Australian politics would seem to be in a strange place at the moment. Rudd is being criticised for backing away from the ETS by those who a few months ago were criticising him for hanging on to it. Rudd apparently made the mistake of over-promising by the same media that claimed he won by not promising anything and being a mini-Howard. On boat people, it’s hard to tell whether he’s losing more voters by being too tough on them, or not tough enough. Rudd seems to be constantly avoiding a fight with anyone but is deemed mad for picking a fight with a major interest group in the run up to an election.

The confusion is summed up by the media’s reaction to the polling rise of the Greens where a program like Insiders can give serious thought to Chris Pyne’s bizarre suggestion that the move by voters to the Greens represents a stepping point on their way to the Coalition (Really? On which policy?).

At least this week’s Insiders was a step up from the prior week’s woeful performance that satisfied Andrew Bolt, if no one else. it was hard to pick the low point, a toss up perhaps between Karen Middleton’s insight that Rudd’s backflips were undermining the economy or Barrie Cassidy claiming that Howard never promised to get rid of political advertising.

Of course Howard did, at exactly the same point Rudd did, when he was opposition leader as an anti-political attack against Keating. It wasn’t so much that there was a lot of government advertising, it was just that as the government started to stand for very little, such advertising stuck out like an unjustified sore thumb. But with the social base of the major parties eroding, so does such advertising become more necessary, ending up in a mutually reinforcing negative. Keating got caught in it, Howard got caught in it, but it’s surprising to see Rudd caught up in it now as well.

What we are seeing this year is the climate of anti-politics return. It was last seen like this during Howard’s first term, a period some people like to forget when they think speculation over Gillard was not repeated around Costello when Howard was floundering in 1998. Ultimately, what has triggered its return is the drift in the international agenda, on which the Australian political class has always been heavily reliant but, given the lack of real domestic agenda, especially now, especially this government and especially this Prime Minister.

The unravelling of any international coherence both on dealing with the economic crisis, but more importantly for this government, climate change, has cut the ground from under the government and especially Rudd who had based his greatest moral challenge on the back of it. There was no doubt that after Copenhagen Rudd had to have a political response, what was surprising was the one that he chose.

The return of anti-politics mood benefits no one in the political class, but Rudd should have been the best able to manage it. There is no politician currently on the scene that has been more skilful in dealing with it, both before coming to power but especially in his first year. The apology, the 2020 Summit, the early inflation ‘scare’ were all designed to undermine the legitimacy of others in the political class and to set himself up against it. The early government was meticulous in being careful to adapt to it with an obsession about keeping promises (irrespective of what they were) and claiming to clamp down on any use of taxpayer funds for political purposes.

Yet in the last few months, possibly spooked by the phoney ramp up in volume from the Coalition, Rudd seems to have lost his knack. It is not as though he is picking the wrong fights, his stance on the ETS, health reform and the mining tax have ranged from popular to enormously popular, yet he has failed to capitalise on the benefit. Instead Rudd has made himself more exposed to anti-political sentiment by breaking his earlier rules.

He should especially be helped by the current state of the Coalition. If Rudd has trouble managing the anti-political mood, the Coalition under Abbott has gone smack into it. Abbott’s project of making the Liberals stand for ‘something’ has left them highly exposed. Irrespective of their merits, on nearly every issue Abbott’s strategy of reviving an irrelevant political agenda has taken the Coalition, tactically at least, on the wrong side of the debate. This was true on the ETS, where they had to conceal a deeply unpopular sceptic position, on health reform where they found themselves on the side of unpopular state Labor governments, but especially true on the mining tax.

The idea of being beholden to ‘special interests’ has become an increasingly popular way of undermining the legitimacy of political agendas and the political class that holds them. What had been normal practices in the UK, the petty expense culture of MPs or the money grubbing practices of the Windsors, are now seen as unacceptable, just as in the global discussion, the way climate change sceptics are denounced by being in the pay of special interests (as though the pro climate change scientists are self-financing) and even in the US, where such business influence is most accepted, Democrats have used it against Republicans and then found Obama’s close connections with Wall Street used against them.

