Action

Monday, 30 September 2013 

Let me make this point for Mr Natalegawa’s benefit: Indonesian boats, Indonesian flagged boats, with Indonesian crews are breaking our laws bringing people into our territorial waters. This is a breach of our sovereignty, and the Indonesians need to understand that, instead of a lot of pious rhetoric.

Alexander Downer, 27 September 2013

Well Alexander is Alexander, and I’m now the Prime Minister of our country.

Tony Abbott. 28 September 2013

It’s probably overdue to turn attention away from Labor’s convulsions and focus more on the Coalition now that it is in government. But it’s not easy.

The convulsions in Labor over the last three years have left a legacy not only with Labor, but with the Coalition as well. Behind the Rudd-Gillard feud was an institutional one between the reformers and the power brokers, but behind that was a more profound problem that affects both sides of politics: namely how parties, formed in the last century to represent particular groups in society, now adapt to having lost their social bases.

With Labor the problem is more an institutional one as it grapples with the decline of the unions as a social force. It is demonstrated by the eroding influence of the AWU within the party, with its leader flapping around like a fish in front of the cameras telling an uninterested nation why he won’t be contesting a vacancy that doesn’t exist (a wonderfully self-indulgent performance showing once again that Howes has still not kicked the habit of conducting internal Labor affairs in front of the TV cameras).

But this problem affects the Liberals as well. With unions no longer a thing, the point of the non-Labor parties primarily set up to oppose them is lost. While Labor’s is more an institutional problem, for the Liberals it tends to be felt as an ideological one.

The Liberals epitomise the paradox of modern conservatism. While feigning loyalty to traditional institutions, its purpose in opposing organised labour and the role of the state leaves it relying heavily on what it is against – even to the point of undermining the institutions it seeks to protect. This need to oppose is especially the case in Australia where the traditional institutions are weak and generally borrowed in a half-arsed manner from abroad.

When Menzies formed the Liberals to counter the rise of Labor, from its early years he relied on Cold War anti-Communism as the glue that cohered middle class support. Since the decline of the potency of the Cold War with the Vietnam fiasco, their record has been more mixed. Except for a few years backlash to the Whitlam government in the late 1970s and a few years following 9/11, the Liberals have never dominated the political stage as they did in the early decades.

More importantly, whereas in the past anti-Communism was a means to cohere support against real targets of organised labour and state welfare, for the last twenty years, ideological initiatives have tended to be an end in itself. Other than the War on Terror, Howard’s “culture wars” had more to do with giving the Liberals a sense of mission than any real impact out in the electorate.

It did however, have one other benefit: it fed into Labor’s insecurities about its own lack of base. Especially after 2001, Labor and the left could understand its lack of resonance with the electorate through issues such as asylum seekers on which Labor could tell itself it was simply too angelic for its own good.

With the fading of the War on Terror and the ascension of Rudd, the illusion that Howard’s culture wars had some electoral relevance could no longer be sustained. On the apology, climate change, asylum seekers, the Liberals were forced to abandon their own positions and follow Labor out of electoral necessity. When Abbott took the leadership in 2009 on a climate sceptic stance, it was fairly explicit that it was more to save the “brand” than win an election.

Then something happened. When Rudd was dumped and the power brokers reasserted themselves, all the excuses of the Howard years as to why they were irrelevant came back. Far from being merely a branding exercise, Abbott’s agenda was suddenly again tapping into the thinking of “real Australia”, that silent majority that continues to remain surprisingly silent even when talking to pollsters about climate change and gay marriage. Nevertheless, despite the lack of polling evidence, all you had to do was organise a Town Hall meeting in places where real Australians live, such as the regions and western Sydney, and the media would carry on as though something of significance was happening.

In this way Labor’s convulsions made the Abbott government. It was not just through Rudd’s failure to give it political content on his return, so leaving voters with the impression of chaos. Labor’s insecurities made Abbott’s agenda appear viable and rehabilitated an agenda that Howard lost on in 2007.

