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