An incomplete revolution – an update

Friday, 6 September 2013 

So New.

So New.

I have respectfully decided not to be present at next Sunday’s campaign launch because I simply do not want to distract in any way from Kevin Rudd’s powerful message to the Australian people.

J Gillard

We would have won.


As noted at the beginning of the campaign, Labor was not bringing that much to it. Of course, Labor had its “Positive Plans for the Future” like the NBN and new funding for schools and hospitals – but infrastructure projects and some different way of funding services hardly make an agenda.

It didn’t matter because the Coalition wasn’t exactly bringing much either – a couple of infrastructure projects of its own and a signature policy, the PPL, that is a political stinker. In fact, the Coalition’s vulnerability lay in what it was bringing to the campaign, namely a political agenda that despite the evasion, keeps popping out every now and then – the most recent being over some women’s accessories that Abbott finds ‘confronting’.

The Coalition’s political agenda is a vulnerability because it is redundant. It’s an agenda that is a legacy of the right’s historical role in opposing organised labour. It carried on long past its sell-by date as tedious “culture wars” under Howard and then came back for a gruesome swan-song under the Gillard-Abbott duet. It was despatched by Rudd in 2007, then again by Rudd in June this year, but threatens to re-emerge yet again on September 7th.

Rudd was best placed to deal with this because he has the least to gain from it carrying on, having not only an interest in defeating the Coalition but also having no stake in his own side as well. For Rudd there was no choice but to go on the attack against the old politics because his leadership would not survive from either his own side or those opposite if he didn’t.

This meant that the type of campaign Labor needed to have was primarily a negative one. While people keep saying they want positive politics, the fact that it is married with a deep dissatisfaction with the major parties and the current political scene, should suggest that the voters’ problem is with the meaningless of the old argy-bargy than negativity as such.

It started well enough. It’s hard to remember now but within the first couple of weeks Rudd’s return, he managed to turn around what had been one of Labor’s worst issues, asylum seekers, to where the Coalition was on the defensive and its lead over Labor’s handling of the issue evaporated within a couple of weeks.

The political effectiveness of the PNG solution lay not in the initiative itself, there could have been understandably doubt given Labor’s record, such as the East Timor and Malaysia Solutions, that it would work. The political power of the PNG Solution lay in the way it, along with bringing in Indonesia, attacked the phoney debate over border control and made it the regional issue it actually was. It exposed how much the issue for both Labor and the Coalition still relied on the way Howard had posed it, despite conditions having long since changed.

But then the attack seemed to stop. With hindsight one possible turning point was the other initiative that marked Rudd’s early weeks, the rule changes for the party leadership. This was ostensibly to deal with the Coalition’s charge that you could vote for Rudd and get someone else, as happened before.

But it was supposed to be about much more than that. Essential for establishing Rudd’s return, he had to not only distinguish himself from the Coalition, but from Labor as well. While journalists fretted over a “smooth transition” the reality was that Rudd needed as public as possible a fall-out from the party that had dumped him. Certainly his colleagues had no trouble walking out on him, but without Rudd in return presenting it as the political and institutional rupture it was, it was left to how Conroy, Swan and Garrett posed it – he was simply impossible to work with.

The damage from this was not on Rudd’s character – as though anyone would care what the departed think – but that it robbed his return of any content. The irony was that Rudd ended up having the same problem Gillard had when she took over from him; there seemed no reason for it than just another way to shore up Labor’s polling. While the polling story was more credible for June 2013 than June 2010, it lasted not much longer as it obscured what the convulsions had been really about – a party adapting to the end of the political arrangements of the last century, something that might have had at least some relevance to anyone else.

How much this incomplete coup is Rudd’s fault depends on the balance of forces within the party (certainly there remained some internal pressure on the Rudd camp such as seen with the constant leaks to that Labor-friendly journal Daily Telegraph speculating on the election date). But without a clear case for his return, the whole merry-go-round ends up just being dismissed as “Labor chaos” with Rudd as its centre. As noted at the time, this was a weakness that Abbott surprisingly missed when the campaign started, but that the Coalition inevitably picked up.

This perception of chaos and incompetence went to the heart of what should have been the central thrust of Labor’s campaign, the economy and the Coalition’s plans.

