Thursday, 24 May 2012
The Australian’s portrayal of Labor’s class war. They wish.
All of my life I’ve taken those values with me and their values with me and there has never been a moment in my adult life where I’ve doubted their wisdom or their morality. Those Labor values, my values, your values, they are the values that have guided the Labor Government I lead.
Gillard addressing the ACTU conference
Obviously the attempts by both parties to turn the Budget into a point of political principle were a farce. Labor cared so much about making sure working families were given a “fair go” with the school payments, that it only gave them the money after it was blocked from giving it to business.
The Coalition was hardly much better. Originally their line was that a Budget that was supposed to be tough but, like all of these government’s Budgets, wasn’t, was “confusing”. Within 24 hours, after The Australian ran with a Class War headline and cartoon out of nowhere, the Coalition was duly following – surely making the Oz’s Bill Leak one of the most influential cartoonists in Australian political history.
But even if the class war antics around the Budget were laughable, there does seem to be a notch up in government rhetoric about the ”rich”, “North Shore” and Labor values, especially from the Prime Minister and, a little less convincingly, from a Treasurer now all geared up to take on Clive Palmer. This is all supposed to be about getting back to base, asserting Labor values and addressing what journalists say the PM is very sensitive about – what Labor stands for.
The first thing to say is that this going back to base is pretty well the exact opposite direction Labor has taken for the last forty years. Since Whitlam, Labor has been more interested in broadening the appeal of what was essentially a party for the unions, especially through the use of state spending to cohere middle class support.
It especially seems an odd time to start going back to base now. For a government that desperately needs to build support, narrowing it even further seems a funny way of going about it. Let’s face it, the only ones supporting Labor now are precisely the core Labor voters that they are supposed to be trying to reach out to.
Nevertheless the view that the government’s problem stems from not standing for anything is widely accepted by the media. In reality, it is what the government is standing for that is the problem.
It seems to have been forgotten in the collective amnesia that has descended on both the political class, and commentary, that four years ago there was a highly popular government that didn’t “stand” for very much at all. Indeed it would be hard to find a government that made such a song and dance about not standing for anything as did the Rudd government of 2007 – 2010.
It was not just that, from the word go, nearly every decision was referred to experts in the public service “on their merits”. In fact, the government held a widely publicised jamboree, the 2020 Summit, to ask celebs, journos and anyone else who likes mouthing off, what they should do. There could hardly be a clearer sign of a government’s empty agenda than that Summit, but it did it no harm at all.
Indeed it was the lack of standing for anything in particular that was an important part of the government’s popularity. Posing as merely a pragmatic response to whatever came up was far more appealing to a public more interested in what Cate Blanchett had to say about the future than the political organisation that was under the impression it had been elected to determine it – the Australian Labor Party.
Even on the one issue that Rudd claimed was a moral imperative, climate change, the government’s stance was posed more a response to a scientific fact, in contrast to the “political games” of the Coalition. This pragmatic pose gave the Rudd government enormous flexibility, such as its ability to go from a slasher of public spending when it came in, to the very opposite when the GFC hit and then back again without any concern over what it “stood for” on the issue.
The problem came when that pragmatism to the issue of the day became replaced by that other pragmatism, whatever was politically expedient and, after delaying the ETS, the government was seen as tricky as the previous one – a mistake later compounded by the ultimate ‘tricky’ manoeuvre, the dumping of a Prime Minister. What we saw was the party increasingly reassert itself. But for months after the dumping, while Rudd remained in the Cabinet, the position was unresolved.
However, since Rudd’s departure from Cabinet and his excoriation after his challenge in February, the government appears now clearly set on its course. So we have the fretting over its values and what it stands for that has little electoral rationale. With the party having thoroughly re-taken power, it now needs a social base for having done so – but like a floundering swimmer trying to touch the bottom, it can’t find it.
How pointless this task is was summed up by the ACTU conference last week. When you see Hawke singing “Solidarity Forever” you know something is wrong. It was a state of delusional fantasy encapsulated by the reaction to the HSU with Paul Howes claiming it could “wipe unions off the map” – as though with only 18% of the workforce, far below bargaining weight, it wasn’t already (note to ABC graphics department: 18% of men plus 18% of women adds up to 36% of nothing).
The bizarre highlight was a special appearance by those who oversaw the unions’ decline, Kelty and Keating. Like Gillard, Kelty made a hokey appeal to his childhood and the past and getting three volumes of Das Kapital for his 14th birthday (in German? A bit of an ask). But his appeal for a new basis of support for Labor is hollow as it will never mean as much as it did for their last fling when, as Keating explained, unions gave up silly things like growth in nominal wages and those awful wages explosions under Whitlam, preferring instead real wages responsibly going down as they did under Hawke/Keating.
Labor is now locked in, looking for a base that died under Keating and Kelty. It is now turning its back on the electorate and going “back to base” just like NSW Labor did after their historic defeat. It would seem, as Hartcher argues, that Federal Labor is heading in the same direction – if not for one thing. Labor is not the only major party having turned its back on the electorate to find itself.
We have been here before. Two and a half years ago, Australia’s most successful post-war political machine did what it has never done before, it forfeited the next election in order to save itself. The Liberals deliberately chose an unpopular leader on what was an unpopular policy to protect its “brand”.
What has confused things is that since then the Liberals’ and Abbott’s unelectability has been obscured by Labor’s decline. As a result it is possible, if you are especially deluded, to think what we are seeing a victory of the right rather than a decline of the left, and the right.
The confusion can currently be seen in two ways. Firstly right wing cultural bores like Miranda Devine still can’t get their heads over the most unpopular opposition leader since polling records began. Look at her trying to justify her outrage at Windsor’s trashing of Abbott as she claims:
Newspoll shows his popularity increasing in the preferred prime minister stakes as the Coalition’s figures head into the stratosphere.
Well, yes, Abbott is preferred to Gillard (just) and the Coalition even more so, but of course Miranda ignores satisfaction levels showing what we all know, that Abbott is highly unpopular, precisely for the type of views that those like Devine love him for.
The second sign of the extent of delusion in the Coalition is that Abbott’s rival in a party of jostling prima donnas, Joe Hockey, is positioning himself to the right of Abbott, no doubt to appeal to those éminence grises of the party that are annoyed with Abbott’s adaptation to electoral reality. Yet even on a position that the mainstream of the Liberal party would have felt totally comfortable on a few years ago, gay marriage, Hockey ends up looking distinctly uncomfortable when forced to match his mouthing off in the abstract against the family of the Senator sitting opposite him.
Both parties, and their fan base, are now locked into a trajectory that is taking them away from the electorate and into themselves and based on a left-right divide that has lost its meaning. At the moment the focus is on Labor because their crack-up is instructive. But if the last election was bad enough, the delusion of both sides of the political spectrum suggests we are building up to a full-blown political crisis yet to come.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 24 May 2012.Filed under State of the parties