Gillard: prisoner of the two-party system

Monday, 31 January 2011 

After her make-over by the party bosses

For Queenslanders clearing up after the floods, it must surely be some comfort that at least it has salvaged Anna Bligh’s career. Of course, at times of disaster, it’s natural that everyone will appreciate the one body that can at least do something about it, and appreciate whoever can appear to be in charge of it. As others have pointed out, what may work when there is an emergency on, may not when the emergency passes. So Bligh might end up back where she started at the next election.

But what added to her standing was not only what she did during the floods, but also what she did after. By turning the attention to the community-based relief effort, she managed to deflect attention away from what the government was doing.

This is Queensland political tactics at their finest. In a state where its citizens have trouble acknowledging the authority of the state capital down south, let alone the national capital even further south, Queensland politicians have become adept at knowing the limits of government and even how to turn themselves against it. The cue came from that other (former) master of the art, Rudd, who while walking around in the flood waters ticking off residents for not leaving their homes, he made clear to the ABC that cleaning up would be beyond the remit of government, “either state of federal”. Rudd followed this up with an extraordinary interview with The Courier-Mail with this classic Ruddism:

Mr Rudd said another long-lasting impression of the Victorian fires was victims’ zero tolerance for partisan politics. The now Foreign Affairs Minister made a point this week of appearing with LNP Senator Barnaby Joyce to help promote the recovery of fruit and vegetable growers.

The emphasis on community-based effort can lead to bizarre results. So we have now the type of charity appeals for natural disasters that used to be for nations like Ethiopia or Bangladesh, where failed states suggested non-government solutions. What was deemed necessary for the poorest parts of the world are now for the richest. But then, it’s probably fair enough. Those failed states only had to deal with rampaging armies, endemic poverty and non-existent infrastructure. Here we have to deal with an enfeebled political class. It means that even a cause that is deemed worthy enough for charity can struggle to become government policy.

Gillard caught some flack for her response to the floods. A bit stiff, wrong clothes, wrong voice, hum-te-dum. This probably says more about the quality of political commentary than Gillard’s dress sense. But the problems the federal government has run into after the floods exposes the weakness of this government that has been there all along.

Gillard’s bizarre immediate response to commit to the budget deadline to get into surplus shows the straight-jacket she is in. Presumably Treasury forward estimates didn’t include a once in a hundred a year disaster like this, so it’s hard to see what value that budget deadline now has.

It is a reminder how far we’ve come in only two years, when Labor’s most parsimonious Prime Minister in 2008 could turn into its most lavish in 2009. Rudd could do that about-face because he had political authority to do so and against a right that was left speechless by the GFC. As that authority drained away in 2010, even the contradictory Coalition line started to appear effective. Now with that authority having fallen away further after the August election, Gillard can’t even justify a small relatively modest addition to government spending in the face of calamity.

Tactics haven’t helped. By announcing that the deadline would be kept to without explaining what spending would be cut, she gave the Coalition a wonderful few days where it could stroll around Labor’s program and decide what they would get rid of. No wonder every Coalition spokesman on the matter (there seems a few) were falling over themselves to find a camera to mouth off to.

Gillard has now tried to turn the debate back from Labor waste to the problem at hand with the flood levy, but having ceded so much ground to the Coalition already she now has a weak base from which to do so. The government’s argument now seems to be that as as an alternative to increasing the deficit, which would mean higher taxes, we have a much better solution, er, a higher tax.

Gillard claimed on 3AW that this is an economic response not a political one. But we know that’s not true because the government can’t even agree what the economic rationale is. So on one hand we need to get back into surplus so we can “reload the cannon” in case things go wrong. On the other we need to be out of deficit because the economy will be going “gang-busters” by 2013 and it would add to inflation (so displaying a confidence and clarity in the future economic outlook that US Treasury and the Chinese Communist Party can only envy). Ever faithful to the party line, no matter how contradictory, Swan even managed to suggest both in the same interview.

Anyone who wants to make even the most cursory comparison between Australia’s economy and the rest of the world will know that Labor faces a problem of political authority, not one of economic management. The problem is that Labor continually understands that problem of authority in whatever terms Abbott and the Coalition choose to describe it. So if Abbott and The Australian says that there is “furore” or “backlash” over the schools program or the flood levy, Labor power brokers will immediately go out and poll western Sydney to find it.