The launch by Hockey and Robb of the Coalition’s costings was a farce. For all the banging on about debts and deficits over the last few years, they showed little intention to do anything about it. In reality, any Coalition government will be as much a hostage to what happens to revenue, which in turn depends on what happens to the world economy, as Labor.

But then, the Coalition’s failings on the technicalities don’t really matter. It was always a political, rather than strictly economic, issue and the Coalition can get away with it because that political battle has been largely won – for now.

The Coalition’s vulnerability on the economy was that they still treated it as an ideological issue and adhere to surpluses that, as the costings show, it is out of their control to deliver. It was not so much that the Coalition necessarily has a secret plan of cuts, but that ideological pressures in the party to “defend the brand” means that they can’t present a coherent message on what it is they want to do. Labor supporters like pointing to Queensland as the signpost to what will happen, but it might just as well be the muddle-through seen with Coalition governments in NSW, Victoria and WA as well.

Yet the Coalition’s incoherence on the economy matters less right now because Labor has lost the economic argument against them. On the surface Labor shouldn’t have. Yet no matter how much Labor would point to international comparisons, rating agencies, etc. and other economic measurements, it never really worked because it was never really strictly an economic issue, but one of competence.

It was because it was primarily about competence that the “economic” attack on Labor over-spending ended up revolving around what were relatively minor measures such as pink batts, tax refunds to backpackers, school halls etc. while there was agreement on the really big stimulus during the GFC.

By failing to make a political case for the leadership ructions, they became just another part of Labor’s chaos/incompetence story. Rudd’s problem was that he did not clarify why he was distinct from the party that had dumped him and the institutions that had blocked his return, which would have given the “New Way” slogan any meaning. Such distinctions become harder during a campaign when there is greater reliance on the party machine, which is possibly why the Rudd camp looked for social media tactics that could bypass them.

The problems of Labor over the last six years have been that of a party that has lost its relevant social base. Its low point was when those irrelevant institutions tried to reassert themselves under Gillard. Its most successful period was when it ran under a technocrat model of government between 2007 and 2009, seemingly open to any agenda that the great and good could think up.

But the conditions for such a stable technocrat government have passed. The lack of social base meant that questions of competence arose even before Rudd was dumped because he had no political cover, as had previous more incompetent governments, to manage it.

In other words, this was less about how the government actually functioned, which is largely determined by bureaucratic priorities anyway, but the political way it presents itself. As we see with this campaign, this is largely a negative one, less about what the government is for but what it is against. Rudd had a lot of ammunition, but it seems that the Coalition just made the negative case better.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 6 September 2013.

Filed under State of the parties, Tactics

Tags: , ,


11 responses to “An incomplete revolution – an update”

  1. Cavitation on 6th September 2013 8:49 am

    The same analysis and conclusion applies to the Liberals, too. I see that Abbott and Hockey has just now jettisoned the “budget surplus” and need for austerity rhetoric. What do you call a Liberal voter, who supports their policies of reducing personal tax, creating a budget surplus, expanding government programs like the PPL, and abolishing various taxes? The answer is “gullible”.

    It seems that both parties have separated their campaigns and their actions. All the promises that Abbott made, about stopping the refugee boat influx, or creating a budget surplus, are cynical. They will be abandoned immediately after the election. Why the Liberals in particular saddled themselves with promises and that they cannot keep when they were all along cruising to a comfortable win is hard to fathom. Obviously their key supporters, such as the media conglomerates, and industry and mining titans, were keen on all of this rhetoric. It’s like they have decided that the party’s public image and its actions as a government don’t need to match up any more.

    The media companies are evolving and dying, and keep holding on to their past glory by selling a message of various ongoing crises, despite the reality being the opposite. They can keep this running even with a Liberal government, as the new government proceeds pragmatically with ongoing policies, which are the best available. Industry titans can ape the last decade’s philosophy obtained second-hand from US and European titans, following a fashion in the normal Australian manner of being a decade out of date.

    But the politicians don’t seem to even care that their public messages are not going to be followed in practice. This is cynical, and the public picks up on this, and treats the politicians with more distrust. If a politician could express the real situation, and if that message could be relayed to the public, despite the media’s bias to spreading another message more in its own interests, then that politician would prosper. But this seems an impossibility in the present conditions.

  2. Dianne on 6th September 2013 9:54 am

    Thankyou Piping once again. Cavitation I share your views.
    I would like to add that Liberal promises have been presented as solemn vows by that party’s leader. Hand on heart. Trust me.

