Gillard’s Problem – Part II

Thursday, 7 April 2011 

Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable.

Hillary R Clinton 25 January 2011

You talk about the future. You know something? What is good about being foreign minister of the country: you get to do a whole lot of things which are half decent.

Kevin Rudd on Q&A

If, as the media keep telling us, that we already knew Gillard and Swan were for putting off the ETS, what’s the big deal about Rudd telling us again? You didn’t even have to be in on the Cabinet discussion, merely watching the new leadership campaign (or not) on the issue during last year’s election will tell you everything you need to know about Gillard’s attitude to the ETS – something we are now supposed to forget because apparently she wanted it all along, or something.

Maybe the breach in Cabinet solidarity’s a big deal, but then that’s been an up and front fact of Australian political life since that decision to defer the ETS was promptly leaked to the Fairfax press by … who?

It took a foreign affairs correspondent to begin to put his finger on the really extraordinary fact of Australian political life that was on display on Monday night’s Q&A – the way the Prime Minister has effectively handed control of foreign affairs over to her bitterest rival in the government.

When Stephen Smith said that there shouldn’t be a cigarette paper between the Prime Minister and her Foreign Minister, he wasn’t just talking about something nice to happen. He was pointing out what had been until now a basic fact of Australian political life.

The Australian political class is hugely dependant on what happens internationally, especially to whatever superpower it is clinging to at the time, and especially since the domestic agendas of the major parties has hollowed out over the last twenty years.

This reliance is an uncomfortable fact, so it is usually whitewashed out of the political narrative. So the 2001 election was all about Tampa and Howard’s ability to tap into the supposedly darker regions of the Australian electorate, rather than 9/11, and 2004 was all about voters not trusting Latham on interest rates rather than his promise to bring troops back by Christmas, a mistake that ended up with him joining that conga line of suckholes to proclaim his loyalty to the US alliance. In 2007, Rudd was vastly more popular than Howard because, er, he was so similar, rather than his latching on to a climate change agenda being far more in tune than a Prime Minister who was so out of touch that he called the next US President the preferred choice of terrorists.

When it’s not whitewashed out, it is usually turned upside down. So the left like to portray Australia leaders kow-towing to the US as a result of being some poor victim of colonial oppression from the big bad US, rather than the more painful truth of being part of a political class that needs all the help it can get.

Just how much, we are now seeing.

While Australian leaders have usually been coy about the international factor, or trumpeted up its role, as Howard did with Iraq, in 2007 something different happened. Instead of being defensive about Australia’s dependence on what was happening overseas, Rudd made a virtue of it. An important reason was that he was using it, like his hobnobbing with celebs at the 2020 Summit, as a way of filling the gap left by his agenda-less party.

For a while it seemed to work. Rudd seized a moment when the US was accommodating to the failure of Bush’s unilateralism and loss of global influence, summed up by the climate change agenda, an issue that did little for US prestige. The problem was that Obama could accommodate to the loss of US prestige but could not recover it, and without the US, the international agenda on which Rudd relied went nowhere.

Rudd saying on Monday night that he should have carried on regardless with the ETS was fantasy. With no international momentum behind him and little support from Cabinet, there was little he could do. What he was really saying was that he should have ignored his government and appealed over its head to the public, something he tried to do at the very end of his Prime Ministership and he looks determined to do now. In doing so, Rudd is using the very fluidity of the situation caused by the decline in US influence, that undermined his Prime Ministership, to now undermine Gillard’s.

As with so much with the Gillard government, the old leadership has returned to power stuck in the old framework and with the view that the problem was Rudd rather than the changed conditions that led to him taking power in the first place. So the same defensiveness about international affairs returned, but now in a caricatured form, summed up by Gillard telling the media she would rather be home watching kids learning to read than at a Summit where she was supposed to be calling for more support for Australian troops in Afghanistan.

Again as usual with this government, such as it dumping the ETS, having discovered its mistake it swings the other way but with no better results. Gillard’s trip to the US was meant to restore the US alliance at its place in Australian politics, but it highlighted that there is no basis for it. The US has no issue it wants an Australian Prime Minister to trumpet, not the Afghan war, not climate change. So leaving Gillard with little to do but get emotional about man walking on the moon (an event that Gillard was old enough to remember, but curiously not the Vietnam war on at the same time).