Australian politics in 2011 centres around one question: can Gillard shrug off those power brokers that put her into power? In a period when the old political system is in decay and we are left in a vacuum, there is really only one way for today’s politicians to get authority, pitch themselves against the old politics. This is a lesson learnt by even the world’s most confident political class in the US, of which we had a classic example recently.

The idea that Sarah Palin was to blame for the recent shootings in Arizona is the sort of rubbish that could only make sense in the politico/media world of Twitter-land. Presumably those arguing this would at least admit that the gunman was deranged, thereby by making any attempt to find causal factors fairly pointless. If public debate is supposed to be restricted by what nutters might make of it, it may as well shut down now.

Obama, quite sensibly, was having none of it. In fact, in a speech in Tucson Arizona, he used the idiocy coming from both left and right as an opportunity to pitch himself against both and so improve his authority. While the left was accusing the right of escalating the rhetoric, it failed to see the irony of what is was doing calling Palin responsible for the deaths in Arizona. Obama distanced himself from the upping of rhetoric from both sides, summed up in a characteristically elegant phrase:

Let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

Less elegantly, Gillard is forced to having to do a similar thing. Her problem, of course, is the way that she tied herself into the old party power bosses to take the leadership. Rudd’s backers have accused her of betrayal, and they have a point. Not in the betrayal of Rudd, but of the basis of her alliance with him.

It has now been reduced to the level of Rudd’s personality, but his antagonism to the party’s faction bosses was the basis on which he and Gillard took over the leadership from Beazley. In fact, while Rudd tended to talk of the failure of the old politics in broader terms, it was Gillard who spoke and wrote specifically against the power of the factions in the party. It was why she backed Crean, Latham and Rudd against Beazley. Yet now they are the same factions for whom she took power to defend.

While Rudd looked overseas for his anti-politics agenda, Gillard was more focussed on the internal contradictions within the party system, especially the way she used WorkChoices to bring in an anti-union agenda against her own party and mock the bankruptcy of the Liberals. But while Gillard can play around with the weakness of both sides of the political system, she is caught up in it. We have seen this since she took over the leadership, both through her channelling of the Labor Right’s insecurities and through them, the world-view of the Coalition.

Her cuts would seem to be at least dealing with the left in her own party (as well as the legacy of Rudd). In doing this she is emulating Hawke. Similarly, 2011 might not be a good time to be in a teachers’ union, as her education “reforms” look set to make them a target – just as Hawke used another group detached from the union bureaucracy, the airline pilots, to make an example in his time.

But this is all terribly 1980s. Hawke was attacking the left and indirectly disciplining the union movement when they both were a force and he still needed the unions. The left are now so insignificant in the political system, that as the Greens show, they can appear not part of it. Gillard has been more direct with the unions and their power bases, such as her ongoing rows with NSW Labor to centralise industrial relations and water down occupational health & safety (an argy-bargy for which Keneally has paid back in kind over the levy).

But none of this means much outside the party. The real ones to take on are the ones who put her there and there is, as yet, little sign of that other than a brief “Real Julia” moment in the heat of the campaign. In fact unlike Hawke, her attacks on the left are cutting off what remains of her own base and she is as isolated as Rudd. In some ways, Labor’s first Prime Minister from the left is similar to NSW’s first Labor Premier from the left. As Rees found, being used by the power brokers to recover power does not mean they will keep her.

Fortunately for Gillard, in a couple of months those power brokers will suffer a hammer blow, as voters of NSW storm the school halls and effect regime change. Those NSW Right refugees in Canberra who manoeuvred Gillard in place will find the rug pulled from under them. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, Gillard makes of it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 31 January 2011.

Filed under Political figures, State of the parties

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19 responses to “Gillard: prisoner of the two-party system”

  1. James on 31st January 2011 11:17 am

    Gillard is actually from a tiny leftist faction that is aligned with Labor Unity, not the Socialist Left.

    I think I can see what Rudd was getting at regarding the Victorian fires. They were politicised, as evidenced by counsel assisting the Royal Commission regularly leaking to the Age newspaper about the attacks against the government it would launch during proceedings that day, assisting the Coalition’s agenda.

    Meanwhile, the trick for Bligh is to go to the polls when she is still washed with stardust after the floods without looking like she is trying to capitalise electorally from them. Quite a balancing act but she is looking capable of the degree of difficulty. At the moment.

    I’m a supporter of the flood levy. Obviously the nationalism the conservative media shoved down our throats during the floods isn’t generous enough for people who earn over $50k forking out the equivalent, or less, of a coffee every fortnight for a year.

