Sunday, 4 January 2009
Friday, 2 January 2009
Wednesday, 24 December 2008
It is not easy to review Labor in 2008 since politically, the party seemed to make barely any impact. While Liberal shenanigans made most of the headlines, Labor party manoeuvres were rarely reported as such, even if they remained very much a feature of 2008 politics.
The Labor party throughout 2008 was dominated by the small clique of Ministers around Rudd. This may not appear that different from the Hawke/Keating governments before, but the narrow grouping around the earlier Labor Prime Ministers was still against a backdrop of a union movement that had a key role in Labor government policy. This new Labor government was very different.
A sign of this was the leadership's relationship to the party’s factions. Rudd came to power as the first Labor leader not sponsored by a union. Coming from the right as is traditional, but the first not to attend their faction meetings as leader (with Gillard also being the first deputy not to attend hers). At the election, we saw so-called ‘celebrity’ Labor candidates brought in by Rudd over the heads of the branches and the factions in unprecedented numbers. After the election, we saw the appointment of the first Labor Cabinet member, Peter Garrett, not to be in a faction. All of this produced a Labor government less aligned with the party’s power bases than any in the ALP’s history led by its most detached leader.
Yet behind detachment there is always conflict. Rudd’s alliance with left figures such as Gillard and Tanner was not based on their program (indeed there is little evidence of the left’s program when Gillard oversaw the introduction of the most anti-union legislation in the party’s history or Tanner started almost immediately cutting spending at a time of surplus). Rudd’s alliance with the left was based on their view on the party’s factions and the old political order. Those of the left who had the least to lose from the end of the old party power bases aligned with a leader who owed least to them.
It was the political assault on the old power bases of the party that was the underlying theme of federal Labor in 2008 and it was centred around three initiatives. The first was the attack on party programmes and spending plans that started even before Rudd came to power, at last year’s election launch and then was reinforced immediately after victory by over-hyping the inflation threat. This period running up to the May Budget saw the leadership clamp down on any party spending plans under the guise of controlling inflation and the importance of keeping election promises even as the US slowdown started to hit.
Generally the media seemed to take the inflation crisis at face value, although you have to wonder whether the right–wing press, like The Australian, that also took up the anti-inflation cry were not also aware of its political implications. If that was so, the media’s campaign would be unlikely to be targeted at merely discrediting the former Howard government, who had already been defeated, but surely more those on the Labor side whose hands were now supposed to be closer to the levers of power. There was probably no clearer sign of the defeat of the party than its acquiescence to dropping any new spending plans while preserving Howard’s tax cuts.
The second initiative was more symbolic but probably far-reaching in message and that was the 2020 Summit. While viewed as a celebrity stunt, the message from Rudd’s speech opening the 2020 summit that the major parties, including the one that was supposed to be governing, were politically bankrupt and had nothing to say for the long-term future of Australia was real enough.
The third initiative was much grittier and more fascinating to watch, the destruction of the party’s most important power base, the NSW Right. This largely centred on the NSW government and Iemma’s attempt to break with the unions over electricity privatisation. It was a move that destroyed the influence of the NSW Right in the process. However, in doing so the unprecedented toppling of a serving Labor Premier has not resulted in the resurgence of the party base and the unions either. Instead NSW now has a vacuum at the top occupied by the man from nowhere, Nathan Rees.
The role of Canberra in all of this is a bit cloudy. Certainly Rudd never came to Iemma’s rescue like he promised he would while in opposition. Partly this was because he did have an interest in the destruction of his former faction, but also reflecting his lack of a support base in NSW from which to have much effect, certainly the current state of Labor in NSW would not be his ideal. But his approval of Gillard’s hounding of Neal over Iguanagate, so also damaging her right faction boss husband, made it clear that he saw what happened in NSW as a necessary evil.
The story in NSW is not over. From being the most entrenched and successful model of the union-business model Labor model of the 1970s and 1980s and the last to change, NSW Labor has crashed straight through the technocrat models subsequently adopted by other state Labor governments and ended up in a vacuum. However, that sense of a vacuum end-point was also felt in other state Labor governments in 2008, most notably in WA and NT, where Labor governments suffered large swings against them. Not because the Liberals were reviving with an alternative; as seen in WA when they scraped into power, they had none. Nor because of an inevitable swing back to the Liberals now Labor is in Canberra, a mechanical formula that has suffered a bit of a hit with the latest round of state polls. But because at the end of the day, being a technocratic organisation without a social base may make it more suited to the functionary role state government has become, but also leaves it vulnerable to being turfed out for the most trivial of reasons. This is a lesson that has not been lost in Canberra. Busy, busy.
Monday, 22 December 2008
If there has been one key development driving the federal Liberals over 2008, it has been the faltering grip of the old leadership. Imploding in the run up to the loss last November, the last minute withdrawal of Abbott’s candidacy and the fumbled attempt to reassert itself under Nelson in the winter this year, the Liberals are left at the end of 2008 in a vacuum with a leader that has no real base of support in the party but with the old guard yet unable to get rid of him.