While Gillard keeps pressing the old buttons and finding they no longer work, Rudd is making hay out of the fluidity caused by US decline, and there was no better example than the one he was so confident about on Monday night, Libya.

The events in the Arab world this year have shown just how bad it has now got for the US. It would be tempting to see the uprisings as merely the last stages of the unravelling of the Cold War started twenty years ago in Eastern Europe. But this underplays its historical significance. It is not just that long-standing regimes are toppling, but the absence of any political veneer to the opposition.

In a way that was also the case for what happened in Eastern Europe, being more about crumbling Soviet dictatorships than a new political force. But at least then the US and the West was on hand to give a political rationale. What is striking about was is happening in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, was the complete inability of the West to have anything to say about it. Not only did the US State Department have no idea what was happening, for days while protestors occupied Tahrir Square the White House was paralysed to respond and give any sense it had influence over what had been the US’s most important client state. Obama couldn’t even get the day right when Mubarak would go.

Into this vacuum re-enter old players like Britain and France, and in Australia, Rudd. The opportunity came with the escalation of the conflict in Libya. Intervention in Libya was used not only by Britain and France (and Rudd) to play the world stage by being Pax Americana in its absence, but to allow the west look again in some control of what was going on.

The argument Rudd gave on Monday night was that in acting in Libya, the west prevented a massacre in Benghazi and supported the rebels to overthrow a corrupt regime. This sounds absolutely spiffing, until it is recalled how much thugs like Gadaffi have gained some credibility in the past from being attacked by the west. Indeed for Gaddafi, after decades of being the west’s bête noire, the problem was that there were now becoming too many photos like this and this. It is the very weakening of these regimes anti-west and anti-Israel card that is undermining them. Gadaffi might have taken Benghazi (not certain) but he never would have regained the authority. There is a danger that the west getting involved will have the opposite effect that its supporters hoped.

But this is all secondary because the main point, to look back in control, without actually committing to any ground troops has been achieved for now. In Australia, it has given Rudd authority against a party and a Prime Minister that doesn’t know now how to find it. A government with no real domestic agenda and struggling for authority is now finding any solution blocked by the one they overthrew. Something has to give, surely.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 7 April 2011.

Filed under International relations

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Comments

23 responses to “Gillard’s Problem – Part II”

  1. kymbos on 7th April 2011 9:43 am

    Shrike, are you of the opinion that delaying the CPRS was not an error of judgement? That he had no reasonable alternative? The conventional wisdom was that, with the benefit of hindsight, a double-dissolution would have been preferable.

  2. nick on 7th April 2011 10:48 am

    something has to give shrike ?

    Gillard ?

    A challenge ?

    Freefall ?

    Slow death ?

    Rudd government restored ?

    A new government ?

    are the liberals a viable alternative under abbott ?

  3. Riccardo on 7th April 2011 1:15 pm

    No, the political system is broken – Abbott is no greater an alternative than Gillard. His ‘opposing for opposings’ sake’ is not just his character, but the lack of genuine alternatives available to him.

    Turnbull might well be a more cerebral fellow, but if he applied himself, would only come up with the same solutions Rudd had – a mix of empty gestures, anti politics and muddling through.

    I enjoy reading the biographies of great men, statesmen and so on, but you can see how much of their greatness was made by a world that required it.

    Issues like Global Warming require technocratic solutions and are ill served by adversarial politics – hence Abbott favoring socialism and ALP favoring trading schemes.

    What is fascinating is to see the Liberal right turn on Turnbull and his connection to Goldman Sachs. The bogan redneck class really beginning to turn on the symbols of power, wealth and authority that used to mark the Liberal Party.

    Those centres of power will tolerate this bashing as long as the real agenda of the powerful and wealthy continues unabatted; the property development, tax avoidance and other rackets. I’m not sure they really want to see the Libs move too far to the populist right, and O’Farrell, Bailieu and Campbell Newman are more likely to get their support than the Rightists.

  4. Riccardo on 7th April 2011 1:23 pm

    Rightwing politics in this country has always been bait-and-switch.

    Listen to Alan Jones, think you are getting the voice of the battler with conservative values, not a wealthy gay man who lives in Mosman.

    Read the Australian, think you are getting a paper that supports its namesake people and businesses, rather than one who would see itself and every other asset we have to the Peoples Republic of China if the price was right. And when you read their editorials, as opposed to their anti-ALP headlines, you will see the truth in that.

