Talking down

Saturday, 28 February 2009 

Leigh Sales: Let’s start with the news about the Pacific Brand job losses. Do you believe there is anything the government can do now to save those jobs?

Joe Hockey: Well there doesn’t appear to be anything the government can do because the government said that it had contacted the company and the company stated quite clearly they were going to close those particular operations. But there’s a lot the government can do to stop further job losses. The single most important thing the government can do is to have a message of hope, a message that says that they are confident they can get through this significant downturn and I would urge Prime Minister Rudd to take a leaf out of President Obama’s book today where the message was hope and aspiration.

Lateline Wednesday 25 February

Hockey’s performance on Wednesday’s The 7.30 Report lived up to expectations. But at least the hollowing out of the coalition’s message gave a clue where the economic debate is heading over the next few months. The coalition have tried to pretend that shaving $20bn off a $200bn deficit constitutes an economic critique, but can only even try because the government is calling a $200bn deficit an economic strategy in the first place.

This week we started to get a feel for what is coming up. The sacking of 1,800 jobs by Pacific Brands has led to a parade of political figures from the government, trade unions and the opposition shuffling in front of the cameras to say how bad it is and then shuffle off. We have all had time to get used to the impotence of Sharon Burrows and the ACTU, it’s the political parties that have some adjusting to do.

Gillard’s response was to warn that more job sackings are to come. Warning of more bad news when at least there is some money to throw at it is one thing, doing the same when there is no money left will be something else, which is why we are having a Queensland election now rather than later. Capping executive pay may make the sacking of workers more tasteful, but of course will do absolutely nothing to stop it. The first Labor government without the means to affect the traditional Labor counter-crisis strategy will need a new political approach to manage it. Developing it is core to this government’s agenda.

In fact we have already had a foretaste of Labor’s handling of this new ‘politics of impotence’ last winter over petrol prices. It was then that Rudd started being up-front about the limitations of government. When Rudd said there was nothing that could be done about petrol prices, the press gallery at the time thought it a suicidal move. The rats misunderstood Rudd’s campaign around high petrol prices as a plan of action, rather than a tactic to accuse the Howard government of being out of touch.

The reality of the limitations of the old political framework was already starting to bite in the last year of Howard’s government when the promise to keep interest rates low came back to haunt him. Not so much because he didn’t keep them low, as commentators at the time liked to see it, but because voters saw that he had made a promise he did not have the power to keep. Rudd came to power determined to deal with this political problem caused by the changing nature of government, and now the arrival of a global downturn has made that an imperative.

As with the row about petrol process, Rudd has two things on his side in treating the downturn in a similar way. The first is the widely held acceptance that this is an international crisis not of this government’s making. The government has truly succeeded in making this a purely international event. Some commentators have noted that the Great Depression was seen as a global phenomenon and that didn’t stop every government in the federation from falling. But there were still politically different responses on offer in Australian politics to make the changing of government meaningful. This week’s criticism by the opposition’s economic spokesman that the government is not giving nice speeches like the ones we hear from Obama hardly constitutes such a difference.

This second advantage for Rudd, the weakness of the opposition, goes beyond their inability to offer an alternative. As with the row over petrol process, the coalition is finding Labor’s tactic of off-loading responsibility for the economic crisis incomprehensible. But Labor is responding to the same thing that affects the coalition as well, the absence of a program to do anything. So we have the coalition’s demand for ‘happy talk’ that leaves them continually denying any downturn is coming, creating an increasing distance between them and everyone else’s reality.

Yet while this should help the government against the opposition it is not the whole story. The petrol row didn’t do the opposition or Nelson any good, but it did lead to a drift in the government’s support reflecting a perceived drift in the government itself. While the politics of impotence dealt with an uncomprehending opposition, it left open the question, what is government for?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 28 February 2009.

Filed under Tactics

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3 responses to “Talking down”

  1. fred on 28th February 2009 11:26 am

    “Joe Hockey: Well there doesn’t appear to be anything the government can do ..”

    Good post.
    It points out the fundamental problem facing our society today.
    If government is impotent to enact the will of those who vote for it, what is the purpose of voting?
    When fundamental decisions that effect the lives of us all are made that are outside the influence and more seriously the control of our citizens then how can we simulaneously believe that we are a ‘democracy’?
    The ‘politics of impotence’ cannot be reconciled with an image of democracy which claims that people are given a say in that which influences them.

  2. Michael Cusack on 28th February 2009 12:25 pm

    The Rudd tactic is a good one for the short term, but what happens in the longer term when the voters decide that political impotence is not what they are looking for in their system of governance?

    Especially if the GFC really bites into employment and incomes, people may well be receptive to the allure of a very populist but ultimately undemocratic party that promises to cut through the restrictions that are holding back the orthodox parties.

    A front figure such as Pauline Hanson backed by the manipulative urgers who attached themselves to her in her original incarnation could be attractive to impoverished voters severely disillusioned with Governments who claim there is nothing they can do to alleviate their condition.

    A populist party simultaneously laying blame on migrants/blacks/big business/whoever whilst promising industry protection to preserve blue collar jobs is made attractive by p;eas of impotence.

  3. Cicero on 28th February 2009 7:37 pm

    Let’s not portray Big Joe as a financial savant. The ‘gone fishing’ sign was hanging on Joe’s ministerial office door knob when HIH decided to expire. Joe had officials from APRA and ASIC keeping him up to speed but he failed to act. The commission set-up to inquire into the HIH crash identified about 56 possible breaches of law. Naturally Big Joe was cleared because he did nothing wrong. Actually Big Joe did nothing and that was the problem.

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