Monday, 9 September 2013 

We did it before, we can do it again.

T Abbott

A curious flatness accompanied the change of government on Saturday. It was partly rationalised as a result of those polls in the final days suggesting a wipe-out that never materialised. But in the end the result was pretty well as predicted by the national polls (if not the seat-by-seat ones) and the Coalition has ended with a comfortable mandate.

But to do what? Oddly enough, the Coalition doesn’t have policies that the electorate especially wants. The reception to the Paid Parental Leave Scheme was mixed and will not be greatly missed if dumped after the commission of audit as it might. The Carbon tax/price has lost the support it once had after six years of Labor manoeuvres, but now that it is up and running it’s doubtful that the public is so keen for it to be dismantled, especially if it means going back to the polls. As for Direct Action, who doesn’t see that for little more than the political ploy it was? Stop the Boats was an intention that was never a voter priority that commentators claim, but even so, what actual measurers are voters waiting for the Coalition to do on top of what is already being done, buy the boats back?

Ultimately 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 government with a sense of chaos that the Liberals exploited. But the return to order is based on not much more than to propose a return to the Howard years as though little has changed since 2006.

But it has. For a start the economic environment has changed dramatically since 2006. The buoyant fiscal revenues that allowed Howard and Costello to appear economically orthodox by delivering surpluses, while spending to rival Whitlam, has long since fallen away. But more importantly, the political base for any such fiscal orthodoxy went with the right’s agreement to the bail-outs and stimulus to counter the GFC in 2008-09. The ground lost by the right on the importance of massive government intervention remains – no matter how much of song and dance they make on the peripheral aspects of it like pink batts and school halls.

It was why when the Coalition finally released their figures, the embarrassment was not the heavy cuts they had planned but that the modest savings showed how comfortable they were with the deficit continuing for years into the future. As Sinodinos said on election night, the economy is “pretty good” and there appears little appetite, or support, to do much to change its direction. Certainly there was no willingness by Robb on Insiders on Sunday morning to redress the perception that Coalition plans on the “budget crisis” were modest.

The lack of any real mandate beyond just being competent means the Coalition’s wish to show steady quiet government is not just a pre-election tactic, or a post-election one, but a political necessity whether they wanted to or not. It suggests the possibility that rather Abbott being too keen to push an agenda, the problem might become the reverse, that stability gives way to a perception of drift and that Abbott might turn out to be not quite the “conviction politician” that Murdoch was hoping. The problem from this angle is not Abbott, but that some of his more ideological supporters might start to become restless as a result.

The irony of all of this is that such a drift would be very much repeating the Howard government, at least the first half of it, and it wasn’t till 9/11 and the War on Terror that he became the Man of Steel that his fans remember.

But here we come to a second, more profound change since Howard’s time that is likely to filter through to the Coalition and domestic politics in a more subtle way: the state of US authority in the world. When Howard left Bush was still in the White House and his attempt at US unilateralism was only just unravelling. Now it well and truly has, with not even the UK able to summon up the enthusiasm to follow Obama into Syria, leaving the US in the uncomfortable position of relying on support from a beleaguered French President.

In a way, Abbott’s declaration that Australia should “not get above its station” in supporting the US is typical of Australian Prime Ministers who never see the point of foreign affairs, until things start to go wrong at home, and then they do. But even allowing for this, Abbott seeing US intervention having little merit into a situation of just being “baddies against baddies” is highly unusual for a Coalition leader. It is a sign less of a change in the Coalition, but just how little benefit there comes from US authority right now.

Yet if the Coalition has the potential for malaise down the line, it has an even greater advantage than Howard did in the state of the ALP.

As Hawke said on Saturday and repeated often by others over the last two days, Labor’s primary was the lowest since the early years of federation (or 1931 if you don’t include Lang Labor, like that makes it so much better). What is not so often mentioned is that this represents a mere further step down in what has been a persistent decline since Hawke’s days, what many see as Labor’s Golden Age, but when the back of the party’s historical project was broken for good.

This has not translated fully to the Coalition, its primary vote rising only a modest 1.6% on Saturday. Minor parties have continued their inexorable rise, especially in the Senate, as has the informal vote. Palmer showed that a thumping advertising budget could get a new party more votes than the 90 year old National Party, while in South Australia, an independent like Xenophon, with less of a budget, but an equal eye for publicity, could eclipse Labor and come within a per cent of the Liberals in the Senate. On the other hand, other minor parties, like the Greens and Katter, look to have paid the price for their close associations with Gillard Labor and Rudd Labor respectively.