    Vote Liberal, because you don’t like the ALP’s policy of highrise developments, you will get more urban sprawl AND the highrises you didn’t like as well. The Save Our Suburbs movements began under state liberal governments and the machinery of development is tied into the fund raising of both parties.

  5. nick on 7th April 2011 1:57 pm

    so what’s going to give ?

    And to throw up another impossible question, will hockey be able to drum up enough support to justify a challenge of abbott prior to the next election ?

  6. Graeme on 7th April 2011 2:22 pm

    Why does anything have to ‘give’, least of all because of international affairs? Gillard gave Rudd his head on foreign affairs – unsurprisingly since she has no interest in them.

    She’s bound to a hung parliament focused on local politics, deals and bread and butter even more than ever. She’ll likely muddle through that and face a poll, or (much less likely) the apparatchiks will panic again.

    None of this is to deny your thesis that Australian politics owes more than it knows to international developments especially at a long term and strategic level. But it is another thing altogether to deny the evidence and imagine that politics, as she is played out in the parliament, media and pubs and blogs, goes the way such developments go.

  7. nick on 7th April 2011 3:50 pm

    so either muddling along and/or a slow steady decline for the Gillard government before being defeated in 2013 ?

    What can the alp do to reverse the slow death of the Gillard/rudd government ?

  8. The Piping Shrike on 7th April 2011 4:32 pm

    Just pray the Liberals keep Abbott.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 7th April 2011 4:42 pm

    On whether dumping the ETS was a mistake, I thought Rudd put it well enough on Monday. The international momentum had gone, which had taken away one of the main arguments for a small contributor of global emissions acting quickly, which is a very similar argument of why send a piffling contribution to Iraq, namely so Australia could take a lead in the international agenda at the time.

    Secondly, the Liberals were now using scepticism as a means to define its ‘values’. But thirdly, and the one Rudd was most oblique on, already the power brokers were starting to go for him, white-anting through leaks and briefings. Opposing the ETS was the issue on which they were starting to re-assert their control.

    I do think Rudd was more saying in calling it a ‘mistake’ to listen to his Cabinet, that he now has the right to go over the government and party’s heads, as he was on Monday.

    On what has to give, I don’t know. But this looks unsustainable. In happier times, you could get away with arguing Rudd’s control of foreign policy just makes him a good foreign Minister – although the period when he was free-lancing over the No Fly Zone was extraordinary. But it is something else when you have a government that is bleeding authority and support. In fact, it’s noteworthy how the media are struggling to get their heads around just how unpopular the government is.

  10. nick on 7th April 2011 4:44 pm

    maybe shrike but even still alp seriously shot themselves in the foot by shafting rudd in 2010 and as a result have a fair bit of work to even have a 50-50 shot at winning 2013 ….

  11. The Piping Shrike on 7th April 2011 4:47 pm

    It didn’t help, but I would argue accelerated the inevitable. If the Liberals started to appear normal, I think it would reveal Labor as being in serious trouble.

  12. nick on 7th April 2011 5:08 pm

    possibly but I do feel there was a good chance rudd could have steadied the ship and got them over the line with a majority in 2010 and hence gone into his 2nd term with a renewed mandate against a somewhat more dispirited and demoralised liberal party. If only …

  13. Rob on 7th April 2011 5:26 pm

    Your view on Gaddafi has me intrigued – how do you reconcile that with (for example) David Hirst’s arguments about Syrian instability? (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/21/syria-not-immune-to-arab-uprising)

  14. The Piping Shrike on 7th April 2011 6:19 pm

    I generally agree with it. But even the most pro-Western regime played the anti-Israel card to some degree, something that is now losing its power (except of course with that perfectly preserved chunk of the 1980s Australian left, the Greens).

  15. Peter Hill on 8th April 2011 10:35 am

    If Rudd wanted to get the ETS through he would have used a salesman rather than a technocrat like Wong to try to sell the thing to the people over the heads of the obstructionist opposition. But he didn’t – he didn’t try to sell the proposal at all, and he didn’t put in place someone who could. He didn’t want to lose any political capital in fighting for it, so I can’t believe he ever considered a double dissolution over it.

    Is the (domestic) sense of drift and loss of authority a function of waiting around until the senate changes in July? Or am I fooling myself that this government will have any plans to put in place when they (and the pantomime villain greens) have the numbers in the senate? I can’t say that they seem to be stockpiling legislation in the lower house just waiting for the new senate to approve.