Yet not fully rehabilitated. One of the interesting things that happened in the last few months was that the sense that Abbott was connecting with the electorate on “values” faded. It was noticeable during the campaign that on climate change, women and gay marriage, Abbott was defensive. Progress could only be made through the classic Abbott “culture war three step”. Put something out there, like talking of a candidate’s “sex appeal”. Back track from it (without actually apologising). A few days later, put it out there again.

More striking still is that on taking office there has been little of the type of narrative the Liberals adopted in 1996 when campaign director Andrew Robb coined the term “Howard’s battlers” to describe the inroads Liberals were supposedly making in Labor’s base.

This time the narrative, if the writings of Brian Loughnane are any guide, have been much more modest. It is one simply of competence. Abbott is keen to be seen governing, hence the convoluted media strategy to pretend that there is no media strategy. But here we get to the problem.

The programme the Liberals have returned on is basically one that says the 2007 election, and all the backflips Howard made in the run up to it, never happened. Yet the conditions that allowed Howard to get away with the idea that we will decide what happens on the economy and at the borders are no longer there. On the economy Abbott is stuck with lousy revenues, but no real consensus to make significant cuts in the big-spending items of health, education and welfare to offset it. On climate, Abbott not only doesn’t have consensus at home to be a climate sceptic, but unlike Howard, does not have the support of a climate sceptic Republican Administration in Washington. It’s no wonder that on both issues there has been a tendency to step away from the commitments he made before the election. In the case of climate change, that means hoping the Senate will do the job instead.

But only if the party lets him. The problem Abbott faces is that there are real barriers to implementing his program but behind him is a party of which some sections are determined to make sure he does.

The clearest example is the third key part of Abbott’s platform, where there are also significant barriers, stopping the boats. The significance of Rudd bringing Indonesia into the asylum seeker debate is still being missed by political commentators. The aggressive, and unprecedented, upping of the ante by the Indonesians over their objections to the Coalition’s plan is a direct result of this. By breaking the consensus over Indonesian involvement, Rudd effectively gave Indonesia leverage to go in hard against the Coalition on the basis that there will be political payoff for the Coalition’s opponents, i.e. Labor, if it does.

This means Abbott is forced to tread a fine line in keeping the Indonesians on-side because the Liberals know that as in 2001, Indonesian cooperation is critical for border control, while still maintaining the illusion that “we will decide”. The trouble is that maintaining this balance is made more difficult because this is such a key issue for the Coalition.

For Labor, asylum seekers was mainly about insecurities over the lack of relationship to its base. For the Coalition, the issue is even more important as it is about precisely what they say it is about, sovereignty – something very dear to the right’s heart. Hence, while Abbott was trying to play down Indonesian objections as a ‘minor irritant’, we had the more inflammatory comments from Downer. Given Downer was Foreign Minister, he would know how unhelpful his comments would be in Jakarta, but as a leading Liberal figure would know it’s a critical line to draw at home.

As we saw over the last six years, Labor dealt with the most fundamental issues over its existence in the full glare of government. Having hidden behind those disruptions, Abbott’s Liberals now look set to do the same.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 30 September 2013.

Filed under Tactics, The Australian state

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Comments

12 responses to “Action”

  1. Political Animal on 30th September 2013 4:22 pm

    This is waffle! Menzies formed the Liberals because the AUP which was falling apart had booted him from the Leadership!

    You really have nothing much to say anymore of any worth, do you? Your Gillard hatred derailed your thought processes.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 30th September 2013 4:35 pm

    Don’t think Menzies formed the Liberals as displacement activity for being booted from the, er, UAP.

    Good to see the Rudd-Gillard feud carries on though, maintain the rage comrade.

  3. m0nty on 1st October 2013 12:58 am

    I think you are treating asylum seekers as way more important than they are in voter land, a mistake made by most in this area.

  4. Scott on 1st October 2013 11:25 am

    I think Abbott will find that statemanship conflicts with his ideological, right-wing base within his parliamentary party.
    Meanwhile, the Coalition are masters at exagerating that the country is in crisis to give them electoral traction. They’ve done it repeatedly and it works a treat. They get into government and the crises melt. Labor hasn’t been able to effectively deal with the Coalition’s winning strategy.
    The internal conflicts during the Rudd-Gillard era were magnified by a culture within the Labor party that hasn’t adequately been reported – the abusive, internal sub-culture that has arisen within the party over the decades. Rudd’s blow-ups were not just confined to a lone politician with an alleged personality disorder. The party’s internal systems have largely protected the behaviours of certain MPs. Often it’s directed at staff, who are too loyal to talk publicly and are well aware of the plights of many whistle blowers. I suspect other parties have the same problems.

