Sunday, 29 December 2013
It’s not right for Australians to not face this year with certainty and stability.
J Gillard with rather too many negatives, 30 January 2013
The year began as it meant to go on. Gillard’s early announcement of the election date to bring about certainty and stability promptly kicked off one of the most uncertain and unstable periods in Australian politics. If Gillard’s attempt to stabilise those behind her by declaring it produced the opposite result, she was not alone. Rudd returned to power just in time to shield those who brought him down from the consequences of that disastrous decision by saving their seats. Probably not quite what he had been plotting three years to do. Truly, 2013 was an exemplar of that unwritten rule of politics, the tragedy of the political will.
Yet despite it dominating the year until just a few months ago, the Gillard-Rudd feud now seems from another age. It would obviously be explained by the main protagonists having left the stage. But then it was never about just those two, but rather represented an institutional conflict in the ALP between the traditional power bases, especially the unions, and the party reformers. Yet to see it as merely a fight between two personalities is not an illusion. At the end of the day, there was little content in that broader institutional conflict that meant it struggled to mean anything more than the attributes of the two leaders.
Certainly there was little difference on policy. Any differences on issues like asylum seekers and climate change were on positioning, not principles. And what positioning! First we had Rudd turning the boats back, then not turning the boats back, then not “lurching to the right” before he was dumped, then lurching even further to the right when he returned. Gillard was little better on climate change, being for the ETS, wanting to delay the ETS (indefinitely?), wanting a Citizens Assembly to bring about a consensus before bringing in a carbon tax, then destroying what consensus there was by bringing in a carbon tax merely to cling onto power, which Rudd, after complaining that Gillard forced his hand on delaying the ETS, then dumped (with Gillard supporters subsequently briefing she probably would have done as well).
At the heart of these bizarre oscillations were Labor’s insecurities about its base, both in trying to “relate” to its base through whacking asylum seekers and struggling to bring in any significant measure like the ETS without it. Many of those insecurities focused on Western Sydney, which Gillard’s visit to in March, like a foreign dignitary, only served to underline. But the Western Sydney visit also highlighted a growing trend in politics even more pronounced with Labor reformers, namely a reversal of the old politics of constituencies in society seeking representation through political parties, to political parties looking for a constituency to represent.
If the hollowness of the institutional tussles in Labor were hiding behind the personal struggle between Rudd and Gillard, it was there for all to see straight after they left. The leadership election between Shorten and Albanese not only showed that any differences between Labor Right and Labor Left had lost meaning (as if the left’s non-existent reaction to asylum seeker policy did not make it clear enough) but the ground-breaking reform process produced precisely the same result as if it had never happened i.e. Labor’s traditional marriage between a man from the right as leader and a woman from the left in a supporting role.
Many of the insecurities that emerged during Labor’s institutional argy-bargy were formed during the Howard years immediately after Labor’s historical project was wound up. So it’s no surprise that Howard enjoyed something of a political rehabilitation, at least in political circles, and that Abbott was a beneficiary. But seeing the world through Howard’s eyes has led the political class into a trap – as the conditions for Howard’s agenda ended (which is why he lost) and have not returned. It was most painfully evident on asylum seeker policy, when the support by both Labor and the Coalition for the return of the Pacific Solution still didn’t stop the boats, a result that meant both sides were banging the asylum seeker drum with a little less certainty this year than they had the last.
Again as with Labor’s hollowness, the delusions of the right became clearer once Gillard and Rudd had quit the scene. After the non-existent honeymoon, that existed weakly only in Newspoll (and a little stronger in the paper that owns and understands it), it has become apparent what was always so before the election: the Coalition had no real mandate to do anything but not be Labor. The right initially tried pretending that the Howard years were back, claiming to be consistent on asylum seeker policy all along, so air-brushing out the period 2008-09 when they dumped the Pacific Solution.
But in the end, reality prevailed. As it turns out, we were back in the Howard years, sort of, picking up right where he left off with the drift and backflips before the 2007 defeat. While a little too much has been made of Abbott’s shaky start, rather than emphasising the continuity of the lukewarm public support before the election, the unprecedented intervention of Indonesia into Australian domestic affairs and the rebellion of the state Premiers over Gonski underline the lack of authority of this government, and its leadership, that may play out further in 2014.
In short, 2013 could be summed up as the year when neither Labor under Rudd, nor the Coalition under Abbott, proved capable of filling the gap left by the exhaustion of Labor’s historical project under Gillard. Yet if nature may abhor a vacuum, it’s not as much political commentary does, even to the point of incoherence. In the search for the new paradigm, Waleed Aly, after explaining why Abbott was an unsuccessful opposition leader, he then explains why he wasn’t by tapping into the new paradigm caused by technology – terribly new thinking.
In reality what is important is not what is new, but what is being revealed about the old that is coming to an end. What we are seeing is the final play of political projects of the 20th century that began winding up 20 years ago. This year saw the end, at least for now, of an attempt by the political class to replace it and this may lead to problems.
Once again with this new government, we have that curious phenomenon which started under Howard and continued under Rudd: the ascension of one party in Canberra causing support to fall away for them in the states. It suggests that parties are less coming to power because of a national shift in the mood to something new, but increasingly as a reaction against the previous one. It certainly suggests the worst thing a national party can do to itself is to take office in Canberra.
This is just one of the signs of the anti-political mood that has always been a feature of Australia politics. Traditionally in Australia this anti-politics mood has usually been managed more successfully by the right, which lacking the ability to generate any real authority in their own home-grown institutions, has always been better at tapping into public distrust of the ones we have. But for the first time in a long while in Australian political history, the most successful manager of this mood came from the left, with Rudd.
The reasons for Rudd’s popularity that saw him force his way back in to the Prime Ministership in 2013 are rarely drawn out by political observers. Indeed, as Rudd showed this year, it is not even really understood by Rudd himself, who seemed to think it was about him than what he represented. Bringing this anti-political mood into the centre of the political system was always going to be awkward and Rudd’s failure brought palpable relief, another reason why his feud with Gillard has been consigned to the distant part.
But Rudd’s failure in 2013 has also taken away the one solution that the political system had with dealing with this anti-political mood, leaving the chief beneficiary to be a billionaire buffoon with an unsettling dismissiveness towards the niceties of the political system. Welcome to the void.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Sunday, 29 December 2013.Filed under State of the parties