Illegitimate – Budget edition

Saturday, 14 May 2011 

Kylie will extend that kitchen back wall for you, if you ask nicely.

We respect the efforts of the brickie and look with a jaundiced eye at the lifestyle of the socialite.

J Gillard 31 March 2011

I do not think you are rich.

Tony Abbott 13 April 2011

If that is your brain surgeon, would you go to him to deal with what’s inside the sacred vessel of your head?

Barnaby Joyce 14 April 2011

There has been some outrage from the media that Abbott used the Budget-in-reply speech not to talk about his alternative Budget for the economy, but to treat the Budget as though it was about nothing but politics. Has it been anything else this year?

Anyone remember the debt truck? This was supposed to be the prop, once used by Howard in opposition, and revived by Turnbull, to highlight the economic evils of debt. When Rudd first ran up the deficit spending, the debate was supposed to be all about higher interest rates, costs of borrowing, dangers of debt etc. etc.
But something has changed. The economic urgency of getting rid of the debt has slipped away to the point where Gillard now keeps getting asked whether she is just keeping to her timetable to go back into surplus more for political reasons than anything else.

There are basically two times when the Australian political class is forced to directly make its case to Australian electorate, at election time and the Budget. As we saw last August, elections are becoming more about political parties seeking legitimacy in their own eyes than actually making a direct appeal to voters. The Budget, and the economic debate running up to it, appears to have become much the same thing.

The scene was set a few weeks ago when in a speech to the party faithful at the Whitlam lecture, Gillard tried to talk about Labor values in a clunking way, talking about brickies and stuff.

As usual, the media generally interpreted this in straightforward political terms; i.e. an electoral need to distance from the Greens. But instead of simply attacking Green policies, the bowel-clenching really came when Labor started talking about themselves – especially its “delight at sharing the values of every day Australians” bit. So we had the other interpretation, from ones like Shanahan, that Gillard is banging on about Labor “values” to try and hold on to the party’s base, when there is little electoral justification she needs to. Even during the NSW debacle, Labor still held on to its base, despite delusions from the right that somehow they are making inroads. Abbott’s army (remember that?) is as illusory as Howard’s Battlers.

What we are really seeing, especially brought on by the NSW debacle (and the failure of the June takeover) is an introspective, existential crisis but communicated to the world (or at least those who are listening). That’s why often, especially when it is said in a loyal audience such as the Whitlam lecture, it sounds so weird.

It was a different audience, different message, but still the same purpose a few weeks later when Gillard claimed at the Sydney Institute that Labor is the party of work, not welfare. This first raises the question of who was the party of welfare, since we seem to have a whole system of it, the Liberals?

Of course, such a distinction between work and welfare was precisely what Labor was not about, since the reason why Labor was at the forefront of setting up a welfare system in Australia was because, as the biggest losers of unemployment, organised labour saw that the state had to fill the gap when the economy was unable to do so. Labor was the party of work and welfare, because it didn’t trust the economy to deliver work on its own.

The response would be now that unemployment is not a problem, 5% is nothing, and if it isn’t, then it’s the fault of that 5%. The problem is shortage of workers, not shortage of work. It has not been widely picked up, but that was very much the underlying agenda behind Gillard having that super-portfolio during the Rudd years of IR, education and, that loaded term of sociologists, “social exclusion”.

In some highly articulate and intelligent speeches, with which this blogger agreed with barely a word, Gillard set out a shift in the relation between government and labour that went from the traditional collective organised response, under IR, to the individual, under education and the really isolated individual, “social exclusion”. The idea beyond social exclusion is that people can drop out of society for reasons that go beyond that of social failings, but individual behavioural issues as well.

These behavioural issues basically seem to be that if you sit at home on your big fat arse watching telly when you are unemployed, you will get morose, and depressed, and have low self esteem, which makes it harder to find a job. It becomes government’s role then to give a bit of a kick up said arse for your own good. In her speech she notes with approval bumping into someone in a WA mining area, from her electorate in Melbourne who had shown incentive to cross the country for a job, raising the question, so why doesn’t everyone else? It’s also the thinking to provide incentives to teenage mothers to get out and fill those jobs, which presumably would require some post-natal toning up, given most of those jobs seem to be in the mining industry.

All this is sounding terribly ‘new thinking’, in a right wing sort of way, and market fundamentalist (although not enough, of course, to simply rely on the market solutions, i.e. businesses simply paying more to entice workers or even, god forbid, letting more immigrants in to fill the gaps). But unlike Labor’s previous bouts of economic rationalism, say, as under Hawke and Keating, this time business aren’t especially asking for it. The mining industry does need more workers, but these measures are hardly going to make much difference for that – and elsewhere in the economy the need for more workers is a lot more mixed, to say the least.

