No going back

Tuesday, 19 January 2010 

This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue. It affects the survival of human civilization. It is not a question of left vs. right; it is a question of right vs. wrong. Put simply, it is wrong to destroy the habitability of our planet and ruin the prospects of every generation that follows ours. What is motivating millions of Americans to think differently about solutions to the climate crisis is the growing realization that this challenge is bringing us unprecedented opportunity … In rising to meet this challenge, we too will find self-renewal and transcendence and a new capacity for vision to see other crises in our time that cry out for solutions

Al Gore 18 September 2006

A failed presidential candidate finding political redemption in the climate change agenda sums up how many in the political classes around the world have used the global warming threat. Facing malaise and a problem of a sense of purpose at home, governments in Europe, especially, have looked to tackling the threat of an environmental catastrophe to fill the gap. Yet as Copenhagen showed, the same factors behind their malaise at home are merely being reproduced on a global stage, both in the excessive expectations they created before the event and the inconclusive result they produced. On top of that, the US, facing eroding political leadership over the international community, is forced to come along and try to assert it on an issue that, unlike the Cold War or War on Terror, turns the US’s dominance into a problem.

Unlike many of his European counterparts, the outward signs of Rudd’s weaknesses are much less apparent. Nevertheless, the government has the same need to replace an exhausted domestic program with an international agenda. We saw in 2009 that a central problem for the government, the uncertainty and lack of direction in the international order, became more apparent. It was not just in the inconclusive results of international summits like Copenhagen, or the earlier economic one in London. On the regional stage, incidents like China’s arrest of Hu Stern, Indonesia’s wrangling over the Oceanic Viking, or the Indian government’s escalation of the stabbing of an Indian student in Melbourne, only serve to highlight that Australia has become an increasingly soft target as the authority of the old political order declines.

Yet however difficult the international agenda is to manage, retreating from it is no real option. As state Labor has learnt, depoliticising government to become the mere provision of services might accommodate to the end of old political programmes, but does not replace it. As WA most graphically showed, even a relatively well polling government and Premier can suddenly be turfed out for little more reason than voters didn’t like an early election and the opposition had a few weeks of not looking like a basket case. It is why there will be Labor nerves about the Victorian and South Australian elections this year that bear little reality to how comfortably ahead they are in the polls.

The perceived failure of Copenhagen will require a political response. Yet the government looks unprepared. Even before the Summit, government tactics towards Copenhagen did not even respond to the Senate’s dumping of the ETS, and since Copenhagen, the government has tried to play down the Summit’s failure. China-bashing appears to be the preferred excuse of European governments, although this probably won’t work too well here (at least not openly). Besides, Rudd has a sceptical opposition that has more interest in making political capital of failure, so a sharper response is needed. Possibly it will be a fleshing out of the attack in his November speech, when Rudd sought to link an international conspiracy to thwart climate change action with Malcolm, Barnaby, Andrew and Janet back home.

What will help Rudd is what Gore alluded to above, the way that the climate change agenda undermines the legitimacy of the old politics. Minchin may argue that climate change is just a left wing conspiracy to deindustrialise the economy, but he forgets that for most of the last century, the labour movement left used to have very strong views against deindustrialisation and the loss of jobs it would entail. If this is a left wing agenda, it is not a left as we know it.

Fortunately for Rudd, while 2009 was the year in which the drift in the international order became much more apparent, it was also a year when at home, the old political order handed its head to him on a plate – as the two most successful political organisations of the post war period, the NSW ALP right and the federal Liberal party, gave us a spectacular synchronised display of decay.

There have been attempts by the Liberals and some in the press to argue that Rudd’s reliance on the NSW Right to take the leadership means that its death throes are bad news for him. Nice try. There is no doubt that support from the NSW Right was critical for Rudd winning the leadership just as it had been for every other post war Labor leader. But what distinguishes this Labor leader is the critical role played by the left, a section of the party usually relied on by Labor leaders at the end of their tenure, not the beginning.

Except Rudd’s alliance of the left is not based on any left wing programme, but their common antagonism to the old faction system. In the management of the government this finds its reflection in the shift of power away from the cabinet, where the factions would traditionally assert themselves, to a ‘kitchen cabinet’ confined to Gillard, Tanner, Rudd and Swan.