No doubt the media assessment of Nelson’s brief tenure in the end-of-year round-ups will not be glowing. But Nelson probably did the best in a dire situation. He had two problems. The first was the presence of the old guard that made clear he owed their victory to them, while no doubt being less clear why their own man couldn’t get the chance to use his people skills. The old leadership have influence because they are the only ones that can convincingly assert party values at a time it need to be told what it stands for. As Howard sat in his suite at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, just down the corridor from Nelson’s, he could ring around the party and call Nelson in to remind him what the party stood for and keep him on the right track.
The one small problem with what Howard would have had to say, however, was that it no longer won elections. No-one in the party seems to want to admit it publicly but they had just lost the election under his leadership and his policies. It wasn’t even that they were that unpopular, more irrelevant to even the party’s own business backers.
This would have been bad enough to handle but the political environment made it even worse. Rudd had come into power on the fact that neither major party had anything especially relevant to say to Australia in 2008 and so we had the New Sensitivity; bipartisanship, avoiding political ‘argy-bargy’ and feeling everyone’s pain. While this touchy-feely was anathema to an old guard trying to assert itself, Nelson actually didn’t do a bad job given the pressures on his back.
Nelson’s compromise was to do Sensitive, but go in ‘hard’ at the same time. Probably his most memorable performance was during the height of the petrol kerfuffle. The Liberals never sounded that convincing even when some of them were trying to chip in with any mid-market car models they could think of (Julie Bishop helpfully came up with a Tarago).
This and ‘every mother loves her baby’ may be excruciating to watch, but such Sensitive gestures prevented Rudd getting a grip on Nelson even if it made him a figure of mockery for the media. So Labor’s lead drifted away during the winter, but it left Nelson a political laughing stock.
The damage to the ‘brand’, as senior Liberals cutely called the party’s rationale, became too much to swallow and by June there were clear attempts to push Nelson to a more distinct position. That had to centre on the one thing where they still felt to have an advantage, the economy, and that was the basis on which they pushed a harder line on climate change. The argument was that there would soon be electoral resistance against climate change action as it hit the hip-pocket. Something you could see resonated in the right wing press until they had to confront the shocking polling evidence that the public thought no such thing.
The return of a more open climate change scepticism may have made the party feel good, but also reinvigorated a drifting government. Anyone listening to Parliament during June would have heard the way the government suddenly came back to life after being bogged down in petrol price tedium.
Such a move was obviously a challenge to Turnbull and he had to respond. With Nelson losing his grip, the old leadership needed to draft in the ghost of a Costello leadership challenge to keep Turnbull in place and we saw the return of that pantomime a full six months before Christmas. Stuck in the middle, Nelson had no choice but to respond and bring things to a head. Despite the backing of most of the old leadership, he narrowly lost.
Turnbull’s arrival represented the old guard’s defeat rather than the arrival of a new order. That is why he has had no impact on policy despite telling anyone who listened that he would start doing so by the year end. In fact if anything, his side of the party seems to have gone backwards (anyone heard from Greg Hunt lately?).
In reality Turnbull faced the same problems as Nelson, but even more acute. He still faced the New Sensitivity rules of play, and like the hard luck stories he gave on arriving to the leadership he was only a bit less awkward at doing it than Nelson. He still faced the Master of the Game on the opposite side. Despite the media claiming the ‘game is back on’, if anything the government’s drift reversed from the day he took over.
He also has the old guard to deal with. Their setback with Nelson’s loss may have brought on a temporary respite that might have looked like unity to some, but the problem for them is getting even more pronounced after the right fell over themselves to support the bail-out. The last few months have seen a scramble right across the party to recover what they lost in the October panic.
There are now little signs that this will mean the old guard are getting ready to dispose of their second leader. Being Liberals, they do things less directly. The first way they begin targeting the current leadership is through its weakest point, the deputy. While Bishop is unaligned with Turnbull internally, mutterings about Bishop are an indirect way of complaining about the leadership performance as a whole. Now we have the rebellion in the Senate, where while all the focus has been on what the Nats did, the real challenge came from what senior Libs like Nick Minchin did. Maybe the media is right after all, it does look as the game is back on.
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
The general media assessment of Rudd’s 5% emission target is that if it places him in the middle between unhappy Greens and climate sceptics, it is the right place to be.
It is not. First of all, the government is not in the ‘middle’ of such sentiment. Every poll shows that far more think the government is not doing enough than too much. Stepping up climate change action keeps being discussed as a ‘brave’ decision but is actually very much in line with what the mainstream electorate thinks.
The myth that climate change action is a tough area for government largely comes from the media’s incomprehension that the voting public would ever think beyond its hip-pocket. This seems to be a media prejudice built up in the latter years of the Howard government that ascribed his political genius in winning elections through the handing out of bribes. They forget that Howard’s ability to stave off the regular mid-term polling slumps rested on the exact opposite, namely the perception that he could make unpopular decisions that could give him the authority to strut around as a conviction politician.
Rudd has come to power as a pragmatic response to the fact that Howard’s little bag of tricks lost their magic and he was exposed at the end as politically bankrupt, despite some last minute attempts to appear otherwise. But, no matter how pragmatic Rudd is, he still needs issues to give the government a sense of purpose and a reason for existence. The difference for Rudd is that this is more likely to come from the international arena and that Rudd was better positioned to follow the change in that international agenda from the War on Terror to climate change.
