Monday, 20 August 2012
A bizarre complacency has descended on the media after the government’s adoption of (some of) the proposals from the committee of “experts” on asylum seekers. It is true that the government has finally got House agreement on a policy. But it is hardly “resolved” as the media claims. It may have been on the floor of the House, but meanwhile back in reality, both sides of the House have now descended into a fantasy land that leaves them even more detached from the political reality they both find themselves in. Labor remains very much in the firing line, but the Coalition is not far behind.
Just how much fantasy the political class is now wrapped up is summed by an article published on Friday bemoaning the decline in Australian governance by, er, Godwin Grech. Grech’s call for Howard to return as G-G, with Abbott as his parliamentary consort, is naturally framed almost wholly in terms of what would be best for the Coalition, something to be expected from an archetypal beltway insider whose internal machinations on behalf of the Liberals consisted of making up conspiracies and emails to bring down the Labor government.
But the premise of the internalised fantasy world of Grech has now become orthodoxy as shown both from Abbott’s speech in Adelaide on Saturday and the belief by the government, and the media, that the adoption of Howard’s Pacific Solution will somehow solve anything.
It’s worth recalling that if it wasn’t for the War on Terror there was no Howard Golden Age, at least politically. Howard came in with no agenda and then found out, as politicians do, that what seemed a tactic was actually unpleasant necessity, with his first term being such a flop that he ended with what was the lowest first term vote since Scullin (and still is). The first term was when the malaise in both parties took its most tangible form in the rise of One Nation from the state where the two-party system has historically been weakest.
In Howard’s second term , his government sunk even further to clock up the worst ever polling recorded for a Coalition government. The claw back from the lows of early March 2001 against an uninspiring opposition was helped by back-flips for which the Man of Steel was becoming adept, but what swung it decisively the Coalition’s way was, of course, 9/11 a few weeks before the 2001 poll. As with governments around the world, a panic about security naturally benefited the incumbent government that could best provide it. Even though, Howard’s re-election with a less than a 2% swing and only two seats changing hands from the lousy 1998 base was hardly a landslide compared to what other governments were getting at the time.
Despite the obvious impact 9/11 had on the 2001 election, as any glance at the polls of the time will show, it will be forever air-brushed out and known as the Tampa election instead, because it suits both sides of the political class to think of it that way. Labor will want to believe it was because of a high-minded attitude to Tampa, despite not having it (Beazley fully backed Howard’s SAS storming of the ship) and that Howard had irresponsibly touched the dark side of the electorate. The Liberals, no doubt with a more flattering spin, would also like to think so.
Likewise national security was air-brushed out of the 2004 election as well and to be all about interest rates; forgetting that Howard’s “who do you trust” election launch started with national security and that the turning point down for what had been until then the most popular opposition leader in decades began in March 2004 with Latham’s unilateral promise to bring the troops home by Christmas. While Labor could console itself by putting the 2001 loss down to racism, the 2004 loss could be put down to greed (Latham’s subsequent crack-up was also reassuring).
Howard’s electoral success in 2001 and 2004 then, have been totally framed not by what actually happened but what is most comforting for both parties in decline, especially Labor, but also an insecure right that could believe it still has a hold on the electorate. The re-writing of the Pacific Solution has occurred for pretty well the same reasons.
There is nothing from the experience of the Pacific Solution to suggest that it will either prevent deaths at sea nor stop the boats (how did the 1600 plus detainees at Nauru and Manus get there? Fly?). But then it was never meant to. Howard’s Pacific Solution was not about stopping the boats (in fact TPVs probably did the opposite) but to show that “we will decide”. It was an act of bravado by a political class at a time of national security panic to show that it was still in control by being able to divert boats away from Australia’s shores. Never mind that most of their occupants eventually ended up in Australia anyway, and that it only just served to add to the misery of those who came. As long as the political class felt good about themselves, that was the main point.
When it became about saving lives and stopping people smugglers was when the bravado faded with the War on Terror and it was depoliticised under Rudd and Evans into the humanitarian charade it is today. But that this humanitarian angle required its depoliticising has been totally forgotten. It’s why we have a policy that only as a piece of political bravado at a time when it was possible, now pretending to be something it is not, a humanitarian measure. No wonder the Coalition is already distancing itself from the results.
It’s an example of how, if the 2001 and 2004 elections have been air-brushed out of history, the 2007 election and the immediate years following seem to have totally dropped out of the national narrative. Did Howard really lose the election and even his seat? Not only that, did he really lose to someone who proposed to water down the asylum seeker regime, along with over-turning and de-politicising all those other totems with which Howard was supposed to tap into the electorate: by apologising to the stolen generation, signing Kyoto and threatening the hip-pocket nerve by ending “reckless spending” and proposing an ETS that people were then prepared to pay for? Not only that, did the Prime Minister who did all these things end up being so popular that it forced the Coalition to do the same, even abandoning the Pacific Solution? Can anyone remember that?
The de-politicising during 2008-2009 has been forgotten as much as the reason for the popularity for the man who did it. The agendas of the major parties, and its acceptance by the media, that remains in their thrall, has turned back to the orthodoxies of the Howard period because it gives them the best way to carry on their argy-bargy now. It has not restored their popularity of course, nor let them relate to the electorate at even Howard’s level, let alone the one who replaced him. Indeed they are now looking to be more detached than ever and, if the current Punch and Judy show carries on, as it looks as though it will to the next election, the public will likely get an outcome even more unappetising than what they got at the last. But then, it doesn’t really matter what the electorate thinks, as long as the parties feel good about themselves.
And isn’t that the main thing?
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 20 August 2012.Filed under State of the parties