The Year of the Walking Dead

Thursday, 23 December 2010 

It was with some trepidation that this blogger went back to the preview of the year just passed. Actually, it didn’t read too badly. The main point, that Rudd had no choice but to step up the war with the old order, despite the faltering of the international agenda, stood up pretty well. Rudd didn’t and down he went.

Whether he would have lasted that much longer anyway is just speculation but what caught this blogger out was that the Labor factions, with whom Rudd had been at war with since assuming the leadership, still had some life in them. But now that they are back in charge, it is reassuring to see that they do not after all.

2010 was the year that the old two party system, in the words of Barrie Cassidy, “took back their parties”. The dumping of Turnbull at the end of last year and Rudd in June, both represented the failure of both leaders to move beyond an exhausted left-right framework. The projects of both were contradictory, leading their parties while opposed to them, that had to work its way through eventually. Both relied on the climate change agenda to do it and both failed to manage the faltering of that agenda in Copenhagen.

The difference between the two was that for Turnbull, as leader of Australia’s last political party, his dumping was carried out under a guise of a political stance, of climate change scepticism. Admittedly, this didn’t last long in the cold light of political reality and was toned down to just being against a Big New Tax. But the Liberal old guard’s coup looked positively ideological against Labor’s justification for Rudd’s dumping.

It’s been fascinating to watch all of the excuses for Rudd’s dumping fall away one by one over the last few months, to leave it now clearly what it had been all along, a straightforward internal power grab by brokers to recover lost influence. Unlike the Liberals though, so bankrupt were these power brokers that any new political agenda they were supposed to represent couldn’t even last a few weeks before we were talking about a Real Julia that looked suspiciously like the Lost Rudd on a whole range of issues.

The Rudd coup certainly wasn’t for electoral reasons. As Mumble shows, 2010 was a game of two halves for Labor, the second half of the year polling nowhere near as well as it did the first. Gillard’s personal polling looks good against Rudd in his final days. But then by that criteria, Gillard’s the most successful leader Labor’s ever had, since she would beat pretty well all Labor leaders in their final days (have a look at what Hawke and Labor were polling when he was dumped). The fact remains that as a new leader, Gillard’s polling is mediocre at best, as is a government that has just won an election, or whatever it did.

Indeed as Mumble rightly suggests, the problem for those wanting to take back their party was not Rudd’s poor polling, but the fact that it was starting to recover, possibly because for the electorate, his stance on the mining tax was starting to regain some sense of principle that he lost when dumping the ETS. If Rudd had won the election, he would have only had even more authority to undermine the faction brokers’ power. The window of opportunity, fluffed up by some dodgy internal polling leaked to Andrew Bolt, was one they could not pass up.

For the Liberals, the reassertion of the Labor factions, the fall of Rudd, and the damaging of Gillard, have been a godsend. Abbott’s election was a sign of the Liberals’ acute demoralisation. However the right press tried to dress up a phoney populism, Abbott’s election showed that for the first time in its 70 year history the Liberal Party of Australia was prepared to default the coming election, all for the sake of a redundant ‘brand’.

Yet the unelectability of Abbott has been concealed by a government now claiming what barely no one else outside a narrow cabal of cultural warriors think, that Abbott has his finger on the real Australia. Topped off with the fall of even the most credible technocrat Labor government, the Liberal party has stabilised itself, at least outwardly. The Victorian Liberals’ victory was under a non-ideological agenda, but was managed internally by not preferencing the Greens. It has given an air of normality back to the Liberals, and make the desperation that led to Abbott’s leadership less necessary. Victoria was good news for the Liberals, but not for Abbott.

While the usurpers may have been usurped, the basic problems that led the parties turning to Rudd and Turnbull in the first place are still there, and the Australian electorate gave their verdict on the redundancy of the two party system in August as they do with the persistently mediocre polling of both leaders. We’ll see it again in March when the NSW electorate unenthusiastically hands a crushing victory to the Coalition. As the post-election bargaining showed, even the independents seem to have more of a programme and a sense of purpose than than Australia’s two major political parties.

But if the return of the old guard to their respective parties has only brought out in sharp relief the exhaustion of the two party system, it has also raised some fundamental questions over the nature of politics:

1) self absorption

As the major parties become detached from their social base, we have seen them increasingly less interested in external motivations for what they do, but more driven by internal needs. The internal dynamics of political parties is always important for explaining what they do, but it is often ignored as parties are seen by the media as increasingly about “winning elections”. In fact, the opposite is happening. Journalists have struggled to put electoral justification for positions taken by the major parties over the last year, especially over the leadership. As a result, a bewildered media, who still see things in terms of winning votes, view the major parties as increasingly tactically inept and struggling to get their “message” across. Even when the parties do look at external polling, as we have seen in the last months of Rudd and now with Gillard, they are unable to interpret them beyond their own internal needs.

2) the search for the “real Australia”

Sitting alongside the major parties’ self absorption is a fretting about their base with a search for the “real Australia” and and an obsession with reconnecting. Whether this is Rudd dropping ockerisms, Gillard talking slowly or Abbott sharing other Liberal leaders’ disturbing predilection for parading around in speedos, none of them are flattering to either the politicians or the public they think they are emulating. Campaigns become less about actually meeting people than being seen to meet people and be liked by them. So no rallies, please, and certainly no awkward argy-bargy on from an unplanned street walk, but welcoming, smiling ordinary people all round.

