Crumbling from within – an update

Tuesday, 1 May 2012 

Here we go again. Except this time it’s different.

Labor’s problem is not sleaze, but a lack of political authority. Gillard’s weekend move has just made that worse.

On their own, both the Thomson and the Slipper affair should have been relatively easy to handle. Thomson wasn’t a Minister so there would have been no great back-down from slapping him a bit, making a big song and dance about taking him off any committee, and even talking about the seriousness of the charges and the need to clean up the unions (without actually doing anything about it). The threat would have been that Thomson resigned his seat and caused a by-election, but then someone with the threat of criminal charges from activities in an organisation Labor still has some influence over, might not have been in a strong position to negotiate.

Slipper should have been even easier. First, because standing him aside would not have fundamentally changed the government’s position. Secondly, because his alleged misdemeanours occurred while he was a Liberal and thirdly, because of that, was much more widely seen as a problem with “all politicians” rather than just the government that appointed him to the Speakership. Labor could have easily done as Shorten actually did, talk up the seriousness of the sexual harassment charge while leaving everything to the investigation.

But this is not really about Thomson and Slipper, or even Labor’s tactics for handling them. Both cases have simply become another touchstone for what the problem has been all along, the chronic loss of political authority from a party that remains organised on a basis that has little social meaning. By coming back to “take control” of the situation, Gillard merely made the issue all about herself again.

When Gillard said a line had been crossed in perceptions of Parliament, it was a line that even most of the Canberra Press Gallery, normally most sensitive to such things, could not even see. Rather it was the line around her own leadership that was being crossed. Grattan, in a sharp piece that alluded to former glory, put her finger on it by showing how Shorten did a nice undermining of the PM by fully backing her (even if it made him look like a joke to anyone else) but without actually arguing for her position – indeed actually contradicting it.

What is happening now is historic because it is the first round of Gillard leadership speculation that even Barrie Cassidy can’t blame on Rudd. But inevitably talk turns to the possibility of Rudd’s return. Yet in speculating on it there is some obliviousness in the Press Gallery to what has changed in the dynamic since February.

This is a dynamic that can be little explained by electoral realities. This is about an internal power struggle in the party for which since June 2010 (indeed even for some months before) the electorate has come an increasingly poor second to the needs of ALP power brokers to hang on. The result of the attacks on Rudd in February was not only to flush him out, and force a premature challenge before he could build momentum, but to do whatever possible to prevent another one.

This was why we had the bizarre parade of Ministers, as well as Gillard herself, launching vitriolic attacks on not only Rudd personally, but also on his time in office, so as to warn of the dangers of another go. It didn’t matter that it meant trashing Labor’s biggest asset, its handling of the GFC. The Coalition made some inroads attacking the periphery of the government’s program around pink batts etc. But even they didn’t go as far as Gillard did in her Adelaide press conference on the 23 February when she made clear that the dysfunctionality went to the very heart of the government at the time.

The most damaging aspect of the Ministry’s attacks was not so much what it did for Rudd, but to suggest that his return would now mean half the Cabinet walking out. In effect, the government strapped explosives around its waist and threatened to blow itself up were Rudd to come back. There was always going to be damage to Labor’s credibility if they turned back to someone they had previously dumped. What the government did in February was to make the damage explicit – and personal.

In doing so, the government has reduced any electoral benefits from a Rudd return and, combined with the even deeper disillusionment of the electorate since then, has made an electorally successful second Rudd term even less likely this side of the election and so raises the question why he would bother.

This suggests two things. First, having made such a stand, it seems even more likely that the party will turn to someone else before Rudd on grounds that will make little electoral sense. Secondly, a Rudd return would require an even greater gutting out of the party’s structure as outlined in a piece by Hawker last week. With the first looking more likely, it looks increasingly as though the electorate will have its own “gutting out” of the party, before the likes of Hawker can dress it up as “party reform”.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 1 May 2012.

Filed under State of the parties

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Comments

16 responses to “Crumbling from within – an update”

  1. Mahaut on 1st May 2012 9:46 am

    It looks like Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly to me.

  2. Damien on 1st May 2012 10:27 am

    Sadly I agree with much of this analysis.

    Somehow the party (this cannot be lumped on one person) is unable to base their legitimacy on their record of reform and economic success.

