This is not normal

Wednesday, 18 August 2010 

Tonight there’s still no agreement on a time, place or duration. At the start of the campaign Tony Abbott wanted three debates, Julia Gillard said one was enough. Then she wanted a second on the economy, but Tony Abbott did not. Then last night he called for half hour debate tonight and she said she wanted an hour.

Kerry O’Brien trying to explain what is dividing the parties at the campaign’s climax

Prime Minister, just a quick one: do you think tomato sauce should be free when you buy a meat pie from the bakery? It’s a big debate at the moment in the Townsville. It really is.

A local journalist tries to bring it back to issues

Oh lord, is there anyone out there still following this campaign?

What is this economic debate they are fighting over the timing of? Oh yeah, right. The Liberals want to bring the Budget back to surplus at the same time as Labor, but really bring it into surplus, while Labor wants to pretend that spending on a utility like broadband counts as economic policy. It’s hard to think of a more farcical way to end this campaign than arguing about when to debate an issue on which there is no debate to be had. Hockey and Swan already debated the economy and run out of things to say well before the half hour. Are their leaders going to be any different?

Barry Cassidy thinks that after the tumultuous first few weeks of the campaign, it was now returning to a more traditional campaign: issues, policies, both parties treated equally. Actually a focus on issues, or rather lack of them has only highlighted how odd this campaign is. While the leaks and the so-called Rudd factor made an issue of the instability of the government, the stabilising of Labor’s campaign has only highlighted what really underlies that instability.

Actually the 2007 election was stranger than it appeared at the time, but hidden behind an international issue like climate change and a phoney domestic one like WorkChoices to conceal that neither party really had an agenda in the traditional sense. Now with the international one faded and business encouraging the Liberals to dump their IR shtick, there is nothing to run an election campaign on and both parties are just limping to election having nothing to say but how they might debate it if they did.

Annabel Crabb has noted that the federal campaign has ‘gone local’. ‘Imploded’ would be a better description. No better example of this was Labor’s campaign launch. Other than the amusing standing ovation that conveniently blocked an arriving Rudd from the cameras, the only notable thing about it was how much it was not like a normal federal campaign launch. From the slogan of ‘Stronger Economy. Better Hospitals and Schools’ to the contents of Gillard’s ‘off the cuff’ speech, this was more a state Labor launch rather than a federal campaign. Even the more international themes that Gillard started her campaign with were dropped; not a word on the Citizen’s Assembly or any other action on climate change (and barely a mention of the issue itself), and certainly nothing on East Timor, or any other solution, for asylum seekers. It was mainly about the areas where federal government is now increasingly encroaching on what had previously been the domain of state governments; schools, hospitals and infrastructure.

As the federal government moves in on the states’ agenda, however, it is getting caught up in the politics of it. That is probably why we are seeing this strange divide in the national voting with Labor’s vote getting almost driven by its popularity at the state level. Of course, state governments have influenced federal results before, Victoria in 1990, for example. But this is the first time that the federal campaign has so struggled to escape from it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 18 August 2010.

Filed under State and federal politics

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18 responses to “This is not normal”

  1. Michael on 18th August 2010 9:31 am

    I was never in favour of Gillard rolling Rudd, especially in the first term, but I thought at least Gillard would do well in a campaign. It seems not. I guess not even a talented performer can run on nothing.

  2. Tim on 18th August 2010 10:06 am

    Just think, only a few more days of this nightmare left, although one begs the question where will this all lead? Is this where federal politics is leading in the nation, to an ideological desert devoid of any real policy debate or vision? At least when the conservatives were acting like conservatives a progressive had a reason to make a choice one way or the other, liberal or socialist, but now its all just neo-liberal dogma on both “sides” of politics. Even if you agree with neo-liberalism as an ideology, how does that define your choice? I have to say I’m losing faith in mainstream politics.

  3. John Farrell on 18th August 2010 11:17 am

    Sorry, why is a heated debate over matters of no concern to ordinary people not normal? I’m convinced the major parties invent issues like the mining tax (yawn), policy costings (as if they’re related to future reality), upwards pressure on interest rates (as if they can affect them anyway), etc, just to try to convince us that they’re in some way different. In practice they share policies like junkies share needles – ETS, GST, offshore processing… They need to demonise the Greens and other minor parties to convince people that any other choices are just crazy. What’s crazy is making a choice between two things that are the same.

  4. James on 18th August 2010 11:39 am

    I think people will realise it’s a mistake to think that the two main parties are the same if the Liberals get in. That was the case in 1996 and look where Howard took us. Abbott is far more zealous than Howard. People said Howard took us back to the 50s. Try the 1930s with Abbott!