These welfare measures are really about Labor redefining its relationship to government and society, but this time based on little than the need to respond to its own malaise and insecurity about what that relationship is. Just like its attempt to find a ‘solution’ to the non-existent asylum seeker problem, it has all become about itself and legitimacy and the public look on either unimpressed or bemused as to why they hurl themselves into issues that they can’t resolve.

It is this issue that Abbott is really focussing on and why he could comfortably bypass the economic debate it is wrapped up in. Laura Tingle, as often, put her finger on the main point when she made comparisons to 1975, when Fraser and the Coalition set about destroying the legitimacy of the Whitlam government:

For long time parliamentary watchers, there are strong parallels with Malcolm Fraser’s tactics in 1975 – when the Coalition flatly refused to engage in any issues run up the flagpole by the government, to rob it of any chance of controlling the political agenda.

But there are also gaping differences. Fraser could still call on some sense of establishment and authority that could delegitimise the Whitlam government, including the office of Governor General to deal the final blow. Abbott has none of it. Fraser had Doug Anthony, Abbott has Barnaby Joyce. Fraser had a quarter of century of conservative rule to fall back on, Abbott is trying to parade the fag end of the Howard Ministry as a plus. Fraser had Whitlam’s ministerial resignation, scandal, economic problems and the loans affair; Abbott has nothing to work with but Labor getting too close to an unregulated industry with poor safety record like the home insulation industry. Most importantly, Fraser could put all of this together and mobilise a middle class behind it; Abbott can’t decide whether he’s standing up for the Battlers or those over $150k, or maybe those so financially incompetent they are battling on $150k. But then, he does have a government so insecure, it needs to remind itself what it actually stands for. Whitlam never had to do that.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 14 May 2011.

Filed under State of the parties

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9 responses to “Illegitimate – Budget edition”

  1. Gordicans on 15th May 2011 11:23 pm

    Wonderful stuff. Not mentioned is News Limited. News Limited is the unpleasant icing on the cake that Abbott is hitching himself to, and is making this government act like an ugly bride dancing barefoot on thumb tacks. Whitlam had the same problem, but Murdoch didn’t drive the agenda to the same extent 35 years ago.

  2. j-boy on 16th May 2011 7:20 pm

    has there ever been a more ordinary lot than the current bunch its almost as if rubbery figures have come to life without the gravitas…… satire is truly dead

  3. DM on 16th May 2011 9:19 pm

    The more I think about it the more I realise that things in this country seem to repeat themselves more than, probably, anywhere else in the world. We do seem to be trapped in some kind of weird timeloop: the same mistakes happen over and over again without anyone being able to learn anything. And so we find ourselves, again, in a situation where Labor is in government but can’t control the message, the Liberals are prepared to open any can of worms just to get back into government, and the naive public is manipulated by whatever is being served to it from the powers that be. Me thinks, something is rotten in this land.

  4. Riccardo on 17th May 2011 2:12 pm

    Where’s Kev? The media are making mirth that he’s inviting himself to NATO meetings when we aren’t a member – but what else is there to do, when you look at the quality of domestic politics?

    I’m also wondering if the arrest of the IMF guy is going to bring a lot of the supranationals down to earth, make they politics a lot more mundane, also seeing this with NATO where it looks like the future of Libya is very much being decided by German or French domestic opinion polling.

  5. Gordicans on 17th May 2011 3:03 pm

    Riccardo, it has nothing to do with German or French poling. The future of Libya will be determined by oil and nothing else counts. Russia and Italian partnerships dominated Lybian oil supply before the intervention (which is why Italy and Russia where against the no fly zone). But now the name of the game is for US, UK and other european interests to kick Russia (and her partnership with Italy) out of Lyba, and getting rid of the Giddafi regime is how this will be done.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 18th May 2011 6:48 pm

    This issue of the media is an important one, and needs more than just a comment, but my starting point is that you can’t discuss the impact of the media without recognising the more important fact of the detachment nowadays between politicians and the voters that 1) makes politicians insecure and 2) turns voters into passive rather disinterested observers. This is what makes the media seem important as it takes advantage of an insecure political class and tries to portray indifference over current issues as voter ‘anger’. As I described in an earlier post, this has been central to Murdoch’s business model.

  7. Dr_Tad on 21st May 2011 10:09 pm

    I wonder what TPS is thinking about the formally “anti-political” political protests in Spain?

  8. The Piping Shrike on 22nd May 2011 9:26 pm

    Very interesting. I have been of the view that the significance of what happened in Egypt was under-estimated. Maybe Spain will change that. Once people start to move, abstract concepts like ‘anti-political’ become very simple!

  9. Riccardo on 23rd May 2011 5:11 pm

    The Mad Katter is claiming he will move a vote of no confidence after ‘next’ budget. Why not after this budget? Surely you judge a government’s performance on its current budget, not an unknown future one?

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