Peter Hartcher described two parallel universes in Australian politics on the weekend and neither sounded very convincing. One had the Opposition leader calling for a people’s revolt in the face of a national emergency from a government destroying the economy. The other a government calmly getting on with its reforms and facing a largely supportive legislature when it comes to actually getting bills passed.

The ‘People’s Revolt’ is just a continuation of Abbott’s tactic since he became leader, namely to concoct a phoney populism in order to brush over the fact that neither he, nor the Coalition, has any real problem with Labor’s program. Certainly they don’t have anything really to counteract it with, at least that their traditional business supporters would especially want.

Abbott’s task to come in and restore the party’s ‘brand’ is exactly that, a marketing exercise, and so unsurprisingly, involves stunts and media moments and not much else. Over the last few months, this marketing campaign has taken on an extra momentum, as it becomes less about maintaining the Coalition’s brand but maintaining Abbott in his leadership role, as the Coalition realises that with the pressure off, what the brand needs is not to convince themselves that there is still some viable constituency for ‘conservative’ ideas, but to convince everyone else that the Coalition is capable of forming competent government.

But just because Abbott’s People Revolt is as phoney as an Alan Jones convoy does not mean that the government’s problem are as imaginary as an ACT road blockade and as Hartcher’s second parallel universe would suggest.

Mungo MacCallum also picks up this line, asking “crisis, what crisis?” to the idea being put around that the opposition going for broke against a government reeling from scandal all sounds terribly 1975. He has a point; reneging on pairs for an artist’s memorial service hardly compares to stacking the Senate and blocking Supply.

Yet suggesting that the government’s crisis is all a concoction of Abbott and the meeja doesn’t ring true either. A clue in the problem in MacCallum’s reasoning is his pointing out that at least 1975 ended in a resolution, whereas today there is no climax.

If anyone can work out what will be the resolution to the current financial crisis in Europe and the US, they could probably make a fortune. Just because there is no resolution in sight does not mean it isn’t a crisis. Indeed it’s practically a pre-condition of one, given that what we are really talking about here is an inability to carry on in the same old way – a situation that can only be resolved when something new happens – something that MacCallum concedes happened in 1975 with the unprecedented (at least in Canberra) Dismissal.

MacCallum of course suggests at that other way that it could have been resolved in 1975, if Whitlam had held on and the Liberal Senators had cracked. This is a favourite bit of left revisionism of 1975, namely that the Labor government’s popularity was starting to improve and that it would have gone on to revive if not for Kerr. The problem with that theory is that the rise in popularity was largely due to anger at the Liberals’ tactics than a revival in public standing of the Whitlam government, which was already damaged beyond repair, something confirmed when the resolution came and Labor went on to a historic defeat.

Yet Labor’s polling at that ‘historic’ defeat, looks positively halcyon these days. Since 1993, Labor has only once surpassed its 1975 primary vote in the only election it has won since. The government is now breaking records in poor polling by either major party that far surpassed Whitlam during his worst days. Yet this comes not because the government is on the ropes from a resurgent opposition, or even that it is facing baseball bats in the electorate, but simply that it has lost the basis for authority, something accelerated, but certainly not caused by the events in June last year.

The problem is summed up by the Craig Thomson affair. The first thing to note is that the momentum for the scandal has not come from the often cack-handed manner in which the Coalition, and especially Brandis, have handled it. Instead much of it has come from the protagonist himself, especially his inept call in to 2UE where he admitted signing the credit card statements – but also from a union that in handing over files to the police, clearly finds the survival of a Labor government, one it helped to re-elect, now a matter of indifference.

But even more striking is that this is an issue that has been in the public domain for years. There is little new that has now come to light. What has caused the scandal to take off is not the act itself, but that the conditions in which it is now viewed have changed – just as phone-hacking and expense rorting were known about in the UK for years but only became a scandal, not from the revelations themselves, but the decline in authority of the institutions that had previously been able to get away with it.

The government may still continue its hold on Parliament while the numbers stay as they are despite the undermining of its authority; indeed the make-up of the current Parliament relies on it. As Windsor admitted when casting their support, choosing Labor came not on the terms of the deal, Abbott threw more money at them, but which arrangement would keep them in power the longest, that is, which party was most reluctant to go to the polls. For the independents this made perfect sense, but it means this Parliament has an in-built disconnect with the electorate that, contrary to what Hartcher claims, is no more likely to be resolved at the next election than it was at the last.