Rudd certainly began that way but appears to have lost momentum on climate change as the year progressed. One of the reasons appears to be the slowing economy. There is an overwhelming view that an economic downturn will make action on climate change more difficult. The opposite could be more easily argued. For a start there is the practical synergy between the two. As Andrew Bolt pointed out a few weeks ago, a recession can be quite effective at reducing carbon emissions. There are also political synergies. Climate change is about making a virtue of austerity and slower growth, useful political tools in the event of downturn.
However, there is an even more fundamental synergy. In case it should happen that the money does run out, and this slowdown begins to appear like others (i.e. lower revenues, no money, spending cuts), having the political authority to make the tough decisions is useful, as can be seen with the NSW government, where that moment has already arrived and it has none. One thing that political history shows is that when times are tough, Australian governments need all the help with authority they can get.
This political issue is not necessarily about the practicalities. Rudd may very well be right that a 5% emission cut is equivalent, per capita, to a 30% cut by the Europeans. The trouble is that it doesn’t seem like it and the Greens charge that the government lacks courage has a little bit of bite. Business may be happy, but then they don’t have a government to run with all the political considerations that entails.
If the government has not done its own authority many favours by appearing timid, it does at least help it deal with the Liberals. If you listened to Turnbull a year ago you would think he would charge the government with not doing enough. If you listened to him a few months ago you would think that he would claim the government is doing it just about right. Yet yesterday he was again forced to position himself on the sceptic side. If there are a lot of people thinking the government is not doing enough, there are certainly not many thinking the government is doing too much.
What is changing is not Turnbull’s view on climate change (probably) but the increasing tenuous position he is finding himself as he rises in the leadership of the party that at the same time is having increasing doubts as to what it stands for. As someone who cannot even deliver better polling numbers, Turnbull is in no position to take on those in the party using the climate change position as a means of asserting the party’s core values. It may be doing so, but is at the risk of achieving the singular feat of making the Liberals look unpopular and opportunistic at the same time. In doing so, they already helped to destroy Nelson’s leadership. They are not doing Turnbull’s any favours now.
Friday, 12 December 2008
If anything, just going by the polls, Turnbull has in fact reversed the narrowing that was achieved under Nelson’s leadership. Things are a bit more complicated than that, the political environment has changed. But if anything it seems to have led to the economy dominating the political debate which we were told was supposed to be Turnbull’s strong point.
In reality the economy has not dominated political debate because there has been no economic debate. There has been a debate about process, who advised who, what, when, but no debate over whether the advice was right or wrong. There have been Liberal mutterings, but any serious criticisms were shut down by Labor asserting the superiority of the nation’s public officials over anything the political class might have to say.
Tony Abbott (and much of the media) thinks the government is ahead because of the cash hand-outs. This is the same contemptuous view of the public that thought Howard’s big tax hand-outs would save him last year. The point is not so much the hand-outs, but that it is being presented as an economic response, which is why Rudd gives it the grand name of an ‘Economic Security Strategy’. Howard’s cash hand out just looked like the political ploy it was.
Looking like you have an economic strategy is the name of the game, and this is where Turnbull’s problems lie. You would think the Liberals in opposition would be in their element now. The economy is turning down and Labor’s plan is to spend its way out of it. This should be exactly the time that the Liberals should be united. Against all the things that divide them, they are supposed to be against big government spending especially when times are tough. Cutting back spending and taxes is supposed to be one of business’s favourite responses to a downturn.
The trouble is that business doesn’t seem to know where they stand at the moment. If anything they are keener on government spending than anyone else. Nor have the political right been giving them much ideological direction. So we have drift and a unity that is standing for nothing, representing the collapse of the old leadership than Turnbull putting something new in its place.
Despite the facade of unity now looking less believable, nothing has really changed. The big rebellion from the old leadership last week was not against big spending, but the opposite, opposing Labor’s attempt to save money by dipping into funds already set aside. The Nationals’ opposition made political sense, the Liberals’ disunity meant nothing more than its leader is losing control.
Wednesday, 10 December 2008
I don't begrudge families doing it tough this extra money. But certainly, there are very credible fears that at least some families, particularly in some areas, are gonna be spending this money on booze and gambling and so on, and that's a pity.
Whereas the early phase of Industrial Relations Reform, say through to Waterfront, people could see a set of pre-conditions for those reforms existing, that is, yes our tax system is ageing or yes, our ports are grinding to a halt. There was no such, there was no pre-existing set of opinions or ideas like that with WorkChoices. Why are we doing this?
Mark Textor The Howard Years
Howard may have stuck his jaw out and pretended that WorkChoices was a political problem because it was a tough decision, like his other ‘tough’ decisions, but his pollster put his finger on it. The problem with WorkChoices was that it was irrelevant and signalled that the Howard government's limited program had come to an end.
The last episode of what has been generally an unrevealing series did at least remind that there were two agendas going on in Howard’s last year in government. It was not just that the fading of the effectiveness of the War on Terror again revealed a government bereft of a programme as it was in its first term, but that all the symbols with which Howard had defined his government were turning against it in its core constituency. Rudd’s ascension accelerated not only Labor’s progress in the marginals, but was also eroding support in the Liberals metropolitan heartland.
