Tuesday, 30 July 2013
The most effective politics is that which most closely reflects reality. There are three chief distortions of the current political scene that Rudd would need to expose to support his case for re-election.
The first is the redundancy of the basis on which the major parties, and their internal institutions, were formed. The rationale for the unions’ representation in Labor, and the factions through which influence was exercised, was lost 20 years ago with the collapse of the unions as a significant force in the workforce. The basic intent of Rudd’s party reform is to realign the internal institutions of the party to this reality, from representing the interests of the union leadership to representing no one in particular. This is often posed as “democratising” the party, but is a different sense of democracy than the representative one on which the Australian political system had been based in the last century.
Rudd’s return was predicated on the breakdown of those institutions. In particular, the collapse of what had been the most important ballast of the party, the relationship between the Right and the union leadership. In the NSW Right, this break has been managed by NSW Secretary Sam Dastyari as a means of keeping the Parliamentary Right together and a grouping of influence in the party. The problem the NSW Right faces, however, is that having broken ties with the union leadership they have undermined their long term position in the party. This is more dramatically seen in Victoria with the declining influence of Shorten after the loss of backing from the AWU.
Nevertheless for now the breakdown that led to Rudd’s return remains incomplete. Rudd still has to deal with groupings in the party that would prefer him to “save the furniture” (especially in NSW where key figures were facing the loss of their seats under Gillard) rather than actually win. It’s a safe bet that such groups were behind the mysterious appearance of August 31st as a key election date, helpfully fed to Simon Benson in the Telegraph by “ALP strategists”, leading to the current press narrative that has turned going early into a test of “courage” for Rudd.
But Rudd has every interest in holding on. For both he and Albanese, there is more work to do not only against Abbott, but against his own party. One sign that Rudd’s position is not yet secure internally is the continual pandering he still has to give the asylum seeker issue. Asylum seekers are a prism through which the party understands its decline in the electorate, especially in NSW. Yet as the polling shows, this is more to do with the self-justification of politicians losing their electoral grip than reality.
We have consistent polling evidence that the asylum seeker issue is not the vote changer that the Right, and the moralistic left, think. First was the strong recovery in Labor’s federal vote in NSW on the return to the leadership of someone who was supposed to be seen as “soft” on asylum seekers. However, more definitive still are the Newspoll and Galaxy polls run since Rudd announced the PNG solution. Both polls showed a significant improvement in the public’s opinion of Labor’s ability to handle asylum seekers (especially in NSW and Queensland), but neither fed through to a significant improvement in the vote. Unsurprisingly the press refused to pick this up (for the especially awkward Newspoll where Labor’s vote actually fell, the “Labor’s recovery stalling” line was generally run in a separate article to the boost on asylum seekers).
Yet despite the limited impact it has on the vote, the turnaround in Labor’s standing on asylum seekers is remarkable, especially in the Galaxy poll where Labor now leads for the first time in the history of the poll. If, given what we had been told, anyone had claimed a month ago that Labor would be leading the Coalition on this issue within a few weeks, they would have been dismissed out of hand.
Rudd has achieved this through the New Regionalism that involved not only getting the explicit resettlement that Howard could not with Nauru, but using Indonesian objections to undermine the Coalition’s out-of-date “we will decide” mentality. In effect Rudd is exposing the second reality that has been obscured over the last twenty years, the changing international situation, especially the declining influence of US polarity in Australian politics.
This is not the first time Rudd has used this. His campaign against Howard relied on the declining influence of US unilateralism under the War on Terror that made it possible to do what Latham could not successfully do: urge a pull-out from Iraq. Instead Rudd pushed that “European” agenda that undermined US interests, climate change.
Yet the mistake that Rudd made in his first period was to act as though the decline in US polarity was being replaced by a new polarity centred on climate change and China. As he discovered in Copenhagen, this was not the case. An awkward fact for Australian politicians is that this is more about declining US influence, rather than anything remotely similar taking its place.
The importance of the US for the authority of our political class, especially on the right, is hard to gauge as it penetrates so fundamentally into the political system. We only get the occasional sign that something odd is going on, such as the eagerness of our politicians to freely pass over the sort of intimate internal manoeuvrings within their parties that the US administration normally has to spend quite a lot of surveillance money to get in other parts of the world.
Australian politicians’ reliance on US authority will continue (the troops coming back from Afghanistan shouldn’t get too comfortable) but it is working around the decline in that authority, especially through greater ties with the region, that will be an increasing necessity for Australian politicians. The PNG solution may go wrong and a continual arrival of boats may turn out to be a headache for Rudd. But what cannot be put back in its box is the region’s involvement in Australian domestic politics. The time when an Indonesian Ambassador slapping down the Australian right can be simply ignored, as it was two months ago, is over.
Rudd’s eagerness to internationalise domestic issues isn’t just confined to asylum seekers. Since his return he has also applied it to another issue that is likely to be the main focus until the election: the economy.
