The year Australian politics imploded

Sunday, 29 December 2013 

Who were these two again? Oh yes.

Who were these two again? Oh yes.

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

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30 responses to “The year Australian politics imploded”

  1. guy on 29th December 2013 12:54 pm

    So will TA realise that he is in the void or not? Survival in the void means becoming one with the void, like Barry O’F. Bill S and TA have adopted the void tactic of vanishing. However, TA cannot continue with this as events will continue and his corporate paymasters won’t like it. So how will the void react against TA? Obviously the States and Senate, maybe the High Court? If we take this theory seriously we predict a very poor outcome for Liberals in the WA Senate re run, but not for Labor’s benefit. We also predict difficulties getting things through current and new Senate. Perhaps the implosion of Palmer’s party once the contradictions of a bunch of anti- politicians in a party becomes apparent. Major tensions betwee Canberra and all the States.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 29th December 2013 12:58 pm

    I don’t see this necessarily suggesting a very bad result for Abbott in WA. A void’s a void. It’s not as though Labor is posing as an alternative.

    I think the major issue for Abbott will be pleasing his own party, so expect more token gestures like Wilson’s appointment and the left to helpfully hype up their significance, I guess.

  3. F on 29th December 2013 1:01 pm

    Personally I love Clive Palmer…..hope he shakes the joint up and frightens all the chickens.

    Love that he could insert himself into the Asylum Seeker debate to point out how horrible and “un-Australian” it was to lock up women and children, something most Australians would agree with….something that the usual asylum seeker advocates appear unable or unwilling to do(they don’t want the public to support this cause, that would see them lose their ability to lord it over the great unwashed)

    I love the way he laughs at the media. They think he is a joke, but he is laughing at them. Watching him on Q&A (god that show is horrible) is HILARIOUS! He makes Jones look like a slow-footed dill….

    I short I like the way he ignores the rules….the rules are stupid. They have allowed all kinds of crap to happen. Why should we take lousy journalists lousy questions seriously? Why should we take politicians like Joyce, Hanson-Young, and Conroy seriously? How have these people become our leaders? Vomit.

    Yeah I really like anti-politics!

    I might just start a secessionist movement.

  4. atomou on 29th December 2013 3:12 pm

    F, if you think the rules “have allowed all kinds of crap to happen” wait and see what crap Palmer will allow to happen.
    He laughs at the media now; he will be laughing at your protestations later -protestations at the crap he will allow to happen.

    Laughing at powerful bastards is fraught with peril.

  5. Dianne on 29th December 2013 6:08 pm

    Agree with Atomou on Palmer.

    As for TA, I think too many people think he is more than he is and just as many think he is less than he is.

    I think he is a very ordinary person with an extraordinary will to win.

    Everything is a competition. To win is everything.

    In Roman times he would have been a prized gladiator.

    We are in a void alright.

  6. atomou on 29th December 2013 6:31 pm

    Dianne, your second observation is more correct than the first, ie, TA’s extraordinary will is to kill, rather than to win. To win, requires tactics and tactics means thinking, intelligence, patience, contemplation, finesse, subtlety. Can you see any of this in TA?
    Killing, on the other hand requires only the need to kill, which is why your allusion to the Roman colosseum is more apt. The gladiators simply have to kill. Winning is not the aim. TA is of the boxing ring. I can see him punching stupidly all over the place but losing every match.
    Just as he has lost this game. Unfortunately (or not) the other side lost even more deplorably.

  7. Dianne on 29th December 2013 7:09 pm

    I think a successful gladiator must have had a bit going on in the brain box to be able to win to fight another day.

    I have never thought Tony Abbott is stupid, far from it.

    What he lacks is the vision which marks a genuine leader. A true leader inspires and brings out the best in people.

    TA is sadly lacking in that respect.

  8. F on 29th December 2013 11:10 pm

    Oh please…..What so bad about Palmer? He is barely a billionaire, big woop. So he wants to dredge the Great Barrier Reef and rip up forests for coal? Like that hasn’t already happened under the watch of the two major parties AND the Australian media. I’m right to laugh at these laughable ‘rules’.

    Both of two are pathetically obsessed with Abbott…who cares? Has he not already proven how useless he actually is?

    Shrike has made the point that no party has the ability to take government and rule effectively….for now. Why think too hard on one ineffective leader just to give yourself unwanted wrinkles?

    Also, I cannot believe you have harked back to Roman times to describe what you think of the man, how very turgid!

  9. atomou on 30th December 2013 7:42 am

    F, alas, it is this casual dismissiveness of yours that has brought about the political decomposition that we are going through at the moment – that and the enormous power of the uber rich.

