The phoney problem of policy

Monday, 4 March 2013 

I've decided, these will be my people.

I’ve decided, these will be my people.

At the risk of spoiling one’s chances for Australia’s Best Blog (especially given the earnestness of the judge) this blog has a confession to make. It finds policy a bit of a bore.

Fortunately it is not alone. It’s not just worthy blogs that seem to have a problem keeping their readership focussed, politicians don’t really have much time for it either. Despite what they may claim, neither side has much appetite for policy these days.

Since Federation, pretty well every election has been fought around at least one or two of the following:

  • Economy, state spending and welfare
  • Foreign policy, national security and foreign wars
  • Environment
  • Industrial relations
  • Immigration

Unless something spectacular happens, 2013 will be the first election where none of these are seriously contested in the public sphere. Even 2010 managed just to stagger over the line with something about immigration and the economy. This year, these aren’t seriously up for debate either.

On the economy, the debate has continued the downward slide since Costello: namely who happened to be hanging around the Treasurer’s office when times were good/bad, with the other side not really having any reason why it would have been different under them. Labor would naturally like to claim credit for its handling of the GFC, but has somewhat spoilt it by dumping the leader in charge and then a year ago telling the world how chaotic the government was at the time. The Coalition will no doubt raise Labor’s failure to bring down a surplus, but no one can accuse them of not having tried.

On foreign policy, Australia is distinguished by not only loyally following the UK and then the US in practically every military venture but, unlike the other two, often uncomfortably. Sometimes Australian participation in foreign wars has been contested by Labor, or in the case of a Labor war, like the 1991 Gulf War, the Labor left. Yet here we are in Australia’s longest war in its history, and there is no debate. Even when awkward moments arise, it is unlikely that anything political will be made of them.

It’s usually Labor that claims the Coalition is not interested in discussing policy. But funnily enough, on what has been arguably the most contentious policy difference between the two sides in the current term of Parliament, climate change and the carbon tax, Labor barely wants to talk about it. Gillard tried her best to dampen it down the last election – slightly embarrassing when she was forced to backtrack to keep government with the Greens. But after having to introduce it, Labor has hardly campaigned on it and Gillard gave it one line in her landmark speech to the NPC in January and in western Sydney last night.

And, of course, industrial relations has truly lost its punch. Both sides find it convenient to claim that Workchoices was a decider in 2007, and Labor would still like to claim it’s a live issue today, but largely for branding reasons. Business had little interest in Howard’s industrial reforms and is unlikely to really care what the Coalition wants to do in the future, because the unions are no longer a threat in the workplace.

Indeed it is precisely because the real basis for industrial relations has lost its content that, for the parties organised around it, re-branding has become more important than ever. For Labor, the loss of its institutional base has been felt for over a decade through the prism of asylum seekers being the issue that has detached the party from its traditional base. It is why Labor always prefers to see its 2001 loss as due to Tampa than 9/11. It is also why immediately after the party power brokers reasserted themselves against Rudd, their insecurities over asylum seekers came once again to the fore. After trying to get some solution that would still distinguish Labor from the Coalition, that’s now failed and Labor has had to admit that Howard was right all along – so shutting down that debate as well.

Other than for a brief period during the Rudd interregnum, the Coalition has played on this insecurity ruthlessly. Despite Labor toeing the Coalition line on the Pacific Solution, it is no surprise that the Morrison–Brandis double act tried it on again last week ahead of Gillard’s visit to western Sydney.

Explaining Gillard’s trip with local polling and second-hand guesses at what really concerns western Sydney residents misses the point. This is not really about them.

It is the grappling with a loss of social base that is the real political issue in Australia today. Because of it, there are important issues buried deep beneath the consensus: the use of the indigenous intervention to set the precedent for an historic change in welfare reforms, the Constitutional con of an innocuous preamble that hides an attempt to retain the race powers laws, the international stalement of a weakening superpower that is locking Australia into a war it can’t get out of.

But these are secondary because the crisis in both the parties has now broken to the surface and leadership issues are merely the most tangible sign of it for Labor. It is no wonder then that to avoid it, it tends to be Labor supporters (but by no means exclusively) that want to focus on “policy” like, er, broadband (optic fibre or copper wiring?). Nevertheless such political ructions are important because it goes to the heart of the changing way that sections in society are being represented.

