The curse of anti-politics returns

Tuesday, 16 February 2010 

Kochie: Pauline Hanson says she’ll never run in an election again, what do you think about that?

Rudd: Matter for Pauline. She’s had a colourful political career, obviously I don’t agree with her political standpoint, but she’s had a rough trot from time to time. I think she’s just decided to move on and I think, frankly, the Australian body politic wants to move on as well.

K Rudd on Sunrise 12 February

No doubt the Australian body politic does want to move on, but it can’t. Because the forces that brought Hanson to prominence are back. Except this time it’s not in the language of anti-immigration, but climate change scepticism.

Before we get too carried away, lets just recall the polling out at the moment. The government is entering election year in a stronger position than any government in a generation. Rudd as Opposition leader and Prime Minister is still enjoying the longest and sustained run of popularity pretty well since polls began measuring such things. And now he is facing his least popular opponent yet, with Abbott starting off with a lower net satisfaction than any leader he has faced before and who, in addition, seems determined to adopt policies that will only add to his unpopularity.

Yet something seems wrong. The media are into their usual new-Liberal-leader-game-on hysteria and how Abbott is apparently putting pressure on the government. But in fact it is almost the opposite, which highlights the government’s problem. Despite the very real political weaknesses of the new Liberal leader, and the manner in which he assumed the leadership, the government appears surprisingly unsure in handling him.

At one level it’s a mixed message. So we’re not sure if Abbott is Phoney Tony and changing his mind like his “undies”, or mad Tony whose views on industrial relations and family values are so strongly held, he’s getting ready to impose them on the nation. On Abbott’s climate change plan, for example, is it that it’s a ‘con job’ not to be taken seriously, or something to be taken very seriously indeed and to cost billions in the future?

Then there is the way the message is getting across. In the House the government is not looking that uncomfortable against Abbott. Even Garrett during the worst of the recent hoo-hah didn’t seem overwhelmed as Riley noted the other day on Sunrise. Gillard was unfazed as usual when directly up against Abbott on Today over the same issue and Tanner didn’t seem bothered by Joyce on Q&A last night.

The problem, if it can be pin-pointed anywhere, seems to be Rudd. There is a lot of talk about Rudd being a poor communicator. Yet anyone who listened to his apology speech, or saw him on TV in the run up to taking power in 2007, would know that he doesn’t have a problem with the English language and getting his message across. The problem is the message itself, and Rudd has a political problem, not a linguistic one. In particular, Rudd, who has been highly effective dealing with, and using, anti-political sentiment, is now struggling with it as it moves up a notch.

For a long-standing and stable democracy, the Australian political class has always been surprisingly weak. This can be most clearly seen on the right, which lacks the symbols of authority and even continuity of right wing parties in other enduring democracies, like the Conservatives in the UK or the Republicans in the US. Instead, the stability and credibility of the Australian political class rested on two things in the 20th century; the conservatism and strong social base of the ALP and its organised labour ties, and a heavy international reliance on the leading global power of the day, whether the British Empire or the US.

However, during the last two decades, the erosion of Labor’s social base and union ties has undone a major support for the political class’s credibility. The result is that anti-political sentiment, the distrust and dislike of the political class as a whole, has had a much greater impact on Australian political life.

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of its recurrent themes is this idea of ‘anti-politics’. Partly this focus is because the media rarely directly acknowledges it. While the media often comments about the unpopularity of politicians, it rarely acknowledges its impact on Australian politics. This especially applied to the most forceful impact of this anti-political sentiment in recent years, One Nation. Emerging after the 1998 election, when the exhaustion of both major parties first became really evident, One Nation was seen as being almost entirely about race and immigration – no matter how contradictory Hanson often was on both. The much broader message of One Nation, about the growing detachment and irrelevance of the major political parties, and the political process as a whole, was largely ignored.

Hanson forced an accommodation by the political class, most notably by Howard, who used the immigration issue to distance himself to a degree from Labor and some on his own side. Yet such a strategy would not have been sustainable if not for the international link to the War on Terror after 9/11. Ultimately Howard was very much in the tradition of the political class and, when the War on Terror faded, he was no match for someone much more detached from the political class, Rudd.

Rudd represents the first significant break from the political traditions that dominated the 20th century and especially from the union links and factional system of his own party. The most dramatic example of how far his detachment went was the apology speech. Until Rudd, the apology debate had been between Howard and the Liberals, who wanted to defend the record of the political class, and Labor and the ‘Sorry’ movement, who generally wanted to rehabilitate the political class by making us all guilty. Rudd belonged to neither but instead gave an apology speech that none of his predecessors ever could, which put the blame wholly on the political class itself.

