No revival, just decay – another update

Thursday, 25 September 2008 

It is perhaps not surprising that Newspoll’s reporting of a Labor polling slump in Queensland and South Australia is being seen as another sign of the eternal pendulum working its way back to the coalition now that Labor holds power in Canberra.

But Mike Steketee was right to strike a note of caution in automatically making this conclusion. It was not just that the polling in both states only takes Labor back to where they were in 2005 (when it was Howard who was very well entrenched in Canberra). Labor’s decline doesn’t seem matched by a revival in support for the respective coalition leaders Springborg and Hamilton-Smith.

Rudd’s arrival to the Lodge has changed the dynamics of state politics, but less to restart the political pendulum of the old two-party system than to erode it even further. Just as we see in NSW the collapse of Labor’s dominant faction leading to a government implosion, we have another good example of the unintended consequences of Rudd’s arrival in what is happening to Rann, who until last year had been the nation’s most popular political leader. The main issue he is being troubled by is the fate of the Murray. Rudd’s coming to power in Canberra has turned what was a positive for Rann into a negative.

While Howard was in Canberra, and taking a climate sceptic line, Rann could present the government’s inaction over the Murray as a political problem. However, with Rudd’s arrival it has now turned into a problem of the entire state and in its inability to act even when it agrees on something. This is why the issue is not necessarily benefiting the Liberals directly who, after all, saw their primary vote slump by 10% in Mayo earlier this month to Greens and other independents running on exactly the same issue. While the national press keeps on thinking the touch paper on Rudd’s climate change agenda is going to be an extra 8c a litre by 2030, the real problem for the government is staring at them in the polls that consistently say that people don’t mind bearing the costs but they think the government is not doing enough. Labor can push emission cuts out to well beyond the political life of anyone in the government. Unfortunately the Murray crisis creates expectations over what it can do and highlights its impotence now.

Labor’s success in the 1990s was not a reaction to Howard, but a result of a depoliticising of state government that now we see was a precursor to the erosion of its authority. It is no surprise that questioning of the need for the states is becoming louder. The federal government’s response to this is becoming ambivalent. It is not just that Rudd’s automatic response is to take-over more of the state’s functions, but appears to want to bypass that tier by looking for a more important role for local councils, which lies behind his summit of the nation’s councils in Canberra.

But at the end of the day this is not just about the states. Just as Labor’s technocrat model in the states eventually worked its way to Canberra so the loss of authority cannot help but eventually encroach to the centre. We are a long way to seeing it have an effect on the federal government’s popularity, but the basis is there if only in the background. This week we see it creeping into the assumptions behind the row about Rudd’s trip to New York. Even if Labor wins the argument, it is basically to say that if there is a financial crisis, he may as well go to the US, as there is nothing government can do here about it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 25 September 2008.

Filed under State and federal politics

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