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

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14 responses to “Realignment”

  1. Ralph on 30th July 2013 12:11 pm

    Excellent stuff. I think Rudd is being fairly successful at distancing the government from what could be seen as labor principles, if anyone even knows whey they are anymore.

    I suspect you’re right too about Abbott in that the public is suspicious of what he stands for, particularly as he’s worked so hard to keep it under wraps. More than working for the party system though, I think what frightens people about him is that his true beliefs appear to be very socially conservative with a religous fervour. I think the public is wary of electing a guy as PM that has a world view that is going in the opposite direction to where they feel the nation itself is going.

  2. David Jackmanson on 30th July 2013 2:09 pm

    I don’t think Rudd needs to deliver the union leaders. They preach such utter rubbish about how we’ll all die horribly if Abbott wins, and how we can’t possibly take him on, that they’ve got nowhere to go.

  3. AvalonDave on 30th July 2013 2:32 pm

    Howard knew what Abbott & Heffernan were good for. Tony was his trusty Attack Dobermann, while Bill was his lap dog getting the occasional pat and walk out in public, pissing and crapping all over the place, generally annoying everyone except die hard lovers of the breed.

    Abbott was used to give a slapping to what the Coalition deemed 2nd tier departments like Health and Dpt of Employment & Workplace Relations, when Howard thought they needed it. He was never given a problematic 1st Tier department like Defence though. Funny about that?

    Pauline Hanson need dealing with? Bring out the Dobermann !

    For a number of years now, Abbott has been barking, snarling and biting the Postmen.

    As someone who once owned Dobermanns, I can tell you that they are kind, affectionate dogs – but people still cross the street when they see you walking with one in their direction, such is this Breed’s reputation.

    Meanwhile, Rudd the friendly Labrador, is getting all the happy snaps with the kids at the local birthday party. It’s just that Rudd’s Lab is more like the one from Marley & Me.

  4. Riccardo on 31st July 2013 7:58 pm

    Great post as usual.

    Why don’t you admit the whole Australia project is over too? This bizarre non-colony run by non-colonialists who are just too polite or is it ashamed to admit what they are doing?

    We are seeing this all over the world, the nation state as an ideal running its course. In Indonesia’s case, identity is only a foil to European or specifically Dutch imperialism which was already dead, only the tail was twitching. In Australia’s case, identity had to be elborately constructed to keep the brown people out, while black people within were written out of their inconvenient existence.

    At least the USA can survive as an idea, if it can’t be a polity. Its legal and philosophical basis is concrete whereas this country at best has only a legal basis.

  5. Riccardo on 31st July 2013 8:17 pm

    What do people make of the Greens latest media spokesperson, Malcolm Fraser? It shows that whatever great purpose the Liberal Party once stood for, its time has gone. After all, Fraser went to the edge in 1975 to stop a far more right wing party than that from destroying Australia with socialism.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 31st July 2013 10:48 pm

    Fraser is more understandable than the Greens. What on earth they expect to get out his endorsement, Lord knows.

  7. atomou on 1st August 2013 8:48 am

    Well, no, shrike! No, Riccardo!
    Which “great purpose”of the Libs are you talking about, Riccardo? I can think of none, unless you call the oppression of the worker and the egregious obsequiousness to the “mother country” great purposes.

    Fraser has seen that the Libs have no “great purpose” any more; at least not a great moral purpose and he is utterly sickened by it. He simply speaks against it. His views are well aligned with those of the Greens and so the fact that he stands next to them in matters, particularly of the treatment of asylum seekers by the two majors should not surprise anyone.
    If he also sees (as I have seen) that more and more, the Greens’ policies are more to his liking than the policies of the other two Parties of (now) thugs, thieves and criminals, egregiously obsequious to the Americans and their coalition of thugs, thieves and criminals, we should not be surprised if he (like me) stand outside polling booths giving out How To Vote cards for the Greens… or making media statements to support those policies.

    I see no great moral purpose, I see no purpose that will benefit Australia in any way, in either, the Coalition or the pseudo-ALP.

  8. freddo on 2nd August 2013 9:21 am

    Piping – Your point about the electorate wanting competence rather than ideology fits in very neatly with Labor’s rather unusual strategy of announcing tax increases just before an election. They are obviously working off the same page (and wedging Tony at the same time)

  9. So-crates dude on 2nd August 2013 9:22 am

    Riccardo, Shrike, Atomou – Fraser is generally a PPE-holding Wet, from a side of the party that was accomodating of intellectual activity coupled with a sense of noblesse oblige, so I’m not surprised he has trouble siding with Tony-style “conservatism”, which is out renting its moral butt to win, while not being arsed to manifest even some minimal cloak of gravitas.

    The Wets, from McPhee onwards, are now politically homeless. I would thus expect the Greens are interested in capturing similar former Liberal voters, given that (as few notice) supporting conservation can be argued as being a deeply conservative and ethical act. 

    I’d expect someone like Fraser (PPE, remember) to have followed debates around triple bottom line, Kyoto, etc and see the new international political agenda forming – and to have identified that, after the Liberal implosion has played out and as they become a 10-15% rump, those who supported the Liberals for reasons that Hunt and Turnbull did will need somewhere to go.

    So, I’d see this more as the Wet wasp laying its eggs in the hapless Green caterpillar. It’s a entryist signal to the Wets.

  10. F on 2nd August 2013 8:13 pm

    Talk about freakin’ realignment! Abbott saying he is the same as Rudd when it comes to ‘Gonski? OMG that is mental. Who is this man? And what has he done with the ‘real’ Tony Abbott?

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  12. Bill on 4th August 2013 7:14 pm

    Caught me by surprise. I thought for sure the election would be at least either the same or later than Gillard, the way it was going, and others coming to the view that Labor should defer as long as possible. I was thinking it would give him more time to address other problems/put distance (time) between all the problems of the past years, the recent coup, the recent corruption hearings, etc ..

    I have to think they’ve decided it probably won’t get much better, and more likely, are/were worried about the possibility of the Libs switching to Turnbull. In that light/in the end, probably a good call.

    Now I have to get my mute button working for the barrage of Lib propaganda heading my way during the commercial breaks !

  13. The Piping Shrike on 4th August 2013 10:33 pm

    Timing is probably more a balance of internal and external pressures.

  14. atomou on 5th August 2013 9:11 am


    Abbott is uttering loudly what everyone was thinking about his party and that of Labor for a bloody long time… going all the way back to Gough, in fact!

    No surprises and nothing to see there… Aussies, stop rubber necking!

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