Rudd’s failure was to be unable to tap into this growing dissatisfaction with the major political parties. But this is an uncomfortable explanation and unsurprising it was not the one reached by Labor on Saturday. It was fun, in a grim way, to watch stalwarts like Plibersek and Combet talk of the need for unity as a way of undermining someone who, at least at the time, was still their leader. This phoney talk of unity was really a way of continuing the pre-election battle in Labor between the reformers and the party’s union and faction bosses, with Rudd supporters like Bowen claiming the decision to switch to Rudd was right, and joined by Shorten defending his position.

But the battle has lost much of its tension. This will no doubt be a relief to many in the party and its supporters. But the end of that tension is because Rudd’s failure has meant there is now no one in Labor who can turn an attack on the party’s existing power structures into an electoral asset. What this means is some sort of compromise is now possible and the prospects of the compromise candidates like Shorten (or Albanese) have improved.

But what it also means is that while the arguments over party reform and the role of unions will no doubt go on, it will have no interest to anyone else, nor will the result. Labor in Australia now has the potential to be locked in the interminably tedious argy-bargy over party reform as is now going on with UK Labour. It is interminable because as it is ultimately about the best way for existing power structures to retain their influence, neither keeping them or getting rid of them will make any difference to Labor’s electoral prospects.

Labor wants to put the Rudd-Gillard years behind it but the problem is that this “disastrous” period included Labor’s only electoral victory in the last 20 years – and the slogan wasn’t “Labor07”. The Coalition may want to go back to Howard’s time but conditions have changed enough that it will likely find it can’t. For Labor, however, it is entirely possible for it to pick up where it left off in 2006 and looks determined to do so.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 9 September 2013.

Filed under State of the parties

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22 responses to “Relief”

  1. F on 9th September 2013 12:27 pm

    Hi Shrike,

    I’m confused by this paragraph: “In a way, Abbott’s declaration that Australia should “not get above its station” in supporting the US is typical of Australian Prime Ministers who never see the point of foreign affairs, until things start to go wrong at home, and then they do. But even allowing for this, Abbott seeing US intervention having little merit into a situation of just being “baddies against baddies” is highly unusual for a Coalition leader. It is a sign less of a change in the Coalition, but just how little benefit there comes from US authority right now.”

    What’s going on in there?

    Otherwise, thank you for another informative post. I doubt Abbott will be able to resist doing “something” with this “mandate”. I can’t wait to see him get his hands dirty by negotiating with the coming senate…..its going to be filthy in there.

  2. Bill on 9th September 2013 12:37 pm

    Relieved that those ads are over, relieved that Rudd’s concession speech ended (FINALLY). As someone who wanted that side of politics to win, I found that speech a complete turn off to the guy. Sounded patronizing,like he was talking to a bunch of school-kids. He seemed to waffle on forever, saying very little of substance, before finally getting to the point of not staying on as leader/not looking to contest that position again.

    Well, I have to agree, he’s had his day .. I reckon he’s lost his ‘aura’ / most relatively neutral voters are probably disillusioned with him. There’s little doubt in my mind that he had a hell of a lot to do with Gillard’s misfortunes over the years, including her being lumbered with a minority government. You have to wonder how much better labor might have fared had he simply disappeared off the face of the earth after the ‘knifing’ he suffered, perhaps abducted by aliens like Harold Holt was?

    It’s all been about his own personal vendetta over these years .. he regained the ‘prize’, got his chance, then blew it. Surely even he now realizes his honeymoon is long gone, it’s over ‘sunshine’ !

    The main benefactors of this election seems to have been the ‘others’ … voters at large are increasingly no longer trusting of the two major parties, and with good reason.

    Libs are largely identified with the big end of town/wealthy, who want to pay as little tax as possible, have little or no need for social services, and who will get even more wealthy if they have a work force enhancing their wealth, with as few perks/penalty rates etc, as possible. Maybe the population as a whole is getting better off, so a general drift towards the libs,of comfortably off Aussies, who also want to pocket as much of their wage as possible/hate ‘waste’ etc … but then there’s plenty of fair minded ones who want to spread the wealth/are content with their lot, and want to bring others along too, and maybe are wary of us becoming more of an American society of rich living behind guarded fortresses, worried about the poorer off rabble out there circling around discontentedly, to maybe one day have their revolution/day of violent judgement ? Ok, an extreme picture, but it gets at the need for some kind of balance, and as our blogger has expressed many times, both parties have lost their traditional support bases over the decades, although someone from the Libs the past day or so, crowed along the lines that this result showed this was a vindication of their traditional support (as though nothing had changed over the years).

    Whilst the labor vote is at or near historic lows, most of that has gone to others, a relatively modest amount to Libs, and that will probably become an overall trend in future elections, I suspect.