Rudd’s use of alternative media, his almost excessive care to not appear “out of touch”, such as his weekly appearances on Sunrise (where he has become almost a Centrelink support centre), are all part of his agenda to accommodate to the anti-political mood, in a way that pretty well none of his peers, even Gillard, can do.

However, Rudd did have one prop that was also shared by his predecessors; the international agenda. This relies on a leading global power to underpin it and for Australia to remain very close to it. Without a domestic program, it allowed Rudd, like Howard, a chance to have an issue that would place them above the political debate at home and appear like a conviction politician. The real problem for this government was that in 2009, as Bush’s bogus unilateralism was replaced by Obama, it revealed the faltering US leadership that drove Bush’s strategy in the first place.

The weakness of the US leadership first became evident in the London economic summit in July. However, this did not impact Australian politics directly as the economy avoided the recession. It did mean, however, that many of the themes from then, regulation of executive pay, the necessity of debt, have not been as strongly endorsed globally. This has caused some problems for Rudd here. However, Rudd’s real problem came in Copenhagen. The disappointing progress undermined the international support for the very issue on which Rudd had staked the government’s moral credibility to counter anti-political cynicism.

Rudd was unprepared for the impact of Copenhagen, which is why he has not responded to it. Through most of his government, he had played the issue to destroy the Liberals, by balancing between both sides of the debate and drawing the splits in the Liberals out. That clearly worked, but he did not address the other more important task, building the conviction and authority of the government itself, relying on the international community to do it instead. When that didn’t happen, it has left the government with a problem.

What we are seeing here is the second stage of undermining of the Australian political class. It began with the exhaustion of the domestic program twenty years ago, and has now extended to the international sphere with the decline of US leadership removing the prop of the international agenda. This is really what is behind the rising climate change scepticism in Australian politics.

Tony Abbott is not really a climate change sceptic. He knows nothing about the science to form an opinion one way or the other. As he admitted a few months ago, he is no scientist but a politician, and he is using the climate change scepticism for his own ends. What was originally a stance on climate change in line with traditional Liberal positions of tying into the Bush administration and defending business interests, has now morphed into something else – a tapping into an anti-political mood. Because the climate change scepticism in the electorate is not really about the science of climatology either. No one went to see Lord Monckton because he is a climatology expert. They went to see someone from the British aristocracy who could give a credible performance of a toff with enough chutzpah to tell world governments where to get off.

How to respond to this step change in the anti-political mood is what is throwing Rudd, but it should be remembered that this does not mean the Coalition is making a comeback. In fact they are now in a highly vulnerable situation. When Hanson and One Nation emerged to challenge the political establishment, Howard may have accommodated to it, but One Nation was still kept at an arms length from what is Australia’s establishment party. Abbott is now bringing this anti-establishment mood into the very centre of the Coalition through that opportunistic cuckoo in the nest, Joyce from the decomposing tail of the Coalition, the Nationals.

That this is not just a problem for Labor, but also a vulnerability of the Coalition, means that this has the potential to be a very volatile situation, as we are already starting to see. The balance between the parties could especially change rapidly if, for example, Rudd manages to get the hang of the conditions and expose just how far Abbott has taken the Coalition away from where senior Liberals are comfortable. This will be a dynamic likely to missed by anyone still seeing the contest between the two parties as the only game in town.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 16 February 2010.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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7 responses to “The curse of anti-politics returns”

  1. Rocket on 18th February 2010 3:11 pm

    And with Sarah Palin trying to “seduce” the Tea-Party movement we are seeing the ultimate power of “anti-politics”. (As an aside, I have never seen a non-white face in a Tea Party rally, has anyone else?)

    But I feel the Tea Party movement will ultimately prove much more damaging for the Republicans, probably even leading to many Far-Right candidates winning primaries but in the end leaving the Democrats looking like the one stable and united alternative.

    In the same way I remember people saying that One Nation was disaster for Labor – when the biggest casualty was the Nationals from whose constituency Hanson had “grabbed” most of her votes. This was shown most spectactularly when Labor won the bizarre 1998 Queensland election with ON wrecking the Coalition vote.

    One thing you can say about Ron Boswell – he, unlike many in the Coalition, recognized that the Nationals and the Coalition were most at risk from One Nation.