  5. Michael on 18th August 2010 1:14 pm

    James, of course there are differences – state schools and medicare are two areas that come to mind, but the labor party doesn’t appear to be able to make a strong case for their program. I remember Paul Keating’s warning that the libs wouldn’t kill medicare but they would make it dead. It’s interesting that Howard didn’t try any big gestures to weaken either schools or medicare instead he concentrated on upper middle class welfare measures that are now cemented in place and seem unassailable. Some private schools are really struggling to think up more facilities (how many school halls, pools, sports centres can they use?), but you will see them fight to the death to hold onto their current government support.

  6. Mr Denmore on 18th August 2010 3:31 pm

    In some ways, Australians need a shock of reactionary, conservative government to galvanise what used to be the left and radicalise younger people sedated by Iphones and inane social media chatter.

    In this post-modernist, post-industrial age, Labor really doesn’t stand for anything any more and the Liberal Party is a rump of the extreme right trying to masquerade as a mainstream political force.

    Both parties confect ‘economic’ disagreements to pretend they have control over things they in fact have no influence over and scrap over issues that excite the most ignorant talkback radio audience (boat people).

    A stupid and cynical media manufacturers conflict to pull in audiences and eyeballs to its clients’ (advertisers’) messages.

    Meanwhile – the real policy challenges – climate change, a tax system that encourages speculation in non-productive housing, our culture of household debt, our crumbling public education system, a dysfunctional health system – remain untouched.

  7. dedalus on 18th August 2010 4:11 pm

    To say that there are no differences between the two major parties is incredibly lazy and cynical. The media says this sort of thing, but the media does not analyse policy positions seriously, preferring to highlight what Bob Brown today at the press club calls ‘piffle’.

    Shrike, I think your analysis tends to get a little abstract at times. A simple comaparative analysis of the policy positions of the three parties would show up both quantitive and qualitative ‘differences’. The thing is to filter out the ‘piffle’, such as partisan bias, leaders’ personalities, and party survival factors.

    If it can’t be demonstrated that one party’s general thrust is different from another’s, there is no point in engaging in political debate.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 18th August 2010 5:00 pm

    But that would assume that the political debate is defined by the major parties, I don’t think it is. I think they are becoming increasingly incapable of conductiing a political debate. The state of this campaign is not the fault of the media.

    There are differences between the major parties, but not what they claim. For example, the Coalition is claiming they would have reacted differently to the GFC. I don’t believe it. Howard’s record showed no sign that he would have, and anyway, even in opposition the Coalition barely put forward a different view, rather than, say, making hay of disillusionment with government over their criticism of the schools program etc.

    Labor would say there is a difference on IR. I don’t believe there is. The acquiescence of the unions to Gillard’s program shouldn’t disguise how anti-union it is and how restrictive it is on employees’ ability to take industrial action. There is a better protection of basic awards but greater restriction on how employees would ultimately win them.

    The main difference, as I see it, is how they relate to their historical agenda. Labor has abandoned nearly all pretence to it. The Libs still kid themselves that they can continue with it.

    I see a ‘reactionary shock’ as highly unlikely, Mr D, even if Abbott does get in. Abbott’s toning down is political reality, not an electoral ruse. Neither party will have a mandate to do anything after this election and mandates are still important.

  9. Riccardo on 18th August 2010 7:07 pm

    And remember the reality of industrial relations after the Workchoices High Court case. Wages and conditions are now set by a government bureaucracy, called Fair Work or whatever. This centralisation of wages into a government authority, a socialist policy if ever there was one, was performed by John Howard, who also went against conservative ideology by removing the States from the determination, as all the judges he appointed but Callenan were centralists.

    It amazes me the number of people who don’t REALLY understand how industrial relations works.

    First – the common law, that bedrock of conservatism, in practice is the same as the award. Workchoices went against the common law – again betraying how Howard was not a real conservative. If you join a company and the understanding is you will be paid X, the common law determines that this is your common law contract. If the company then reduces your pay they have breached the contract. The only way they can do this is by protection of statute, enter Workchoices: a radical intervention in the contract between two parties, to change the contract in favour of the employer.

    Now in practice this is no different from what the ALP and Unions have done for 100 years, intervening the other way. But they were socialists and you wouldn’t expect different.

    Howard betrayed conservatism. He centralised and he socialised. If only his own supporters really knew or understood who he was.

    Just as Keating and Hawke completed (read: betrayed) everything their party had stood for over 100 years.

    Their party had 2 objectives, to represent the working man in industrial disputes, then legislate his pay/conditions. Having achieved the latter, they stopped doing the former. They now have nothing left to do, hence the emptiness TPS describes.