Something unusual is happening in politics. It is turning upside down. Instead of sections in society looking for representation through political parties, we now have political parties looking to find some section of society to represent and justify themselves. This is especially an issue for Labor now because it is in the middle of an institutional wrangle over its structure and because the Coalition has always been more coy about its base anyway. Gillard visit is not to “carry on governing” (unless the broadband’s better) but to redefine the party using western Sydney residents as a backdrop.

Gillard delivered her speech well last night, it’s her ability to connect to a Labor-friendly audience being a reason why the power brokers backed her in the first place. Yet there was nothing new in the speech last night other than Latham-esque platitudes to aspiration and a law and order initiative that the Coalition could quite convincingly argue was a re-hash of their own. This is not surprising as neither Labor nor the Coalition has anything to bring to the table.

But the content of the speech or the “policy” in it is not the issue here. What is more important is that Gillard and Labor, detached as they (like the Coalition) are, can be seen to relate to someone in society. This need to “relate” to a particular community may mean that the campaign begins to sound more and more like a local state election than a federal one, as we saw last time near the end. But that is all the 2013 Federal election will really be about.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 4 March 2013.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties, Tactics

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15 responses to “The phoney problem of policy”

  1. Avalon Dave on 4th March 2013 9:52 am

    Spot on Shrike. 21st Century Australia has well & truly moved on from an adversarial relationship between labour & capital. So what is the reason for a pro business or pro worker political party?

    The function of Federal Government has performed pretty much the same as it always has, probably in large part to a generally competent Federal Public Service.

    Labor’s dirty internal linen is currently exposed for all to see, especially in NSW. But I feel the real problem of this Government is that they couldn’t sell fish on Good Friday.

    The Reserve Bank had a big problem with the two speed economy, but only has the one lever. A targeted tax that slowed down the activities of some Corporate mining giants and some extremely wealthy individuals, whilst raising revenue to share the boom, should have been a “policy” no brainer.

    But they couldn’t even sell that, let alone sell an Emissions Trading Scheme or a 21st Century National Internet that the “market” was never going to build.

    What kept Menzies, Hawke and Howard in for so long, was that they could “SELL” distasteful medicine to the public.

    Like I said, these jokers couldn’t sell fish on Good Friday

  2. Dr_Tad on 4th March 2013 5:01 pm

    Avalon Dave, the adversarial relationship between labour and capital hasn’t gone away (indeed the last 30 years have seen one side winning a lot more than the other in that conflict), but the way that relationship was formalised and institutionalized in official politics vying for influence within the state certainly has unravelled.

    Unless one gets the contradiction between these two things, then the basis for the crisis of the political class becomes explicable only on the basis of “ideology”, “narrative”, “salesmanship”, etc.; explanations that I’m pretty sure TPS would not agree with.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 4th March 2013 6:09 pm

    Agree. But think the unravelling extends to how workplace relations are organised. I.e. don’t see the current union framework reviving.

    Also I think basic questions about the nature of politics are coming up.

  4. Avalon Dave on 4th March 2013 10:10 pm

    Agreed Dr Tad.

    But unless I work for a militant employer, what the hell do I need a union for? Ergo, 75-80% of workers are not members of unions anymore.

    So when that 20% of the workforce that is still in a Union and is busy fighting the likes of Qantas, they see their needs from government as very different to a Gen Y Application Developer working for a bank.

    So you have a socially conservative 20%, through their Union structure, controlling the direction of the Labor party. Meanwhile the Gen Y knowledge worker wants progressive policies like Environment, NBN, withdrawing from wars, gay marriage rights, decent treatment of asylum seekers etc. These guys are not at war with their employers and don’t see a Union based party as representative of their aspirations in any way whatsoever.

    With the exception of Gay Marriage and Asylum Seekers, the Government has mostly delivered here for Gen Y- they just can’t seem to sell it.

    I’d suggest the primary vote polling of 28% for Labor is the 20% Union members plus about another 10% that can’t stand Abbott.

    The Libs will have the same problems as Labor when they get in for not having an agenda. And I don’t know how long the Coalition Cabinet will put up with the Mad Monk “channeling Santa”.

    Canberra will continue to be a circus and the Public Service, the Banks and Corporate Sector will continue to function as normal.