    We have two political parties comprising thugs of all descriptions who are into destroying not only this country but all other countries on the planet, as well as the very planet itself, so, to your layback thinking, what’s the big deal if we get yet another party comprising of more thugs?

    What a fine way to run a shortcut to your grave!

    When the whole country becomes one big fracking hole for Clive’s delectation, when the only people left in this country is Clive and little Gina and Twiggy and their like, and a few million slaves begging and thieving and murdering each other, will we still be saying, “o, big woop! I’m not giving myself any unwanted wrinkles” by worrying about where my next mouthful will come from?

    The harking back to Roman times, was to show where TA is. He is useless so far as doing something for the common good of this country and probably for putting together a coherent phrase; but he is not useless so far as his bosses is concerned. He is, in fact quite, quite useful for them, much like the Reagans and the Bushes and Thatchers and Blairs, and the countless other dictators that have preceded him.

    Malicious and stupid idiots, my harking back is trying to demonstrate, have been around since the days of the primal sludge but I didn’t think there was a need for me to hark that far back to more vividly demonstrate the mindless, belligerent character of the man.

    Like the gladiators, he has one skill: to kill. He has directed the education of his brain in one only, tiny arena out of the universe of wisdom: how to kill; and nothing more.

    If there’s one thing that humanity should be very weary of is morons with the keys to the throne and that’s what we’ve got with Abbott.

  10. atomou on 30th December 2013 7:46 am

    Dianne, “a bit only!” The instinct for survival bit. A bit of practice on how to use a sword and a bit of brawn building. Certainly not a brain surgeon I could trust with my brain.

  11. Dianne on 30th December 2013 7:49 am

    I really don’t know what anti-politics is F but I am glad you are enjoying it.

    PS I enjoyed your analysis and I understand that something fundamental has changed but I am not sure if calling it ‘anti-political’ defines what it is.

    Back to F, I don’t understand your complacency about Tony Abbott being ‘useless’ either. I wouldn’t put it quite like that and I certainly don’t share your view that it is enough for the gladiatorial Leader of this country to have demonstrated that he appears to be ill-equipped for the job.

    Why not put a jack-rabbit at the helm or a March hare. Both would be no more useful to the people of this country?

    I agree that Clive can be entertaining, albeit tiresome and contrived. But should he be a Member of P with all those potential conflicts of interest arising from his business empire? Would you feel any differently if Gina Rinehart formed a political party or Lachlan Murdoch? I don’t think either of those two do stand-up.

    I do not believe we have had a proper debate about people with huge business interests forming political parties. That old problem evader She-who-will-be-right appears to have stepped in again.

    PS I agree that something fundamental has changed in the manner in which our democracy functions. I know you do not agree but I see the treatment of Julia Gillard as a step into the ‘void’.

    I would appreciate it if you could flesh out the internal difficulties this new paradigm (always makes me laugh) is causing the Liberal party. I suspect they are even more unsettled than the ALP.

    I am certainly not relaxed and comfortable about any of this. I don’t think many of us are. Or should be.

  12. Dianne on 30th December 2013 7:54 am

    You got in three minutes before me but we are on the same bus Atomou apart from your views on Gillard and my belief that TA ain’t stoopid.

  13. guy on 30th December 2013 9:20 pm

    Time to man up Shrike. If you say there is a political void, what does that mean? If TA can carry on much in the same way as any other time, then your observations are meaningless. There must be a result.

    I agree with your analysis and posit strange WA election results and even stranger Senate shenanigans as a result.

    Do you stand by your analysis and if so what is the consequence? Otherwise there is no point, other than just feeling superior.

  14. Dianne on 31st December 2013 6:49 am

    Shrike – like Guy I am wondering about ‘void’ also.

    Are we talking about a political system emptied of meaning? Or are we searching for meaning in its shadows, meaning which may or may not be there?

    I never accept anything at face value anymore. I find myself decoding. I suspect most do.

    Politicians use doublespeak to conceal meaning. Some of it is immediately obvious. Most of us are on red alert when ‘flexibility’ is mentioned and snigger when a response starts with: ‘It is not our intention’.

    What does this lack of directness mean? What is it concealing? Nothingness or a whole lot of Something we may not like?

    Is the appointment of Tim Wilson as a Human Rights Commissioner just a sop to the far-right or is there a Meaning Which Dare Not Speak Its Name? If you suspect the latter then you would see the proposed $5 payment to bulk billing doctors as a thin edge of the wedge which will eventually play a role in undermining the public health system.

    Who knows?