In Australia, we now have the Coalition going straight into a situation that leaves them exposed to the same thing. If Rudd were focussed on anti-politics tactics, he would leave the miners alone. Rudd wants a fight with the political class, not the miners. It would be relatively easy to dismiss their ads with a breezy “well of course they don’t want to pay taxes, who does?” and leave it at that. The real target ought to be the Liberals and how they have become exposed to the charge of politics for cash. Tony Abbott can pose with as many miners as he likes, but they aren’t funding him, the mining bosses are. If Abbott is so against taxes why isn’t he for a tax cut to those who need it most, small companies, rather than the hugely profitable miners? There have been elements of this in what the government has been arguing. But the move to run ads shows that they keep missing the anti-politics sentiment that will determine how this pans out.

It should be clearer when considering Clive Palmer. Palmer highlights an interesting aspect that is underlying this debate, the relationship between the Coalition and the mining industry. In a way the Coalition is working against the interests of the mining industry. In attempting to use this issue to politically define themselves, the Coalition have increased the political cost for the government of what the mining industry actually wants, a back down. Clive Palmer sums up this tension and the problems he is creating for the mining industry by politicising their case is being recognised. However unpopular a mining boss might be, one who is an LNP hack as well is even more so.

This nervousness about the political link is also the limitation on the mining ads, which can’t be seen as too political and so struggle to rise above an interest group merely wanting to hold on to its money, something not really of interest to anyone else. It certainly doesn’t need government ads whose only concession to the anti-political mood is to be dull as possible, and therefore useless at best, and given the dangers of using public money for political purposes, more likely counter-productive. If the government had any brains, it would pull them quick. Anti-politics is a far more powerful force in the Australian electorate than views on an industry tax.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 7 June 2010.

Filed under Tactics

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Comments

16 responses to “Rudd: an anti-politics campaigner no more?”

  1. Graham on 7th June 2010 9:28 am

    The Mining tax has been sold badly by the Government. It is hard to believe that when a group of billionaire miners get together and threaten to shaft the nation if they don’t get their way (like they did on the ETS), that this generates sympathy among the Australian community. What on earth is this?

  2. john on 7th June 2010 10:22 am

    I have been following this interesting and informative blog for some years now and feel that you may perhaps, need a wider audience – how about the following?

    ABC1 – every Monday night.

    9.20 Media Watch
    9.35 The Piping Shrike

    MW and TPS = must view TV………………….well, it’s just a thought.

  3. Graham on 7th June 2010 10:27 am

    yes, John, but then we would find out who the Piping Shrike was, and that might take away some of the magic of this fantastic blog!

  4. Wood Duck on 7th June 2010 5:12 pm

    I am surprised that you are surprised, Graham.

    Despite all the guff about Australians’ sense of egalitarianism and love of the underdog, there is plenty of evidence around that the average Austalian knows their place and will readily throw their support the way of their betters. You only have to look at the lack of support within the community for the idea of taxing the rich or, alternatively, the general level of support for the provision of Federal government funds for exclusive private schools.

    On this latter point, recall the howls of protest that erupted when Mark Latham suggested to the electorate that perhaps Federal funding for schools should be based on needs rather than some postcode swindle.

  5. MG on 8th June 2010 4:03 pm

    When President Obama was trying to get the HealthCare Bill passed in the US, considerable opposition to the bill was from people who would get the most benefit from it. The Republicans to a great extent brainwashed the average punter into thinking that any kind of government support is socialist in nature so should not be supported. Similar thinking prevails in Australia wrt to the mining tax.

  6. Ricc on 8th June 2010 4:26 pm

    People, that’s probably true, but we should avoid the Marxist trap that people don’t really know what they want, and don’t act in their own best interests.

    Some of these people would probably benefit from government healthcare on the ‘health’ level, but may regard their ‘freedom from government’ as more important.

    It is no different from religion (and I mean all regions, pick one if you wish). None of them seem to act on the individual’s ‘best interest’ as such except maybe their unknown eternal salvation. All require a cost, yet they’re popular.

