Friday, 19 March 2010
One of the more heart-warming developments from the government’s current wobble, is to see conservative commentators putting their political leaning to one side and come rushing to the government’s aid. Gerard Henderson, of course, bridles at being called a conservative. Although he does think Labor has taken too much the side of the unions in its IR program, so, given it’s the most-anti union in the party’s history, maybe its not a Labor government he really wants. Anyway, a few weeks ago he had advice for Rudd. He suggested that the government stopped talking about climate change and the ETS and start focussing on health and the economy instead. Funnily enough, this was exactly the same advice of that other government well-wisher, Dennis Shanahan.
The judgement that health is a vote winner for Labor presumably comes from running a finger down the list of the parties’ strongest issues and stopping at the one on which Labor scores best. It seems as though Rudd has taken this to heart by challenging Abbott to debate health next week. Rudd clearly wants to have some issue to take Abbott up on while the climate change agenda stays in limbo, with no sign of revival now until at least June. But despite the best intentions of Gerard and Dennis, health may not be the clear-cut answer for the government it may seem.
There is something very politically useful in Labor’s health reform plan for the government, namely the anti-political attack it implies on the state governments. But what is the basis for that attack? Namely that state governments, especially Labor state governments, are seen as no longer capable of effectively running state services, or at least no better than the Liberals.
When state governments began depoliticising during the 1990s, and being about little more than public services, Labor’s natural links with the public service unions, and the way that translated into higher state spending in health and education, appeared as an advantage. However, given it was one of the reasons for the depoliticisation of state government in the first place, the erosion of Labor’s links with the unions started to work its away through. Combined with no real difference on spending priorities, Labor’s advantage has fallen away and in fact is now getting blamed for the state of public services. Having nothing to oppose doesn’t help the Liberals either, but they only have to look viable for even a few weeks before the election and suddenly they are in with a chance.
This problem of the impact of Labor’s eroding social base is being reproduced at the Federal level and suggests Labor in Canberra will have no more to offer running public services than state Labor did. An example of the political problems this can cause was on display last night on The 7.30 Report with Gillard talking about the claims in The Australian that the cost of the school buildings was blowing out. There was this interesting exchange about where some of these claims came from:
KERRY O’BRIEN: The New South Wales Teachers’ Federation talks about principals, teachers and parents being concerned about estimates blowing out and payments to builders way beyond normal construction costs. They’re the people on the ground.
Are you confident that the various audits are actually efficient themselves, are actually preventing waste, or arriving, as I said, after the horse has bolted?
JULIA GILLARD: Kerry, give me a break. The New South Wales Teachers’ Federation is in a vicious dispute with the Government because they’re anti MySchool. They don’t want the My School website, they never wanted it and, of course, they’re talking about boycotting the national tests.
Part of the issue for teachers here is the way that the MySchool website has turned the performance of school students into wholly being about the school (and teachers) rather than the socio-economic background that they came from. Even a cursory look at where the good and bad performing schools are would reveal it to be also a map of something else. This, plus the bypassing of state teacher unions that the national tests and curriculum represent, would not have been possible in the past from a Labor government, but is certainly possible now and especially led by someone as anti-union as Gillard. Yet by doing so Labor loses the backing of the unions in carrying out such public service shake-ups and, as in this case, even to the point where they will feed stories to the government’s critics.
We have been here before. The insulation saga was not even a traditional public works program but entering into homes in a low unionised industry and again the unions played a part in publicising the program’s problems. Abbott in his reply on health yesterday naturally made this direct link between the government’s running of the insulation program and its future ability to run the health system. There are similarities why the federal government could be vulnerable. Once again in health, a key part of Labor’s plan is to bypass the state health unions, as well as the state governments, and rely on the less dependable goodwill of those like the AMA who will win out at the local level.
In defending against Abbott’s linking of health to insulation, it hasn’t helped that the government still has not got control of the insulation issue. Rudd’s mea culpa was effective at knocking the dynamic out of the story but there was no follow though and it is still running. The government’s approach seemed to be to throw money at it and hope it will go away. What would have been tactically more sensible would be to have turned the debate around and go in hard on firms defying the regulation. It not only would have taken control of the story but would have made the Coalition vulnerable given Abbott’s natural resistance to regulation, especially on worker safety. It should have been the government going first and highlighting every case of shoddy installation it could find, rather than letting Abbott go around at his leisure to each new case as he did yesterday.
Labor’s defence against Abbott is to remind everyone that Abbott ‘ripped a billion out of the health system’, which, whether true or not, is perhaps not really where a government that started by insisting Howard’s ‘reckless spending must stop’ wants to end up. But anyway, in reality Abbott is not the one the federal government should be attacking, but rather its own state governments, for the reasons that may see two of them fall this weekend.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 19 March 2010.Filed under Tactics