    This blog article, and even this comment, shows that the frame in which we consider this government is not about policy or unemployment or infrastructure – but the incredibly subtle rules relating to the excise of power.

  3. Avalon Dave on 1st May 2012 11:03 am

    It just goes from bad to worse to worst to something I don’t have a word for.

    I remarked in an earlier post sometime ago, that this Government couldn’t sell fish on Good Friday.

    They saved 200,000 jobs with through the GFC, were lauded by the IMF. But no-one will give them any credit for it.

    The Mining Tax is good policy. The Reserve Bank only has a single lever, so a targeted tax at the sector that is causing all the inflation, and then redistributing that revenue to sectors like manufacturing is a good thing – it solves a lot of the problems. But they have just been terrible in selling what is a simple story.

    The electorate has simply given up on them. And it’s all self inflicted, as they just haven’t gotten their eyeballs out of their navel, since they assassinated Rudd the first time.

    I just despair at the thought of Tony Abbott having the sort of majority it seems he will have, at the end of next year.

    So disappointed…..

  4. Michael on 1st May 2012 1:12 pm

    So an Abbott lead government with a huge majority. It will be interesting times indeed. Is it possible they could get a majority in the senate if there was an electoral wipeout? That really would be interesting. What would be the source of Abbott’s electoral aurthority for exercising all that power? Tea party style tax cuts?

  5. Riccardo on 1st May 2012 1:16 pm

    Rudd might consult the ghost of Don Chipp. Declare the ALP dead, the unions rotten carcasses which they are, lead the Israelites to the Promised Land. There is a place somewhere, a Paradise Lost, where Rudd is right now a ghostly figure, leading his flock as Prime Minister of an alternate Australia.

    Or as they mentioned with him on Weibo, is he actually wanting Xi Jinping’s job and he’ll soon be moving into the Zhongnanhai.

    TPS, missed that post you did on Bob Brown’s resignation, maybe it got accidentally deleted off your server.

    The media has been full of conspiracy theories, yet Annabel and friends then plead that the Greens don’t tell them anything (as if the media have any right to be told, when in fact they have just become used to the backgrounding the majors do, making journos lazy).

    Lee Rhiannon looks like a minor figure to me, yet our friend Gerard is sure she is Jo Stalin reincarnated, and the rest of the press corp seem to take a lead from him.

  6. Michael (the other one who occasionally comments here) on 1st May 2012 6:06 pm

    Quite aside from my own aversion to Rudd (well documented on this website), a return to him is simply not an option. (How could you take seriously a party that one day all but ex-communicated a former leader and but a few months’ later turned to him as its Messiah?) That was the point of all those attacks. Burn the boats! Burn the bridges! Anything to make sure we can never go back to him! In that sense, the Shrike is right: it wasn’t about the electorate, it was all about them.
    For all that, I doubt Abbott will win a huge majority in the House (let alone a majority at all in the Senate). The narrowing will happen – but from too far out a point to avoid defeat.

  7. Avalon Dave on 1st May 2012 7:05 pm

    I agree with you Michael the 2nd.

    Tony Abbott still only has a 41% approval rating, despite all the free kicks the Government has gifted him.

    And many within his own tent are worried about what he might do with control of both houses. Will they move? That could be the next circus in town.

  8. Thomas Paine on 1st May 2012 9:46 pm

    Well that is the worry isn’t it? That Abbott actually may get a little bit of coherence and gain some further acceptance. OR to give themselves some added insurance they put Turnbull and Sidonis in senior roles.

    People simply keep not believing the polls, assuming they will get better after such and such, then when they don’t they choose another milestone where the polls will narrow, and the don’t, in fact they are getting worse.

    Maybe people should stop and think. Maybe these are the real intentions of the public, maybe this is pretty much what is going to happen at an election. The danager is to assume a narrowing then when it becomes obvious of the magnitude of the loss it is too late.

    Not as though electoral thrashings are out of vogue in recent history.

    I think we can believe it when the public say they are going to whip Labor for its sins.

  9. Michael on 1st May 2012 9:56 pm

    If the next election is all about punishing Labor and Abbott continues his tactic of not having any serious policies then the narrowing might not happen. I didn’t follow the Queensland election, but did Campbell Newman (I have to confess that I had to look up his name) win on a policy platform?