Political commentary on economic debate tends to be confused by taking it too much at face value. This has especially been a poor guide over the last few years. In 2007 commentators were confidently asserting that Howard’s continual lead as best economic manager would be critical, something he held on to right up to his defeat. On the other hand during Gillard’s time it has been perplexing Labor strategists why it is that Labor was failing to get credit for an economy that is not only a stand-out compared to others around the world, but doesn’t even look that bad by historical standards.
Taking the economic debate at face value is a problem these days because in reality it has changed, but doesn’t yet fully show it. Much of the way it is discussed is similar to how it was thirty years ago under Hawke and Keating; the fuss around policy costings, the ritual of the Budget etc. etc. Yet the electorate’s approach to it has changed. This became an issue in the last year of the Howard government when rising interest rates were seen by some commentators as a “broken promise” from the 2004 election and a reason for the government’s unpopularity.
Yet the same commentators failed to look at the polls which showed that actually voters tended not to think government had much control over it. Howard’s problem was not so much that he had broken a promise to keep rates low, but that he had pretended he could make such a promise in the first place.
In reality economic debate always concealed a contest of interests, especially that between organised labour and business. That contest is now over, at least for now, and so the content of the economic debate has also gone. In its place is what is best described as technocratic fatalism: i.e. there is little that can be done against global forces other than competent administration. Economic management has now been fused with authority and competence rather than agenda. This is well established as a criterion for electability at the state level these days, and increasingly at the federal level too.
Leaving aside the Gillard government’s trashing of its own competence during the GFC in its trashing of Rudd, its underlying problem was not only the public’s refusal to give full credit for an economy that seemed a result of lucky positioning with Asia, but that economic management became merely a focal point for a more fundamental loss of political authority by the government.
This should not be confused with current “new thinking” that says the economy is terribly global these days and so national economic and political debate has less meaning. The economy has always been global. Mumbles always likes to show how coincident were the economies of Australia, UK, New Zealand and Canada over the last 20 years, despite the different national narratives that were used to explain them. It’s not the economy that’s become global but the national political debate that framed them which has fallen away. Australia’s decoupling from the path of those other economies in recent years largely reflects the decoupling that has happened throughout the region.
If Labor supporters object to putting Australia’s escape from the GFC down to China and the region, then they should listen to what their own leadership is saying now. Since Rudd’s return, he and Bowen have been claiming that China’s slowing economy is causing Australia’s to slow. If slowing Chinese growth dampens Australia’s, then obviously the previous Chinese boom must have been propping Australia’s up.
On the surface, the current economic message from the government is unclear. As he did on Bolt on Sunday, Rudd still holds on to Labor’s handling of the GFC, while undermining it by talking of the impact of China’s slowdown now. Rudd’s talk of a new productivity deal between unions and business is also unconvincing. Rudd is in no position to deliver unions to business as Hawke did under the Accord in the 1980s (far from it).
The real pointy end of the government’s attack is what lies behind it, not so much what Labor is proposing, but an anti-politics attack against what the Coalition might do. It is the threat of a disruptive ideological agenda being pursued in the economy, as Labor is claiming the LNP is doing in Queensland, that is its most powerful weapon. The problem for the Coalition is that they can’t help themselves right now, and it is here we get to Abbott’s problem.
While Rudd’s popularity remains a mystery to many (as we saw on Monday’s Q&A), Abbott’s unpopularity is not that well explained either. It is usually put down to his tough guy attitude that is supposed to appeal to men more than women (so patronising both genders at once) or that he is too negative. But in itself being negative is not necessarily a problem. Abbott’s problem is not what he is against but what people suspect, despite all the ducking and weaving, he is for.
Abbott’s unpopularity comes from precisely the reason the Liberals elected him as leader in the first place, his job is to restore the brand of what is arguably Australia’s last political party. It is the lingering suspicion of a political agenda that is more for the party he leads, and its ideological hangers-ons, that is the real problem for Abbott. But it is also why the party will be loath to get rid of him and turn to someone like Turnbull like Labor did with Rudd. They might also know that polls showing the Coalition would do much better under Turnbull are less reliable than the same ones for Rudd v Gillard, because if Turnbull returns he will be battling on Rudd’s terrain, and we know who won that last time.
The Liberals’ dilemma with Abbott points to the third anachronism in Australian politics that is overdue for being cleared away, the nature of politics itself as we have known it for the last century. The political agendas we see now are mostly the leftovers from a time when the major parties represented clear social bases in the electorate which they no longer do. Over the last twenty years, through the lurch backs under Howard and Gillard, the culture war bores on both left and right have carried on with their student politics as though nothing has changed. If the Coalition wins the election we will see their irrelevance, albeit in a confused and messy way. If Rudd wins, however, we will see it clear enough.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 30 July 2013.Filed under State of the parties