Tuesday, 15 July 2014
I’m determined to get on with governing
T Abbott 11 July 2014
I’m determined to get on with the job of governing,
J Gillard 31 January 2013
The Labor Party was formed to represent the workers, the Liberals to represent business, the Nationals to represent people in rural and regional Australia. But Palmer United was formed simply out of hatred for Campbell Newman.
Senior Coalition member talking to Laurie Oakes
We have got situation normal.
If this is situation normal, why doesn’t it feel like it?
As commentators have said, dealing with tricky players in the Palmer United Party isn’t new. Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs for the Rudd government either. Even the Australian Democrats on their high horse could give Howard headaches.
The difference is not so much Palmer, but the weak position of the government that is negotiating with him.
The histrionics of the government dealing with a group that was always going to repeal the carbon tax has made a mountain out of a negotiating molehill, not helped ironically by an equally histrionic pro government press attempting to put pressure on Palmer but only making a catastrophe out of something that wasn’t.
But the weakness of a new government with what should be a healthy mandate is uncomfortable and so the attention is on the renegade Palmer and his use of that classic Queensland trick, anti-politics.
This blog started seven years ago from frustration at commentary that was over-estimating Howard’s political hold that was heavily reliant on the War on Terror effect that was then fading. However, within a few months it became clear that there was another side to Rudd’s ascendancy, his use of dissatisfaction with the two party system and “the old politics” that this blogger referred to as “anti-politics”.
At the time, the term anti-politics wasn’t widely used. Now it’s everywhere. It’s not only applied to Palmer, but has even gone international with commentators talking about the sprouting of anti-politics movements in the recent European elections with the rise of the far right in France, the faux Conservative UKIP in Britain, and the far left in Spain and Greece, while Italy went for laughs with the decidedly unfunny comedian Beppe Grillo.
Yet the fact that the same term can be applied to the far right and the far left in Europe and that in Australia, even an ideological party hack like Cory Bernadi can try speaking the language, suggests that the meaning of anti-politics is not clear cut. It is perhaps worthwhile going back to its most effective proponent, Rudd, who unlike any of the other examples, brought anti-politics into the centre of the political system, with such explosive results.
The first thing that needs clearing up is that anti-politics isn’t necessarily a direct result of rising voter discontent with the political system. In the UK, for example, UKIP’s spectacular success in the European elections coincided with polling suggesting the majority of UK voters in favour of staying in the EU was the highest for several years.
Similarly when Rudd took the Labor leadership at the end of 2006, voter satisfaction with the democratic process was the highest it’s been for decades, and voters were also fairly satisfied with the leaders at the time. Howard and Beazley’s approval ratings weren’t spectacular, but better than previous years and enough to make them look like rock stars against what we’ve seen in the last few years.
Rudd didn’t become leader by being carried on the shoulders of the masses into Caucus but due to the exhaustion of a process within the political system, especially Labor, itself. His win represented the culmination of 15 years of Labor party wrangling over its future after its historical project was wound up by Hawke and Keating and the dilemma of what it should stand for since. That dilemma resulted in a constant to-ing and fro-ing between leaders that represented the old power bases, and leaders who attempted to forge something new, usually around personal values.
To that extent, Rudd’s focus on his personal values was a continuation of Latham’s tactics but more successfully. Partly this was because Rudd no longer had to worry about national security as undid Latham in 2004 and Beazley in 2001. But also because Rudd was prepared to take his break from the past further and pose his opposition to the old politics, even his own party, into a political virtue – setting up a dynamic that led to not only his ousting in 2010, but his return against the wishes of the unions and many power brokers in 2013.
That Rudd’s anti-politics had accurately put his finger on the bankruptcy of the two party system was not only shown by his own popularity, but the unpopularity of Gillard and Abbott who followed, reasserting the old politics. It also applies to the current Labor leader, whose striking unpopularity has gendered little comment, let alone explanation.
The source of that bankruptcy is the erosion of the social bases of the major parties that had happened over a decade before with the decline of the unions and the lessening need to oppose them. But it should be noted that such social shifts are nothing new. Groupings in society are constantly in flux and realigning and it’s not surprising that politics should realign in turn.
At the beginning of Federation the main alignment in politics was between the Protectionist and Free Traders roughly reflecting the differing business interests between Victoria and NSW, but which later merged as organised labour began making its political influence felt with the rise of the Labour party. The business parties subsequently realigned and absorbed splits in Labour/Labor and the union movement, and then later in the 1920s the Country Party was formed by rural interests to oppose the protectionism of both sides.
But this time something odd is happening. Social groups are realigning, the unions have lost their social significance, but with no new social interests making its presence felt, nothing is really happening in politics to reflect it. It’s as though the political system is suspended in thin air unable to realign to anything new to reflect what is happening in society.
The only noteworthy new political movement in recent years has been environmentalism, initially brought in to the political mainstream by Labor to shore up support in the dying days of the Hawke government as its unionised base fell away. But far from representing any sectional interests in society, the whole point of environmentalism is to claim sectional interests are secondary to environment concerns. It was why the imperative of climate change was such an important issue for Rudd against the traditional union backers of his own party.
It is into this stalemate of politics in suspended animation that anti-political leaders like Palmer are emerging. The Palmer phenomenon has led to speculation about who he “represents”, just as there have been reams written in the UK working out who UKIP represents. But in a sense there’s little point. As the Coalition member quoted above noted, unlike past political formations, Palmer basically represents nothing but a feud within the Queensland LNP – and of course his own business interests.
That’s what gives Palmer flexibility: other than what’s good for his business, everything else is up for grabs. Having got rid of the carbon tax for his own business interests, he can now be as pro action on climate change as he likes, certainly enough to dupe climate change warrior Gore. Who Palmer’s shifting agenda happens to appeal to at any given time is, in a sense, neither here nor there.
Palmer comes from the vicissitudes of the Queensland LNP just as Rudd came from within Labor’s, i.e. both come from the weakness of the political system rather than social interests. But both are/were willing to use those weaknesses of the political system and the public’s detachment from it for their own ends. In that sense, Palmer’s supporters are as much a stage army for pursuing his political interests as the crowds in Fairfield shopping centre who mobbed Rudd in 2013 were used by him to regain the leadership.
Many commentators are right. Palmer is a sideshow. With the political system no longer realigning with new political formations as it has in the past (at least for now), the existing parties are transforming in a way that changes the nature of representative democracy that will be looked at in a later post. But for now, those like Palmer without a social base can cause havoc for the major parties that must accommodate to not having one either, and effectively act as a catalyst for that change, just as Rudd did. This suggests the central confusion of anti-politics: while posing to be against politics, they are actually politics in its purest form.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 15 July 2014.Filed under State of the parties