Stability

Monday, 26 July 2010 

The media can’t quite work out whether the “gender gap” that underpins Labor’s strong polling lead (Nielsen says 58/42 to women, 50/50 with men) is because women like Julia, men don’t like her, women don’t like Abbott or men like him. Anyway given that the only real content to it is Abbott’s view on abortion, one thing it does suggest is that polling still looks pretty unsettled, which would not be surprising given both parties are running weak campaigns.

The Coalition’s problems are on full display. Abbott was chosen to make the Liberals feel good, not to win elections. Unfortunately Labor’s problems coming to the surface have exposed that as the indulgence it always was and Abbott is now under pressure to go with the flow. Commentators were wondering why Abbott was so ill-prepared on dealing with the electoral problems of WorkChoices, but then that’s never what Abbott has been about.

Having banged on how terrific and essential WorkChoices was, despite business being perfectly happy with the way things were before Howard introduced it (which is why they hardly used AWAs), Abbott just couldn’t let go. So we had him saying that he was not pushing it out of ‘respect to the electorate’, i.e. he would push it otherwise. This may let him salvage his own belief in it, but it makes him look like a political opportunist at best, weak at worse, and precisely the opposite impression that Action Man was trying to portray.

Far better was Hockey’s response under grilling from O’Brien, namely to say that they are dumping WorkChoices because business would rather stability than a change in the industrial relations scene. It’s better because it’s true. Abbott tried that line as well in the debate last night, but he still would rather hint to everyone that he is only holding himself back out of respect for us. The thought that WorkChoices is an irrelevance whether it is introduced or not (compared to say the breaking down of collective bargaining under Keating) is a reality something no cultural warrior wants to face – on either side of the fence.

While the Coalition’s problems are on full display Labor’s are emerging as well, but are partly concealed because of Gillard’s better performance but also, the media seem to have a better grip on the Coalition’s, i.e. a curious sentimental attachment to unpopular polices and a leader who seems out of sync with the electorate. In reality though, they both have the same problem. For Labor, it’s coming out in three ways.

Firstly is Labor’s inability to stand by its own program, even the popular bits. Let’s see if we have this right. Labor thinks there ought to be a tax on carbon. So Gillard is asking the electorate to return to Canberra Labor’s 150 federal candidates who also think there should be a tax on carbon. When they get there, they will then appoint another 150 people to tell them whether they are right. This 150 are supposed to represent community thinking on climate change action (in some way that MPs don’t). So where should they come from? Maybe through a national poll? No, wait. We just had one. How about hand-picked by a non-elected authority going through the electoral roll of people who have just voted?

Critics have reasonably enough compared this to Rudd’s 2020 summit. Although at least that one was supposed to come up with new ideas, not reaffirm the one the government already had (OK, maybe the 2020 Summit did just regurgitate the ideas that Rudd probably was happy to hear anyway, but at least he went through the pretence). Gillard’s Citizen Assembly is just the 2020 Summit without the glamour.

Of course, Rudd’s Summit was not primarily about new ideas, but to publicly highlight that the “old political system” had run out of them. It represented both a loss of confidence in the party he was supposed to be leading plus a technocrat’s faith in the great and good to do a better job (rather than, say, the representatives of the people).

Gillard’s Assembly just reflects a loss of confidence. It comes from a party that is so insecure over its relationship to the electorate that even on the one issue over which it could distinguish itself from the Liberals, and be popular – it simply cannot bear to push it through. This is despite the fact that Labor would be re-elected while still stating they want a carbon tax. Labor seems to be not only not seeking any mandate, but denying the one they will be given.

Gillard’s approach to climate change carries on that approach taken in the final months of Rudd’s tenure, albeit to rather absurd levels. Peter Hartcher in another of his fascinating insider reports details how the government went through the process of dumping the ETS. First of all, it’s worth noting that it was not simply a case of dumping the ETS being a bad move. Rudd was clear that the reason he was having to take note of the political geniuses in the NSW Right was because the international momentum was fading away with fears the US, China and India would reaffirm the stalemate in Copenhagen with no new targets.

