Factors for instability

Thursday, 2 October 2008 

If the latest Essential Research poll was any guide, Rudd’s overseas trips are more a concern for the media than the electorate.

But his last trip did expose an important weakness of this government. The reason why the latest four days overseas was a problem for the media, compared to the previous forty-three, was that the purpose of the last visit was not clear. The reason why the purpose was not clear was that the original one, climate change, was swept away by events. The US financial crisis (a political one as well) forced Rudd to hurriedly change tack and join in the general moralising against the financial markets. Rudd’s New York trip showed the problems for a government that has hitched itself to an international agenda over which it has no control.

The uncertainty of international events for a government reliant on them is one destabilising factor. The government is losing another prop to its stability at home. Gillard was widely applauded as a master performer during Rudd’s audience. Gillard is good, but not that good. Swan’s performance is hampered by having to deliver an economic policy the government doesn’t have, but Gillard has been helped by delivering an industrial relations policy the government doesn’t have.

The ACTU’s complaints about Labor’s industrial relations policy are totally disingenuous. It is inconceivable that they did not know that Labor would be bringing in Workchoices-lite. Gillard was right; there was no betrayal as she made perfectly clear before the election what they would be doing. Having now won the election Gillard can easily dismiss any complaints about Labor’s IR legislation because it represents the will of the people. The ACTU’s moaning and current ad campaign can only be explained as an attempt to justify itself to a membership whose interests it so poorly serves.

Labor’s objections to Workchoices was always a sham because the basis of it, a clampdown on collective bargaining, had been a fact of workplace life ever since Keating reinforced enterprise bargaining 15 years ago. As far as business was concerned, Howard’s attempt to take it further was an act of ‘vindictive bitchiness’ (as Keating called it) that at best was an irrelevance and at worst, a bureaucratic hassle.

Workchoices was always more about the relevance of the Liberal party than IR necessities. It was why the Liberals had to shut up while Gillard mocked them on Workchoices after Labor came to power, no matter how little Labor’s proposals really differed in reality. The pretence of Labor’s Workchoices attack also had useful internal purposes for a Labor party also unwilling to face the question of what it really stood for in a world where unions have lost their relevance.

Turnbull, like most of the Liberal party, has realised that Workchoices no longer fulfils its role as representing party interests (especially as business have made it clear they don’t want them to pursue it) and so will not oppose the passage of Labor’s IR legislation in the Senate. This brings a period in which Labor managed its internal issues through opposition to Workchoices to a close. It is hard to see how Gillard’s performance over other areas of her portfolio, such as an under-funded education revolution, will be quite as convincing both to her opponents and those on her own side.

Yet if the government is losing some factors that gave it stability and direction, the Liberals look even more unstable. The coalition may have accepted that Workchoices no longer does the trick but have not found anything to replace it. This is represented by the old leadership losing control and Turnbull walking into the vacuum.

It is not just that the media is making up a Turnbull bounce where none exists and had expectations for Turnbull’s mastery in Parliament during Rudd’s absence that never materialised (another reason why Gillard’s performance was over-assessed last week).

The media also seems curiously unwilling to talk about why Turnbull is still stuck with policy positions that he has clearly opposed in the past. They also don’t really want to talk about the lukewarm public support he is getting even at this early stage from major figures in the party like Costello, Abbott and Nelson. Probably the most telling is Nelson, who not only seemed highly pleased to be compared favourably to Turnbull by Tanner last week but also would not rule out having another crack at the leadership. It is not because he really has another chance but the fact that even now, he can so easily imply that Turnbull’s occupancy is temporary.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 2 October 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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