This obsession with reconnecting is especially pronounced with those sections of the electorate most detached from the two-party system, such as rural voters. It’s no surprise that the more politicians talk about these real Australians, the more mystified they, and the rest of the electorate, becomes.

3) the phoney intellectualism

When a party as aggressively anti-intellectual as the Liberal Party of Australia starts to talk about a battle of ideas, you know that something is really wrong with the two party system. We were already seeing this in the phoney culture wars of the Howard years how the right has ended up following the left in constant rounds of “ideological renewal” that never seem to get anywhere. In effect politics, as it is normally viewed, is being turned upside down: instead of sections of society forming political parties to represent them, we now have political parties looking for something, or someone, to represent. Post the August election, Labor has taken this to new heights by having an open debate about what they stand for while in government.

4) merging with the media

It’s no surprise that with this fondness for a battle of ideas and ideology, the media and the political class are becoming closer and closer. One of the fascinating aspects of watching Australian politics at the moment is to see the way the media and politics are converging into one, and getting caught up in each other’s way.

This is not just the need for spin or the media taking over the roles of opposition, but an increasing merging of interests between politics and media that has emerged over Wikileaks.

Laurie Oakes gave a rare clarification of what should have been the differential role of the media and politicians a couple of weeks ago on Lateline. On getting his award at the Walkleys the other night, he pointed out quite rightly that his leaks only had a political importance during the election campaign because there was little of political substance happening otherwise. Maybe Oakes is master of his craft because he knows its limitations.

5) the nature of a democratic mandate

Back in the Golden Age of Technocrat Labor (1999 – 2010), when elections were considered a bit of a bore, the fashion was for longer, and fixed, terms. The novelty has worn off somewhat, especially in NSW (and may soon do so in SA) where voters are forced to watch the decomposing of governments without the pressure to at least put themselves out of their misery. Far from making the political class more accountable, fixed terms have only accentuated the lack of mandate of governments that in the case of NSW only won the last election because the other side was even more dysfunctional.

The problem of mandate especially came out in the August election when neither party sought a mandate and neither were given it. What happened next was that after voting, the Australian electorate had to sit and wait while their government was chosen behind closed doors in negotiations that had been promised to be disclosed but never were. Of course, negotiations with independents for government are not new. But what was striking was the lack of imposing of any mandate by the major parties on the discussions. In what way were the interests of millions of urban traditional Labor voters asserted over the independents?

The negotiations with the independents were hailed as a triumph for democracy but they were anything but. As Windsor made clear, as far as he was concerned the voters of New England had left the decision of who to back entirely up to him. Quite how the decision to back Labor will go down in National heartlands like Lyne and New England is unclear but the director of Essential Research polling reports that the reaction from Coalition voters was “a level of anger you rarely see in polls”. But more questionable than the mandate of the independents was that of the government they chose.

Ostensibly the choice was supposed to be based on the best deal for the rural regions. But this was not straightforward. Four Corners coverage of the negotiations revealed that, according to Oakeshott, the most generous offer came not from Gillard, but from the Coalition, in the finest tradition of rural pork-barrelling. As Windsor let slip at the press conference announcing his decision, the basis of it was the very sensible one of which side had most interest in keeping the current delicate balance of power. As Windsor admitted, the Coalition was the one least frightened of going back to the electorate because they were most likely to win, i.e. they gave us the government they thought the electorate least wanted. As subsequent polls suggest, it was not a bad call.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 23 December 2010.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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6 responses to “The Year of the Walking Dead”

  1. JohnB on 23rd December 2010 4:28 pm

    A superb year’s work PS. Look forward to your observations on next year’s circus.

  2. Riccardo on 24th December 2010 11:23 am

    Agree – another excellent year of TPS. Have followed since before Rudd got elected and has always been insightful.

    Particularly looking forward to some analysis on NSW politics if you can do it.

    I’m also interested in how you link the move to fixed terms to Labor Technocracy – I’ve always thought it too was a anti-politics gesture, basically “we politicians aren’t trustworthy enough to not use the flexible date for political advantage, so we will put it beyond politics”.

    In practice, I think it is agreed, it takes away from a Premier the ability to discipline their own side’s behaviour by threatening them internally with a hard poll.

    Instead, and I’m sure this is what is happening in NSW, they become fatalistic and start talking scorched earth and taking what they can before it collapses, and abandoning ship at the end, as more than 20 of them have now done.

  3. Peter Hill on 24th December 2010 11:24 am

    Thanks Shrike for your blog this year. It has been consistently excellent.

    I also look forward to your views next year when the new senate takes over.

  4. john willo on 24th December 2010 6:42 pm

    The real story qf 2010 is the “Santaforcation” of the Liberal party and the union factions that almost handed santas little helpers the lodge. BA would have been astonished……..

  5. Thomas Paine on 29th December 2010 8:04 pm

    [Rudd didn’t and down he went.]

    I think it is pretty clear, and WikiLeaks just supports the notion, that they always intended to knife Rudd at the first available opportunity, and they only had a very small window.

    Labor made itself look like a bunch of power hungry goons, and now seen to be pretty lacking in ability.

    By any sensible management of party of business Labor should have left Rudd where he was, a victory was always a pretty safe bet. In knifing Rudd for no reasons they have removed any perceived difference between themselves and the Liberals. In fact the Liberals look more competent and organised. Gillard has actually ruined he credibility and issues that Rudd had made Labor positives.

    Gillard’s impatience to get the leadership has cost Labor at least 3 years in power, and may put them in opposition for longer.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 30th December 2010 6:20 am

    Not just Gillard though.

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