    I do not trust him.

    Take the Stop the Boats pledge for example. The Libs are so sure of victory that they have already refined that message to: We Will Stop You Hearing About The Boats.

    They are going to leave it to their 3-star general to decide whether we should know about any arrivals. Disgraceful. What sort of people head off to the booths to vote for a party which says openly that it will keep us in the dark?

    I am concerned too by the extent of the pay-offs which will be given to certain interests. Mining companies will do well of course but what will be the fate of the national broadcaster? I fear it will be gutted and broken up.

    And yes Piping those tedious culture wars will be back. Abbott has already said he finds there is too much emphasis on ALP PMs in the school history curriculum.

    Ah me! I agree somewhat with JohnMcT. If all had been fair Julia Gillard would have stood a better chance of winning than Rudd. But the way politics has been played over the last three years has been very unfair, to put it very mildly. Abbott is untruthful and his untruths have been presented as truths by the Murdoch press in particular and by prominent media commentators. The rest of the media have been supine and thereby complicit.

  3. Michael on 6th September 2013 10:00 am

    The is a massive contradiction in the LNP’s behaviour. The story has been for at least a year (no doubt backed by polling) that Labor is headed for a wipe out. If this is the case I would have thought the opposition would have been a bit more careful about it’s promises. They also appear to be spending a lot of money in the campaign, although this might just reflect the media I’m exposed to.
    I hope the lesson Labor does learn is that it needs to limit it’s initiatives to things it can control – less is sometimes more. The pink batts scheme was a clever scheme but one that opened them up to very effective media attacks. The saddest media attacks in my opinion were on the school halls. These school halls have made a massive difference to many schools, but it took a finance industry initiated crises to make them happen – they were then subject to a campaign of vilification that was beyond belief.
    I wonder whether Abbott’s style of opposition will have any enduring legacy. I wonder if any parallels can be drawn to Latham’s time in opposition.
    Piping – any opinions on what UK Labour have been doing in their time in opposition?

  4. David Rohde on 6th September 2013 11:31 am

    You have no idea how much I anticipate your new posts.

    A few questions in my mind.

    I think Labor has had difficulty in this campaign because (just maybe) the LNP has itself made some credible steps to the technocratic model. The differences in the parties on the “key” issues paid parental leave, NBN, education, seeking asylum by boat, disabilitycare and possibly now even debt and deficit are small. The last one is still debatable and if the difference really is small shows the LNP to be opportunist and hypocritical (a bit like “this reckless spending must stop”) but also somewhat technocratic. With the labor internal chaos the LNP probably didn’t need to do much but adopt a form of the governments policies and exaggerate the small differences, it is interesting that it hasn’t used Labor’s weakness to take anything “brave” to the electorate. I would think that some LNP ideologues would despair at the platform they are running on. It will be interesting to see how much they emerge once they are in government. IMHO it will help the LNP if Sophie Mirabella loses her seat.

    I think climate change remains a real difference. The LNP’s abandoning of the 5% target this week means that they have moved from an incoherent position to an ideological one. I think Labor is right to say the LNP are on the wrong side of history here, but it is doubtful if Labor can exploit this to any electoral success. If Labor is well organised in opposition (almost unthinkable) a double dissolution could be very dangerous for the LNP. Equally you could doubt the conviction of many on the LNP side for really wanting to overturn carbon pricing as oppose to say modifying the target.

    The other big question is I think how much blood letting will there on the Labor side. Will the Rudd labor reforms stay. Will there remain a division between the Gillard people and the Rudd people even after both have departed?.. and of course who will be leader and for how long?… I agree that the 2007-2009 government shone brightly, but how much of this will be erased from history… many people including Labor supporters talk about the last 6 years (even Lachlan Haris), lumping Rudd and Gillard governments together like this seems like a mistake…

    The thing I feel most positive about this election is that the asylum seeker issue as being really important seems to be on the slide. With the LNP wanting to stop reporting of boat arrivals it might turn into a non-issue next election.

    Anyway thanks again for the post, and if you have time to comment on any of these issues, I would value your thoughts!

  5. Craig on 6th September 2013 4:18 pm

    For me it always goes back to the night they knifed Kevin. It seemed like such a bad decision. Technically correct but democratically naive. As you point out it’s been chaos since.

