What seems to be one enduring legacy of the Howard era has been the decline in political commentary in this country. It’s not a fault of JWH himself, more a product of the same factors that put him into power – the exhaustion of the major parties’ agendas and the collapse of the narrative through which Australian politics used to be understood. In the past, political commentary used to be broadly of two types: the ‘insiders’ who would spill the beans on the hard internal politics of Canberra and the ‘narrators’ who would have a grasp of the broad themes and story of the evolution of Australian government.

The insiders have now been overcome by a strange naivety of how politics is working these days that makes them see political power plays where there are none happening, and makes them blind to the ones that are.

For the narrators, they seem to be replaced by those whose analysis is little more than the constant retelling of ‘truisms’ on Australian politics, that are unproven, unexplained and usually untrue. Last year these truisms were used to explain away the polls and why Howard’s defeat was not possible. Such iron laws as the power of the hip-pocket nerve and the incumbency factor were used to argue that it would be inconceivable for a well entrenched government to be thrown out in the middle of an economic boom despite all the polling evidence to the contrary.

Howard’s defeat has caused a respite in this peddling but one of them has now returned, the myth that the Australian electorate will not vote for the same government at state and federal level. Those with a memory spanning back longer than a year ago will remember that this was used to explain how Labor could be so well entrenched in the state capitals while Howard looked so permanently in power in Canberra. It was especially a favourite after the 2004 election when Labor seemed unelectable in Canberra but the states fell to them one by one.

When Howard turned out to be not so well entrenched, this truism went underground for a while. But now with Rudd in Canberra and poor polling for Labor in WA and NSW following the swing against it in the NT, it is back.

The most obvious point is that, as far as NSW is concerned, to suggest Rudd’s arrival in the Lodge is the main explanation for NSW Labor’s polling slump over a period that has seen war break out between the Premier and his own party and cabinet over electricity privatisation, a new round of scandals in local government and the suspension of a key Minister, seems a bizarre conclusion from someone who calls himself that state’s political reporter.

In fact, the drivers behind the shenanigans in NSW would explain why it is not only unhelpful to lump NT, NSW and WA together, but also why this myth of a federal/state dichotomy was exposed as such last year.

We now know that rather than Labor’s state victories ensuring that Howard would remain in power in Canberra, it indicated why he would lose it. The Labor sweep showed both how the end of the traditional political agenda was not only undermining the Liberals, but also driving a transformation of the ALP from a union-based party to a largely technocratic one. With government in Canberra naturally more influenced by international events, it just needed a change in the international climate and the fading of the political power of the War on Terror to expose it.

Without being too schematic about it, Labor’s transformation has been one of moving from the Modern Labor Model Mark I (the business-union model of Hawke, Wran and Cain) to the Mark II model of breaking ties with business and unions to be seen to more closely align directly with the functions of the state. When looking at NSW, WA and the NT then, it is possible to see Labor at different stages of it.

What is distinguished about NSW Labor at the moment is that rather than being at the forefront of Australian politics, this time it is lagging it. As the most successful of the Mark I Labor models, it never went through the traumas of the others during the recession of the early nineties when the union link became exposed as useless and the business link discredited. It was their ability to take power at a time when Howard was doing the same in Canberra that led to this dichotomy theory from those Sydney-centric commentators who failed to notice the opposite happening in most of the other states.

Labor’s problems in NSW now stem from that transformation being underway. However, because it is so late, it is happening in government and requiring a much sharper break with the traditional power bases of the party as well as the apparent destruction of the national party’s most powerful faction than was necessary in the southern states. It is because this is happening without the discretion of opposition but also involving the most important power bases in the party, that is is so bloody.

Because this is in the middle of a major transformation, it would seem a bit premature to call how the situation in NSW will eventually pan out. Bear in mind the reason why this is happening in government, is the decrepit state of the Liberals which should have otherwise won the election last year. Certainly Iemma is much more in control of the situation than commentators give him credit for and why all the talk of the imminent coups such as that so confidently predicted by the SMH a month ago, keep fizzling out.

WA Labor could roughly be said at the tail-end of this process for which the break with the old union/business model centred around dealing with Burke’s influence. As anyone in WA Labor will tell you, no-one was more surprised at their victory in 2001 than the WA Labor party itself. It was not just the surprising result like in Victoria, but unlike to the same degree in Victoria, their lack of preparedness for government given that there was unfinished business in the party. Labor’s didn’t see much further progress with this unfinished business in its first term, requiring intervention of the judiciary in the second.

NT is the end result. A party that can make the opposition look irrelevant but has limits to how much it can entrench itself. Without a real social base to call on (other than perhaps the public service sector that is a mainstay of NT) there are strict parameters to what it can get away with, unlike the CLP government that preceded it. Political manoeuvres, like sham early elections (on a pretext that didn’t work that well when the opposing party tried it in 2001) are no longer really possible. It is why this latest version of Labor is so much disposed to handling the normal functions of party-based democracy like fund-raising and election timing to the judiciary. It also means that there is little for its leaders to call on and if any Labor leader in the country is under threat it might be Henderson.

Australian politics moves across the tiers of government not by some mythical iron laws but in response to the changes in the role of the state, social groups and with a lot more influence from international events than generally acknowledged. What we are seeing now is how the political landscape accommodates to the end of the major traditional parties that is occurring across the country at different paces and by different paths. What has been the constant so far since Federation is that it is Labor that has driven the political changes while the non-Labor parties have more reacted to them. It is the change in Labor that is causing such problems with the media’s understanding of Rudd. The Australian’s NSW political reporter very kindly reminded us in other states that we may not be aware that Labor’s poor polling is big news because NSW is the country’s natural Labor state. He seems the last to be aware what the rest of us already know (especially those that come from a state that thought it was the natural Labor state); it just doesn’t mean very much any more.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 19 August 2008.

Filed under State and federal politics

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