  5. Bill on 5th March 2013 12:44 am

    ‘the Coalition has always been more coy about its base anyway’

    That ‘base’ is people on high incomes/born with the ‘silver spoon in their mouths’ etc …

    Generally, they want to pay as little tax as possible/take their money to their graves .. the mentality of ‘I’m alright Jack’ (F.U) .. I have a friend who’s like that, and he’s from the wrong side of the fence, but now, turned his back on his ‘roots’ / bemoaning labor waste, and he’s as mean as hell/ wants to spend as little as possible/makes out like he’s one of us (the average guy in the street …). Half the time he’s boasting how rich he is, the other half (when it comes to buying a cab etc, how poor he is ……(hmm) ).

    They say a ‘week is a long time in politics’ .. and I reckon there’s a bit of a protest vote going on at the moment, but when ‘push comes to shove’ / the moment of truth dawns, I suspect the vote will tighten quite a bit (short of some big screw up between now and September).

    How could most vote for Abbott ….. that guy is a calculating gutless COWARD .. hiding behind his troops. He’s pretty much been invisible from the ‘ABC’ over the past years, trying to avoid another ‘foot in mouth’ (Doh!) episode for which he is well known. At least Gillard is ready to talk to the people(and impartial Interviewers) …. this **** ducks and weaves and hides, pulling those stunts that he realised WAY back made him LOOK good,like volunteering/ driving fire trucks/ cleaning up rubbish etc,etc ……. I’m very cynical, and see those all about ‘photo opportunities’ … SUPPOSEDLY, if you’re a REAL person, you don’t need to show off those things/ you keep them ‘secret’ .. but somehow, HE doesn’t …

    I could ‘stomach’ Malcolm Turnbull/ WAY more to my palette then this ‘weather-vane’ cowardly opportunistic/calculating ‘pm’at ANY cost (don’t forget Tony Windsor’s assesment ..) as a replacement, but Abbott …… heaven help us ! He certainly doesn’t MORALLY deserve it, though he may well claim the biggest prize (I’ll cling to the analysis on ‘Insiders’ that said he was ‘stale’/ been around too long as opposition leader … and history was/is against him !).

  6. Dr_Tad on 5th March 2013 10:51 am

    Oops. The policy debate just started. What a surprise it’s about “teh foreigners stealing teh jobs”.

  7. Dr_Tad on 5th March 2013 10:54 am

    Agreed, TPS, there ain’t no going back to the post-WWII IR model.

  8. Mr Denmore on 5th March 2013 9:26 pm

    Shrike, I agree with your point about these being positioned by both sides as a state election. And I agree that the ALP is in an existential crisis from which it is unlikely to recover.

    But I suspect that due to Labor’s incompetence as a communicator, the Coalition’s own existential crisis is going unremarked. Their default reputation as superior ‘economic managers’ (which essentially involves doing the bidding of the highly competent econocrats at the Treasury/RBA) will be exposed as a myth in government this time. That is because they are now a populist DLP-style anachronistic Catholic rump.

    Their ideological vacuuity is why they spend their time playing their dog whistle and cuddling up to the musty obsessions of the grumpy old male culture warriors of Planet Rupert

    Neither party reflects the reality on the ground in Australia. And neither seems either willing or capable of serving the needs of the educated and liberal middle classes whose reading extends beyond the bloody Daily Telegraph.

    While policy bores you, just consider what that might mean when our commodity inheritance is exhausted, our global patron bankrupted, our skills base atrophied and our population a slack-jawed army of aub-contracting tradies and ‘service professionals’ who grew up on the Tele and the Hun.

  9. Riccardo on 6th March 2013 12:50 pm

    People forget:

    -It was Mcmahon who ordered the troops back from Vietnam
    -Whitlam who cut the tariffs
    -Fraser who started real multiculturalism
    -Hawke who privatised and neutered the unions
    -Keating who continued it with relish and gusto
    -Howard who centralised the wage fixing system into a statutory model and did more to undermine states rights and increase the tax take than anyone since before Whitlam

    The public and political commentators seem unable to see the politicians for who they really are.

    Gillard is extremely reactionary in the old language.

    Rudd took Hawke, Keating and Latham one step further, and wanted to destroy the Labor base while actually standing on it (he presumably thought he could levitate above the space thus created). Abbott is actually quite a small c conservative politician, really not promising to do much at all.

    If Abbott reduces the budget deficit, it will be using Treasury forecasts that they have also prepared for Swan. A lot of what you see in the media is just fluff and bubble, and the ‘first hundred days’ garbage they will run in Murdoch papers will be basically how they accustom the public to broken promises.