    So now things have come full circle and “Viscount” Monckton’s tail is wagging the dog [Coalition]. This will end in tears for Tony Abbott and Warren Truss [I had to look it up to make sure he was National leader – bad sign]

  2. Ricc on 18th February 2010 6:09 pm

    TPS, this is your best post in a while, a summary post of all the things you’ve been saying.

    I don’t think the Libs see the risk of people equating anti-politics with risk. Most people obviously like the certainty of the two traditional parties – they wouldn’t vote 90% or more for them otherwise.

    The media is the real problem. Not a conspiracy as such, but group think. Even the term ‘game on’ is no better than when a cricket commentator comments that the testn match has been boring so far. A reasonable thing to do in cricket; politics is not supposed to be exciting and to frame the commentary in that way is to make a problem where none exists.

    TPS, I’m interested in WHY you think the political class in this country is weak and derived authority from overseas sources.

    I have my own theories about the worms in the centre of the apple that is Australia.

    Australia is a failed settlement project – Europe needed an overflow destination for all its overpopulation and political perscution but one continental landmass – the USA, was plenty.

    The politicians always lamented what Australia was not – neither the USA which was a ‘concept’ or a ‘project’ as much as a nation state, but nor was it Europe – settled and old.

  3. Ricc on 18th February 2010 6:15 pm

    I would add the fundamental Atlantic difference was: US politicians could argue over what the USA was ‘about’ hence conflicts over slavery, New Deal, and so on. Does the policy fit the ‘project’?

    Whereas in Europe the arguments were about ethnic identity. The losers could leave. When WWII got too nasty it delegitimised these arguments, then the political class set about trying to destroy ethnic identity. And they spent up – socialism as an alternative to nationalism.

    Australia had no place to go. No ethnic identity but no project and no money either.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 19th February 2010 8:00 pm

    Yes, I think the key thing is the right, that it doesn’t really have the symbols, history that would establish authority. Federation, the racial end of the British Empire that got left behind. All these things haven’t helped.

    Actually I think Keating is the most articulate on this problem – which is not surprising as he was the first PM that really had to tackle this problem head on.

  5. Graeme on 21st February 2010 12:53 pm

    This runs deeper.

    Polling shows the majority still concerned by climate change, even still behind the ETS (if only because it’s the only non/risible plan offered). Whilst there’s a deep seam of avoidance/ignore-it-and-hope-it’ll-go-away, that’s a different form of denial than climate skepticism. Abbott is tapping the former, which paradoxically is more dangerous for the govt as it represents a chunk of swinging voters.

    Also, Australians by international standards are a content lot, satisfied with politics as a whole. Never admitting to liking individual pollies is another matter. Hansonite gut level anti-politics is different from Rudd’s technocratic anti-politids to Joyce’s rearguard rural anti-politics. As you say, Abbott started off with baggage – all from a long vocation as a pure politician.

  6. Paul on 23rd February 2010 10:41 pm

    I think that the is a fundamental issue that is missed.

    Remember Climate does change, the issue of whether CO2 as the cause of this change is NOT proven.

    There are significant number scientists – yes Climate Scientist who disagree. The professor of Climate at MIT in Boston is one.

    I am a scientist, a geologist and the question I ask when told that the temperature has risen 2 deg, I ask what is normal.

    I dont subscribe to the arguement that all scientist are on the “take” from one side or the other, however, in this debate scientific process has been abused by a significant number of scientists and pseudo scientist from both sides, and this has deflected resources from actually finding what is occuring.

    This does not alter the reality that man must clean up its act on a suite of practices that occur aroound the world.

    This uncertainty is what Abbott has plugged into, the CO2 “problem” has now numerous embarassing scandals, and having the CC pro lobby calling anyone with doubts ignorant, stupid or blind will not win the arguement and in fact will tend to cause those uncertain people to question the motives of the agressive behviour.

  7. Ricc on 25th February 2010 12:15 pm

    Paul, I don’t think the issue is ‘missed’ – just not relevant to the discussion.

    I certainly don’t think people calling each other all sorts of things really has any bearing on political tactics, nor voting intentions.

    And the implication that person A said person B is good/bad/indifferent does not draw the inference that person A’s motives in doing so are good/bad/indifferent either.

    At best you could call it ‘sport’. Penny Wong says unpleasant things about her opposite numbers because that’s her job. Scientist and academics say things that may or may not be real because that’s their job. Some of them pro-AGW and some anti-AGW.

    I don’t think it has been ‘missed’ from TPS discussion at all – it’s just not relevant.

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