Let’s all forget about 2007

Monday, 1 February 2010 

There was something a little bit depressing about reading Peter Hartcher’s piece on Saturday about Rudd being a ‘Howard-lite’ and how he will play Abbott like Howard played Latham. It was based on not only getting the last election wrong, but repeating all the old myths about the 2004 election as well. Worst of all, it was as though the last two years had never happened.

Let’s just start with this idea of Rudd being ‘Howard-lite’. As far as a programme goes, how on earth would it possible to be lighter than a government than in almost twelve years left little more than a sales tax to its name? How, for example in industrial relations, would it be possible to compare the breaking of the union movement and collective bargaining under the last Labor government with Howard’s AWAs, that after a decade of flogging employers still barely used? Or to compare the floating of the currency and the bringing down of tariffs under Keating with Costello’s move to make the RBA independent?

On almost every major reform, it was the Hawke and Keating government that did the bulk of the work, while Howard spent the time running around trying to look busy. Even on something the Liberals like to claim as an achievement, border protection, as Downer admitted last year, Howard was doing no more than what Keating did before him and Rudd is trying to do now, dump it on Indonesia. It is worthwhile remembering that the reason Howard had an asylum seeker crisis in his second term was that Indonesia was for a while inclined to let them sail through after Howard’s games in East Timor.

That Labor had carried out Howard’s agenda before he finally came to power, gave Howard’s government the never ending dilemma about what to fill the vacuum with. Fortunately, Howard had the War on Terror, finally he could look tough on things like border protection and the war in Iraq (despite, as Obama reminded him, a token commitment). It is that international context that the media routinely forget, as does Hartcher when he forgets that Latham didn’t start to lose popularity because parents found reading to kids creepy (actually it was popular trick that rattled the government), but because in March 2004 Latham promised to unilaterally bring the troops home.

Latham signalled that Labor was starting to replace a program that had exhausted itself during the Hawke/Keating years with the personal views of its leader. That Latham was hard to pin down politically, and only stood for his own values, was what made Latham appear “fresh” against a government that was still pretending to have a traditional political agenda. Labor’s problem was that while the War on Terror still had a hold, the hollowness of that agenda was yet to be exposed. By the time Rudd came along, with very much a similar personal approach to Latham, the War on Terror was fading even in the US and Howard’s stuff up over linking Obama to terrorism showed that the game was up.

There is no doubt that Rudd comes with no more of a basis to carry out a traditional reform program than Howard. The importance of Rudd, and what makes him starkly different to Howard, is his political response to that fact.

One sign of how the old game is no longer being played is the way that what should be critical issues for any government have hollowed out. It is why, in his desperation to see Rudd as a mini-Howard, Hartcher makes this blooper near the end of the article:

The trump card of economic competence, the single most important credential of the Howard government, is now snugly in Rudd’s hand.

Well, no it’s not actually. While Labor has narrowed the gap, the Coalition still retained a lead over Labor on economic competence, at least according to Newspoll. Essential Research in fact has Labor’s previous level pegging over the economy going backwards. The same poll confirmed that the economy remains important, the point is does the electorate see that either party makes much difference to it? Anyone with a memory going all the way back two years, will remember that the media was claiming that interest rates were doing Howard in, while ignoring the fact that barely anyone thought Howard could do anything about them. Why his 2004 promise came back to haunt him was the pretence that he could.

Thinking that Rudd will deal with Abbott like Howard dealt with Latham, might be tempting given Gillard’s tactics over the last week. But Rudd is the one to watch, not Gillard, and he has started the year indicating that he will do Abbott like he did Howard last time. But to get that, it is first necessary to understand what happened last time.

In effect, Hartcher is doing the same thing that Antony Green did in his piece in The Drum undermining current polling – belittling the significance of the 2007 election. Yet it was an election when what was not supposed to happen, did. A government widely seen as economically competent, was thrown out at the height of a boom because the rules had changed. Right to the end, journalists clung on to the old truths and ended up being proven wrong. A shame to see it happen all over again.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 1 February 2010.