    What’s going to give: well, I agree that the moment the liberals appear normal labour will be in trouble, but they’ll have to lose their leader and the very large minority of climate change deniers in the party room for that to happen. Won’t be this term.

  16. Paul of Berwick on 8th April 2011 1:14 pm

    So then, what is politics? What is its use? We bemoan, but not proffer an idea?

    What is politics, especially in this country? What is its aim?

  17. The Piping Shrike on 8th April 2011 5:02 pm

    I think Wong showed that Rudd’s main priority at the time was to drive a hard negotiation on the Liberals to split them. Winning over the public was secondary.

    I wouldn’t wait for the new Senate to give direction. I don’t think it comes from the current state of the Senate, or even Labor’s minority position in the House of Reps. It was there from their inability to give a clear reason for the sacking of Rudd (and indeed before Rudd was dumped). It is why Labor ended up with a hung Parliament in the first place.

    On the nature of politics I think we take it as it is given, a detachment from society that is making increasingly clunking attempts to relate to it (e.g. Abbott and Gillard’s Whitlam speech).

  18. Riccardo on 10th April 2011 4:12 pm

    Paul of Berwick, go back to your Politics 101 and what is the purpose of pluralism – interest groups representing individuals, and parties representing interest groups, to divvy up political power in the absence of a market for it.

    We have truly seen the end of Australian settlement. A solution to conflict over the nature of the Australian economy and the role of different sectors for over 100 years. Now that solution is bankrupt. The real end of the National Party will be the end of the family farm, just as the end of the ALP will be the end of unionised industry.

    There is still potential difference in the international system because countries like China or Libya really do see the world in different terms. Real issues to negotiate – shrinking oil supply, polluted biosphere, population growth, military aggression – and that’s before dealing with the nutters who want a mediaeval world system reinstated, whether in Riyadh, Rome or the American Mid West.

  19. Marian Rumens on 15th April 2011 8:00 am

    Okay, you’ve had a go at Labor. Now have a go at LNP. Surely Tony Abbott hasn’t been so without fault since the election. Surely there’s something to say about him and his team. I get sick of hearing about Julia Gillard and how she’s going to fail and not bring in the carbon tax or the ETS and how she’ll lose the next election because she’s got red hair.

  20. The Piping Shrike on 20th April 2011 7:40 am

    I think I’ve done Abbott. I’ve made it clear that Abbott is only in because of the Libs’ demoralisation. As I’ve said, I think he has less chance of lasting to the next election than Gillard, for whom the carbon tax is less of threat than the media is saying, (mainly because of the farcical opposition, summed up by Howes. Give me a break!)

    But Abbott’s success is due to the main story, the problem of Labor. That’s where the action is at the moment.

  21. Riccardo on 21st April 2011 11:45 am

    And Abbott has nothing more to offer, now he has rallied the troops. The troops are fighting with more gusto, but the line hasn’t moved forward much.

    Parties reach back to their ideological prejudices (I won’t say ‘base’ because I don’t think the Libs have one) in times of crisis. Ditto the repubs and the tea party. Energise the angry.

    The problem with right wing activism is not the phenomenon itself, but that the ALP is frightened of it. Some stay on message, labelling Abbott as extreme and his followers as cranks.

    But others in the ALP seem to look enviously on the pools of prejudice out in voter land and wish they had more of those for themselves.

    And a system that has grown use to 2 parties (including the media) regard lack of majority as weakness. Would Abbott not be similarly weak as prime minister, having to beg (in his case Katter) to pass every little thing. Actually Katter would think his Xmases all come at once – all his right wing populism would get through and he would negotiate to get some socialist stuff through too.

  22. j-boy on 8th May 2011 11:02 pm

    a full election called when the libs backtracked on the ets
    would have decimated the coalition.
    Labors failure to press the advantage is mystifying to any outside observer.
    The mining lobby had not yet realised a real tax was headed their way and Rudd v Abbott would have been a mismatch.
    A 30- 40 seat win for the ALP.

  23. The Piping Shrike on 9th May 2011 5:35 pm

    Ricc, I think actually the Libs would have been more chaotic if they had won last year as they were organised on the principle they would not.

    Labor would have won easily if it had gone early, but even when it did, if under Rudd. The health debate was the indicator. But then parties are not just about appealing externally to voters. As we have seen so graphically the last year, there is an internal dynamic too.

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