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