    As for Labor, hard to get excited about any of the current would be leaders. Albanese may be competent, but comes across as a bit shrill/whiney.Shorten .. I can not detect the slightest bit of charisma to his persona, which means others would probably switch off too ? Bowen’s probably too young. Whoever they choose, is probably just warming the bench for the next Labor PM, whenever that is …

    As for Rudd, he should retire from politics asap (for the good of the Labor party),and probably will.

  3. Fred on 9th September 2013 2:10 pm

    I know the whole “anti politics” thing is your mantra, but isn’t there a possible alternative positive approach? If the problem is people hating mainstream politics, then rather than trying to jump on that bandwagon, a transformative leader might try to reposition Labor into a mainstream party that people are not disenchanted with.

    That has to start with the implementation of the Rudd reforms showing that the party is willing to give power away to its members. Hopefully Albo is elected if the alternative is Shorten (a charisma free zone). It is one thing to say you are listening – but showing you have taken on board what has been said by changing in response is more difficult but far more powerful.

  4. Dianne on 9th September 2013 2:45 pm

    I am not really sure what you mean by the last sentence Piping. About the ALP being determined to pick up what they left off in 2006.
    I really enjoyed your analysis as usual and would love you to expand on difficulties Libs will have in returning to the Golden Years of Howardism.
    I would love to hear what you have to say about the fringe groups being increasingly attracted to the Senate. Is it the face of the future?
    Thanks again.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 9th September 2013 4:23 pm

    I mean 2006 as though Rudd never happened.

    On the Liberals returning to Howard we will have to just see what happens, but so far that seems to be what their electoral case relies on.

    In themselves the fringe groups mean nothing than what they are not, the major parties.

    On the point about Abbott and the US, it is traditional for PMs (Rudd excluded) to ignore international affairs at the start due the curious self regarding way Australian politics sees itself. But international affairs usually becomes a way to full in the authority gap if it emerges at home. For the Coalition to be so ambivalent about a US military venture is very unusual. But says more about the US’s lack of authority at the mo.

  6. blaqswans | cygnes noirs on 9th September 2013 6:01 pm

    […] So rather than “the debt” per se, I am inclined to believe that is the other side of the ledger that matters to voters, i.e. the level of austerity that the government applies. Or as @Piping_Shrike puts it, the inability for the government to spend “to rival Whitlam” in the 09 Sept piece, “Relief”: […]

  7. Dianne on 10th September 2013 6:48 am

    Thanks PS. What do you think of Glenn Druery’s role in propelling people into the Senate with tiny margins? Are these pref deals he devises any diff from what the major players already do?

  8. Michael on 10th September 2013 2:16 pm

    I guess the recriminations against Rudd were inevitable, but if one takes an honest look at the ALP anyone should be able to see that their problems run much deeper than Rudd and his supporters.

    While Gillard and Swan might have done a creditable job running the country they seemed to be almost completely incapable of cutting through to the media with any kind of coherent argument for their policies. The reality is that Abbott didn’t run a masterful campaign, he ran a disciplined campaign minimising his gaffes. In any kind of normal circumstance the coalition campaign would be considered a joke.

    Until Rudd returned the leadership the ALP was practically conceding to a wipeout. Rudd didn’t manage the impossible! Surprise. But he did manage to make a modest turn around. It seems the ALP doesn’t have anyone else so I don’t think him leaving politics is going do them any good. It will just allow the people in deep denial to extend their delusions a little longer.

  9. Dianne on 10th September 2013 3:39 pm

    Michael, I strongly disagree. Kevin Rudd has shown himself to be incapable of loyalty. He is a destabilizing presence.

    Who knows if he helped save some seats? That appears to be the accepted wisdom of the moment. However that view is proferred without being weighted by the anchor of context; that many of those seats may not have needed saving if he hadn’t sabotaged his own party during the 2010 election and then destabilized the
    government from the shadows for the next three years.

    As for Gillard and Swan failing to cut through, one should acknowledge context again. Mistakes were made etc etc but it seemed to me that every mis-step was reported in an exaggerated manner while every achievement was rarely given the attention it deserved.

  10. Michael on 10th September 2013 4:02 pm

    Sorry Dianne, I don’t have any internal insight into the inner workings of the ALP, but from where I’m standing I don’t see this great damage that Rudd and these infamous leaks caused the party. Rudd is being portrayed as this all powerful destabilising force. How is that possible? I have no particular fondness for Rudd and I have a lot of respect for Gillard, but all prime ministers face an opposition and they should be able to withstand it. Gillard seems to have made a number of unforced errors and tactical miscalculations that were nothing to do with Rudd or leaks.
    I hope Gillard returns to politics, but unless she has an approach she can articulate the Australian electorate it’s not going to work, with or without Rudd.

  11. Dianne on 10th September 2013 8:13 pm

    Hi Michael,
    It seems from accounts by ALP politicians and journalists that Rudd strategically leaked at times when media attention should have been on government achievements.
    One leak during the 2010 campaign is considered to have been an act of sabotage causing support to plummet.

