Monday, 31 January 2011
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