Monday, 19 July 2010
By any normal measure, the government term that is now coming to an end has been an extraordinary one in Australian political history. Starting off with a Prime Minister losing his seat, then an unprecedented dumping of a Labor Prime Minister in his first term, with a myriad of opposition leaders coming and going in the background.
Future pol sci students looking at this time might be wondering what world-shattering events were causing such political upheaval. The irony was while there was one, the worst economic crisis in a lifetime, it hardly made any direct impact on the Australian political scene. While all the comings and goings were not happening in a vacuum, it was the state of the parties themselves that was the immediate driving force.
What we are seeing in Australia is a political crisis in slow motion. For most of the last three years that crisis has been focussed on the Liberal party. Coming to the surface as the Howard government imploded in its final days, it was full blown by the time of Turnbull and his ousting. Turnbull brought out the dilemma that exists for any redundant political organisation, the irreconcilable choice for a party between standing for its traditional values – and electoral viability.
Since Howard’s departure the old leadership had managed this by hiding behind a more palatable alternative and putting pressure on them to adopt to its vote-losing agenda, then discarding them when they became useless. That started to be more difficult under a less compliant Turnbull and attempts to try again with Hockey failed after Turnbull polarised the issue in his final days. The result was that the Liberals ended up stuck with a highly unpopular leader on the back of a highly unpopular policy, climate change scepticism.
Almost immediately the old guard had to tone down their scepticism once they took the leadership. However, their need to talk about what they wanted to talk about, rather than what the electorate wanted to talk about, meant that the Liberals still looked detached, or incoherent, particularly its leader, who suffered very mediocre polling for a new opposition leader.
What distinguished the media throughout the crisis in the Liberal party was a constant under-estimation of its problems and a persistent attempt to see “business as usual” when things were clearly not. So the Howard implosion became a Costello ‘challenge’ even well after Howard’s departure; the unprecedented wipe-out of the Liberals in the states was just a normal swing of the pendulum; and Turnbull was going to show the ’game was back on’ when he took over, despite little bounce in Coalition polling when he did.
But it became harder for the media to delude themselves with Abbott. The attempts by even the most blinkered right-wing commentator to talk about Abbott and Barnaby ‘cutting through’ and a groundswell of scepticism building against climate change action eventually had to be abandoned. Abbott remained unpopular, and a little odd. Henderson recently tried to point to Abbott’s polling as not being bad as some inner city types think. But actually what he is pointing to is a recent steady improvement in his polling.
Because fortunately for Abbott, even before he took over, the problems were starting to spread to Labor, signalled by surprisingly shaky governments in the states, but coming to Canberra especially after Copenhagen. Rudd’s declining authority in the party and his declining polling began reinforcing each other. This was especially after the party made its presence felt with the back down over the still popular ETS and backing off from a highly popular confrontation with the Labor Premiers over health reform.
As Turnbull’s fall did for the Liberals, the unprecedented dumping of a first term Labor Prime Minister brought out the crisis in Labor. Gillard, of course, is no Abbott. She is a far more effective operator, and although never out-polling Rudd prior to taking over from him, was nowhere near as unpopular as Abbott was when he took over and has clearly out-polled him since, even if her own approval ratings are somewhat unexciting for a new leader. Yet Abbott’s personal polling has generally improved over the last month, and while the media is missing it, there have been some signs the Coalition is starting to hone in on Labor’s problem that lay behind her rise.
Like Abbott’s, Gillard’s accession was largely internal driven, and since then, Labor has had to justify it to everyone else. The trouble is, the more they do so, the more Labor’s underlying problem comes out.
At first it was all about Rudd being mean to everyone and lousy ‘internal polling’. But given that this made Labor MPs look pathetic or poll driven in turn, this has largely not been pursued, except by journalists who can’t read polls.
Seemingly more sensible is to make it about polices, a government ‘losing its way’ and ‘needing a new direction’. The problem is that not only does this mean trashing a record that a government should be running on, but has meant that the ‘new direction’ is largely what Abbott has been banging on about for the last few months. In other words, rather than Abbott appearing out to lunch and more worried with his own party’s concerns, than the electorate’s, it now seems he had his finger on the pulse all the time. Indeed, to such a degree that it necessitated Labor taking the extraordinary measure of dumping its own Prime Minister in his first term just to catch up. How far this has gone was brought out by Gillard at her speech launching the campaign when she made a deal of how much they were agreeing with Abbott’s view on border protection and gave the strong impression that she was more running against Rudd than Abbott.
This clearly has some problems as well. So what has emerged is the final preferred way, not talk about it at all. Journalists have complained about the vapidity of Gillard’s over-used “Moving Forward” slogan, but then it’s not just for them, or indeed us, but also the edict towards her own party and supporters to move away from the Rudd dumping. The less sophisticated version of this in the left blogosphere are Labor hacks screaming at others who were questioning the dumping to “move on!” and “get over it!” within a few days of it happening.
This may be comforting, but it ends up making the dumping of a Labor Prime Minister no big deal. This points to the real problem Labor faces in this election. It’s not the Rudd sympathisers to worry about, Rudd had already lost a lot of cross party appeal, so those who are angry are unlikely to stop voting Labor, even if it might have to go through the Greens first to get there. Nor is Queensland parochialism necessarily that much of a big deal, or at least to the extent that it is not a proxy for something else. The main problem with the Rudd dumping is that it makes Labor look like a bunch of rootless flakes who change their Prime Ministers like someone changes their season’s wardrobe.
This is what the Liberals are getting at when they talk about the need for “stability”. This may seem cheeky from a party that has had three opposition leaders in as many years. But firstly, dumping an opposition leader is far less a big deal than dumping the head of government, as shown by the far more times it’s happened and secondly, the Liberals at least managed to make Abbott’s ascension look like a point of principle, rather than what seems like a poll driven whim by Labor.
That is why Labor is rushing to an election. Antony Green says that the idea that Labor is going “early” is wrong when compared to other first term governments since the war. But this is just making a clever academic point. None of those other first term governments changed its leader part way through. Given that we had a new leader promising a “new direction” and insisting on being judged on her performance to deliver it, calling an election after three weeks is “early” whatever way you want to look at it. Gillard is wanting the election to overcome the problems her internally driven climb to the top has given her, a lack of political legitimacy.
What we have then are two leaders, chosen for mainly internal reasons and approaching the electorate on the same internally focussed basis, and this could be tricky. We already saw it on day one of the campaign; especially from Abbott with his attempt to bury Workchoices, which was unconvincing not only because of Abetz’s promise to “tweak” industrial relations, but from Abbott himself who refused to rule out campaigning for it the following election, which in turn just raises the question why not campaign for it now instead? Or easier still, why not do neither and just introduce it anyway like Howard did? The need by the old guard to assert their “values” through an irrelevant piece of legislation could be just too tempting over the next few weeks.
But less obviously, at least at this stage, Labor could have the same problem, if not appearing as shambolic as the Liberals. Everyone has enthused at how “clinical” and clean was the surgical removal of Rudd, but that is usually what happens when you operate on a corpse. The media may hate gaffes and stuff ups, but the sight of a party calmly accepting a Pacific solution some of them carried on about when Howard did the same a few years ago, can be a little unappealing as well, even positively creepy. With both leaders trying to prevent from coming out the real reasons that put them there in the first place, it suggests an unstable campaign with volatile polling. Either way, even though the bookies are suggesting this is the most comfortable approach to an election by a government since Holt’s in 1966, to this blogger, it doesn’t feel like it.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 19 July 2010.Filed under State of the parties