    Yes Sarah Palin certainly wasn’t responsible for the shootings in Arizona. But the crazy rhetoric of her Tea Party supporters and Fox News might tip some mentally ill people over the edge. Surely it’s no coincidence that the gunman had mad theories about a currency of new grammar in a state where anti-immigration has reached a fever pitch?

  2. kymbos on 31st January 2011 12:06 pm

    Lovely stuff, Shrike. I look forward to a world in which the NSW Right is roundly ignored.

  3. Dr_Tad on 31st January 2011 1:12 pm

    I presume you mean Gillard is the first PM to have been a member of a Left faction of the ALP on ascension to the role? Because Curtin was far more a creature of the ALP socialist Left than Gillard could hope for (or more likely have nightmares about).

  4. Dr_Tad on 31st January 2011 1:18 pm

    The second point I want to make is about the use of the blanket term “NSW Right” more generally in public discourse.

    Analytically (and in real life) there is an important difference between those mainly in the union bureaucracy and those who cross over to become key figures in the party machine (especially its bloated parliamentary wing), despite the natural overlap between the two.

    The confusion of the two has been part of a deliberate campaign to not just rubbish the Sussex & Macquaire St apparatchiks, but to attack trade union and working class influence on politics per se, and in fact suits people like Costa who want to further undermine union influence in the ALP despite themselves having depended on union careerism to get where they are.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 31st January 2011 5:40 pm

    On Gillard being from the left, I guess I mean more “not from the Right”, as both formally Gillard is from a tiny left faction and anyone who follows what she actually thinks would know that there isn’t much recognizable as traditional left. As Gillard herself noted, factional differences are having little to do with ideology. The point more relates to how she has no real factional base in the party, which underpins her weak position. It was why she was against the factional system, but why she is now so vulnerable after having reneged on that stance.

    I think the union bureaucracy’s complicitness in the ALP’s anti-union agenda suggests they deserve every bit of misrepresentation they get. The ALP has long been a dead end for union members. Neither Thatcher’s nor Reagan’s union-bashing ever managed to achieve the assault on employee living standards that they did under a “union government” led by the former head of the ACTU – something I’m coming to soon!

  6. Dr_Tad on 31st January 2011 6:55 pm


    The ALP has pretty much ALWAYS been a dead end for union members, but the role of the bureaucracy is not limited to their links to Labor.

    The more important issue is the union officials’ social position as part of the organised working class yet playing the role of mediating element between workers and capital — and therefore subordinating the interests of their members to their desire to find some kind of ongoing compromise.

    Their surrender to the ALP in the political field is really an indirect symptom of this, not the root cause, IMHO. Hence I find the lack of analytic differentiation here a bit ultra-Left… if the officials broke from the ALP they would still play the same reactionary role.

    Your analysis reminds me a bit of Ralph Miliband’s, but transposed to the modern era, in that it focuses on the political problems with the ALP without enough consideration of the *nature* of its social base in the bureaucracy.

    But I still love your blog!

  7. Dr_Tad on 31st January 2011 6:57 pm

    Naturally, I completely agree on the issue of how awful Hawke & Keating were for the Australian working class. We’re still paying for their glorious “reform agenda” today — materially & ideologically.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 31st January 2011 9:13 pm

    Dr T

    I think the issue here is that I don’t see that differentiation because the union bureaucracy no longer plays much of a mediating role in society these days.

    As such, I see no “surrender” to the ALP but rather the opposite. Both sides are clinging to each other to give the pretence of a social relevance that neither really have.

    This is the odd thing about the factions today, that Gillard notes, namely that like a fading Byzantine court, the rituals are there but the meaning behind them has gone. This is what has been exposed now that the factions reasserted themselves through Gillard.

    I agree with you that Milliband sees it as an ideological problem rather than a social one at the period he was looking at. My argument is that nowadays it is neither.

    Hence we have a media-paranoid political class and union bureaucracy that came out during the Rudd period and is now obsessed with ‘ideas’ and media presentation.

    I certainly don’t see any ideological legacy from the Hawke/Keating period, something I think that Rudd showed when he out-did Whitlam through the GFC, with not much bother at all. It’s the lack of ideology that also means the Labor leadership are poll obsessed on what to do. This lack of ideology (or more accurately, program) comes from a lack of social base, in my view.

    I’ll be looking at this more when I have a look at the recent efforts of Megalogenis and Howes. Naturally I’ll be interested to know what you think of them.

