Wednesday, 7 July 2010
Those in the Labor party who are joining the media’s politically convenient Rudd-bashing are forgetting one politically inconvenient fact – there has been no government since Federation like the one they are now in, that came to power so reliant on the one they are now trashing.
Labor’s centring of their campaign around Rudd was in many ways a follow-on from the tactic employed by Latham. It represented an attempt to substitute an exhausted political program of a party with the personal values of a leader. In Latham’s case, it was initially quite effective against a Howard government locked into a bogus left-right culture war. Latham seemed to slide easily from left to right, making it hard for Howard to pin him down. Such ‘values’ like reading to children seemed to the government trivial and meaningless, but in reality it struck more of a chord with some in the electorate than many of the culture war values that was apparently supposed to give Howard a lock on voters.
However, Howard still had the security issue around the War on Terror to counterpose against Latham’s free-wheeling and in the end Latham’s go-it-alone tactic came unstuck with his unilateral promise to bring the troops back from Iraq. Reinforcing Latham’s image as a loose cannon at the beginning of the 2004 election with the question of “who do you trust” (including on security), and the rest is history.
Beazley represented the lurch back to the swamp of the past, riding a union led anti-Workchoices campaign. But by 2006, it was on again, this time with Latham backer Gillard now behind the values-driven leader Rudd. Rudd scaled down the Workchoices campaign and this time Labor was running a campaign centred around the values of Kevin Rudd. This included a highly personal ad run by the ALP on Australia Day 2007, where Rudd could talk about childhood, Queensland, growing up and stuff. It culminated in Labor’s most personal election campaign ever, Kevin07, where the party practically erased its own name in favour of its then highly popular leader.
Centring campaigns around a leader is nothing new for the ALP, of course. In a highly amusing intervention last week, Bob Hawke, never reluctant to show us his stigmata, tells us that he knows more than others about how Rudd feels. But in his empathy, he sagely reminds us of that old political truism, that it’s the party who chooses the leader not the public.
Funnily enough, however, while remembering his own dumping, Hawke forgot that other Queenslander who he knifed to get to the top. It’s a shame because if he had remembered it, he would have also remembered the reason, which was for precisely the opposite reason to the political reality he is now claiming; namely that the ALP was uncertain of victory in 1983 under Hayden and needed to change leaders, because the ALP (and Hawke) realised that the public needed a new leader to vote for in order to win the election that followed a few weeks later.
Yet while Labor centred their campaign around Hawke, he did at least personify a program; an accord with the unions. When the ALP ran on Kevin07, it was really about little more than Rudd’s own values, whatever they happened to be – everything else was up for review. This abdication of power by the party gave Rudd a lot of flexibility. It meant he could support the army going into the NT indigenous communities, talk tough on asylum seekers and turning the boats back and generally bat off any of Howard’s favourite themes. In the past it might have caused problems for Labor, but the party was (is) so comatose that Rudd was pretty well free to make it up as he went along.
However, while Rudd’s aping of Howard was picked up by the media, they didn’t pick up the other thing Rudd did that made him more popular than Howard ever was. Rudd defused the issues, not just by tagging Howard on it, but by exposing that the whole debate was a fraud because there was little that could be done anyway. On the asylum seeker issue, for example, Rudd never convinced most people he would keep the borders secure. What he did do was raise doubts that the Liberals could either. In talking about there being ‘no silver bullet’ and constantly talking up the dependence on international cooperation, he was doing no more than describing the reality of patrolling a 25,000 kilometre coastline and that Howard’s claim that only “we will decide who comes and the manner in which they will come” was just a pretence.
This meant Rudd could get away with on the asylum issue what the media said he was not supposed to be able to, most notably during the Ashmore Reef incident when the press waited for Tampa to return, but in the end it was the Liberal Colin Barnett who had to apologise for daring to suggest the asylum seekers blew up the boat (as it seems they did) and had to arrange a hasty visit to the hospital to meet the victims.
This was an important difference between Rudd and Latham. While Latham could veer between left and right, Rudd preferred to undermine both sides of the argument. Under Gillard, it seems we are back to Latham’s left-right tactics.
Gillard claims to want to move away from political correctness on asylum seekers, but in fact her entire approach to the issue shares the assumption of the politically correct left; namely that concerns about it are such a powerful inflammatory force in the electorate that it must be made a big deal of. The favourite touchstone to support such a view is of course that election, now almost a decade ago, when Howard was supposed to have romped home on an issue that, according to that latte drinking intellectual David Marr, touched off “savagery and hatred” in Australian public opinion. As though the issue of the boats at a time when the world’s biggest military power was moving to a war footing against the type of people who were supposed to be in them, is the same at other times when we’re talking about a few hundred hapless refugeess coming over the horizon.
The reality of the asylum seekers is that no government can control the borders in practice, nor politically can they push them back and watch children drown, or bring them in and tell those who worry about such trivial things to grow up. As a result, we have asylum seekers stuck in the same endless bureaucratic quagmire produced by a government that can’t act politically or practically. It will be the same under Gillard as it was for Rudd, Howard, Keating and Fraser. Asylum seekers may be an issue for many people, but whether voters can work through such a mess and base their entire decision on who to vote for on the back of it, is a different thing.
The only difference is that now Labor has decided it knows what is going on in the western suburbs of Sydney, as it has demonstrated so convincingly recently, and that this means the asylum issue should be made a key point of action. Some may say she is causing problems for Abbott, but in fact she is legitimising him and his irrelevant attempt to restore Liberal values that never existed. As Mumble sharply noted, in doing so, Gillard is basically saying the electorate got it wrong in 2007, not only in electing someone as flawed as Rudd, but going along with the way he downplayed the asylum seeker issue. Until now the Liberals and the media have been doing that, it’s fascinating to now watch the government itself doing the same.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 7 July 2010.Filed under Tactics, The Australian state