Wednesday, 23 December 2009
The trouble with commenting on Australian politics, is that attempts to set out an objective assessment on political developments always comes up against the other problem – that of dealing with the distorted assessment from the media and other commentators.
This blog agrees with most other commentators that the perception of Copenhagen being a failure is bad news for Rudd. But for the opposite reason most are suggesting. More importantly, contrary to what Grattan et al are arguing, Copenhagen is not good news for the Liberals either. In short, no part of the Australian political class can benefit from the malaise on display in Denmark last week.
First, start with the government. The general view seems to be that Copenhagen’s failure is a boost for scepticism and undermines a rush for climate change action. In fact, the reverse is true. It is the extent of support for climate change action that makes Copenhagen such a political nightmare, as it highlights the inability of the global political class and especially its leader, the US, to act. In as much as Rudd has identified with Copenhagen and allowed himself to be associated with his political chums overseas, that becomes his problem too.
Rudd’s political strength has been his ability to take an anti-political stance and distance himself from the Australian political class. His problem is that his counterpoint to that is the international political class and, as was revealed last week, this has problems as well. Australian governments have always been heavily reliant on international developments. But in the last few decades, since Harold Holt went a little too “all the way with LBJ” it has been difficult to be too open about it.
Supporting the US alliance has been less an internal problem, as it was in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, but is now complicated by the US’s faltering political leadership on the world stage. The problem is made even more complicated by the exhaustion of Labor’s traditional political program at home based on its relations with the unions. It means Rudd must look overseas more than ever to find his political ‘narrative’, but in an environment that is more uncertain than ever before.
On climate change, Rudd has motivated the need for an ETS so Australia can participate in a global agenda. But when he goes to Copenhagen, he has no real idea what that global agenda will be. He finds a US President flying in to try and force through a deal that starts to unravel from almost the moment he departs. Needing to gain credibility with a domestic audience demanding action on climate change, Rudd finds that global forums may reiterate the global acceptance of the climate change agenda, but offer no convincing way forward.
The difficulty of government to assert itself, either here or on the world stage, may add to cynicism about what government can do and bolster an anti-political mood that can either take a sceptic position or, as seen by demonstrators in Copenhagen, a pro-climate change stance. Addressing this cynicism remains the government’s major challenge.
Certainly far greater than dealing with the Liberals. The media’s understanding of what is going on in Australian politics has taken a surreal turn since Abbott’s ascension, coinciding with the Liberals’ own vacation from political reality.
Let’s start with the basic facts, which are informing barely any discussion in the media at the moment: polls suggest that the Liberals are heading for an historic defeat that, if Labor does not repeat the mistakes of the previous campaign, could turn into electoral reality. Abbott has not ‘revitalised’ the Liberals, he has confirmed their political malaise. They have not improved from the polling levels they were getting when they were tearing themselves apart a month ago and, for someone who didn’t take over immediately after an electoral defeat, Abbott is having the worst start in the polls since they began measuring such things. Maybe things will change, but there is no sign of it yet. Finding hope in two by-elections, where Labor did not even stand, is pathetic.
If the uncertainty in US leadership is causing problems for the government, it is certainly causing problems for the party most reliant on it. The Liberals cannot separate themselves from the mainstream global agenda and it is why the old guard have been forced to partially recant their climate change scepticism since regaining the leadership. Yet at the same time, tapping into anti-politics is what is giving the Liberals’ scepticism some electoral validity, even if it only confirms their isolation from the political mainstream. It is this contradictory state of affairs that underpins their incoherence, whether in Abbott’s schizophrenic behaviour or Joyce’s thought bubbles.
To call such incoherence ‘populism’ is insulting to an electorate that retains an extraordinary amount of support for the over-articulate Prime Minister. Furthermore, such a view suggests that it offers a solution to the Liberals’ electoral problems. The opposite is true. In as much as scepticism takes the Coalition further away from the political mainstream, pandering to it only accentuates their irrelevance. Far from making his life easier, the lack of direction from Copenhagen will only make Abbott’s balancing act even harder, giving heart to the anti-political mood some in his party are dabbling with, but which is so dangerous for what had been Australia’s leading establishment party.
In essence, we are looking at the decomposition of the old order, not its revitalisation and this is speeded up by a similar unravelling overseas. The media are caught up in it, so it is no surprise they see a sunrise where there is a sunset. The Coalition is most suffering from it, and Labor has adapted to it better. But the government has still not found an alternative, and certainly didn’t in Copenhagen, so it may be reticent to bring the Coalition’s troubles fully out. Nevertheless, in election year, there is only one direction all of this can go.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 23 December 2009.Filed under Media analysis, State of the parties