Friday, 26 February 2010
What we saw from the Prime Minister today was a Peter Beattie moment. The Prime Minister may not be much of a Queenslander, but he has learned this much from the former Queensland Premier: when your government has got it seriously wrong, you say, ‘Yes, we created the mess and here I am—I will fix the mess.’
Tony Abbott in Parliament 24 February 2010
Of course the Prime Minister is very much a Queenslander, politically at least. In a state with the combination of a decentralised government and an historically weak labour movement, anti-politics has been the name of the game for some time, and from Joh to Beattie, successful ‘populist’ Premiers have known how to use it. Those tactics came to Canberra in 2007 and now, with the government facing the problem itself, Rudd has had to adapt.
On several levels, the Garrett episode has brought together both what is distinct about this Labor government, but also its weaknesses. At the level of policy, part of the problem has arisen in the nature of the program itself, in that it represents a shift in government infrastructure policy from the traditional areas in the public realm (roads, schools) to the private. Government intervention into thousands of individual homes has ridden on the back of the rising importance of environmental policy and an increased focus on individual behaviour, which Garrett, with his sermons on how to use plastic bags, now oversees.
Such intervention is not only done through private and fragmented industries, such as for home installation, but where union presence has historically been weak. Everyone has seen the installation deaths as a problem of lack of government regulation of worker safety but, of course, pressure for such regulation has ultimately come from the unions, or more correctly the employee members that actually benefit from it. It’s in this way that this new role for environmental policy has inevitably come up against a deregulated industry for which it was not prepared.
The sidelining of unions at the policy level had its payback at the political level. It was the unions who played a key role in the early stages of publicising the programme’s problems. Garrett was especially vulnerable as the Cabinet Minster uniquely not from a faction and no ties in the labour movement. The unions’ prominent role at the beginning was payback not only for a celeb shoe-in brought in over the party’s head but a government from which they had become detached.
Yet what was critical for this issue taking off was the role of the media. The problems of the program were becoming evident in Parliament for some time, but as some commentators were noting, the Liberals were unusually slow to pick it up. There may have been a slight political problem in that they are led by arguably the least appropriate person to pursue a problem of worker safety. As Barrie Cassidy brought out in an interview with Chris Pyne a couple of weeks ago, the importance of worker safety is one of those ‘left-wing’ issues that it is important for intellectual warriors like Tony Abbott to draw the line against and shift the responsibility back to employees.
Nevertheless, despite the Liberals’ awkwardness on the issue, it didn’t really matter as it was the media that pursued the story. Some thought the recess in Parliament would ease pressure on Garrett, but of course it didn’t, as it was the media rather than Parliament that was controlling the momentum. It was something Cassidy again summed up in a piece in The Drum
But still the debate rages and still the media remains interested, way beyond the normal timeframe for stories about ministers in strife. That is partly because Garrett is a celebrity minister, and partly because the nature of the mess has so many strands to it.
This usurping of the opposition’s role by the media is a result of the hollowing out of the political debate and in this case the political point the Liberals were trying to make. It was why there was aimlessness to their prosecution of the case in Parliament and Abbott was vulnerable to the charge that he was using the deaths to play politics, a view that drew a round of applause when made on Q&A this week. But what allowed the media to take the lead also meant the media itself ended up getting lost on what point it finally wants to make. It has insisted on Garrett’s resignation, and the Liberals have duly followed, but the last few days have seen Rudd turn it around.
The turning point came when the scheme was closed and so transformed the debate from the problems of the scheme, to the problems of the scheme not continuing. The media merely changed tack and still kept on attacking the government undeterred, but now with tearful insulation employers talking about the pain of sacking workers to save some money. However, it left the opposition now having to oppose the closure of a scheme they didn’t want anyway.
How far the debate had turned around was shown on Wednesday when Rudd went out to meet insulation employers and took their names down in his notebook with Abbott following finding nothing to play on. It was capped off last night with a bravura performance in humility from Rudd, where he basically redefined responsibility to an indignant Kerry O’Brien from ministerial resignation to fixing the problem. It was a definition that the employers and employees outside Parliament the day before were only too happy to agree with.
Garrett is not necessarily politically dead as Grattan claims in a piece that gets about everything else of this episode wrong. He and the government now have the chance to redeem themselves by doing mass empathy in the electorate such as Rudd used to call for in the early days of government, possibly combined with a whole whack of new regulation. It may have been a messy learning curve for the government, but is more regulation where the Liberals’ intellectual warrior really wanted to end up?
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 26 February 2010.Filed under Tactics