    Ditto entering the lottery you have no hope of winning, owning a gun on the very rare chance someone will try and kill you, and a thousand other bizarre behaviours that have been normalised here and in the USA.

  7. john Willoughby on 8th June 2010 9:42 pm

    the guvvie should fund some ads for Clive and Twiggy
    two of our leading sinologists behaving like Judas sheep at
    an abattoir ….

  8. Mr Denmore on 9th June 2010 9:48 am

    Ricc,

    What you say is true, but people can still be “nudged” to act in their best interests.

    The behavioural economist Richard Thaler has shown that rather than trying to direct voters through legislation, they can use non-coercive “choice architecture” to effect good societal outcomes.

  9. Michael on 9th June 2010 11:40 pm

    Surely the point is that Rudd *can’t* do anti-politics anymore because the backflips (such as they are) have left him looking like … just another politician. And from there there’s no way back. It reminds me of something Peter Costello said in that mid-90s ABC doco series on the Liberals: “politics will get you in the end”. (From memory, he said it of John Hewson: another ‘anti-politician’.)

  10. The Piping Shrike on 10th June 2010 9:23 am

    I think there is something in that and I haven’t made up my mind whether he is permanently damaged. My feeling is more that he looks out of control than just an ordinary politician. He looks more isolated than part of a political pack.

    He may recover but I just can’t see someone who can do it better.

    I like that Costello quote, such a tired cynic.

  11. Tad Tietze on 10th June 2010 7:07 pm

    Sorry to be all Marxist about this, but if anti-politics has material roots (the shift to managerialism instead of social class interest politics in an era of neoliberal ideology and the reduction of the state to enabler of private capital), then surely there will be as many contradictions in this state of affairs as there were in the old set-up?

    The main contradiction I am thinking of is that the official political discourse — of technical rather than class-based solutions to political questions — is hard to sustain forever in a prolonged period of actual social polarisation (growing inequality, blatant government bailouts of the rich, austerity policies, destruction of public services, etc). Sure there is no traditional class-based vehicle for these grievances to find a home inside (i.e. some old-style Labor party) but the grievances and anger at the political class exist nonetheless.

    Whether Rudd is terminal is secondary to other factors. I would point to UK New Labour’s partly-effective use of class politics — raising the spectre of horrific Tory austerity — to prevent a total drubbing in the UK.

    TPS: Is it contrary to your thesis that politics can save an anti-politician?

  12. The Piping Shrike on 11th June 2010 7:09 am

    I see anti-politics as a response to the eroding legitimacy of the political class that has nothing really to put in its place.

    Rudd distances himself from the political class, and attacks it, but at the same time leads it, so it is very contradictory. He could resolve it partly while there was an international agenda to fall back on, but now that it has drifted, he is struggling.

    It makes the government vulnerable, especially to media driven campaigns such as the one on the mining tax. I don’t think there has been as much ‘brain-washing’ by the media as people claim. In fact I think there is some detachment from what is really a big business – media campaign that most people don’t have that much stake in.

    It’s been interesting reading the reaction Rudd has received in WA which has been much less hostile than some were expecting. The fact that he took so long to go over suggests that he might have been expecting it too.

    One thing that is noticeable about Rudd, as it was in the last election campaign, is that he can be swayed by the old political hacks on his own side, who have now all fallen over themselves to denounce him in the last few weeks. Maybe now he might realise just how much he needs to take on his own side as well.

  13. Larry Buttrose on 11th June 2010 9:46 am

    Tad, Marxists need never be apologetic, and you are right for thinking there are plenty of reasons why class politics can come back strongly into play, were it not for our eternal soporific apathy. And TPS I do think the media have been brainwashing over this. SBS is now officially right wing, and the ABC right of centre, and The Australian has been in full campaign mode. While the chat is of “how poorly the tax has been sold”, that is wafer-thin suberfuge for an all fronts attack on the tax itself, threatening to wake the slumbering masses with all the noise. As it seems something like one in 20 of them may have moved in supposed seismic shift in recent weeks, the campaign may be working. I still sense the government will have the say on this, as the tax is tied to the budget which is tied to a debt reduction back to the black in three years. It’s a fight they must fight, and given the goodies on offer to workers and business, they should prevail against a bunch of very ugly billionaires. The mining moguls are behaving like children tossing a public tantrum after being told the lollies in the shop aren’t free. Their “demo” in Perth was a pathetic panto of rhinestones and safety yellow jackets, Peppy Grove uber alles.