  12. Fred on 10th September 2013 10:36 pm


    You have clearly bought the “Rudd is the problem” line. I query whether this is fair since if he had been left in place to serve as PM, then I doubt that he would have been so aggrieved. This was the original sin that has brought ruin on the party.

    It seems pretty obvious that Rudd was also leaked against, both prior to his knifing the first time around and also during the election campaign. So should all the leakers leave Parliament and leave the Coalition all alone, or should they all just get over it?

  13. Dianne on 11th September 2013 6:51 am

    Fred, indeed I have bought the argument that Rudd destabilized the party.
    If he stays he will continue to be a problem. I can’t see him changing any more than I can see Abbott becoming less belligerent.
    That said I believe the ALP should get on with it. There is nothing to be gained by making Rudd the focus. They should ignore him.

  14. Dianne on 11th September 2013 7:05 am

    Hello again Fred
    What I have said about Rudd does not mean I do not accept the argument that internal ructions within the ALP made his leadership vulneable.

    But from all accounts his personality and leadership style made him impossible to deal with. From what I have observed from a safe distance, people must have found him immensely frustrating. I think they would have replaced him anyway despite all the internal rumblings.

  15. Fred on 12th September 2013 3:16 pm

    Hello Dianne

    I agree that Rudd destabilised the party, because he challenged the power of the unions and faction chiefs. They responded by removing him from the leadership and reasserting their control using Gillard as their pawn.

    Where I differ from you is that I am thankful that he did so. I am not much inspired by a choice between the Liberals and a bunch of right wing union barons and hangers on, interested only in power for its own sake (I am looking at you Paul Howes, Steven Conroy etc etc)

    Therefore, long may Rudd remain!

  16. Dianne on 12th September 2013 5:35 pm

    Take your point Fred but ….. Oh no …. It would be too too much.

  17. F on 13th September 2013 9:58 am

    So, Shrike….will the coalition huff and puff at Indonesia until we have a significant diplomatic stoush on our hands? Or will this fizzle out with a coalition back-down and our first broken promise?

    I seem to remember you saying that both sides will let this ‘issue’ fizzle out. But can the coalition afford to look ineffectual on asylum seekers? They have made a pretty big deal out of it.

  18. Avalon Dave on 13th September 2013 10:10 am

    As Shrike as been saying for so long, the socio-political basis for the major parties has disappeared (unless you work for the Public Service, Qantas or Telstra).

    If Labor stays true to Labor Values – e.g. tethered to the Unions – they will eventually go the way of the Aus Democrats.

    If the Coalition insists on staying socially conservative, which seems certain with Abbott at the helm, Labor’s ONLY hope is to transform themselves from a party of Unions – to a socially progressive party.

    With a choice of Shorten or Albanese on offer, this hardly looks like happening. So Federal Politics will continue to look like a bad Punch & Judy show for the foreseeable future.

  19. Dianne on 13th September 2013 12:40 pm

    F, I reckon the asylum seeker business and unusually strong words being used by the Indonesians is related to Indonesia’ s desire to buy agricultural land in Australia to produce cattle for home market.

  20. F on 13th September 2013 2:24 pm


    I think the whole cattle thing is probably unrelated and has more to do with a certain new member for New England wanting to keep land prices low for his (rather huge) agro business backers. Can’t have ‘foreigners’ coming in and out bidding ‘locals’ now, can we?

    Problem for him is that money talks. Restricting the flow of foreign capital will certainly put a dampener on this new mining boom Tony is planning, as well as pissing off every state government AND Clive Palmer.

    It’ll be the same with all kinds of large scale industries that require capital. O.S based companies can garner funds at considerable less cost than can locals(for the most part, except those in cahoots with them) especially if that company is a state owned/controlled one.

    Personally I couldn’t give a rats who buys up the N.T: baking hot wasteland with shitty soils, shitty weather, shitty ports, and a minefield of legal and native title claims over it.Its not as if they can remove the land from Australian jurisdiction either. Let them throw their money at it.

    Joyce is mouthy and frothy(he better watch that now that he is a local member, example: Mirabella)

    I wonder what Gina will want from Joyce with regard to mining investment, ‘green tape’, state royalties, etc etc?

  21. Dianne on 13th September 2013 2:47 pm

    Thanks for response F. I hadn’t put Barnaby into the mix. It is interesting though that a potential sale of land to Indonesia has come up at the same time as tub-thumping over those poor devils on leaky boats. Btw I think the land under discussion is in northern Queensland but I could be wrong. I share your view about Gina. She will be wanting plenty. A lot of other people will be too.

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    […] Piping Shrike: Relief […]

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