  9. James on 1st February 2011 10:10 am

    Yes, factionalism really isn’t about ideology these days; more often it’s about who introduced you to the party and who your friends are. It’s largely about inter-personal connections and who is in and who is out. We saw that so spectacularly with Rudd, where no real faction, almost no friends and sunk polling equalled Marie Antionette.

    Something has to give with this poll-driven, media presentation obsession. Part of the problem is that it worked so well under Howard, until the final year, and set the benchmark.

    There need to be more effective devices for challenging the media and exposing their bias and reducing their credibility in the public’s and the government’s eyes. In terms of unaccountablility, I think the media in this country are going through a golden, teflon period.

  10. Lentern on 1st February 2011 2:40 pm

    Why do the factions insist on not kinging one of their own so much? I understand the desire to experiment or thwart a power grab but at some point someone surely says “why don’t we just put one of our own boys into the leadership.”

    For all his potential and factional power I half expect Shorten never will lead the party and instead will settle for treasurer and puppet master in the government of some yet unknown lefty from South Australia. From the perspective of the NSW right, are Tony Burke and Chris Bowen really so unelectable compared to Gillard? And don’t say use Beazley as a counter-example, he didn’t defeat a single leadership contender after he resigned in 2001.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 1st February 2011 6:16 pm

    Normally of course, the factions do put in one of their own. Gillard’s immediate appeal comes from being cross-factional, but doing what the Right at least wanted anyway.

    Also, the media liked her a lot, Albrechtsen might have voted Labor, apparently.

    But also it’s an implicit sign of the reality that allowed Rudd/Gillard up in the first place, and has now been unintentionally revealed, they are bankrupt.

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  13. James on 2nd February 2011 9:51 am

    Looks like Abbott will lead the Coalition to the next poll. Those bitter divisions that led to the narrow toppling of Turnbull seem to be currently buried with decisive discipline.

    With so much mostly negative focus on the Gillard Government, the Coalition must have to pinch itself that it has regrouped so effectively around the country when it appeared so dead and buried less than three years ago.

    It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? A woman who stares at gnomes on national television is a whisker away from being Deputy PM. And, at a state level, a party that still can’t fill key ministerial positions because it was so unprepared to govern is being led by a man who is governing by press release because he’s so overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge required of him by journalists at doorstops.

  14. James on 3rd February 2011 3:21 pm

    What a difference 24 hours can make in politics! Just when Labor wasn’t really laying a glove on Abbott, old ‘People Skills’ rises up and asks for donations for his anti-levy campaign, just before a massive cyclone hits Queensland.
    Not a good move for a politician who has been trying so hard to con voters that he really does want to squeeze them tight and call them honey.

  15. Riccardo on 3rd February 2011 6:53 pm

    I’d like to posit – do opinion polls appear to ‘matter’ more than they used to.

    Sure when Fraser v Hawke was underway there were polls to predict the result, but I never remember much actual policy being developed around the polls. It’s possible some of Hayden’s followers dropped him because Hawke was polling better – but I doubt many would have done it for that reason alone.

    Yet, as TPS says, they nick out a focus group in Western Sydney every time Julia changes her hairstyle.

  16. DM on 3rd February 2011 11:14 pm

    On the point of “media unaccountability”. Who says that “the media” speaks as one voice? What most people identify as “the media” is the right-wing news nexus of the Australian-Daily Mail newspapers and talk-back radio, which panders a specific rightist line and certainly was dominent in the 1990s and throughout Howard’s reign, but not so anymore. Does anyone really know what the average citizen of this country thinks or how much they care about things like “keeping the budget in surplus” today? Certainly, Labor seems to think that, what I would call, the old media still sets the course of public debate but my feeling is that it’s much more open and contested today than it was just a few years ago.

  17. James on 4th February 2011 11:56 am

    Very true, DM, it’s the mainstream, right-wing nexus media I’m referring to. Its ability to set the course of public debate with little accountability is what I’m banging on about like a dog with a bone, lol. I really believe that politicians listen to them far too much. I’m a journalist in community media and wish that we had the listenership or the influence to set a different mainstream political and mainstream media paradigm. Oh what a different world it would be if that happened.

  18. The Piping Shrike on 5th February 2011 7:49 am

    Riccardo, I think polls do matter more. I want to look at this in the review of Megalogenis’s Quarterly essay next.

  19. Lentern on 7th February 2011 12:53 pm

    I know that Rudd and Latham were ofcourse supported by the Queensland and NSW right but they were considered to be outsiders, Crean supposedly didn’t have the “bosses” either. I rather meant why real “machine” men don’t seem to be made leader.

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