That was why in 2007 the Liberals ran two campaigns; one for show that looked like the traditional election campaign focussed on the marginals and a less obvious real one to hold onto its heartland. So we had Howard the conviction politician doing U-turns on Hicks, WorkChoices, the Murray and even by the end, on reconciliation, while banging on relentlessly about the one issue that still had resonance with its base, the unions. Combined with a very ordinary Labor election campaign, the coalition’s tactics in the last year prevented a humiliating loss becoming a political catastrophe.
The strategy over the heartland was the only real political substance to the tiff between Howard and Costello, with Costello offering no way to win the election but at least adapting the program to less upset the voters in seats like Higgins and Wentworth. In the end, Howard’s U-turns and his still better popularity with Liberal voters were the political reality that meant Costello would never get support. Nevertheless the Howard Years stuck to the Liberal script that they only really lost because the leader was looking old against Rudd’s fresh face. Well, we have had two fresh-faced Liberal leaders since then and what a lot of good that has done them.
Other than shoring up the heartland, Howard still needed to find an issue to give the government purpose, or a ‘rabbit out of the hat’ as it was popularly known. The politically astute former Treasurer had his own way of putting the problem:
From midyear on we were dancing and skipping and asking the electorate to take a look at us, but they’d latched onto another act and it was the other act that had taken their imagination.On the 18 June 2007 that dancing and skipping by a desperate dying government hit a new low. The government seized on a report commissioned by the NT Labor government that made unproven claims of widespread child abuse by indigenous communities. Enter Mal Brough:
You stand in a community and you hear of 15 men that have committed the most heinous crimes, and there’s only 90 of them in the community. And you go back to that community and you hear of 10-15 year olds raping six year olds. I’m sorry. [Breaks to cry] And people think this shit’s not real.Now given Mal’s tears, no one would like to claim that he is the lowest order of political hypocrite. It is just that there is this question; why did he not react when the evidence showed that this ‘shit’ wasn’t real? Namely that the 11,000 child health checks conducted in the year after the intervention led to no increase in the number of referrals of indigenous children and not a single arrest. Either the screening was ineffective and he should be up in arms at all those child abusers not being brought to justice or, far more likely, the incredible stories of widespread systemic child abuse that rose up around the Wild report were unbelievable because they simply weren’t true. If apologies are so in vogue, maybe here’s a chance to apologise to all those living now who have had such a slur made against them and clear their name, much like Lateline was forced to apologise to the parents of Mutitjulu over similar allegations that started the whole thing off two years ago.
Of course, no apology will be made because the net of those implicated in what happened last year is spread so wide. It wasn’t just the Coalition that went along with this beat-up, or the Labor party that supported the intervention. With friends like the indigenous communities had, they didn’t need enemies in the government. The high opinion these ‘allies’ of the indigenous communities actually had of them, was summed up in the program by long-time indigenous do-gooder Sue Gordon, who was drafted into the intervention:
You can’t have a community of two and three thousand people, or three hundred, without police. And then there’s anarchy running you know riot in your community. How the hell do you think you’d live?As though any community, let alone an indigenous one, would start abusing their kids if the police weren't there.
Under the Rudd government, the child abuse allegations have been quietly put to one side and it has all been turned into just a health and services issue. But the smell still lingers. A little recent whiff has come from the distasteful reaction from some quarters over what will happen when some of the Great Unwashed get their cash hand-out from Rudd's fiscal stimulus. Not all were as lurid as that loveable maverick Barnaby Joyce:
It’s not going to be a boon, it’s going to be a disaster. With a big amount of money turning up at certain households at a certain day, we’ll see an increase in the effects of alcohol that can turn into assault, that can turn into rape, that can turn into the wasting of money, that can turn into the payment of drugs. Tony Abbott, who coincidentally happens to be the (reluctant) opposition spokesman for indigenous affairs, put it more delicately:
Certain households, some areas. Now, who can they mean?
I don't begrudge families doing it tough this extra money. But certainly, there are very credible fears that at least some families, particularly in some areas, are gonna be spending this money on booze and gambling and so on, and that's a pity.
Monday, 8 December 2008
Those incorrigible Nats! And that Barnaby Joyce, such a maverick!
We heard enough of the word ‘maverick’ to know what it means these days, i.e. someone from the right side of politics who is embarrassed to be associated with it, but with nowhere else to go. Barnaby Joyce might portray himself as a tearaway but he is very much in the tradition of the Nationals in opposition. It never makes too much sense for the Nationals to compromise their standing in the rural regions when they are unbound by the practicalities of government, especially when they are fighting for their survival.
Surely it made sense for both parties in the coalition that, since they did not have to pay for it, the Nationals may as well have voted against the government’s dipping into the rural telecommunication fund to pay for broadband while the Liberals supported it. The Nationals could go their way and defend their vote in the bush, the Liberals could go their way and not let the government accuse them of wrecking the broadband plans. The media commenting that Howard would have never let the Nationals wander off because he would have given them money is moot, since in opposition Turnbull doesn’t have any money to give them anyway. (Howard was hardly a model for controlling the Nationals while in opposition!)
So why the fuss? Shanahan in The Australian thinks the Nationals have posed a major challenge to Turnbull’s leadership authority. What is striking in the press coverage is how it has shifted focus onto what the Nationals did and away from the real challenge to Turnbull’s authority, what the Liberal front bench did.