  5. Riccardo on 7th October 2013 8:32 pm

    Political animal is just trolling for traffic to his forum.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 9th October 2013 10:02 am

    Monty, very much not. I very much think its importance is exaggerated in the electorate. But it is very important to the parties internally, which is why they bang on about it.

  7. Mitchell Porter on 10th October 2013 7:52 pm

    I became a great admirer of this blog after I ran across it, I guess some time after Rudd’s victory in 2007. But largely from watching my own response to the early days of the Abbott government, I wonder if there’s some dimension of life that’s missing from its analysis.

    I just notice that what I’m feeling, with Rudd and Gillard gone, is a sudden relief from politicking. I suppose that under Rudd, it was all about ideas – the constant new proposals for reforms and revolutions and summits – whereas under Gillard, it may have been more about personalities, the leadership rivalry. All of that suddenly ended with Abbott’s victory.

    The new order may seem boring or dismaying to people who love politics, but I wonder if people who just want to get on with their lives, were experiencing a political overdose under Labor? And I also wonder if it might be difficult for someone who is an academic political scientist (as I suspect Shrike to be) to understand *this*, very elemental form of “anti-politics”?

    It is at least the case, that contemporary academia is full of schemes for reforming people’s lives and correcting the world, and in this there is a natural alliance with the political left. Perhaps part of Labor’s defeat has to do with a popular dislike for this buzzing multitude of progressive or technocratic reformers: cloistered idealists, policy wonks who want to micromanage a whole sphere of life… The conservatives, by contrast, can seem wholesome – content to leave people alone and to concentrate on conserving the general order of society.

    I’m not denying that politics, political conflict, and political issues are a part of life, even within a more culturally organic society. Abbott won’t get to just preside at his own leisure indefinitely, the world will eventually present him with new situations demanding responses that will define most of his time in power.

    But I’m thinking that a government of the left, even the modern center-left, makes for a society that is more politicized in general, because of those million reformist micro-agendas which want to ride the wave of left-wing power. So there is a very definite sense in which support for the right can be anti-political – it’s anti-politicization.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 11th October 2013 8:16 am

    I think that’s very much what Abbott would like to happen, to get politics off the front page.

    But I’m not convinced his party will let him. Already we’ve seen the tendency of old Howard Ministers like Reith and Downer inflame positions that probably Abbott would rather not, all to push an agenda. Let’s see how things go, but with Rudd gone the tempo might not be the same, but the problems of both parties that he tapped into remain and the Liberals are in some way even more sensitive to them. And you only have to look at the US and UK to see where the disruption comes from.

  9. Riccardo on 12th October 2013 11:20 pm

    Yes, I laugh at all the local ersatz Tories who somehow believe Abbott will avoid having to walk David Cameron Street the way the real thing have to.

  10. Ian on 14th October 2013 1:57 pm

    You could hardly blame Labor for its convulsions at allowing an Abbott government to be elected. Rudd was, after all, a media tart par excellence. He would expect to be aghast at Town Hall receptions, and place them in a much more important light than they deserve.

  11. Oldskool on 17th October 2013 12:21 pm

    Mitchell, as much as I hate to sound like the labor rusted-on I actually am not, I believe the media, and specifically the Murdochracy have played more than a small part in both pre- and post election politicking stories. How many proffessional Punidts declared they were right all along whne Rudd finally overturned Gillard, without mentioning that they have been saying ‘next week’ for the last 18 months…

  12. Riccardo on 18th October 2013 7:02 am

    Looking at the original post again, i got to thinking how both downer and reith sounded like they thought they were again ministers in a liberal govt, without having actually been reelected to parliament.

    Now nicola, trish and various others are having a go. If one more thing has broken down, its the proper period of silence post exit.

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