Monday, 8 February 2010
Coalition politicians talking about the price of ice cream in supermarkets and Ministers rote-learning the prices of household goods makes it all seem as though we are having a re-run of the GST debate. Michelle Grattan thinks the GST almost cost the 1998 election. If you listen to Howard, or his Chief of Staff talk about it, it will be clear the opposite was true. GST gave a government that was floundering around with no agenda, look as though it had one (why would Howard have introduced it otherwise? Principle?) What helped him, of course, was that Labor didn’t have much to say at the time either, so it leapt on the GST making out like it was the biggest upheaval since the industrial revolution. When it was finally introduced and was seen to be no big deal, the malaise in Howard’s government returned.
The climate change debate does play a similar role for the Rudd government, but the background is very different. As far as this blog recalls, there was hardly a passion in the electorate that the states should have a different revenue-sharing arrangement with Canberra that necessitated a GST. But there is still a strong desire that something should be done about climate change in the electorate. Bolt on Insiders thinks that Turnbull mis-read the political mood to think that a sceptic line would be political death. So why then did Abbott produce a climate change plan?
Abbott has the same problem as Turnbull, but even more acute, trying to balance a sceptic line to satisfy those in the party that want to stand for ‘something’ and those in the party who want it to remain electorally viable. The contradiction is becoming so acute that nearly every journalist who interviews Abbott can’t fail drawing it out, as Barrie Cassidy did so well yesterday, simply by asking, if you don’t believe in global warming, why are you spending billions preventing it? The answer, obviously, is to win votes. By persisting with the question, Cassidy managed to do what the government has so far failed to, reveal the ‘conviction’ politician as the two-faced hypocrite he has been all along.
That the government is struggling to do what practically every journalist seems to be able to, expose the contradiction at the heart of the Abbott leadership, suggests that it has problems of its own. As Abbott keeps reminding Rudd, after Copenhagen things have changed. While it reaffirmed that nearly all the world’s governments now feel the need to pay lip service to climate change action, coordinating to look as though they will do something about it is another matter. Especially under a weakened global leadership from the US, that is now turning inwards and resulting in the President losing control over the same issue at home.
Yet nearly two months after Copenhagen, the government has still not addressed it. It prefers instead to put climate change to one side and talk about other things like the economy. There are two problems with this. Firstly, without addressing the uncertainty over the direction of the global agenda, it is hollowing out the domestic debate. Everyone knows that any action here on its own is irrelevant unless there is a global plan. Without one, the government’s climate change plan loses its meaning. So the debate shifts on to the technicalities and costs of the plan, rather than the reasons for having it. In that way, the Coalition’s one-foot-in one-foot-out lower cost option seems reasonable against a government initiative that starts to resemble something as pointless as the GST.
Copenhagen has been a problem for the Liberals too, as it has given the sceptic side of the argument more weight internally and made it harder to prevent the Coalition’s drift to a marginal position. The result is a Coalition plan, that if it was taken seriously as climate change action, would mean taxpayers having to bribe polluters to stop polluting. The trouble for Rudd is, that until he is able to make a political link between what happened in Copenhagen and what is happening at home (as he did in November’s Sydney Institute speech), he can’t take advantage of it.
It is the international agenda that really upholds the climate change agenda’s ‘moral imperative’. Without the international angle, climate change action seems less urgent. Yet the government needs such a moral purpose as much as the last one. This is the problem with trying to shift the debate elsewhere to things like the economy. The traditional areas of policy debate like the economy have hollowed out and it is not really possible for Labor to distinguish itself on it. Indeed, the Coalition has implicitly acknowledged it with the appointment of Joyce and Hockey to the key economic portfolios. Joyce’s problems are obvious and while Hockey has political attributes, as we saw last night, being taken seriously is not one of them. But what is the economic issue these days to be serious about? Other than embarrassing a party that likes to think it still has economic competence, Joyce’s bloopers are unlikely to be as damaging as the press, and possibly the government, think. They only need to recall the last government, clutching on to its sizeable lead on economic management all the way to its defeat.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 8 February 2010.Filed under Tactics