The pointless search for a narrative

Monday, 11 August 2008 

In Federal terms, it would be tempting to say that if the Gippsland was just a local election in one seat, then the NT election was a local election in two.

Even the CLP and the media have struggled to explain the 9% swing. Paul Henderson tried to put it down to the mantra that “third terms are tough”. This is a highly fashionable theory at the moment that has little basis in Australian political history but seems to fit with how governments are perceived nowadays, not on the basis of whether their agenda suits the time, but how long they have been in and whether they are ‘fresh’ or ‘stale’. The NT electorate didn’t have any trouble electing the CLP eight times in a row before Clare Martin’s narrow victory in 2001.

Labor’s victory in 2001 came because the old basis of Territory politics, federalism through the prism of race and land rights, had lost their edge and Labor’s more apolitical technocratic government made more sense. But Labor’s government has never had the basis of solid support like the CLP did. The legitimacy of the government was even further hollowed out by the NT intervention. This is why the explanation of one Federal Labor Minister, the election’s early timing, may not seem sufficient (snap elections have been held before and their success rate has never been poor enough to discourage governments from risking them), but it is as good as any. Certainly if you are not going to be political anymore, best not to do political manoeuvres like calling early elections (a reason why fixed terms are becoming more acceptable among the political class). The point is not that there was a real reason for the swing but that a government with no firm basis of support doesn’t need one to be vulnerable.

Even before the NT surprise, this flaw in Labor’s technocratic model was coming to the surface following Keating’s criticism of the Rudd government’s lack of a ‘narrative’ on The 7.30 Report, eagerly picked up by the media like Michelle Grattan in The Age, or translated by more right-leaning columnists as Rudd being all spin and no substance.

Keating’s commentary last year was welcome in that he exposed the myths of Howard and Costello’s reform agenda. However, Keating created some Howard myths of his own. These largely relate to explaining the 1996 loss and why his own narrative was a flop. Last week Keating again pushed the line that it was Howard’s appeal to ‘baser’ instincts in the Australian electorate that turned voters away from his more noble purpose. Howard’s mysterious ability to tap into a deep primal strain in Australian voters was a myth that was used to explain his electoral success and was clung onto by the right and feared by the left until the bitter end (ironically when the ‘Tampa’ factor did emerge in 2007, the unproven claim that indigenous parents were guilty of widespread child abuse, it was willingly believed by right and left).

Curiously this political power of Howard had a strange tendency to evaporate in the mid-term polling slumps but magically re-emerged every time he faced Labor in an election. It would suggest that Howard’s tenure and his 1996 victory lay less in his own political prowess but what was happening in Labor. Even leaving aside the record of Keating (and the Socialist Left’s Gerry Hand) in setting up such Howard-esque things like mandatory detention camps, the problem Keating faced from the moment he took over from Hawke (in fact the reason why he was able to do so) was that Labor had squeezed the last of its relationship with the unions and there was no real basis for an agenda any more. This was disguised in 1993 when Hewson didn’t get the point that this meant economic reform from either side was over, but picked up by the little man in 1996 when he knew that Keating’s attempt to find a replacement had failed.

The trouble with Keating’s agenda was that as it didn’t really reflect that of any social base, it always ended up drifting back to whatever suited the political class. The republic, which should have been a basic democratic issue, ended up being something that Keating and much of the pro-republican political class ended up only being comfortable about if the President’s choice was confined to them, leading to the referendum’s defeat. Similarly the apology, which should have been a straight–forward acknowledgment of wrong by the major parties, became something that was about rehabilitating them by making us all guilty.

If there is one thing that distinguishes Rudd, and infuriates the media and clearly annoys the old Labor luminaries, is his refusal to create such a political agenda from thin air. Rudd’s purpose is to accomodate to the political vacuum. Otherwise, there is only one driver to Rudd’s agenda, the international political one, on anything else he has no fix view and treats them on their merits like a public servant would. It is why practically every political decision on domestic policy is being subject to review by the departmental heads.

Will this work? The NT election shows the sand under Labor’s feet but also that they can rely on the coalition having an even tougher time dealing with the political vacuum. The media clearly hates the lack of a narrative that only they can receive first hand and pass on down from the hill to the rest of us. It is why they pick at things like the petrol and grocery watch, which would seem like a fairly anodyne, sensible measure that lets people compare prices. For the media, this isn’t policy, it’s trivia. But it was interesting watching Gillard tell Barrie Cassidy on Insiders that such a view was out of touch and that it wasn’t trivia to those who check supermarket ads for that reason. Of course in terms of a national agenda it is trivia, but Gillard could put Cassidy on the defensive yesterday because she was reminding him that if the government doesn’t have an agenda to pose against such mundane concerns, neither does anyone else.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 11 August 2008.

Filed under Key posts, Media analysis

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