This core plank of Rudd’s agenda is still not grasped by the media and especially how this is putting Rudd on a collision course with what is still the most powerful faction, the NSW Right. Articles such as that by Peter van Onselen are at least an improvement on ones at the start of Rudd’s government that warned the factions would eventually get him. Van Onselen is right that Rudd faces more a threat of instability from the disintegration of the factions than them asserting their power. But he misses that Rudd is against the factions, not just neutral to them. In 2008, the media completely missed the significance of ‘Iguanagate’ when Rudd allowed Gillard to escalate the affair in his absence. The target was not so much the Federal MP for Robertson, but her husband, the State Minister Della Bosca, who at the time as Industrial Relations Minister, was opposing Gillard’s plan to centralise IR in Canberra.

Rudd’s real attitude to the NSW Right became clearer as the Rees Premiership reached its climax at the end of 2009. His highly public support for Rees, and equally public snubbing of his replacement, was hardly for popularity’s sake, but to support Rees’s attempts to undermine the Right’s power base. The problem for Rudd is not the NSW Right’s decay as such, but that it is not happening fast enough.

Almost hours before Sartor was punching the air having dumped Rees, similar bravado was going on in the Senate as Abetz and Minchin celebrated their walk out from Turnbull’s front bench. Just as Keneally has exposed the power of the Right’s faction bosses in all its bankruptcy, so has Abbott’s ascension exposed the bankruptcy represented by the old guard of the Federal Liberals.

To get a grasp of the political problem Abbott’s rise indicates, it is not even necessary to look at his historically poor start with the electorate at large. Abbott’s real problem is precisely in the area he was supposed to address, galvanising the ‘core’ and is illustrated by precisely the examples used to vindicate this leadership, the Bradfield and Higgins by-elections.

The striking aspect of the by-elections was not that the Liberals could get the same vote when their main opponent wasn’t running as when they were, but that senior Liberals were apparently nervous they wouldn’t manage even this non achievement, and relieved when they did. Why? Weren’t these precisely the core seats that Abbott was supposed to bolster up? No doubt the preceding ructions would not have helped, but surely the Abbott leadership was the resolution that was supposed to have justified it.

Of course, one reason why there were nerves was uncertainty about how the issue on which Abbott had taken power, climate change, would actually play with such core voters. In fact the confusion was compounded after the election because Abbott pointed to success not with the core voters, where in areas like Toorak West they swung sharply to the Greens, but voters who weren’t even normal Liberal voters at all, let alone core ones. Following elections that were supposed to show Abbott’s ability to rally the core vote, he instead decided to focus on Labor voters who voted Liberal in Labor’s absence, even if in numbers no differently than past second preferences would suggest.

Coalition fantasies about making inroads into Labor’s voting base may be an excusable indulgence when they are actually winning elections. Especially at a time when Labor is uncertain about its grip on its base, as was the case during the Howard years, even if the mythical Howard ‘battlers’ had little to do with electoral reality. But having the same fantasy about Abbott’s ‘army’ when your primary is bumping along below 40% is more an indication of the confusion of what exactly their core is, than anything else.

Traditional Coalition voters may prefer someone who tells them the “game is back on”, but Abbott has no real basis for keeping them. The problem is that when it comes to the Liberals real ‘core’, big business, Abbott may be able to amuse them by being rude about Rudd and hairdryers, but he has no programme to offer them. As far as IR goes, big business seems more concerned that the government properly communicates its policy rather than changing it. On government spending, big business was fully in favour of the stimulus – their only concern is that they don’t pay for it. Given that Tanner is more focussed on cutting back the public service than even touching Howard’s tax cuts, they shouldn’t need to worry.

With nothing especially to offer the interests of ‘core’ that set up the Liberal party, Abbott represents an attempt to create a core and a programme out of thin air, serving more the interests of a Liberal party looking for a role than its traditional sponsors. In doing so, Abbott is following the tactics of a party that is in even a worse state, the Nationals. This is a party that has actually lost core seats that once provided former leaders, like Lyne and New England. Joyce is the Nationals’ experiment in trying to create a constituency out of anti-politics sentiment and use climate change scepticism to do it. The fact that they lost their core seats to strong advocates for climate change action is conveniently ignored in their upside down view of political reality. The Liberals are following the Nationals down this path before they’ve even reached their level of decay.

