Friday, 6 September 2013
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.
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