  14. The Piping Shrike on 11th June 2010 5:51 pm

    I fully agree about the media bias, but not with the view that the public is ‘brainwashed’. What are we talking about here? A increase to super of 3% that won’t fully come in until the end of the next decade! I would have thought disinterest was the main reaction for those not caught up in what is essentially a media campaign. Certainly that seemed to be the reaction Rudd got when he finally went into the ‘lion’s den’ in WA.

    I see the decline of class based politics as a global phenomenon not a result of any apathy in the Australian electorate. Reconstituting it on the back of the mining tax? I can’t see it.

    9:58pm Tad, going back to the points you raised, what I see as the contradiction comes from the political class being unable to resolve their legitimacy problem except by standing against itself. Especially now that the prop that class based politics gave it has gone.

    I don’t see economic polarisation being sufficient grounds. I think UK Labour’s relatively good holding on came more from the Tories inability to present a case and cohere the middle class behind any agenda (represented by the Lib Dem – Tory split) rather than any credibility that Labour would protect from cuts.

    What has been interesting to see over recent years is how the left, that posed itself as such a threat to the established political order, was actually so essential for propping it up.

  15. Tad Tietze on 11th June 2010 10:59 pm

    TPS – I agree that the phoney class war being waged between Rudd and the mining bosses has failed to capture the attention of the public outside narrow sectors. People may be split on it, but it doesn’t look like a vote-changer.

    It is precisely Rudd’s (and Labor’s) abandonment of some form of class politics that makes them so lousy at putting up a fight on this issue. The mining bosses are much better class warriors, though sewn from an anachronistic cloth!

    I guess the point I was trying to make was that there are limits as to how long the political class can stand against itself. I think economic class polarisation puts the ultimate limit on this, especially when people start to understand the consequences of the economic crisis.

    The UK New Labour recovery was spurred, IMHO, by a fear among many voters that the Tories did represent a return to class war from above. Cameron had to retreat from his initial (apolitical) promises to deliver swingeing austerity when he found his poll standing crumbling over the UK winter. Labour was able to run something of a scare campaign on a very traditional basis, though not enough to save them. And it is hard to imagine voting decisions happening in ignorance of the class struggle raging in Greece.

    I have been very convinced by two parts of your thesis: (1) The use of anti-politics instead of class politics and (2) Rudd’s reliance on the international agenda. However, I feel that there is a gap around the possibilities of mass politics shifting due to material changes (e.g. actual class polarisation) and so shaping the space for various elite strategies to deal with popular discontent. In the end, I think that people aren’t brainwashed, either by the media or by anti-political chicanery, because they have to live in a real world and not just elite political discourses.

    A further difference may be that while I can agree that the prospects for a section of the political class offering a genuine alternative is limited, there has been space outside that frame some time (however imperfect). I discussed some of that in my Overland essay on The Greens, here: http://web.overland.org.au/previous-issues/feature-tad-tietze/

  16. The Piping Shrike on 16th June 2010 9:05 am

    I thought the article on the Greens was interesting and informative. However, I would set myself apart on two points. Firstly, I think the equivocal approach the Greens have to the human agency makes it a difficult focus on which to reconstitute the left.

    But more importantly, I wonder whether such a reconstitution is even the issue. There is an implicit assumption that we will see a return to the left of the past be it the 1960s or even earlier than that. I tend to see that we are at the end of a cycle going back much further than that and that the question being posed is less how the left can reform into something recognisable, but rather the question of what is left and right, and indeed the nature of politics and its relationship to ideas, such as with the media. I think these are the questions that are now coming to the surface in Australian politics and, I guess, more the focus of interest of this blog.

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