Tuesday, 19 October 2010
Clearly some regions are more equal than others. You wouldn’t guess it listening to the media, but it wasn’t just latté sipping environmentalists who have been waiting for the water to come down the Murray. Riverland farmers in SA had also been having it fairly rough over the last few years. There are quite a few people at the bottom end of the Murray whose livelihoods are reliant on it being better managed.
At the heart of this argy-bargy about the Murray Darling is a straight forward battle between rural commercial interests up and downstream of the Murray. The problem is that in the current weakened state of the two party system, it is becoming something else.
In the past, rural commercial interests would have been best served by the National/Country Party pushing for issues on which across the different regions there was some agreement; currency, tariffs, unions etc. They were past masters at taking advantage of the long-standing weakness of the Australian right and throwing their weight around within the Coalition against their metropolitan brethren in the Liberal party.
While it did help commercial interest no doubt, it didn’t do much for those who worked for them. Those who couldn’t quite pull together the cash to send their kids away to board at Geelong Grammar, were stuck with the sub-standard schooling, hospitals and public services that became a hallmark of an under-represented, under unionised section of the Australian population that meant the Coalition straddled not only the country’s wealthiest seats, but its poorest as well.
The decline of the unions and the internationalisation of financial markets have undercut that arrangement, the Country party became the Nationals and tried to embark on that sure path of a dying party, promoting ‘values’. But after a push under Joh turned into farce even before it began, the Nationals subsequently settled down to a quite and slow death.
Their values-led revival in the last couple of years has come as the Liberals, facing their own crisis after Howard, first used the Nationals as a way of diverting the same debate from taking a more destructive form within the Liberals. But then through rural hucksters like Joyce, taking a life of its own under Turnbull and coming back to bite the Liberals in the form of Abbott, and whatever he’s on about.
Yet what a farce the Nationals’ ‘values’ and speaking up for rural Australia was, was exposed by the rise to prominence of the independents after the election, which showed that all along, independents like Windsor and Oakeshott could quite happily hold National heartland seats without holding these values very much at all. Especially on issues such as climate change, the independents showed that the old left-right paradigm was little use in the regions, which was why the Nationals were losing seats in the first place. Even Katter had no trouble associating very publicly with the anti-Christ Rudd, because at the end of the day all of them were about one thing, getting a better deal for commercial interests in their own electorates, and now using the flexibility offered by the decay of the two party system to pick and choose the best combination to deliver.
It is through the prism of the decaying two party system that we are now looking at what is just basic lobbying of regional commercial interests. Just as we saw terrors about western Sydney come to the surface as Labor went through its rites of passage last June, now the other end of the decaying political spectrum is striking its own horror across the political class and media.
It is interesting to see how rural commercial interests are now invoking for their own cause the threat to livelihood of the very locals they were happy to see swing for so many years, under the loaded term of “community”. Leaving aside that the biggest threat the locals face is that the major landholders take up the government’s offer and sell their water rights, by talking up the community, it taps into the fear of our political class that they are out of touch and captive to those effete environmentalists and Canberra public servants as Henderson so well caricatured on Insiders on Sunday. A bit of hamming it up in front of the media’s cameras at a local town meeting and we’re away, unintentionally helped by some in the blogosphere who seemed to think the burning of the MDB Authority’s report was akin to lighting up Heinrich Heine in the Bebelplatz. Just as the US Democrats seemed paralysed in front of what is essentially a decomposing Republican Party after the Bush fiasco, so Labor is struggling to remain in control of a weak and over-hyped threat that is ultimately sourced from a decaying Coalition.
Gillard’s appointment of Windsor to head the parliamentary enquiry into the MDB proposals (before they’ve actually been set out) is an attempt to manage this problem, but basically by giving into its basic premise; that the interests of a particular region of Australian business are paramount. All good news for the independents in those few seats and who they represent, but less clearly good news for Labor or anyone else.
Labor is clearly hoping it can do what Bracks and Rann did by bringing in rural representation and the way that in Victoria, especially, Labor could make inroads by providing services to that part of the electorate so long neglected, while messing with the Coalition’s minds at the parliamentary level.
But a couple of things; firstly Rudd already showed on the ETS that playing games with the Coalition is very different from establishing political authority.
For Gillard the question of authority is the real problem. Bracks and Rann formed their coalitions after scraping in after an election most thought Labor could not win, Gillard has done the same after an election most thought Labor could not lose – two very different things. We have a government formed after hearing an awful lot about representing the thousands in the seats of New England and Lyne, and even those in the seat of Melbourne, but very little about the representation of the millions who voted for Labor. But never mind, they’ll probably do better than those stuck at the lower end of the Murray who, reliant on Liberals terrified of upsetting a party desperate to “reconnect”, seem to have no one to represent them at all.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 19 October 2010.Filed under State of the parties