    Could it be that politics has been gobbled up by the voracious Celebrity Cult monster? Maybe politicians are now so intent on building a ‘personal relationship’ with the electorate that they are more intent on image-making than explaining or even developing policy.

    Clive Palmer is such a card. So-o-o-o refreshing! He sees through Canberra. Pauline Hanson was a Rool person. Poor Julia tried to be Rool too. Tony’s daughters are so good-looking. Did you see Kev’s selfie?

    The moment I saw Kev’s snap of himself with the shaving wound I knew he had jumped the shark. The Eek Factor must have been high among that unforgiving audience. Down went the thumbs. Vote Him Off.

    I think it was his Rool Julia moment.

    Are we all in the Truman Show?

  15. atomou on 31st December 2013 8:08 am

    What do we do if we suddenly find ourselves flying through “the void?” We flap our hands and legs and whatever other extremities we may have and hope to grab onto something because the void is a bastard of a thing. You don’t know what’s at the end of it for a start, bliss or blow up. So we flail and flap and spin backward and forward… much like the troika of our leaders did, since Rudd One appeared.

    They twirled about in the void flapping and flailing and kicking and screaming and eating and puking so fast that we, the people, could not for a minute discern what it was they were doing –or for whose delectation. Abbott won’t be flapping but he will bring out his flailing tools from his medieval dungeon of Christian love-paraphernalia and he will put an end to the void. He will rule. Like a bastard, like a Pope, like a Spanish Inquisitor, like a reverse Robin Hood.

    Shrike’s “Gillard’s visit to in March, like a foreign dignitary,” is an excellent explanation of what he means by “void.” Some focus group or other had told her that there was a void in the West and so she trotted off there to go and fill it up with herself, to help the people stop their flapping and flailing. And we all laughed heartily.
    And, Shrike continues, there was also a void in the ALP board room. A void, a hole in the market. The members needed a market, a political village and the West, they thought, would be a good one. No one, in The West, was interested, however. Let the void continue, they said to themselves and so it did and still does to this day.

    In truth, there is a chasm in our Parliament. The place is bereft of mind and heart; of vision and direction; a chasm that is being filled with null and void rhetoric and of shifting chairs. Worst kind of chasm. Obliterative, catastrophic, americanising.

    Rool Julia? The one who gushed “America can do anything?”
    I would laugh if there were not a cataclysmic void in my heart.

  16. Dianne on 31st December 2013 12:20 pm

    Not the flailing tools Atomou!|<]#|+{

    I am inclined to believe there is a Vision. Some may call it a Nightmare, others a Dream still to come true.

    It is in a file somewhere marked Top Secret. It is labelled Unfinished Business.

    They will creep it in. Little by little we will be transformed.

    That is what I suspect.

  17. atomou on 31st December 2013 1:12 pm

    And quite a valid suspicion that one, Dianne.
    By “no vision” I meant… hang on let me see if I can do justice to my syllogism here.
    I was thinking in the Platonic/Socratic sense that virtues should be virtuous or else they are not virtues: Education, for example, unless it is virtuous education then it ought not be called education. Educating someone about how to commit a crime, cannot be called education. The same with vision. if it is a disvirtuous vision than, yes, it’d be a nightmare and a plot to implement it. Nasty shits don’t have visions!

  18. Dianne on 31st December 2013 1:31 pm

    I think that cunning old Florentine Machiavelli would have more of a handle on our politicians and their dealings, than the classical Greeks.

  19. atomou on 31st December 2013 2:47 pm

    Quite so, quite so!
    Prince Abbott’s only book.
    And today’s Machiavelli and Abbott’s father confessor, of course, is the Primate of all current Machiavellis, George Pell. Satan’s hell is only now beginning to stink!

  20. atomou on 1st January 2014 12:12 pm

    Dear Shrikes,
    I wish you all the very best for the new year.
    Go forth in this Year of our Zeus, 2014 and… multiply! Multiply your family, your love, your health, your wealth, but, most importantly, your understanding of life and of the wisdom of your deeds! Let your wisdom burgeon like the leaves of trees in Spring and like threads of silk in the mouths of moths!
    Love to you all, as well as to all those you hold near and dear!
    Have a splendid year, one that lacks nothing and is bereft of nothing that you lave! One that is replete with everything you can make good use of! One that is hindered by nothing indecorous or unvirtuous.
    May your larder be full but your body line slim and adequate!
    May your hearts be full but your wallets slim and adequate!
    May your nose hang low but not lacking in dignity and pride!
    The year 2013 is dead!
    Long live the New Year!
    Long live you all!
    Shit, is it 20bloody14 already? Bloody hell!

