Monday, 24 August 2009 

It’s also an interesting insight into how little ideas matter to the Liberal party that they can have as two consecutive leaders people who either were Labor party members or almost begged to become Labor party politicians.

A Bolt Insiders 23 August 2009

It might be taken as an indication of how little ideas matter to the Labor party as well. Certainly the dallying of Nelson and Turnbull on the other side of politics indicates how much lines have blurred and merged over the last twenty years. But the fact that the Liberals have also chosen them as their leaders suggests things are now on the move.

In the old days politics was about sectional interests in society looking to push their agenda through parliament and seeking political representation to do so. While business, rural and union interests may have wanted to pose their project as more universal than that, the parties’ rationale remained pushing the interests of those who formed them.

Ah, such simple times. Now with unions trying to get a look into ‘their’ government, business telling the Liberals to put their last bit of anti-union reform away and rural interests starting to take recourse in independents rather than the Nationals, such representational politics seems a thing of the past. In fact, if anything we have new parties like the Greens, which seem more interested in denying and blocking sectional interests, in the name of the environment, than promoting them.

In effect, politics has turned upside down. Instead of sections of society looking to get political representation, we have political parties looking for someone to represent. Or not even that. This seems more about parties looking to stand for anything, even if no one out there is especially for it.

While the conditions for this have been building for decades, it was only during the last years of the Howard government that we saw the consequences come to the surface. Howard posed himself as the start of a new right consensus but actually he represented the right’s last gasp. The catalyst for change was the election of Rudd, or more accurately, Labor’s transformation into a technocratic shell leaving its leader to provide the values. Rudd’s agenda has allowed him to bring the hollowing out of the old political process to the surface.

If Rudd was the political figure that acted as a catalyst, climate change was the issue. The idea of a natural catastrophe as a result of human actions dwarfs any sectional interests and makes them illegitimate. How swiftly the climate change issue has turned political assumptions upside down is shown by the way it is still seen as a ‘radical’ issue when in fact it is the political orthodoxy and generating a political consensus in the electorate that the media still have trouble getting their heads around.

One of the signs of the hollowing out of the political process has been its intellectualisation and climate change is now playing an important role in this. After having been a preserve of the declining left for so long, now it is the right that is behind the plethora of ‘think tanks’ and the rallying cries for ‘ideas’. At first the right wing warriors, mistaking the Howard years for the dawn of a new right, rather than its sunset, presented this new right thinking as an accomplished fact. That is, columnists like Henderson, Ackerman and Bolt would claim the Howard government as a vindication of such an agenda by showing the grip such ideas already had in the electorate. Even if it was never supported by the government’s regular mid-term polling collapses and was more a result of a weakened Labor party than revived right, it nevertheless remained an orthodoxy right up to the government’s defeat, helped by a left that found it a useful excuse for its own problems. Even today Rudd still seems to be viewed through this prism as a mini-Howard and so making his popularity inexplicable.

Yet now, with a reluctant acknowledgement that the right’s agenda has suddenly become less entrenched, climate change is being used as a touchstone for its reconstruction. On Q&A the other week, Piers Ackerman was asked why right wing columnists in Australia seemed so eager to take the sceptical line. He was reluctant to answer, presumably because he would have had to admit that what lay behind it was an attempt by the right to do something that two years ago they didn’t think they needed to, remake itself. But what we have seen last week is that for their agenda to become a political reality, there will be some complications and they are centred on the Nationals.

The Australian’s report that Joyce is looking to appeal to climate change sceptics in the Liberals seems to make sense (especially to a paper determined to undermine Turnbull) but there are important differences to what is going on in the Nationals and the basis for scepticism in the Liberals.

With the Liberals, scepticism more represents an attempt by Australia’s last political party to resist an agenda that delegitimises business interests they are supposed to represent.

With Joyce something else is going on. His interview with Laurie Oakes showed the political aims of Joyce are not only in conflict with the Liberals, but with the Nationals as well. Joyce reiterated the Nationals’ slogan at their council, ‘For Regional Australia’. But on this basis, a sceptical line seems odd as regional Australia is not especially against climate change action. As readers have noted, recent polling has shown that regional Australia is generally highly supportive of climate change action. This seems unsurprising given that the issue puts drought and water management to the top of the national and international political agenda.

Joyce got closer to the real answer that his was really a political agenda, not a regional one:

I think that the Labor Party have a very strong tactic, as they have the Greens as their able lieutenant on the left, covering them off on the territory they’ve left behind. What we’ve got to worry about on our side of politics is we don’t leave our right behind because obviously nature abhors a vacuum, a political entity will go into that space.

What political entity could Joyce be thinking of? It is of course the one that was so uppermost in the Nationals mind a few years ago, especially in the state where he comes from. Not independents such as climate change activists like Tony Windsor or Rob Oakeshott that currently takes votes and seats from the Nationals. Rather a greater threat to a party that is facing questions about its relevance, One Nation. This was a party that fed on a sentiment so strong in Queensland; disaffection with the mainstream political class, especially in Canberra. Joyce’s climate change scepticism is really an attempt to pre-empt another such party forming, by tapping into disaffection with a stance that appears to have such consensus across the national (and international) political class.

Everyone feels sorry for Truss at the moment but in fact sitting back and watching Joyce’s experiment may make sense as his attempt to bring an anti-political agenda into the mainstream may crash and burn. The problem is that he could hasten the destruction of the Nationals in the process.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 24 August 2009.

Filed under State of the parties

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5 responses to “Realignment”

  1. Bilko on 24th August 2009 9:25 am

    Would the demise of the nationals be such a bad thing seeing their political view is the opposite of what the majority of their supporters is, if recent reports are any indication.Surly they are the last living OZ dinosaur

  2. kymbos on 24th August 2009 12:37 pm

    Well reasoned piece, good work.

  3. Ricc on 25th August 2009 6:04 pm

    Fielding is quite openly touting for the ‘contrarian’ vote – bizarre for a Pentacostal Christian – you never know what manner of skeptics, iconoclasts and difficult people you might pick up.

    On other matters, Margaret Tighe and the DLP are complaining they are being stacked with extreme Catholics (as if they weren’t themselves!)

    I suspect the hollowing out is not just affecting the parties, but the major interest groups as well, leaving them vulnerable to “issue squatting” with the infrastructure of the interest group being used by others who would never get any credence if they started one themselves.

    The realignment is probably some post-modern blah blah blah thing, enlivened by a bit of pop demographics and techno-fetish and completed by a bit of Marxist “you don’t know what’s good for you – lucky for you – we do!”

  4. Graeme on 3rd September 2009 12:08 am

    If the prevailing winds are green, of course the nats will differentiate themselves. Be anti-chameleon. Joyce is a smarter politician than he is given credit for (being).

  5. The Piping Shrike on 3rd September 2009 12:33 pm

    I agree, although I think he is tapping into something that may prove tricky for the Nationals to manage.

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