But if Rudd’s eventual dumping of the ETS reflected a lack of confidence in the international agenda, his dumping reflected an insecurity with the whole political process, and especially the political class’s relationship with the electorate. This was neatly summed up by Gillard’s explanation of why a Citizen’s Assembly was necessary when we already have a Parliament:

I think we do need to learn a lesson about the fragility of consensus when we have politicians talking to politicians.

She goes on to imply how this realisation that they were out of touch occurred, it was because of Abbott.

We have seen that before our very eyes over the last year, a consensus established, Penny Wong as our minister shook hands on a deal. It was all going to be delivered through our Parliament and that consensus rapidly went away when Tony Abbott stepped in.

There is no doubt that the climate change sceptics were tapping into a growing anti-political mood at the time that in this blogger’s view ultimately came from the government’s erosion of authority following what was going on overseas around climate change. What we have seen then is Labor throwing its hands up and lose confidence in even the little it stood for. This is responding to the anti-political climate but almost to the point of nihilism.

This meant not only dropping its own program, but now acknowledging the Liberals’ and here is where we get to Labor’s second problem; taking up the Coalition’s stance, but being unable to follow through. Because while Labor’s further watering down of its own program may make sense against the Coalition’s irrelevant one, going further and actually adopting the Coalition’s program on issues like immigration makes even less sense. Having revealed all its insecurities over its own base by positioning itself against Rudd’s ‘Big Australia’, which Rudd himself had already abandoned, Labor is now caught in a discussion it does not want to pursue, highlighted by the absurd line that talking about being against a Big Australia does not mean having a view on immigration.

If Labor’s ‘Sustainable Australia’ has nothing to do immigration, why did they link it to border protection? If they’re worried about controlling the entry of a few hundred asylum seekers surely they must be worried about the hundreds of thousands of people who immigrate by normal means. Now the government is saying what it really meant was shifting people around the country from where it is too crowded (or substandard infrastructure?) to where there is a demand for jobs (and still probably substandard infrastructure). A case of not so much Big Australia, but against a Big Australia in bits and for a Bigger Australia elsewhere. Or something.

Of course, as Gillard exposed in the debate last night, the Coalition’s ‘tough’ line on ‘slashing’ immigration is really just repeating the slashing to immigration Labor has already done. The problem is that the Coalition wants to politicise it, Labor does not. It does not necessarily mean there aren’t dangers for the Coalition playing it up. But if Labor wants to pursue that line and believe that this is what real people are thinking, they will struggle to sound convincing doing it.

The point is that this is not a problem of Gillard. Rudd was already backing down from his own program and clearly being spooked by the Coalition’s stirring up of anti-political sentiment. Gillard’s appointment more just reflected Labor’s increasing lack of confidence it can do anything about it.

This gets us to the third problem over-shadowing Labor’s campaign, the issue that the media keep gnawing at without really being able to get at it – Kevin Rudd. The media were baffled they were invited to Rudd’s visit to a local primary school, but unless Rudd was going there to canvass votes from 10 year olds, such visits are naturally for the media. Of course, Rudd is playing a game by inviting the media and then only wanting to talk about local issues (which he didn’t want to talk about either) that Annabel Crabb wittily called his Princess Di act.

But such a non-event can be disruptive because it touches on an issue that is highly disruptive. It was brought out a few days after in the ABC 24’s ‘exclusive’ over Rudd’s failure to attend some national security meetings. In itself, it was nothing much new, just being a variant of the reports being written in the Murdoch press a few months before of the chaos in Rudd’s office. What was far more extraordinary, however, was that sources for the stories came not only from aggrieved public servants but within Labor, even apparently the Cabinet.