Maybe Turnbull should think of appointing someone with a stronger bladder as his Leader in the Senate, because the current one, Nick Minchin, seems to have a problem with his plumbing. Missing the vote because he had to go to the toilet and have a cup of coffee (not very helpful), he then turned up after the vote, according to Bob Brown, without realising there was a second one and fled again. In the end the Liberals split between some voting for the government, some against, with most following their Senate leader and staying away.
The story shifted onto the Nationals because the way it was being told, the Liberals’ three-way split was apparently just a mix up of confused text messages. But Laurie Oakes gives a clearer picture as to why such a last-minute organisational shemozzle occurred - Turnbull faced a rebellion from his own party. The last minute text messages only came after Heffernan told Turnbull that his Senators were furious about supporting the government. So an issue that Andrew Robb was insisting was a critical issue in the House only hours before, suddenly became a ‘Mickey Mouse’ one, leaving only ones like the Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate, Helen Coonan, doing Malcolm’s duty and voting with the government.
Reported complaints from Coalition senators that Malcolm had a lot to learn about politics may be true, but the charge they he runs the Liberals like a company CEO say more of style than the reality. Turnbull may be detached because he has little control and little base within the party to manage it through. So Parliament ended with, as one coalition senator described it, “the clip over the ear that Malcolm had coming”.
That is why the focus has shifted on to the Nationals. Just as a merger with Nationals became a surrogate under Nelson for the more tortured debate over what the Liberals stood for, so now the Nationals have become the focal point for a Liberal party detached from its leader but unable to replace him. Nelson’s position suffered from being a hostage to the right, but Turnbull’s is even worse, his leadership was opposed by them (including Minchin). So Joyce is made into the Great Rebel when all he is doing is what the Nationals should be doing when making the transition from government to opposition (which is why someone who was an outsider in his party under Howard’s coalition is now very much in the party’s fold).
Focusing on the Nationals’ rebellion is also useful for those in the media who thought Malcolm was the last hope of the Liberal party. The idea that Turnbull’s hold on the party is even weaker than Nelson’s must be uncomfortable for those who mistook the temporary defeat of the old leadership after Turnbull’s win for unity. Let’s also give Malcolm the benefit of the doubt and take it as the reason he did something so politically daft as to offer Joyce the front bench position over coffee in Sydney’s lively Oxford St. No wonder he turned him down, who would want to get on that boat?
Thursday, 4 December 2008
Julie and Peter are having this huge fight because Peter asked Julie to help with his homework and she said she would but then she got her friend Murray to do it and he just went and copied it from someone else, who got the answers wrong anyway. Julie is also really cross with Dennis because he has been telling everyone that nobody likes her. She is not even speaking to Julia who is just being mean to her but the other day she really got back at the other rude boys in her gang who were calling names with a really dirty look. Andrew says he likes Julie but Kevin told her that he was saying rude things about her behind her back. Malcolm has been sticking up for Julie and told Julia to leave her alone, but we all know that he’s only being nice because he doesn’t have any friends and needs all the ones he can get. Wayne is just glad everyone has stopped picking on him.
The irritable end to this sitting of Parliament does suggest two things. Firstly, the government is getting on top of the Liberals. Malcolm’s complaints that Julia and co. are being nasty could only be taken seriously by anyone who forgot that the attacks on Bishop started from her own side and whose memory doesn’t span beyond a few months ago when it was Swan that was being targeted. Not because of what he was doing, but on purely personal terms, that is he didn’t come across as confident in the job. Swan had a reason to be nervous, this is the first Labor government without a real base to any economic policy, i.e. a relationship with the unions.
Labor is now starting to realise that the Liberals don’t have any base to their economic stance either, other than they just happened to be in government when times were good. Now that times are not so good they have nothing to say. This economic guilt by association was why Turnbull’s initial response to Labor’s admission of a deficit was good, namely to remind everyone that Labor’s last deficit coincided with the last downturn. The problem is that the Liberals did exactly what was expected and took it too far and made a principle about not having a deficit. This is so unconvincing that even the only Liberal in the country who actually has a Budget to manage, Colin Barnett, doesn’t agree with it. The federal Liberals are making a big deal over the deficit because they need to find some ideological position to have on the economy, especially after their recent cave-in. Barnett doesn’t have that problem, the Premier of any state these days is little more than a bureaucratic functionary.
Turnbull’s need to duck and weave on the ABC the other day over his stance on the deficit at a time when the government should be vulnerable, illustrates the pressure he is under to take meaningless ideological positions to manage his weak grip on the party and his tin ear when it comes to political tactics. The media have been critical of Bishop’s inability to take on the government over the economy but they might consider the lead she is getting from the one who was equally ineffectual in the same position. The media might start finally to take notice of the polls and come to the conclusion that Turnbull may look more like an opposition leader than Nelson but is no more politically effective.
This is the second reason why both parties are getting increasingly unpleasant to each other – both sides are heading into an unprecedented economic crisis with little in the political arsenal to handle it. Having said that, Labor looks in a better position to manage it and new initiatives like the RuddBank at least suggest signs of new thinking. Joining the fashion of getting personal, Labor’s strengths can be summed up by two people, the first is Gillard. She is getting a lot of favourable press these days based on her performance in Parliament. It is effective but very much in the tradition of what we have seen before, think of Costello with brains. Her most important role is internal. Her background from the left, and what people like her and Tanner have done with it around phoney issues like Workchoices, has kept the factions in control and the pressure of old ideological debates off Rudd.