  10. James on 1st May 2012 10:36 pm

    The best thing the Government can do is not be spooked and keep its cross-bench supporters in their tent. They need to keep governing and let the carbon and mining taxes function for as long as possible before an election. The longer the taxes exist, the harder it will be for Abbott to destroy them.
    I think the Slipper affair reflects more badly on certain media than the Government. Even the ABC has seemed tawdry in its coverage. Opening Lateline with “Slipping it in” was off. Some texts published in newspapers were only fit for porn sites.
    Yes the PM displayed terrible judgement appointing Slipper but the Opposition is having less reason to seem pious. Pyne’s drinks with Asby in Slipper’s office suggests the Coalition may have their own stench to deal with regarding this case.
    I think it’s too early for the ALP to change leaders again. If they do go for a change, I’d suggest Roxon. She’s currently their best performer.

  11. dedalus on 2nd May 2012 9:27 am

    Talking up possible alternate leaders is a well worn political strategy used by all sides. You set up a straw figure with the ultimate purpose of tearing it down, by using the well worn political strategy of setting up a possible alternate leader with the ultimate purpose of tearing down by using the well worn …

    What’s obvious is that any party led by any leader, including a drover’s dog (or bitch), will get two terms at least on the treasury benches. That is a cast iron certainty as far as these things go. Why the ALP got spooked in 2010 by the remote possibility of the extreme unlikely is beyond me.

    What only matters, surely, is what is done in that brief term.

    In the current case: plenty. When the froth and bubble which the voting public perceives as “politics” subsides after its inevitable six or nine year cycle, the sides will switch sides and on it will go.

    We will have an NBN and other good stuff. Like Whitlam will be remembered for Medibank, the current mob’s drover’s dog and bitch will one day be remembered more respectfully for handling the gfc, introducing the NBN, and other good stuff.

  12. Riccardo on 3rd May 2012 11:29 am

    Can you Labor Lackeys please explain, in your best Pauline Hanson voices, what the ALP is for?

    Is it a funnel for broad left votes to be marshalled?

    Why does it matter if Murdoch is biased against it?

    Presumably if the rich man sees the ALP as a threat, then it must be doing the thing is used to pledge to do, which is to take the rich man’s money, and give it to the poor.

    However if the ALP is no threat to the rich man, then the ALP is not doing its job any more, and so why vote for it?

    If someone can tell me not just whether the ALP is doing its job, but whether it is ‘supposed’ to be doing its job ie is there anyone who wants redistribution – I’d love to know.

    All the studies seem to suggest no one wants redistributive justice any more, the better off poor man empathises more with the rich man than with the middle class trying to preserve some equity.

  13. dedalus on 5th May 2012 9:01 am

    Riccardo, your robin hood analogy is way too simplistic. It’s not about simple wealth distribution, it’s about equity and running a country well in all its multi-dimensional facets.

    It’s not important which side is voted for per se – that’s merely rah-rah partisanship: reducing voters to the level of football supporters (which a great many are, let it be said).

    It’s about runs on the board leading to credible expectations of competency. So we have a universal health scheme, labor unionisation, pensions and a broad-based social security safety net. Tick the progressive side for all those boxes.

    We have economic vision: the Hawke-Keating reforms, the successful handling of the GFC. Whitlam’s start to dismantling of tariffs.

    We have foreign policy and national security: Curtin’s turning to the US in WW2, Whitlam’s opposition to Vietnam, ALP’s opposition to Iraq. Whitlam’s preemptive recognition of China. Keating’s engagement with SE Asia.

    We have nation-buiulding infrastucture: the Snowy scheme (Chifley), the NBN (Rudd).

    That progressive governments achieve so much before getting turfed out is what matters, not that they get turfed out. That latter is inevitable, cyclical and goes with the territory.

  14. Riccardo on 5th May 2012 9:22 am

    That souns like rara partisanship to me!

    I’ll ask again, what is the alp for?

    The points you made the libs would say they also stand for, if you asked them. The greens too.

  15. Snorky on 5th May 2012 2:37 pm

    A number of commenters here speculate on an Abbott Government. I concede that it looks inevitable that the Coalition will win the next election, but I don’t think it’s at all inevitable that Abbott will be leading it.

  16. dedalus on 6th May 2012 8:00 pm

    Standing for something is easy after it’s been accomplished by someone else. Partisanship is not the same as pointing to a scoreboard.

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