Monday, 9 September 2013
We did it before, we can do it again.
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