But for attacks on the Liberals, Rudd is still the one to watch. It is not that Rudd is that interesting in Parliament, generally he is not. He waffles on the Global Financial Crisis and even on foreign matters he has not learnt the Howard trick of walking into the chamber dressed in the accolades of international affairs. Where Rudd really shines and is at his most savage against the Liberals, far more than Gillard, is on his one true love, anti-politics. It can come out in the most surprising places. The GFC may bore but COAG got him really fired up. This comes from a tirade against the Liberals on Monday prompted by a question from Andrew Robb:
The political agenda of the member for Goldstein is politics first, second, third and last in every single equation and the political agenda of those opposite was as follows: they wanted simply to preserve a political agenda to blame the states on every occasion possible, a tired political script of which every family and every community group in the country has, frankly, had a gutful.The Liberals’ internal political game-playing such as around Bishop has left them vulnerable, but there is probably no other politician in Parliament who can so convincingly accuse another politician of being political as Rudd can. This is because there is no-one so detached from the political processes of both sides. There is also no-one who will be so capable of dumping the traditions and practices of the old political programmes should circumstances require. This will be useful for what’s coming next.
Monday, 1 December 2008
It is understandable that Mumble’s Peter Brent has criticised The Howard Years as seeing the past through the prism of the present. Although without the benefit of a time machine, it is hard to see how it could be viewed in any other way. In reality it’s the present, rather than the history, that’s the problem. While the series is undoubtedly letting the Liberals re-write those early years of the government (only because the journalists like Fran Kelly seem to see it that way too), the problem is less how Howard gets away with being a conviction politician then, but how he gets away with being seen as one now.
What has not happened the way this blog thought might is the tearing up of the Howard legacy after he led his government to a resounding defeat. If anything, The Howard Years shows that he is revered by senior colleagues as much as ever. There has been a dumping of some his core policies, like Workchoices, a key idea of a government that had few, but it does not seem to have led to any reassessment of Howard. Howard is still being lauded as a conviction politician despite the way the party has distanced itself from much of what he had a conviction about. In fact it seems the more the Liberals ditch what they stand for, the more they cling to Howard the man, rather than what he was supposed to stand for.
There are probably two areas left now where there is still agreement on the right that Howard’s convictions were correct. The first is national security. It was interesting in The Howard Years to be reminded how Howard initiated the series of events in East Timor by his call to Indonesia for East Timor independence. Howard, whose government at the time was grasping at one issue after another to give the government a sense of purpose, promised to Downer that their letter to the Indonesian President would create a situation that would be ‘big’. But then after Habibie caught them off-guard by calling a referendum on Timorese autonomy, Howard was ready to leave the East Timorese swinging until the US pressured him to sort the mess out. The left may have not liked the interference in the affairs of Iraq and the right’s argument that troops should stay to sort out the mess they helped create in 2003, but they had already ceded both in principle in East Timor four years before.
Yet if Australia’s right to interfere in another country’s affairs has agreement across the political spectrum, there also appears to be unanimity that when it does, it is not with the commitment it likes to pretend. Just as Howard doesn’t like to talk about how the US forced him to commit to East Timor, so one of the Things That Cannot Be Mentioned in Australian politics is that the country’s military commitment to Iraq was never more than minuscule and inconsequential, even when pointed out eighteen months ago by the current President-elect. Rudd’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq is as irrelevant to what is happening on the ground as Howard’s commitment was in the first place.
The Howard government’s national security posturing is made possible by the political consensus. So also are its economic credentials - at least for now. Dennis Shanahan has followed up his earlier reports of mutterings from senior Liberals about Julie Bishop’s performance as the Liberals’ economic spokesman against what is supposed to be the Rudd government’s weak link. But he might also point out that her predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, didn’t exactly shine in the job either. In fact, if Andrew Robb’s performance on Insiders is any guide, her likely successor also doesn’t look much better. If Swan, Turnbull, Bishop and Robb are all floundering in the economic role, might there be a problem these days with the portfolio?
We may soon find out. The Howard government pretended for a decade that the budget surpluses were a result of a political strategy rather than the economic boom. It got away with it because neither side can admit that it is no longer really possible for any major political party to bring about fundamental economic reform. It has left economic debate narrowed down to nothing more than whether a government should or should not go into deficit and that suits the Liberals fine.
Based on the idea that Labor will be hamstrung if things do get worse, wise Liberal tactics would be to keep up their mantra about the deficit and blame Labor for departing from it when things go wrong. The problem is the last few days are raising a doubt that they can do this for long. The Rudd government may not have anything up its sleeve after the money runs out, but it is becoming a bit more obvious that the Liberals don’t either. Contrary to that believed by those who think nothing has changed in Australian politics over the decade, the election of a new Liberal Premier has not broken Rudd’s ‘new federalism’ but reaffirmed it. Last week’s CAOG meeting shows that the state governments have little to rely on than government hand-outs, whether Liberal or Labor. In doing so, Barnett has blown the gaffe on his federal party’s deficit ruse and probably his party’s last chance to score a point over the economy.
Thursday, 27 November 2008
All the Government really has to do is make sure it doesn't blow the budget.
