Avoiding the Katrina effect

Monday, 16 February 2009 

One thing we have learnt over the last few years is that the wrong response to a disaster can be fatal for a government.

An interesting article in The Age last week contrasted this government’s response to the bushfires to that of Fraser’s back in 1983. Rudd has been much more on the ground and responding much more directly to the issues that have arisen, no matter how minor, compared to Fraser’s more aloof approach, even though there was an election campaign going on at the time.

The government in 2009 is responding to a changed political environment and the need to tackle what these days is the most damning charge, of ‘being out of touch’, an especially dangerous accusation at a time of national disaster. It means being seen to respond directly and not stand behind the machinery of government as was able to happen in the past. This is something that Rudd knew how to use against Howard in 2007, and his deft handling of the response to the bushfires (except from one mis-step) has shown he knows that now.

The reason why being seen out of touch now is such a danger for politicians, of course, is that they can no longer automatically assume to represent real interests in society other than the machinery of government itself. It is this that probably also led to the government passing up what could have been a major political opportunity last week.

This blogger was surprised that the government made even the modest moves it did towards Xenophon’s demands. Xenophon may be seen as a hero now, but he put himself in a highly vulnerable position last week. He had no basis on which to oppose the stimulus package other than to try and pretend the Murray-Darling basin was somehow separate from the rest of the economy and the benefits of the stimulus package. Given that he agreed with the stimulus package and wasn’t against its size (in fact was arguing for it to be even larger), he had no real argument for preventing it going through altogether. If the government had held its line, on the basis that this was a national emergency and not a time for special interests, sooner or later he would have had to cave in.

Probably so too would the Liberals. They had a very uncomfortable twenty-four hours between the first Senate rejection and it finally getting passed. During that time the real horror of the Liberals’ current position in Australian politics was exposed.

Turnbull no doubt, reportedly with the egging of the Young Right Turks, had taken up the position to block the stimulus as a chance to assert Liberal ‘values’ and keep the old guard off his back. The problem was in doing so, he exposed just why the Liberals have such a problem asserting its ‘values’. Not due to lack of ideological fervour, as some in the NSW Right might suppose, but because big business, that set up and has funded the Liberal party for all these years, has no need for them right now. Opposing a stimulus package that big business decidedly wanted, may have made some in the party feel good about themselves, but when their opposition actually had an effect, it put the party in a position that would have been untenable for any length of time.

It may have been why not all of the Right were pleased with Turnbull’s position in the first place. Most notable, according to reports, was Nick Minchin, the Opposition leader in the Senate, who took a distinctly low-key role in could be argued will be the most critical action taken by the Liberals in the Senate during this term of government. Instead, it seemed to be largely up to the charming Senator Abetz to persuade the independents.

So why didn’t the government take advantage of it? The real possibility, as some were talking, of a few coalition Senators breaking away and supporting the package would have effectively destroyed the coalition’s credibility on the economic crisis. Certainly we have seen Turnbull’s grip on his party is not that strong, especially in the Senate and especially when it comes to preventing government funding. The government claimed that the bills’ passage was urgent, but a few days to put the squeeze on the coalition would not have made that much difference. As some have pointed out, giving in to Xenophon’s demands has created political problems of its own. If this package has really been carefully designed as an answer to a national emergency, surely it would be hard to justify the spending of several hundred million just because one Senator wants it.

Unfortunately, for the government, the Liberals are not the only ones with a problem. This is the first Labor government with no link to the unions that would form the basis of a counter-crisis strategy. Fraser’s tough talk during the recession in the early 1980s may have amounted to nothing, but at least he could do the talk. The very factors that require this government to be responsive to a disaster are also those that will make it difficult to even talk about the type of unpopular measures that would normally be needed in an economic crisis. Yet it also means that while tough action is difficult, the government can’t be seen as paralysed as well. Even a few days inability to get the package past the Senate has the danger of making the government look weak. Labor could have done the Liberals serious damage last week, but it is getting hard to do so without taking the reputation of the whole political class down with it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 16 February 2009.

Filed under Tactics

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9 responses to “Avoiding the Katrina effect”

  1. Nick on 16th February 2009 11:17 am

    Forget about the Government, opposition in a mess with Bishop out of her depth and about to stand down apparently ?

    Joe Hockey to take over shadow treasury?


  2. The Piping Shrike on 16th February 2009 11:19 am

    My guess it would be someone Turnbull won’t like.

    Hockey hasn’t impressed as Finance spokesman. Too dumb. Robb more likely, Abbott more fun.

  3. Nick on 16th February 2009 12:16 pm

    Robb’s not very smart either & given Hockeys much more warm and fuzzy I’m betting its his.

    Loving the fall of Bishop, a super dud completely exposed as a fraud.

  4. Nick on 16th February 2009 12:17 pm

    Hockey now confirmed according to the Oz.

  5. Mr Denmore on 16th February 2009 12:19 pm

    Who are these New Right Young Liberal Turks and why do they think they will have any electoral success, given the Libs’ experience with WorkChoices? Australians are OVER nasty right wing bigots.

  6. Just Me on 16th February 2009 6:51 pm

    Hockey may be personable, the sort of guy you would be happy to have as your neighbour. But he is not that smart, as his often substandard rhetoric and judgement on political issues show, there is no doubt about it anymore.

    Those who have genuinely believed in his federal Liberal leadership and PM prospects are seriously delusional, and I have strongly suspect that the harder senior heads in the Lib machine have no intention of that ever happening.

    I see no respite for the Coalition’s internal problems in the near future, barring some extraordinary and completely out of character self-inflicted wound from the government. The federal conservatives will be struggling for quite a while yet. Generational (and policy) change and consolidation takes time.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 16th February 2009 7:26 pm

    Crikey, the Libs view of the economics portfolio has changed.

  8. Cal on 16th February 2009 11:44 pm

    “Who are these New Right Young Liberal Turks?”

    Escaped my attention also. Any names?

  9. The Piping Shrike on 17th February 2009 12:18 am

    Haven’t heard any names (Alex Hawke et al?) but Grattan was mentioning them last week. Don’t know if she’s right which is why I used ‘reportedly’. I also remember Annabel Crabb quoting a senor Lib at the time of Turnbull’s election that the “mad young right” had swung Turnbull’s way.

    These reports suggest the way the pro and anti-Turnbull camps in the party are often portrayed as left v right may not be giving the full picture.

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