Filed under Media analysis

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11 responses to “Let’s all forget about 2007”

  1. Riccardo on 1st February 2010 9:47 am

    I like your approach for being Occams Razorish – leave the most straightforward explanation of the election first, until evidence of a more complicated explanation being superior arrives.

    A lot of stock is placed by journalists in electoral ‘laws’ but as you say, a lot of what we are seeing now is unprecedented (or at least has evolved to unprecedented levels, albeit from trends visible before).

    Howard in his honest moments revealed that Hawke and Keating Mk1 had done the heavy lifting, and only revisited Keating’s abandoned consumption tax which was sabotaged by Hawke’s inept handling of the tax issue.

    I don’t know why our political journos do the Curate’s Egg thing – I’ve just been reading Harcher’s The Bitter End and he seems to pick the whole bankrupcy of the Liberal program quite well, but then ignores his own conclusions in current columns.

    Latham must have upset a lot of people – most of the comment on him seems intensely personal yet I never thought the policies he promoted were unusual for a Labor leader. The two issues (personal animosity versus electoral platform) should not be conflated.

    Finally, just as people are stuffing up memories of the 2007 election, I notice people are mixing their memories of 2004 and 2001. As if it was Latham, not Beazley, who faced the Tampa election. Voters were well and truly over the boat people issue by 2004 yet some commentators would have you believe it was the defining issue. Labor are good at ‘heroes’ but also good at ‘villains’ when the occasion requires it. They keep letting Kimbo off the hook, fact was, he was useless.

  2. Robbo on 1st February 2010 9:48 am

    PS, a thorough analysis as always. “Anyone with a memory going all the way back two years…” This just reminds me yet again that often the media (well, the mainstream anyway) have a memory like a small dog, because if they did remember all the way back two years, they wouldn’t be acting like they shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story to sell newspapers.

  3. Amos Keeto on 1st February 2010 10:13 am

    As usual a great read, thanks PS

  4. Wood Duck on 1st February 2010 2:24 pm

    As usual, Hatcher’s piece was typical of his lazy style of journalism. If I recall correctly, he produced a similar piece when Turnbull bcame Liberal leader. All he really had to to was a bit of a replace and update, and we had the “Rudd-is-Howard, Abbott(Turnbull)-is-Latham” thesis.

    The spicing it up with a bit more of a sledge at Latham helps keep Hartcher on what he perceives to be solid jouralistic ground. The sledge this time was a very cunning one with a bit a “paedo” theme about how frightened parents were that Latham, who as a parent of two young boys at the time was probably well qualified to do so, was allowed to read books to children.

    I know this is harking back to the dim past, but I always felt that from the moment that Latham said that what he wanted to do was create an inclusive society by bringing the outsiders in the likes of Hartcher saw it as the duty to do something about him. And he is still at it. I guess you have to admire his commitment to the cause.

  5. James on 1st February 2010 3:55 pm

    Yes, there seems to be a lot of re-invention about how Latham lost it for Labor in 2004. If any one thinks that Latham reading to school age kids put voters off then they are in la la land. Even the so-called “killer handshake” with Howard only became an issue when people started dissecting it after the election (presumably in slow motion). The third piece of folklore involves all those Tasmanian mill workers cheering Howard on. (That issue certainly cost Labor two seats in Tasmania but I don’t think it got a lot of voter traction nationally.) It was the international situation in 2004 with the war in Iraq that won that election for Howard, with many voters preferring to maintain the status quo. It was a similar result in the United States in 2004, with George W Bush winning an increased majority compared to 2000.

  6. Riccardo on 1st February 2010 4:17 pm

    I would distinguish that obviously Latham was not much of a campaigner – just that his policies didn’t seem remarkable for a ALP leader.