P Keating Lateline 7 June 2007
On one hand the fuss being made about going into deficit seems strange. Especially when in all likelihood, given the economic downturn, the government will go into deficit anyway no matter what it does. Whether a deficit is good or bad for the Australian economy naturally depends on how the money is raised and how it is spent, and given there is little argument over that, it would seem a non-debate.
Yet while there is no real economic debate, there is a political one. It is what the media keep nibbling at when they question why the government has been so cautious about saying the D-word, as Kerry O’Brien did with Swan last night.
Let’s start with the facts. We are in the middle of a profound financial crisis that is threatening to become an economic one. A crisis means that the old ways cannot carry on and a major restructuring is necessary. Yet all we have had so far is global photo-ops with no accompanying course of action to solve the crisis. The only thing the governments have managed to do is throw money around (if they have it) to stave off its effects for as long as they can.
To call such spending an economic strategy or even ‘Keynesianism’ is a joke. It is to forget that the label Keynsianism was applied to a profound restructuring of market economies around the world in the 1930’s and 1940’s that fundamentally changed the relations of the state to the market and labour. It resulted in not only major infrastructure projects but the nationalisation of key industries and the creation of the welfare state. All of this was within a new global economic order underpinned by the US and the Bretton Woods agreement. It entailed a little bit more than some cash hand-outs and world leaders getting their photos taken in ponchos.
The governments of the day may have been battered about by the economic crisis and the Great War, but they had still had the authority to implement real Keynesian restructuring (indeed some managed to find imaginative new ways of getting the authority to bring in Keynesianism). The problem we have today is that the political classes don’t have it.
When Keating said that all the governments had to do was balance the Budget, he may have meant that after the deregulation of the global markets and liberalisation of industrial relations, all the problems have been solved, so there is little left that governments need to do. But even when it is now clear they all the problems have not been solved, what he said is still true in that there is little left that governments can do.
The major parties have spent a century representing key segments of society, organised labour, business and rural interests and taken their economic positions accordingly. The fact that they no longer represent these interests in the same way means 1) they are just as likely to support one position as another and 2) if something needs to be done, they are unable to call on sections of society to help in it happening, as Hawke and Keating called on organised labour to take the strain through the deregulation of the 1980s.
Why we have such a fuss over deficits now is that Howard and Costello, stuck with this vacuum, were desperate to look as though they still had a political/economic strategy. So they presented their budget surpluses as a consequence of their political views and those ‘tough’ right-wing decisions in that first 1996 budget, rather than simply riding an economic boom during which government spending rose to record levels in a very un-right-wing way.
That boom is over so now we have the New Sensitivity, first a political tactic to show how in touch governments are, now posing as an economic strategy. This is what the government is relying on for the time being. The danger for the Liberals is that they could end up on the wrong side of this debate. But only for as long as the money lasts. As NSW has shown, it is hard to be Sensitive when it runs out, if recessions were this much fun we would have them more often. What the Liberals are hoping for is that sooner or later the government will have to make some tough decisions and it will not have the authority to do anything. They may have a point. But on current form, the Liberals are internally obsessed enough that they will probably take this tactic too far and stuff it up.
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Some day in the future they might release the secret internal polling that backs the claim made by both sides now that Workchoices was the decisive election winner last year – and which conflicts with all the published polls that showed industrial relations was never anything more than a middling issue in 2007. But if the public never saw such polling, neither presumably did Kevin, given that one of the first acts he did when he took over from Beazley was to tone down Labor’s anti-Workchoices campaign and keep it that way until the election.
Not only did Rudd tone down the campaign, he fine-tuned it. Making it less about workers rights and the unions (from which he has distanced himself ever since) and more about fairness and the Liberals’ ‘extremism’. It was a good move as it shifted it from Labor’s now irrelevant links with unions, to Howard’s equally irrelevant anti-union attack.
Battling it out last year were two parties who had lost the purpose for which they were formed and for which most of the remaining members left in these no-longer-mass-parties, had joined them. The phoney IR battle was always more for internal reasons to mobilise their own base than to win new supporters, and when it was used electorally it was less to conduct the old IR battle than to portray the other side as still caught up in it. So the Liberals portrayed Labor as still in the grip of the unions without mentioning Workchoices, while Labor attacked Howard’s ‘extremism’ without mentioning the unions.
It is easy to see why Labor, especially those from the left like Gillard, will want to claim that Workchoices decided the election, it gives a pro-union mandate for Labor to introduce its most anti-union legislation in its history. For which, by the way, despite everyone claiming Workchoices was a hot issue, has caused Labor not the slightest bit of trouble. It's probably because since AWAs were a flop with employers and never significantly adopted, Labor’s new IR legislation will make as little difference to industrial reality as Howard's did.
However, banging on about Workchoices still has an external purpose, even if now limited to the confines of Parliament and those on the opposite bench. It allows Gillard to play with the heads of the Liberals.
Since the election the Liberals have been wrestling with the classic dilemma of a party that has lost its reason for existence. Hold on to that reason and you make yourself look irrelevant, drop it and make everyone wonder what you are for. For the last year, the Liberals have wrestled with this back and forward with Abbott and Bishop holding on to Workchoices and those like Nelson distancing himself from it.