  21. atomou on 1st January 2014 12:13 pm
  22. Dianne on 1st January 2014 12:22 pm

    And a very Happy New Year to you Atomou.

    No doubt we will have much to debate in the year to come.

    I have just staggered in from the gym so I have started 2014 well.

    I hope my wisdom burgeons. I fear not.

  23. atomou on 1st January 2014 12:43 pm

    At least your waist line will be respectably girth!
    Your namesake ancient goddess of the hunt, will no doubt be proud.

  24. DM on 2nd January 2014 8:05 pm

    The current “political void” is only reflective of the larger and more personal social void in which we find outselves as a country. Here we are in the teens of the 21st century and we are still stuck with 19th century colonial garbage: primitive resource exporting economy (the little manufacturing we had is probably seeing its last days), the Enlgish Queen as head of state, and Union Jack as our flag. And what’s even worse there is no grassroots/bottom-up/movement to change these things, just faux pas organisations masquerading as movements with former politicians and career lawyers as prominent members.

    So if you wonder what the “political void” is you might want to consider the larger social hole that we have!

  25. The Piping Shrike on 2nd January 2014 9:43 pm

    Not convinced there is anywhere near as much a social void as there is a political one (as most of the things you describe are). Politics has always been relatively weak. But I think a narrative ran its course last year, and I don’t think commentary has picked that up yet,

  26. Riccardo on 3rd January 2014 6:35 pm

    what i have always liked about this blog – always well grounded in political and social context. the c20th is over and so is the great labor project. only the right wing reaction to it remains.

    but the problem is deeper. the country itself meets the legal but not the cultural or ethnic basis for being a nation state. it needs to move quickly to being instead an economic area where peace and stability become the value add, the unique selling point, but the strong legal and historic negative basis for the nation state – keeping people out- works against this.

    sure, we give away visas, but we don’t willingly remove the legal separation between australia and the rest. we can’t even get nz planes into our domestic airports.

  27. F on 11th January 2014 8:48 pm

    Riccardo, Your definition of a successful nation state would preclude the inclusion of a great many of the current stable of nation states….the U.K, America, Canada, Spain, Turkey,Ukraine, Russia, China, almost all of Africa…this list could go on and on. None of these nation states meet the “cultural and ethnic basis” you speak of.

    Your issue with domestic air policy may have more to do with the political connections of a certain major carrier, then with Nationalism….or whatever.

    Also your harking back to Nationalism is very mid last century….the “cultural and ethnic” basis of nations didn’t really turn our all that great for the most part, did it?

    In fact, the creation of these ethnic and culture based nation states involved the expulsion and denial of other cultures within the states borders….a process still going on in may other states. Maybe Australia has already made significant strides towards a post-ethnic nation state?

  28. Jay Buoy on 14th January 2014 7:00 pm

    The ALP will be a rump party affiliated with the greens by 2020…too much Karl Bitar not enough Mick Young.. Rudd and Gillard doing their impersonation of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead..finally..

  29. atomou on 15th January 2014 7:06 am

    How sadly true regarding the ALP and the Rudd&Gillard puppet show, Jay and, sadder still for them, I doubt the Greens will want to know them. They are a poison apple now, much like the one that Cinderella was offered!
    At least I hope the Greens don’t bite!

  30. Riccardo on 20th January 2014 4:48 pm

    F wrote:

    the U.K, America, Canada, Spain, Turkey,Ukraine, Russia, China, almost all of Africa…this list could go on and on. None of these nation states meet the “cultural and ethnic basis” you speak of…

    Got it in one!


    Also your harking back to Nationalism is very mid last century….the “cultural and ethnic” basis of nations didn’t really turn our all that great for the most part, did it?

    Another hole in one! Great shot.

    I’m not arguing FOR nationalism – the opposite. I’m suggesting Australia should be an anti-nationalist entity, an anti-nation if you like. Having no other reason for being, it might as well open its borders and exist only at a legal level.

    The political pretense, which TPS correctly identifies but doesn’t trace to the source, is this idea that Australia has a basis for being a nation. Did we fight for independence? Of course not, the USA can at least point to some mythical blood bond we don’t even have. We tried various faux racial bases, none of which were sustained. Don’t even meet the Boers’ high standards of fake nation creation.

    Lest you don’t really get what I’m saying, don’t interpret the above as saying I want a civil war or Apartheid, because I am saying the opposite. I’m saying that it is time to remove the nation fig leaf and be what we really are – an empty space on which to let people write their own lives, not live someone elses, least of all that of a political party.

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