    Even the tories love baiting the Medicare Gold policy yet it looks like the sort of thing their own strategy units would have come up with – how to keep 65+ voting Liberal with other people’s money.

    If anything you could say Medicare Gold was bad politics because it targeted the demographic unlikely to ever vote Labor.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 1st February 2010 8:23 pm

    On 2004, I see it as straightforward. Latham’s personal style v. traditional politics worked well until the ‘troops out’ interview, when Latham mixed up an unpopular war for a popular alliance with the US. Once he was seen as untrustworthy on the alliance, the Coalition could pile on all the other doubts about Latham and turn his personal campaign against him.

    The Tasmanian foresters was more about Howard playing with Labor’s heads over their loss of control over their base, as he did with the mythical ‘Howard battlers’.

    To pick up the comments on the other thread, on whether Labor’s 2007 campaign was poor, I’m just going by the fact that Labor started the campaign 10-12 points ahead and ended up five up. Now you could say that that is because the 10-12 points was not ‘real’, like Green does, but that’s too complicated for me. I tend to think the campaign was focussed less on the themes that Rudd used so successfully during the year, and more like a traditional Labor campaign. Presumably in part to rally the party to get out and leaflet.

    I think Labor’s performance so far on Abbott has been similarly mixed.

    Riccardo it seems I’m mixing 2001 and 2004 as well with a typo on the year of Latham’s troops out interview (corrected).

  8. Graeme on 1st February 2010 10:32 pm

    Hartcher, at heart, is probably a social democrat and interventionist: like most journalists, academics, etc. On that metric, Rudd has disappointed progressives, who never warmed to him but hoped his Blarish presentation and policy wonk image would, two years in, have produced some imaginative policies from the ‘radical centre’, rather than just deft politicking and the kind of populist vacuity we see in projects such as Gillard’s MySchool (a mix of glib MySpace branding with the smoke and mirrors glibness we see in standard corporate PR. I mean, as an engaged parent, I still rely 90% on my children’s unreliable impressions for my sense of how school is going for them: why on earth poll me for a second hand ‘opinion’ on the overall school performance, let alone one that is published in some pfaff aggregate statistic?)

    Rudd’s one plausible claim to runs on the board is been the economic stimuli, for which he is really indebted to Treasury. Punters have long had a bias to reflexively asserting that the Coalition are better ‘economic managers. That Rudd Labor came so close for so long on that metric owed much to the perceived – if largely correlational rather than causative – success of the stimuli + his fiscal conservative mask (a mask not for a social democratic economic agenda, but for a disinterest in macroeconomics per se).

    However, as people flabbily forget that economic meltdown was a real spectre, of course they fall back on naive presumptions (like ‘Libs better on interest rates, market economy’; ‘Labor better on ‘jobs”).

    Now of course people may discount the salience of ‘economic management’, to the degree that we’ve all become AFR readers now, and look, cargo cult style, to China or elsewhere for the answers to our economic prayers. But that doesn’t mean that opposition politicians can’t weave a winning formula from thin yarn. People still have to vote on the basis of something, and outsourcing politics to international tectonics doesn’t give electors any raw materials from which they can forge electoral opinions between national parties, especially if you believe that ideology is dead as a force for brand loyalty.

  9. clarencegirl on 2nd February 2010 7:48 pm

    Excellent insightful piece – always enjoy your posts.

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  11. Ricc on 4th February 2010 1:33 pm

    Have any contributors here got any idea why Beazley gets let off the hook. ALP folklore should be as harsh on him as the Libs are on Peacock – a multiple time failure.

    And it amuses me that Rudd gets hauled over coals for being literate and wordy, suffered the same.

    Joyce is looking very much the One Nation candidate -see today’s thing on cutting foreign aid and sacking [presumably Canberra -based] public servants.

    The Nats always find cutting public servants isn’t actually quite so good when they turn out to be Primary Industries field officers or Centrelink pension counter staff in rural electorates.

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