It is incredible to think that Labor is so self absorbed that there are some high up in the Labor party who might think it a good idea to discredit Rudd at this stage. You can see the twisted logic; trashing Rudd would bolster Gillard and the decision to give her the top job. This would work all very well if the entire world was the Australian Labor Party. However, it is not. To those outside, this tussle between Gillard and Rudd camps makes the party look unstable and reveals the hole in the middle of the government.

Because this is not about Rudd v Gillard. There is no real difference between the two; Gillard is going exactly the same direction Rudd was going except more quickly – rolling up its own program and making concessions to the anti-political mood drummed up by the Liberals. The Gillard take-over was carried out by faction heads who stand for nothing than their own control and insecurities.

Abbott has trouble taking advantage of it because he needs Labor to stand for something so that he can appear to stand for something as well. So for Abbott, Labor has to look as though it stands for debt (it does not), soft line on immigration (it does not), pro-union in the workplace (it does not). However, others like Scott Morrison have a much easier time putting their finger on it. Standing for nothing is bad enough, but if you are so unstable that you can’t even keep to your head of government under the slightest pressure, then that is something else.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 26 July 2010.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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Comments

12 responses to “Stability”

  1. Dr_Tad on 26th July 2010 7:45 am

    I think the rise is climate skepticism is more than skeptics tapping in to the anti-political mood.

    The outcome at Copenhagen crystallised a shift in the elite approach to climate change. In just about every advanced economy you suddenly had a big rise in media reporting of skeptic claims, and of publicly politician and corporate skepticism.

    The lack of elite consensus on action demonstrated in Copenhagen (as piddling as that action may have been in reality; I personally think a world cap & trade system would have been pretty ineffectual at best) was then translated into open questioning being pushed by vested interests being given much more oxygen.

    I think the fascinating thing is how supportive Australian voters have continued to be of climate action despite the propaganda. They may be pissed off with the political class, but you can see in this the potential for a new politics gaining some purchase. This is partly reflected in the high Greens polling, but in the long term my former party is also caught by having its agenda constantly constrained by pathetically conventional economic ideas.

    As Bob Brown said in Saturday’s AFR: “We believe in a free enterprise, market-based system with government intervention to achieve social goals.” Like that’s going to make a difference in the world today…

    *Sigh*

  2. The Piping Shrike on 26th July 2010 7:58 am

    But I think the rise of sceptic claims were part of that anti-political mood as well. There was a questioning of the claims as an idea of some sort of international conspiracy by governments. Australia’s not alone on this.

    Another problem was that climate change never suited the US, essential for any international consensus.

  3. john on 26th July 2010 5:54 pm

    The Greens never had any decent economic or class politics, did they?

  4. The Piping Shrike on 26th July 2010 6:25 pm

    Environmentalism would seem to me to pretty well pitch itself against it. Sectional interests (business, unions) become illegitimate against environmental concerns. E.g. Business and jobs in logging are secondary to protecting forests. Climate change was useful to Rudd because it undermined the business case and that of the unions in his own party.

  5. Quipper on 26th July 2010 8:00 pm

    A very sobering analysis, Shrike. A hole in the centre of government is not a cheerful prospect. But at least this analysis of the ‘debate’ is worth reading.

  6. adamite on 27th July 2010 9:44 am

    P.S. I like your portrayal of the Labor and Liberal leaders being effectively shadows of each other. The dissembling Abbot and the coquettish Gillard caught in a mutual state of paralysis each seeking to avoid tripping over the others achilles heels! The rise of the dissembling Abbot as the dark shadow is perhaps the key to understanding this, particularly his adoption of such an aggressively negative approach to the Government’s policy agenda since becoming OL which radically diminished the space for movement. The question is will he succeed in drawing the voters over to the dark side with these tactics?

  7. The Piping Shrike on 27th July 2010 10:47 am

    I think it’s interesting the degree to which Abbott’s aggression actually caused problems for the government. How much was because he was actually appealing to the electorate and how much he simply tapped into Labor insecurities that they were losing touch?