There has been advice in the press for Rudd to back down from the climate change agenda, but it remains the strongest weapon against the Coalition. It is why Abbott has flip-flopped around on it and has had to make his first policy speech on the environment. But no end of local initiatives will do away with the fact that on the one issue that Copenhagen at least confirmed remained the most important one internationally, the Coalition has blown the gaffe. Labor will probably need a focus group to tell them this, but the simple response to Coalition attacks on Labor’s climate change policy is not to get into the ins and outs of who will be better/worse off or costing and funding, but merely to remind everyone of what the current leadership was boasting only a few weeks ago – they don’t think there is a problem in the first place. By doing so it will remind everyone of the central weakness of the current leadership of Australia’s traditional establishment party, it is out of touch with mainstream opinion here and abroad.

For all the weaknesses on display with the current Liberal leadership, they face a government that is accommodating to the same central problem, the exhaustion of the politics of the past, rather than resolving it. No doubt Abbott will raise all the old political themes of the past, boat people, union power, wasteful government spending, to unnerve Labor and, given Labor’s lack of social base, it may have some effect. It will be a confusing year as the media mixes up the decay of the old for its revival, as it waits for the old comfortable parameters of the past to return. Unfortunately for them, the political class is still being led by someone who has every interest they do not.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 19 January 2010.

Filed under State of the parties

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14 responses to “No going back”

  1. Pedro X on 19th January 2010 11:13 am

    That blast about AGW from Gore sounds just like GW Bush talking about terrorism.

    The same simplistic approach that made the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq such failures has turned what should be a highly technical debate weighing costs and benefits into a sharp political argument and one that has thus far been a failure in it’s own terms. Emissions rise and alarms get louder. Calm and reasonable debate is discarded.

    The result has been scientists getting caught being activists as shown in the climategate emails.

    The new scandal with the Economist head of the IPCC having conflicts of interests is just making it worse.

  2. Lyn on 19th January 2010 2:40 pm

    Hi Piping Shrike

    Thankyou for another excellent piece of very interesting reading.

  3. Rx on 19th January 2010 5:24 pm

    “… merely to remind everyone of what the current leadership was boasting only a few weeks ago – they don’t think there is a problem in the first place”

    Agreed, Shrike. The government should use the “absolute crap” quote from Abbott over and over again whenever he or any Liberal opens their yap on climate change.

  4. Rocket on 19th January 2010 10:36 pm

    Welcome back. Thank you – no-one in the media seems to have realised (or been willing to admit anyway!) that the Liberals’ new emperor has no clothes. I too doubt that he is “holding up the core vote”.

    After Minchin’s “coup” I had thought the 2010 election would be like 1998 – that the Coalition would get swings where they didn’t need them and end up with a good TPP vote but a bad loss. I now think they are going to go backwards on both, and I think the main reason is that Tony Abbott has been in politics so long he can pretend he is making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but on election day the voters won’t buy it.

    I do recall Peter Reith on the night of the 1998 election comparing it with 1984, saying that they (the Coalition) had got an ephemeral “good” result with Peacock with “Good politics but bad policy”. This phrase I think just about sums up everything Tony Abbott has done since knifing Turnbull, and in the end he will reap his just reward.

  5. Scott on 20th January 2010 4:12 pm

    The electorate seems so volatile at the moment and unusually suspicious and negative. I wonder if we are seeing a backlash against the recent era when voters kept returning incumbent governments.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 20th January 2010 6:24 pm

    I would argue less volatility of the electorate than declining difference between the parties. Even during the last decade this was coming through as record majorities for state Labor and unprecedented mid-term polling slumps for Howard.

    Very much agree, Pedro X.

  7. Michael on 20th January 2010 9:24 pm

    Happy New Year! Bang on as always.

  8. Graeme on 20th January 2010 9:51 pm

    “need to replace an exhausted domestic program with an international agenda”

    The Shrike hath written his own synopsis.

