal, Costello at least offers a way of removing Nelson with someone popular enough to block Turnbull. Also with Turnbull’s star appearing now to be on the wane in at least the medium term, it now seems safe to speculate on the leadership.

However, the resuscitation of Costello is also triggered by a reassessment of the political situation that has coincided with the attempt of the old leadership to regain control of the Liberals. There is a growing feeling in some circles that Rudd is heading a one term government.

The story appears to go like this. The Howard government was trucking along just fine but the Old Man was getting, well, old, and so a new fresh face was needed. Labor moved first and so won. Since then Rudd has really only tried to do the same as Howard and appear economically conservative, but with a few more symbols. Unfortunately now that they are getting carried away with climate change, they will damage their economic credentials leaving it open for the World’s Funniest Treasurer to make a comeback.

The rats seem quite comfortable with this. Certainly Dennis appears to find this more credible than Rudd’s Stalinist re-writing of history at the book launch when he said that apparently Howard lost because he didn’t have an agenda. Gerard Henderson, as ever, provides a more sophisticated version and says that in reality Rudd’s agenda is not much different from Howard and that Costello would have just picked up the bits that Howard left off like the apology.

It is certainly true that on issues like Iraq and Workchoices, for example, there was a lot less difference in the positions between the two than many liked to claim. Even on the apology, Howard was coming around to a rethink and anyway they both agreed on the intervention. On climate change, the Liberals are right, and as Penny Wong admitted, the difference between Labor’s Green Paper and what the Howard cabinet agreed to a year ago is just a matter of detail. It is why the Liberals are now starting to claim that the public can see Labor is all spin and have no new ideas.

However, there is something wrong with this. If Labor didn’t really have any alternative to the Liberals before the last election, why didn’t the Liberals just say so? Why did Howard talk up Australia’s commitment to Iraq and the dangers of Labor’s plan to pull them out to the point where he not only claimed the current US Presidential front-runner was a friend of terrorism for suggesting the same but Australia’s current A-G soft on terrorism as well? Why did the Liberals campaign endlessly about the union threat and how Labor’s front benchers were mostly ex-union officials? Why did Howard ministers make such a song and dance about Garrett wanting to go ahead with capping carbon emissions without waiting for China and India, a ‘gaffe’ that has become so much the orthodoxy in the Liberal party that its current leader gets in trouble straying from it? The Liberals tried accusing Rudd of ‘Me-Tooism’ but then continually veered off to making his team a threat to the nation.

The reason why, of course, is that Howard spent 2007 desperately trying to make a program out of thin air. Rudd wasn’t adopting Howard’s positions to be another Howard, but because he could, as by 2007, they politically meant very little. Howard had spent nearly five years pretending that Australia’s miniscule deployment in Iraq amounted to a ‘commitment’, something he got away with until put in his place by Obama last year. He managed to pose his irrelevant IR program as the biggest attack on the union movement since Bruce tried to dismantle the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. He even tried to make his mean spirited pettiness over the treatment of indigenous people thirty years ago an act of political significance. In all of this he was helped not only by pseudo cultural warriors from the right like Gerard Henderson, but also by a left, who in attempting to manage their irrelevant agenda, made a big deal out of opposing Howard’s.

Howard had no programme not because he was old but because he was in the middle of a political crisis. It was a crisis so profound that when the leadership imploded two months before the electorate intervened, there was no-one to step in, least of all the political maestro from Higgins. Rudd at least had an agenda for managing that political crisis which is why he won in November. However, he can’t fully resolve it and that is what makes the government look vulnerable to some in the Opposition. But in order for it to appear so they have to avoid looking at the state of their own party in every capital of the nation.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 23 July 2008.

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