This is the real difference between now and 1975. In 1975, the crisis could be managed in the framework of the political system and eventually be resolved by it, even if the rules had to be stretched to do it. This time the crisis is of the system itself and neither party can do much about it, with the histrionics of the opposition only highlighting their own lack of legitimacy. As a result, the nature of this political crisis is less represented by what is going on in the Parliament but, as we have seen in the last few weeks, by the very way politics is now understood and discussed.
(To be continued in the next post).

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 30 August 2011.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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9 responses to “What a political crisis looks like – 2011 edition”

  1. Mahaut on 30th August 2011 10:35 am

    these are words of great wisdom.
    Re 1975, I don’t think the decisive election win by Fraser resolved the political situation. There was an air of illegitimacy about his government for at least the first term. It is arguable that it was not resolved until the election of the Hawke government in 1983.

  2. Riccardo on 30th August 2011 1:11 pm

    And you could argue in 1974 that a solid 40% of the electorate on the ALP were rusted on (I mean really rusted on) and ditto on the Liberal side.

    The boat listed to one side, the middle 20% payload shifted away from Whitlam but never once threatened to sink the boat.

    I’ve often wondered if the talk of Army on the streets wasn’t conservative fightin’ talk, but leftists who imagined their plight to be in the Allende league.

    Well may we say God Save the Queen, because nothing will save Australian politics without a base.

  3. Riccardo on 30th August 2011 1:16 pm

    Also you won’t see the ALP drawing too many comparisons with the ‘we woz robbed in 1975’ meme because the precarious parliament and members who might be there ‘under false pretenses’ might be favouring the government at present. Windsor and Oakshott are not Field.

  4. Riccardo on 30th August 2011 10:38 pm

    Pity Paul Howes isn’t a faceless man, could do with his face less often. He’s no Hawke.

  5. Grant on 31st August 2011 5:04 pm

    The circumstances, reasons and support bases for establishment of parties both left and right have just about disappeared, the only party with a current sense of relevance is the greens who will solidly appeal to a maximum of 20% of the electorate – what we are seeing is the atomisation of political interests and structures in Australia and perhaps the west.

  6. Riccardo on 1st September 2011 2:45 pm

    Very true Grant.

    With people no longer working in blue collar, organised labour industries there is no need for the ALP. With no ALP there is no need for a party set up specifically to oppose them.

    Business these days gets what it needs outside the party system. Workers get a mixture of income from centrally directed, market driven and entitlement programs, also outside the party system largely.

    Unlike the US, our teapartyists have no guts to pursue hard right social policies, winding clocks back on abortion, decriminalisation of homosexuality or living in sin, they only fluff around making noises on these issues for effect.

    So I would suggest there is no real political debate in this country, just a Punch and Judy show.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 1st September 2011 6:53 pm

    I don’t really agree with this, as I tend to see Labor’s decline directly a result of political factors, especially the experience of the Hawke years rather than major changes in the workforce itself.

  8. dedalus on 5th September 2011 5:58 pm

    One of the problems with all of this is the partisan view – its defined far too narrowly. Labor vs Libs – how passe. The real dichotomy is far more modern – or ancient depending on how far back you want to go. It’s progressive vs conservative. You really have to lump green votes in with labor votes, that’s all that really matters, plus whichever side of the philosophical divide the independents happen to fall. In this latter regard it’s obvious that 3 of the 4 independents are progressives.

    I predict that however the next election pans out, the split as I’m stating it here will be in the range of 47-53, as it always is. If you’re a progressive, a carbon tax and NBN will be “progressive” achievements. If you’re a conservative you’ll be hoping for some kind of windback – which, due to the nature of conservatism, will actually be an entrenchment of the carbon tax and NBN policies. Both sides will feel aggrieved, because both sides are too entrenched in narrow partisan positions to see the whole dynamic.

  9. Riccardo on 27th September 2011 2:35 pm

    If you see the comments on Harcher in Fairfax, re Putin and Medvedev, you can see anti-politics is working and support for authoritarian rule has never been higher.

    The more the Abbott and Gillard show continues, the more people will look for mild authoritarianism.

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