No revival, just decay – an update

Tuesday, 9 September 2008 

There has been an interesting media reaction to the election results on the weekend. There were some instances of trying to scratch out a picture of business-as-usual with the eternal pendulum swinging its way back to the coalition (which required a highly selective focus on just the anti-Labor swing in WA while ignoring the by-elections, as well as the manoeuvres of the Nationals in WA itself). But generally the view was that something else was afoot and that last weekend showed a broader dissatisfaction with the political process – summed up by the SMH’s front page headline of the ‘Cranky Nation’. Peter Hartcher argued that the weekend showed a new mood across the country against the major political parties that began with Howard’s fall.

This seems fair enough, yet as a theory this does not quite work. As commentators never tired of reminding us right up to 24 November, there was neither any great dissatisfaction with either Howard or his government and the mood, at that stage, was generally optimistic about the economy. Howard lost not because of any groundswell of anger or dissatisfaction (not even on Workchoices, as some like now to believe). The government lost because it didn’t stand for anything and since the fading of the War on Terror, could no longer pretend it had a programme, neatly summed up by Howard’s plan to retire.

The exposure of the bankruptcy of the Liberal government and Rudd’s accommodation to it has started the unravelling of the old two-party system, that effectively died during Keating’s time but was suspended in aspic by the War on Terror. That unravelling is continuing and what we saw on the weekend is what, to all intents and purposes, is a political crisis and the major parties scrambling to deal with it.

In NSW we see how it has shattered the most powerful faction of the post-war Labor party. Observers are right that the new cabinet shows that the NSW Right have by no means lost total control of the government, but in choosing Rees they have started a process that means in order for him to survive, he will have to further destroy their influence.

The changes underway in WA are not much less dramatic. You had to admire Carpenter’s performance on The 7.30 Report as he puts on his humble face and tries to adapt to operating in a political vacuum. It may mean that you don’t even have the legitimacy to call an election six months early without looking ‘arrogant’, and have little to campaign on when you do, but it does give you the flexibility to propose an alliance with what are supposed to be your ideological opposites without batting an eyelid. It would be interesting to know what some in his own party, who are having trouble with Carpenter’s keenness to meet the demands of the Nationals now, make of his admission that he was already secretly negotiating with the Nationals months earlier for an alliance.

The Nationals, who were already feeling the sand shifting under their feet during Howard’s government as they watched their safest seats fall to independents, are torn between staying where they are or stepping into the void of becoming independent themselves. You can understand why they are divided on which direction to take. To not change is to see their heartland melt away, but to go the way of the WA Nationals has its dangers too. Grylls is going to have to show a united party with whoever he goes with but the logic of a party acting like Independents is that each of the members become so.

Given the likely resistance of at least a couple of Nationals of dealing with Labor, there still must be a greater chance of them settling back with the Liberals, especially as Barnett has back-tracked on his earlier refusal to agree to the Nationals’ demand for regional royalties (although the fact he took a full day to do so, after digging in against the idea and keeps on wanting a traditional coalition arrangement, highlights that the Liberals are being the least adaptable of the three parties).

But even if they did, that does not mean that nothing has changed. By proposing a deal with Labor in the first place Grylls and Carpenter have already changed the old bi-polar landscape. It would be interesting, for example, if Labor did cobble enough together to govern without the Nationals. It would be highly likely that Carpenter would still offer an agreement with the Nationals. If that happened it would certainly put pressure on the old pro-coalition Nationals in the party who would have to choose between joining Labor and getting the regional royalties or staying with the Liberals in opposition and getting nothing.

Ultimately the events of the last few days are being driven more by a crisis of the political system than a groundswell of electoral anger and certainly not the usual oscillations of the old political system. We have seen three leaders, Rees, Carpenter and Grylls moving onto new ground in an attempt to adapt to it but who have yet to drag their parties fully behind them.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 9 September 2008.

Filed under Media analysis

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