  10. Riccardo on 18th August 2010 7:21 pm

    If you read some of the accounts of how Howard came to Workchoices, it apparently was as bad as Chifley with the bank nationalisation ie “we’ve had this policy platform for years and now we have the senate, why not do it?”

    It wasn’t in response to any need eg national crisis, no major credible employer group had asked for it (if anything they were having trouble getting staff) and while they claimed it would give more flexibility to pay staff more, this option was already available in existing workplace agreements.

    Just as Chifley adopted a 1890s policy in the 1940s, when the show had moved on, Howard adopted a 1970s policy in the 2000s, when the need for a anti-stagflation policy had ceased against a background of moderate inflation and low unemployment.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 18th August 2010 7:31 pm

    On the need by employers for Workchoices, there was that excellent survey done of employers by the Sydney Uni workplace research group just prior to WC’s introduction that showed that there was almost no employer demand for an IR overhaul.

    There has recently been a review carried out by a Sydney IR lawyer looking at how restrictive Fair Work Act is on indutrial disputes. I meant to write a post on it when WC was still ‘hot’, but now it’s not. Things fade so quickly, so little time!

  12. Riccardo on 18th August 2010 7:51 pm

    When I studied economics at school and uni, we were always taught there were only 4 types of economic policy. Fiscal, monetary, incomes and external policy.

    Monetary is now locked in by unelected Reserve Bank.

    Incomes policy now locked in by unelected Fair Work Authority

    External policy now locked in by unelected WTO and bilateral trade agreements.

    Fiscal policy is now a beggars banquet, catered by the unelected Ken Henry on the advice of unelected quangos like Productivity Commission, and dictated by external matters like imported crises.

    Nothing left to really argue, except whether either party can be held responsible for the decisions of the unelected officials.

  13. Quipper on 18th August 2010 8:38 pm

    Can you see any light on the hill, Shrike?

  14. The Piping Shrike on 18th August 2010 10:36 pm

    Not in what I see in the current programs of the parties. Or am I missing something?

    Things are changing though and I think things are more apparent than before – so that is encouraging.

  15. Tim on 19th August 2010 11:17 am

    Shirke its election week? Only one post? Are you going to do another one before the big day?

  16. dedalus on 19th August 2010 3:45 pm

    Shrike, let me preface this by saying I like your blog and have been reading it for some years.

    In answer to your answer to my previous post, who defines the political debate wasn’t my point, though I agree that the politicians don’t do it. The mainstream media, however, certainly do.

    Here is a line of argument: thinking people, people who go on evidence, react to media spin, while the passive majority succumb to it, one way or another. That’s why politicians pitch to the majority. But the real point is that politicians also react to the media. There’s your real spin loop, politicians to media and back again, endlessly.

    In this particular media cycle (2010), the media has a clear conservative bias, and we don’t need to go into the reasons for that. It’s a legitimate right of the media to be biased, for after all they have personal, career agendas to consider (serving their masters). There have been times when Murdoch or whoever have dictated otherwise. So we should never expect objective commentary from the media. Pretending to be objective, yes, but pretending to be objective is part of their spin.

    My main beef with the media is therefore not so much what they say, for that is to be expected. It is that they are pathetic hacks with the use of words and images. Their copy makes aweful reading. Their best skill is in echoing each others cliches.

    On the other hand, maybe this is being unfair. Cliches are powerful.

    By contrast, I think often your analysis tends towards an arcane theorising, rather than addressing the subject directly. This is, of course, interesting, but it means you can never engage dialectically with the general reader. What you say may be correct, but it can never be comprehended by the average consumer of media. I hasten to add that, in the same way, French cultural theory can ever be comprehended by the readers of newspaper magazine supplements.

  17. The Piping Shrike on 19th August 2010 8:20 pm

    Tim, another post is coming before the election.

    Dedalus, I tend not to think the media are controlling the agenda that much either. I think the reasons for the conservative bias is not apparent as business has little problem with Labor these days. I think it has more to do with their own problems than anything business might want.

    I think there is a similar dynamic to the problems of the political class with which they are so intertwined. Damn it, I must do that media post!

    Arcane is a problem, usually through lack of time. When I have more time I aim to state the obvious.

  18. Riccardo on 21st August 2010 10:30 am

    TPS, if you do want to do a post on the media, check out the chapter on the Press Gallery in The Hawke Government (the one Susan Ryan put together) and how it changed between Fraser and Hawke.


    -media baron empires taken over by entertainment baron empires (what used to be empirers of hard headed political men like Frank Packer or Keith Murdoch and their minions has become extensions of casino or film company empires)

    -demographic changes within the journalist coterie, from the hard drinkers who used to drink with Hawke at the John Curtin back then, to the females and effeminates who go to gyms and worship the cult of personality, much more comfortable with New Idea than news

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