    I think it is more the latter. The lack of electoral appeal in his aggression was shown up in the debate with Rudd, and why he has had to tone it down now.

  8. john on 28th July 2010 10:35 am

    Is there a internal fight going on between Rudd and Gillard still? I mean, after the coup, there was a leak about Rudd’s allegedly bad managerial style, then a leak back about how Gillard apparently reneged on a deal the night of the coup. After that, the leak about Kevin Rudd being mean to defence department officials, or something. Now a leak about Gillard being against introducing PPL and increasng the pension. Could this be the death spasms of the Rudd Govt, or even campaign for Rudd Govt Mk II?

  9. The Piping Shrike on 28th July 2010 12:32 pm

    It looks like a feud is going on. You don’t know how much of Oakes’s ‘bombshells’ are coming from one briefing or constant supply. But then this is just a continuation of the leaks that were going on against Rudd before he was dumped. Labor is in a very self absorbed place right now – a dangerous place to be in the middle of a campaign!

  10. Graeme on 28th July 2010 8:01 pm

    Anti-politics is a useful analytical tool, but there’s various varieties: playing against assumed politics of one’s own parties (a US staple and perhaps a Rudd one); playing above or below politics to sideline one’s opponents as part of the system (also common in Washington); or rejecting our system (of rep democracy) altogether, eg appealing to citizens referenda or to the ‘I’m your delegate – tell me what to do’ school of politics (the model Burke famously rejected).

    It strikes me that Gillard’s ‘assembly’ and Abbott’s poll-driven rejection of WorkChoices, can both be seen, however lamely, as that third form. We see them as lame because they are inconsistent with well-established memes (Abbott-as-IR-conviction-politician; Labor as full of climate change believers).

  11. adamite on 28th July 2010 8:01 pm

    The interesting issue out of the Oakes episode for me is what it says about the credibility of Australian journalism. First we see a journalist initiate his own news story, then attend the news conference to record his victim’s response, and finally he reports to the nation on her reaction to his missive, offering a patronising evaluation of how well she survived the whole cynical setup. And everyone’s left wondering when the journalistic farce will happen again. What a joke. Smacks of a cheap rerun of the Truman Show.

  12. The Piping Shrike on 28th July 2010 10:21 pm

    Interesting, Graeme. On the anti-politics bit, I always think there are two sides to it.

    On one hand is a tapping into public disatisfaction with the current political parties, on the other hand is an anti-democratic element that the blame lies with the punters for choosing them.

    Rudd’s 2020 Summit had a bit of both. He was explicit about the bankruptcy of the old parties, but looked to a hand picked elite to replace it.

    On the surface, Gillard’s looks more democratic as it is anti-elite and will be more chosen from ‘ordinary people’ on the electoral roll. But it’s very closeness to the normal electoral process not only makes it look a bit absurd but also a bit creepy on what it says about the electoral process than the parties themselves.

    The Libs do an anti-politics ‘light’ more against elites and governments. Generally I think though they are more uncomfortable with it. They instinctively don’t like critcism of the political class and institutions (which is one of the reasons why the apology was so difficult for them). I think that’s where they are different from the US Republicans and more like the UK Tories. They are wary of mobilising ‘mass movements’.

    On the Oakes thing, it is striking how the political class and the media are so intertwined. The political class are conducting their battles through leaks to the media, rather than direct to the electorate, and the media are increasingly reliant on the political class for what is ‘news’.

    The Rudd dumping has especially brought this out because there is so little electoral rationale for it, it was all internal. Watching Plibersek on Lateline reminds how they still struggle to justify it to the punters. Neither of them, I think, really have a clue what is happening anywhere else.

    All of it adds up to, in my view, that ‘stability’ is the underlying theme of this election, and what it will be decided on.

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