Rats set the Mandarin up nicely

Thursday, 3 July 2008 

Here we go.

It looks like we are starting the period which will give us a feel for whether Rudd will win the next election (something that, surprisingly, everyone seems to be already so clear about, especially given the confusion over the last one).

The next few days will bring the international agenda of climate change into the core of Australian domestic politics. Climate change has already been embedded into state politics both around issues like the Murray and imposition of water restrictions. State governments, like the one in Queensland, have already proven adept in using the issue to excuse poor infrastructure funding. Penny Wong will be bringing this together by making the link to the international agenda of meeting emission targets at this week’s COAG. It will give the moral authority for Canberra to impose itself on the state governments and centralise political power that is at the crux of the Mandarin’s New Federalism.

But climate change will extend far beyond issues directly related to the weather. As Rudd and Swan reminded us last week, climate change is now going to be viewed as the number one economic issue going forward. But not economics as we know it. Forget the last Budget (in which about the only thing to do with climate change was to cut solar panel subsidies), what we are looking is almost an anti-economic agenda, not how to maximise and sustain growth, but how to constrain it.

One major problem the media has with assessing the political impact of the climate change agenda is that it flies smack into something that commentators continue to believe is a guiding principle of Australian politics, the ‘hip-pocket nerve’. It led them astray last year when they struggled to work out why a government that was widely seen as a competent economic manager, throwing tax cuts around, was on their way to defeat in the middle of what was seen then (and still basically is) an economic boom. When Labor’s polling lead finally became impossible to deny, the story then changed that it must have been rising interest rates that was the cause of Howard’s defeat.

Belief in the power of the hip-pocket nerve also coloured the way the media saw Rudd’s use of grocery and petrol prices. For Rudd it was mainly an anti-politics way of portraying Howard (“Australians have never been better off”) as out of touch. For the media it was supposed to be a cast-iron promise of action. It meant that when Nelson proposed cutting petrol excise, it was seen as a master-stroke exposing a government breaking its promises. This was despite the polling that showed that the electorate had little illusion that the government could do much about it and more importantly, remained highly favourable of Rudd and the government.

This meant that as the petrol debate started to move on to climate change in parliament the media became wrong-footed as to what it was about. They not only largely missed the shift, but saw it as adding even further problems for Rudd. An example of the confusion is Kerry O’Brien’s introduction to an interesting interview last night on The 7.30 Report when he said on Rudd’s chances of imposing a climate change agenda:

If today’s headline in The Australian is accurate based on their latest opinion poll suggesting a collapse of public optimism and increased fear of the future, then Mr Rudd’s job is just going to be harder.

Dead wrong. It is that increased fear of the future, which is already embedded in Australian political debate, that is the pedestal on which climate change politics stands.

As Rudd alluded to when he attacked the current political system at the 2020 Summit, there is dissatisfaction at the short-termism of political debate and a strong demand for ‘long-term’ policy. This attack on short-termism is mainly a recognition that the current political process no longer works given the exhaustion of the major parties’ traditional programmes, leaving normal political debate as pointless. But the long-term focus is not exactly a positive one to replace it, but rather a demand to deal with what are seen as long-term threats. It seems almost all areas of major public policy are becoming dominated by dealing with such ‘time-bombs’, whether the demographic time-bomb for retirees, the future health care crisis, the skills crisis that could leave Australia behind in Asia or, of course, the myriad of dangers associated with climate change.

It is the fear of the long term threat that underpins the acceptance of sacrifices to deal with it. It was why the Liberals made such a disastrous move to link petrol prices to climate change as they did last week. The government struggled to come back on a simple excise cut other than to say it would use up the surplus, that fiscal air bag which is supposed to deal with some economic crash in the future. But as soon as it went on to climate change, it allowed the government to not only to be able to say there was little it could do to reduce prices, but actually to make a virtue out of it by turning higher petrol prices into a moral necessity. It is a sharp example of how climate change reinforces the government’s agenda of lowering expectations of what it can practically do. Cutting emission targets by 60% seems like a grand plan of action, but a 40 year timetable turns it into something else entirely.

While the media’s failure to understand this government may have annoyed it, it can also be very helpful. The media’s wrong assessment of this issue has turned a government position that taps into a deep political shift in the electorate into a ‘brave’ position. Nelson is being portrayed as a populist on climate change but actually the polls would suggest it is Rudd that is the populist. Far from being too focussed on climate change as the Liberals were trying to portray the Rudd government last week, the overwhelming view is that it is not doing enough. By believing in the hip pocket nerve, the media have given Rudd the ideal political issue for any government, one that is popular, but looks politically ‘tough’ at the same time. Some have compared it to Howard’s GST, which is not bad (the GST helped Howard), but tax reform was never this popular. Probably a better comparison is Howard’s gun clampdown after Port Arthur. But Rudd won’t have to wear a bullet-proof vest and this issue could run and run.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 3 July 2008.

Filed under Media analysis

Tags: , , ,


Comments are closed.