Monday, 14 January 2013
We can at least know one good thing about 2013. It will not end as it has begun. At some point during the year the electorate will step in and break up what has been a delicate pas de deux between Gillard and Abbott for the last three years.
It’s a delicate balance because however much they, and the media, like to portray it as a grim fight to the death, the leaderships of both parties are mutually supportive. It’s not just that there is so much agreement on the main issues, but, indeed because of it, both sides are committed to the argy-bargy that pretends that there still isn’t.
From the day when Abbott took over the leadership to reassert the Liberal “brand”, so spooking Labor into rediscovering theirs – to the point where newly-appointed Gillard could walk up to Abbott and tell him it was “game on” once again – the two parties have been mutually reinforcing each others’ brands, and hyping up the difference between them. In reality, however, both have struggled to do so on any point of substance.
It is not just the obvious points of agreement that emerged in 2012, such as over asylum seeker policy, where both parties, along with the media, came together to admit that Howard was right all along over the Pacific Solution, only to find that, lo and behold, he wasn’t and that the Pacific Solution didn’t stop the boats at all.
Nor even the phoney battles over policy, such as the carbon tax, where one side that had supported a policy then backed away from it, then was forced to support it again, fought it out with the other side that was against the policy, then for it, then decided it wasn’t after all.
No, what was even more striking were the major shifts in policy that were barely discussed at all. The most profound being Labor’s formal abandonment on what had been a century long position on welfare and the role of the state. Having developed its program for most of the 20th century around the twin pillars of the needs of the trade union bureaucracy and the role of the state as a security net against the vagaries of the market, the creep away from that latter position over the last twenty years took a small but significant jump in 2012.
The foundation of that break was first made, of course, with the NT intervention in 2007 and the introduction of income management into indigenous households. Under the cover of a child abuse panic with racial overtones, an important line was crossed that our equal opportunity political leaders were only too willing to apply to the broader population. Rudd tried to talk more about in the dying days of his Premiership, and Abbott has been bothering indigenous communities endlessly for the last three years, along with his good friend Noel Pearson, saying how terrifically it was working.
However, in 2012, Labor made finally made the break – and the target was single parents. However, unlike Rudd and Abbott (as well as Howard when he introduced Welfare to Work reforms in 2006) there was no ideological dressing-up. Ministers tried claiming that putting single mothers onto Newstart would help with getting back into employment, but this was nonsense. At the same time Labor was putting single parents on Newstart, it was also cutting back around $200m funding to Job Services Australia and their providers and extending the time before they could receive employment assistance. There is not even a pretence of a new agenda, merely a cost-savings exercise, but representing the abandonment of Labor’s historic agenda nonetheless.
When this happened, however, there was barely a word about this in the press. Because on the very day Labor passed it through, the nation’s most powerful woman was seriously trying to pass herself off as a victim of sexism. While the MainStreamMedia and its self-styled alternative in the social media got involved in a fascinating discussion over the “context” of Gillard’s speech, its importance actually lay in ignoring any context at all. It meant not only ignoring the absurdity of a Prime Minister trying to pose as a victim, and the fact that she was overseeing passage of legislation penalising a section of Australian women who arguably were, but instead seeing it as one woman coming back on derogatory attitudes experienced by other women.
Gillard’s sexism speech pointed to one trend that is occurring in politics underneath the formal Lib-Lab business-as-usual argy-bargy. Just as the political parties become more detached from society, so the flipside is it becomes more about individuals. Through 2012 there were a host of issues that were all down to personal behaviour or feeing, whether for Gillard, Abbott, Slipper-Ashby or Thomson that went hand in hand with the political parties’ detachment from social issues.
The other trend that accelerated during the 2012 was the increasing convergence and confusion of political issues with the media. Politics as representation of society increasingly becomes seen its inverse; politicians and the media influencing a passive receptive society – which in reality is becoming less receptive to both. Several times in 2012 this relationship between politics and the media descended into grisly farce: the furore over Alan Jones’s tasteless remarks on the PM’s father and the fretting by the Cabinet whether to still go on a show of a personality whose influence is grossly exaggerated, and the use of a nurse’s suicide to pursue a political agenda against the media, that showed the tastelessness of even the crassest Sydney jock.
But while these trends continued under the surface in 2012, and will likely to do so in 2013, this year we should expect some movement on the surface as well. Both leaders are kept in by parties wishing to retain their brand but likely to find it harder to do so in 2013. Abbott is there for ideological reasons and Gillard is kept in more by institutional reasons, as shown by the near unanimous support by the union bureaucracy for her over Rudd in February.
If, as seems more likely this year, Labor loses government, that institutional arrangement will likely be under more pressure. Rudd, Hawker and Faulkner have pointed the way with their calls for party democracy. It is not about democracy in reality, indeed its opposite, aligning the party’s organisation to the lack of a social base. Whether it actually translates to power for Rudd, or more likely, for someone else on their agenda, will not only be determined by what happens in Australia, but also, as ever, by overseas developments as well.
Because in Europe and the US, forced by the financial crisis, a political realignment is underway. Old parties are falling away and those that are surviving are reshaping themselves and we are seeing the forming of what can best be descried as a financial bureaucracy. In Australia, insulated as it is from the financial crisis, we have to sit and watch the decay of the old. But even if it remains that way for some time, the old will still have to give way in 2013.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 14 January 2013.Filed under State of the parties