    This tour de force of a blogpiece opens jarringly for me. The implication seems to be that climate change policy is less a belated, even fearful response to the realisation that the clock is ticking down and that history will judge our generation, and more a pret a porter cause for governments bereft of another agenda. That rational governments of all hues are of similar mindsets belie this. What wd have instead is a prisoner’s dilemma of the tallest order, revealing the inadequacy of the old order of nation states and weak international institutions. Simultaneously though, climate change within nations is often played out as an ideological issue, showing the longevity of the left-right rhetoric, if not cleavages, between (eg) faith in regulation vs market-optimism.

    Nb I’m not saying that rhetoric is firm let alone logical: indeed conservatives who embraced the enlightenment/scientism seem all too willing to abandon them rather than become conservationists.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 20th January 2010 10:58 pm

    I’m not making any comment about the global warming issue itself, I leave that to those who know what they are talking about, the scientists.

    What I am looking at here is only the political response and the way it is being used by the political class – to the general detriment, in my view, of tackling the issue itself, which is important what ever way you want to look at it.

    I don’t think this is simply a left-right issue. Rather the old politics of sectional interests v something new. It is only more vocal on the right because organised labour has long since lost its voice.

  10. Ricc on 21st January 2010 11:12 am

    “is only more vocal on the right because organised labour has long since lost its voice.”

    Which is the point I frequently make.

    The circa 1900 industrial politics, reflected in the constitution, REQUIRED an industrial dispute before the government could intervene in wage setting (or the macro-economy generally) but since that period we have had the power of the federal government to set wages directly (and manage the macro-economy) grow and grown.

    The 1900 situation legitimised the role of the unions, a heresy by thinking of a century earlier.

    But if the people want a change in the macro economy, they can vote for it (as they did when they got rid of Serfchoices) but there is also the realisation among the broader public that the RBA offsets just about every interventionist policy they don’t agree with (the stimulus being the one they clearly did, much to the Libs frustration)

    So no more need for unions. Done their trick.

  11. john Willoughby on 21st January 2010 6:34 pm

    A photo of the mad Monkton
    and the mad Monk together
    onstage during the Lords “its crap tour”
    would be good…….

  12. Graeme on 25th January 2010 1:02 pm

    Point taken Shrike. But though I share with you the ‘leave it to the scientists’ attitude, I’m more interested in where that leaves politics.

    As I understand it, your argument is that the anti-political approach is to adopt climate change as the burning issue of the day, then cede it to the technocrats. Whereas the doubters are politicising the issue. As far as I can see, the whole debate is just reinscribing, not reinventing, the political paradigm, including hoary debates about the role of governments cf markets, nation states cf international institutions, who or what counts in the utility calculus, and so on.

  13. The Piping Shrike on 25th January 2010 6:21 pm

    I would tend to see that the climate change debate is undermining the old politics, not reaffirming it.

    The basis of the old politics of the 20th century was ultimately between business and organised labour pursuing their sectional interests. To me climate change, by posing a global catastrophe, makes such politics illegitimate.

    It is true that there are similar discussions about the role of government etc. but in the past it was always in the context of labour v business, e.g. social spending v lower taxes. The content of the role of the state in climate change is very different now.

    This is less a problem for the Labor party, as they have better adapted to the declining political role of organised labour, and this government is the result. The Liberals, as Australia’s last political party (in the old sense of it), has still not adapted to the fact that business doesn’t really need them anymore. Hence all the twittering about “conservatives” and “values”, of which Abbott is the result.

  14. Graeme on 25th January 2010 11:41 pm

    Labor leaders past have used existential threats (war, communism) to damp down or control the party’s activist and union base. I guess what makes this epoch interesting is, as you argue, that that base is now withered and neutered in a way not seen in the past; hence the need for an ‘agenda’ in the sense of some more compelling issues than Greiner/Goss style managerialism.

    I’m less sure that Liberalism was ever so fully moored in its business base, except for financial succour. There is a tendency to social conservatism here, and hence mileage in pandering to and generating such attitudes. (Not always, nor a trump necessarily, but a reliable set of cards). Once the left became rooted in the intelligentsia rather than unionism (something predating Hawkeating) it lost a corresponding ability to populism.

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