    As a colleague said to me at work, “we want to vote him out”. Now that “we” have Kev back “we” will do the job tomorrow! Not some union hacks.

    There is hope though. If Tony does this
    the ALP might still be in with a shot! 🙂

  6. The Piping Shrike on 6th September 2013 5:32 pm

    David, thanks for the comments. The LNP has been careful to try and keep apolitical as they would understand it makes electoral sense, but against that is a tension that keeps popping out to claim that this is a mandate for an agenda. I don’t see that tension going away after the election.

    On what happens to Labor if it loses, depends partly by how much. Although obviously Beattie and Hawke have already started. No doubt there will be a lurch back from some to “Labor values”, which Rudd’s campaign has given ground to.

  7. Troyski on 6th September 2013 10:59 pm

    Craig, i agree it goes back to th knifing of Rudd, but II dispute your call that dismissing Rudd in ’07 was “technically correct”.

    Sorry, but what rubbish. It has been chaos since because there was no valid reason (sorry, trying to tear down someone’s reputation post event in order to save one’s own sorry arse doesn’t cut it), and because the same muppets that were so bloody proud of themselves for hatching a power-grabbing coup with a complicit media, were demonstrably useless at running the show.

    Enough on that worn out topic…

    There are some basic truths the media hasn’t wanted to touch in this campaign
    1. ALP headquarters had been planning a losing marginal seat campaign for a year. Rudd coming back 8 weeks out was never going to change this. Hence why they didn’t want him coming back any early or running the clock out any longer (as Shrike has pointed out)
    2. Every young, whip smart advisor from Rudd’s 2007 campaign was driven out of the show by the same ALP powers long ago. Remember the brilliant fast response campaign of ’07? Everyone, not just Neil Lawrence was dispatched in favour of party hacks and mates (hence whinging Wendy part god knows what)
    3. Every journo, now or into he future either wants to or knows they will be working for News. Even Kohler et al were bought by News. If you are successful, that’s where you end up. If you’re at th ABC, then milk the public teat for all it’s worth and then take your ‘personal brand’ to somewhere you can make some real money
    4. It’s all about th NBN and transforming communications and media in Australia. Like Gerry Harvey rubbishing the Internet for over a decade, they’ll be forced one way or another to adapt or die in the end
    5. It is not now, nor has it eve been a referendum on th carbon tax or carbon pricing

  8. Dianne on 7th September 2013 8:28 am

    Troyski why haven’t the media wanted to address the matters you have outlined?

  9. Dianne on 7th September 2013 8:46 am

    Piping I have just re-read you piece. You are really very clever aren’t you. You have a wonderfully clear eye and an incisive mind. Your arguments are unadorned by emotional clutter, moralizing and what should be if only it could be.
    I am the complete opposite of course: constantly outraged by media bias, fear for the future, sick of lies, distortion etc etc
    Yours is a calm voice. You see things as they are. It is soothing in a strange way and helps me order my tumbling thoughts. Thanks.

  10. DM on 8th September 2013 9:16 pm

    Just finished watching the ABC wrap up of the election. What can I say, we have once again proven to everyone that people in Australia are not much more than sheep who are more than willing to be ruled by the most powerful and wealthy in their society. Lovely to see Gina Rinehart pay a visit to the leader aspirant Barnaby Joyce and welcome the change in government which will, undoubtedly, suit her more than anybody else. It would have been lovely to hear how much she had invested in this outcome that she so openly welcomes, but alas there was some discretion on her part on this.

    This election it has been scary to watch how totally biased the mainstream media in this country is towards the Libs. With both Murdoch and the chairman of Fairfax publicly endorsing Tony Abbott, it feels like we live in a country with a ruling class that controls the media and is not even afraid to show it!I think Abbott will be under pressure to reward his gracious supporters in News and Fairfax for their loyal support, so I think watchout for what might happen to the ABC in the next 3 years!

    Of course the news from the Sneate doesn’t sound much better. Australians who are obviously bored by democracy seem to have chosen to give the balance of power to some recreational vacuum heads who no doubt will be easily manipulated by the Coalition into supporting their legislation. The outlook for the next 3 years is ghastly!

  11. blaqswans | cygnes noirs on 9th September 2013 6:02 pm

    […] the issue that saw the Coalition returned was not anything specific but one of general competence. Rudd’s inability to make a political case for the ructions of the past six years left the Labor […]

Comments are closed.