A step on from Beattie

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

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8 responses to “A step on from Beattie”

  1. Thomas Paine on 26th February 2010 10:20 am

    I think the revelation that the Right Wing Media has made itself the Opposition demonstrates the systemic weakness of the Liberal Party. Where would Abbott and Liberals be if the media actually reported anything near the facts?

    They have covered up Abbott’s idiocy and blatherings almost entirely. An honest treatment of him would have given us Hockey by now.

    The other fact to come out this last media campaign is the extent the ABC is running interference for the Liberal Party. They too have taken to protect Abbott and the Liberals and acting in place of them.

    The most startling fact would have normally been a non issue. It is ridiculous to think a Minister is personally responsible for workplace accidents because it increases funding. That notion would freeze Government.

    That prosecuted a anti Labor Garrett campaign on this issue reveals just how weak a case they have against the Govt.

  2. Ricc on 26th February 2010 2:34 pm

    The Libs are basically Wiley Coyote, having chased the Rudd Runner past the edge of the cliff: they have pursued the insulation program which is a) purely a government subsidy they are supposed to oppose b) a employee health and safety issue they are supposed to not be siding with and c) in place to prevent global warming, which they don’t believe is happening.

    Wiley Coyote of course never starts falling until he actually realises there’s no ground beneath him – it will be interesting to see when the hardline right actually bring the leadership back into line. Maybe they never will.

    The Beattie trick also includes “Be your own opposition” but its too late for that now, at least for using against the leader Abbott. They might get away with it with Hockey but that means an immediate move of Tanner into Treasury – deny them any oxygen at Treasury level. I don’t think they need to waste Tanner against Joyce anymore.

  3. Daisey May on 26th February 2010 10:46 pm

    Your angle is intriuging PS. Do you think this is a shot accross the bows to let Rudd know that without union support he is cactus? I agree with you about Rudd’s performance on the 7.30 Report as well. He is not given much credit when he does well and it mystifies me. I gather the way his youthful team of media advisers have gone about things have ruffled quite a few feathers and I’d like to hear some more indepth conversation about that. The old hands that have been around forever and a day obiously hate having their power usurped. I’d like everyone to settle down and step back and simply report the facts but this seems a long way off. It will only stop I guess when it fails to sell product or is that being entirely too cynical?

  4. The Piping Shrike on 26th February 2010 11:34 pm

    I certainly don’t think the unions appreciate candidates being brought in over their heads directly by the parliamentary party and certainly the unions’ early intervention didn’t help the government, so there is likely to be a connection. While at the level of policy, this was complicated by this shift away from the more unionised areas of government activity. I think Rudd’s appointment of Combet to oversee all of this should be seen in this light.

    I think the media’s relationship to the government, and politics in general, is changing from what it has been in the last forty years. It is not just commercial interests as we are seeing it also in the ABC.

  5. Amos Keeto on 27th February 2010 1:51 pm

    Thanks again TPS.

  6. Graeme on 27th February 2010 11:46 pm

    Shrike, you are a unique voice, but when it comes to unions you have only a political take.

    ‘ 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. ‘

    This makes little sense. OH&S regulation imposes costs generally and protection generally.

    Indeed little unions do outside a few overhyped sectors with militant traditions (mining being the obvious one) give any benefit to the unionised. That was the case under the pre 93 award system and it’s even more the case now. Unions are co-opted in Australia, to lubricate bargaining and dampen down expectations. There’s little rational point in joining (from a free rider perspective); their survival is cultural or due to service work.

    Few of the young fellas swept into the insulation vortex would have been union members.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 28th February 2010 9:55 pm

    I’d be the last person to over-hype the role of unions, which is why I say that pressure for safety standards have more correctly come from the employees themselves than the unions. I totally agree that unions have been generally ineffectual, which is why I think those who over-hype Workchoices as an attack on unions, miss the real changes that have already happened at the workplace.

    In fact in a way, I would argue that the unions’ emphasis on Health & Safety and portraying the employee as victim, is more a political response of unions to portray a labour force less able to assert their own interests and being just a passive and vulnerable collection of individual employees needing protection, than being a real improvement of standards.

    The irony is that this government has actually been eroding further OH&S with the harmonisation, which reflects the declining political influence of unions in this government. A position they have complained about but done very little to oppose. Their primary interest is recovering political influence with a Labor government they have become detached from. Taking the opportunity of the insulation debacle against a non-faction Minister was an opportunity too good to pass up. I agree with the role of the unions as you see it, the problem is that in this case the unions were not there to dampen down expectations, but instead used the issue to cause a problem for the government. Managing this political problem will be Combet’s job.

    I may only have a political take on the unions, but I really don’t see their role being much else but these days.

  8. Ricc on 1st March 2010 9:51 am

    I suspect as well the move of the government into the home insulation business means that they are going to turn the Federal Government into the same type of government the State Governments are – service delivery organisations.

    I watched the “Love of Money” last night and reminded me that there really is no right wing economics any more. It’s just a statue they nod at for effect. When push comes to shove it is the right wingers who will nationalise businesses they value, as ,long as the establishment classes who run them stay in jobs.

    Hence Hockey makes noises, but there is no actual policy direction from the Libs to stop subsidies or government ownership.

    And I don’t see any Tea Parties here. There is no grassroots constuency for economic discipline and the opposition to the sale of Medibank Private is only for Lib internal consumption. Hockey presumably still polishing his CV for the Abbott crash and burn which is on its way.

    Assuming Rudd gets back in, the “we are desparate to get back in” crowd in the Liberal heirarchy will have to move further along the 5 stages of grief – they clearly couldn’t come to terms in the first term of opposition.

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