  10. Ralph on 6th March 2013 1:31 pm

    Wow, it’s all happening now, isn’t it? I think TPS is dead right to say that these days it’s all about political parties trying to find someone to represent rather than the other way around.

    In some ways, I think it’s a symptom of Australia having achieved many of its goals in becoming a wealthy first world nation. Things are so good, so cushy, for the vast majority of Australians that there’s no need for things like unions.

    I think in reality, it’s become about which party will continue to pay (or even increase) the instalments of middle class welfare that families have come to rely on to pay their massive mortgages, fund their children’s private school fees and keep the SUV shiny and full of fuel. People are doing so well that they think this kind of stuff can just continue forever and are looking for a government that tells them that it will.

    In general, I think the Coalition is more likely than not to be the predominant party so long as this affluence continues. The ALP has become largely redundant and its purpose fulfilled. It will take a significant recession for the ALP to rediscover its purpose again.

  11. Riccardo on 7th March 2013 12:25 am

    But Ralph, why should the ALP rediscover its purpose. I agree an opposition is needed, but why the ALP.

  12. Ralph on 7th March 2013 10:09 am

    Well, perhaps it doesn’t need to rediscover its purpose. But I think a recession is the natural environment where people turn to a government or party that allegedly stands for helping the battler and providing a safety net in troubled times. And I think that’s at its heart what people believe the ALP stands for, unions or not.

    In times of comfort and complacent success, as we are in now, it’s all about government ‘getting out of the way’ so individuals are free to maximise their opportunities in life, even though Abbott and the Coalition are hardly small government advocates. Further, as the Shrike says, much of these sorts of situations are products of the economic times we live in rather than direct government stewardship. Anyway, at this point in time, I think the Coalition has won that argument for the time being.

    Nevertheless, I think the number one concern of most people is competence and lack of unbridled corruption. It seems to me that the public has formed the view that this ALP government just doesn’t have the necessary level of competence to be trusted to continue governing. That’s not limited to just one side of politics, as we’ve seen with the Victorian Liberals overnight. But right now, people are saying that they want some responsible adults in the building because the ALP has had their chances and squandered them. If Abbott and co show themselves to be just as bumbling in office, I’ve got no doubt that people will yearn for the ALP, regardless of anything else I’ve said above, just as Howard almost lost in 1998.

  13. Avalon Dave on 8th March 2013 10:19 am

    20 century political representation of labour and capital is over.

    It simply has to morph into Progressive versus Conservative – I see no other outcome.

    A true visionary will hopefully emerge from somewhere at some point in the future.

    But don’t hold your breath…

  14. Andrew Elder on 17th March 2013 4:39 pm

    The workplace relations debate isn’t dead. It hasn’t even begun.

    Such notions as superannuation, paid parental leave, childcare etc assume a permanent and longterm employment relationship. This is what neither side fully understand in chasing self-employed contractors, or persuading people to join unions when those unions show no signs of even thinking about issues surrounding insecure work (rather than futile attempts to render insecure work secure).

    Casualisation has weakened people’s loyalty to both employer and union. A union that has helped manage wave after wave of redundancies, and in between engages in factional gaming within the ALP, has no right insisting that people owe it loyalty. Unions constantly confuse the process of forming a union from the ground up with the status quo, where an institution has its own momentum and won’t brook any nonsense from the newbies thanks very much.

    When Peter Reith writes articles talking about the necessity to break the union-ALP relationship, his status as a relic from another age is cemented, along with his inability to offer anything to the future of the Liberals.

    When you start bemoaning Labor’s lack of social base, consider the Liberals’ attempt to declare territory they barely understand as ‘heartland’ and know that they have a worse case of it – not enough to carry Abbott over the line. Worse, any move against Abbott will kill the WesternSydney(TM) strategy stone dead.

  15. The Piping Shrike on 17th March 2013 11:23 pm

    I agree with much of that, and the decline of unionism has a direct impact on the loyalty of the Liberals’ anti-union base as well, which led to them looking to Abbott to restore the “brand”.

    It is quite likely that the problem of the right’s “brand” will carry over into any future Coalition government and lead to a revival of the IR debate. But as with Workchoices, more for internal party needs than employers want them.

    As to whether for now, that means he won’t get over the line, as things stand, the polls are consistently saying he will. So we’ll have to see.

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