Last dance

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

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15 responses to “Last dance”

  1. Alex White on 14th January 2013 8:20 am

    Interesting post, but for all the symptoms you’ve identified, you haven’t isolated the cause, which is out of control concentration of global corporate wealth and power.

  2. Mr Denmore on 14th January 2013 5:09 pm

    The political realignment is the death of a redundant and unrepresentative party system.

    Abbott represents a much narrower constituency than he imagines, which is why he polls so badly at an individual level.

    The 54-46 split LNP above ALP, I doubt is really that firm. I suspect if Abbott is still there come election time, people will baulk at voting for them.

    That’s not to say they want the ALP either. But I suspect Labor is more the centrist party than the ugly Tea Party right-wing that the coalition has become.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 14th January 2013 5:11 pm

    I don’t see global wealth and power being more out of control now than in the past, and it has arguably had less impact in Australia than elsewhere. I see this more about trends in the political system itself that are now coming to the surface and unravelling. This is a failing of the political system.

  4. Alex White on 14th January 2013 5:31 pm

    Global inequality (and in Australia, USA, UK, etc) has returned to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. I.e. it’s more out of control than it has been for over 100 years. By the way, political parties were in turmoil and unrepresentative back then too. Paved the way for collapse of traditional Whigs/Tories and rise of Labour/Labor (and populist Democrats in USA).

  5. The Piping Shrike on 14th January 2013 6:29 pm

    Mr D, Abbott is defintely the best thing Labor have going for them, but I suspect will not be enough – mainly because Labor itself is the worst thing going for them, which is why the Liberals are doing so well despite TA.

    AW, there are some similarities of the rise of Labor a hundred years in that we are seeing a pretty profound realignment, I think, but this time more about the nature of representative politics itself. History never repeats, as a New Zealand band once wisely said.

  6. Alex White on 14th January 2013 7:14 pm

    Hi Shrike, main problem with your idea that there is a realignment in representative politics that that there is no system waiting in the wings to replace it. So we just see a decay.

  7. Avalon Dave on 14th January 2013 7:31 pm

    Is it possible that Abbott will end up with an unworkable House/Senate situation? And then dig his own hole with a follow up election?

    I feel both sides (and the MS Media) will get more than a little draconian in the very near future. Everybody I speak to despises Gillard but can’t accept that Abbott is a safe pair of hands.

    Things will move quickly this year. They have all lost their marbles – the only circuit breaker is a truly great visionary that will emerge from either side. But in the meantime, expect more keystone cops.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 14th January 2013 8:50 pm

    AW, I agree.

    AD, I think it will be a very confused Coalition government, with little idea why they won, if they do.

  9. Bill on 16th January 2013 11:16 am

    Hi Shrike (you’re alive !/ long time since you last had an article here.)

    The ‘endgame’ approaches.

    As you said above, Abbott is the best thing labor has going for them. In light of the following:
    (from ‘Insiders’28/10/2012, link … )

    ‘ BARRIE CASSIDY: You mentioned another historical observation, what was that? Take us through that.

    ANDREW CATSARAS: The second observation is from Laurie Oakes who wrote in the News Limited papers that by the time of the next Federal election, Tony Abbott will have been Opposition Leader for nearly four years, and that the last Opposition Leader who had been in the job that long and went on to lead his party to victory was Gough Whitlam 40 years ago, when they defeated an incumbent conservative government that had been in for 23 years.

    Ever since then all the opposition leaders that had been successful had only been in the job for a short period of time.

    Now we can see that Gough Whitlam was there for six years, that Malcom Fraser was only nine months. Bob Hawke was only one month, John Howard 15 months, Kevin Rudd 11 months. And prior to the 2010 election, Tony Abbott had been in the job for nine months.

    But by the time of the next Federal election, he will have been in the job for nearly four years. Laurie Oakes concluded that opposition leaders who succeed and go on to become Prime Minister, tend to do so while they’re still fresh.

    BARRIE CASSIDY: A lot of information there. What does it mean for Tony Abbott and the Coalition’s prospects?

    ANDREW CATSARAS: They are significant observations and while it doesn’t mean that Tony Abbott cannot become prime minister – and neither of the writers are suggesting that – it does mean that it is going to be just that much harder for him to become prime minister as he will have to create history to make that happen. ‘

    Question: Can you see the opposition losing its nerve as the gap tightens, and maybe switching to Hockey or even back to Malcolm Turnbull a few months from now ? Given that a large swathe of the uncommitted probably balk at voting Liberal because they can’t stand Abbott, surely there’d be ‘no contest’ with either of those replacing him?

    As the above exchange highlights, Abbott is now a stale opposition leader/ many are fed up with him and his games. Somebody else would almost certainly enhance their prospects.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 16th January 2013 6:54 pm

    Turnbull’s a no-go, precisely for the reason Abbott got in in the first place: he undermines the brand – and the Libs are still big on this, so that keeps Abbott in.

    The other point is the one raised by Mumbles, it may destabilise the Labor leadership and result in the Libs losing their biggest asset: Gillard/Swan.

    It takes two to pas de deux.

  11. Mr Denmore on 18th January 2013 9:23 am

    The more pertinent metaphor, I think, is Russian Roulette. Who will blow their head off first?

    As for the Liberal ‘brand’, what is it these days? Under the Howard and dries putsch in the 80s and early 90s, it was neo-liberal. Howard then twigged, borrowing the Regan/Thatcher model, that if he put socially conservative lipstick on the economically liberal pig, he could achieve much.

    The Libs under Abbott have now completely junked economic liberalism and are really just a populist, DLP-style Catholic nationalist party. Hockey tries to wing it, but really they are a shadow of their former selves on the economic policy front.

    By contrast, there are some good minds in the ALP for all the redundant union tribalism. And they combine a rational economic liberalism with an appreciation of the value of the safety net – Gillard’s reactionary refugee policies and opposition to gay marriage notwithstanding.

    It’s such a shame Rudd was such a managerial disaster zone, because he was their best shot. Same with Turnbull. I sense the Australian people really don’t like this extreme partisanship and want to return to a saner, more centrist political discourse.

    But who will pull the trigger first?

  12. James on 18th January 2013 6:08 pm

    I expect the Coalition will continue to spin that the country is in crisis during 2013. It’s a tactic that conservative parties around the world promote so effectively, especially combined with populism. However Abbott has taken his negativity so far, the tactic appears to have lost currency for him. The Australian electorate appears to have generally cottoned on. Also the media seems more comfortable with Gillard now.
    A problem for Labor is they need to pick up at least two additional seats, as surely the two New Sales Wales Independents will be voted out.
    Shrike, do you think Labor will re-take some seats in Queensland?

  13. The Piping Shrike on 19th January 2013 11:21 am

    I hear some talk they will, but net I would be surprised. Think things are going the other way.

    On the “brand” there really was only one brand in the non-Labor parties – being non Labor. As Labor disbands its program so it causes a real headache, reaching the height of panic under Rudd when the Liberals willingly forfeited the next election by putting Abbott in (let’s not forget that). Of course, Labor’s subsequent implosion covered that forfeit up.

    I think there is a feeling in the Liberals that Abbott is just being expedient for now, until the election is over, then they can really let rip! Watch the chaos that would result.

    By the way, I don’t buy that Rudd was such a managerial disaster. Think that’s a Labor(!) furphy. I doubt they could have responded so quickly to the GFC if they were that bad, especially for a first term (check out Howard’s). Think the problem as far as the power brokers went, was that he was a little too managerial.

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