They now appear to have settled on the perfect compromise. It is a way of dropping the Workchoices line without having to stand up and say something that would be intolerable to the party and especially the old leadership, namely that anti-union legislation is wrong, or more accurately, unnecessary, given that unions can’t even influence the party they created without paying for the TV ads. So Turnbull stood up yesterday and fingered the perfect scapegoat. It was the electorate that made them do it.
Monday, 24 November 2008
The deeply dull first episode of The Howard Years that aired last Monday was so because it trundled through the same old tired narrative about the Howard government. It was also dull because that narrative didn’t happen to be true. Fran Kelly said she let the interviewees do the talking, which is ironic because her own lazy cliché-ridden voice-over actually ignored what the interviewees were saying. To the accompaniment of the standard ABC ominous theme music, Fran Kelly gave the impression that the Howard government started its first term on a crisis-ridden ride as it sought to transform Australia.
There was only one political crisis in Howard’s first term – and that was a government that had come to power without a clue what to do. Howard had sat in Opposition and watched Labor bring in his anti-union, deregulation agenda and the very thing that brought him to power, the exhaustion of Labor’s program, also signalled the exhaustion of his. It was that perception that the political classes on both sides were irrelevant and out of touch that spurred the rise of that anti-politics phenomenon, One Nation. (It was this rather than racism that rattled both sides of Australian politics, racism being a much less politically partisan issue than some commentators like to think - as shown by last year’s ready acceptance right across the political spectrum that indigenous parents were abusing their kids.)
Howard’s initial response was to grab at symbols summed up by Howard’s not-so-bright Chief of Staff at the time, Grahame Morris:
He was always a great believer in those symbols. He’s a sort of a nationalist, which was a bit odd for a Liberal party leader (eh?). Whether or not the Australian flag or things like Gallipoli he had a real passion for ‘em.Howard spent the first term desperately grasping at issues and symbols to try and give his government a sense of purpose and political authority. Flags, the waterfront, the GST, illegal immigrants were all crises made up out of thin air to make the government look decisive and with purpose. Costello was also in on the game and their first Budget was designed to give a sense of reform, which it didn’t have, and so later, the cuts were largely reversed.
Howard’s lack of an agenda was not missed by the media, Mumble has found one nice quote by The Australian’s Paul Kelly at the time that noted that Howard was more spin than substance:
During the 1980s there was an orthodoxy about Howard - that he was the reforming spearhead of the Coalition, but weak on politics. Yet the orthodoxy today is more likely to be the reverse that Howard is an adept politician with doubts about his ability to implement genuine change.Sometimes Howard's search for an issue that he could use to establish political authority bordered on the tasteless. One of the few positions of Howard's over which the left gets rather mushy was that on gun control after Port Arthur. Some idealistic readers might think that Howard thought it important not to back off from Nationals opposition to his gun laws because he needed to keep people safe. Howard had a more accurate way of putting it:
I mean if I’d backed off I’d have looked hopeless and weak and people would’ve thought well you know, he’s not fair dinkum, how many more people need to be murdered by a madman to convince the Government to do something. Those sort of things, if you don’t deal with them decisively, they weaken people’s faith in the institution of governance.Howard drifted on, scraping by on the back of an equally purposeless Labor opposition and it wasn’t really until international events intervened on 9/11 that Howard had the cover provided by the US to look decisive. Even here, Howard’s Iraq position was more spin than anything as he pretended that Australia’s miniscule military commitment made him one of the ‘Big Three’. Thus was not only the conviction politician born, but suddenly represented by the media as having been with us all along.
The media’s re-writing of the conviction story is not just a matter of bias. As we have seen this year, the media must have a narrative and are uncomfortable with this idea that the major political parties might not have one anymore. So we have seen them complain in Howard’s and Rudd’s first year when they don’t see one and ask no questions when one is presented, as it was during the War on Terror, no matter how insubstantial it may be in fact.
The rats have paid the price for going along with this pretence. It is striking over a decade the deterioration in Australian political reporting that can be seen in the decline of great papers like The Age, that would never have countenanced someone like Jason Koutsoukis in election year, or in the ABC having a journalist like Chris Uhlmann as its chief political correspondent and in the contrast of quality between The Howard Years and Labor in Power.
The media’s desperate need for a narrative not only made them create a conviction politician where none existed but blind to when that pretence fell away in Howard’s last year and why it was that Rudd came to power a year ago today.
For the media, Rudd could only have come to power being a younger version of Howard, when in fact he was quite different. Rudd faces the same problem that Howard did in is first term, the lack of a program and a weak social base. But Rudd represents a very different response. Whereas Howard ran around pretending the old framework was still in place creating phoney left-right issues and cultural wars out of thin air, Rudd’s response has been more pragmatic. Every policy position is up for review (literally) and Rudd is happy to acknowledge that the old politics on both left and right are bankrupt as he did with his 2020 Summit. Rather than being about symbols, he has tended to more depoliticise them. Instead his agenda comes from only one place now, overseas.
Yet the moderately positive reviews of the Rudd government’s first anniversary suggest that the media attitude to Rudd is starting to change. Partly this comes from Rudd’s post-political style now being reaffirmed on the global stage with the US election. But it also comes from a view that with the global financial crisis, Rudd finally has the issue on which he can define his government.
They are wrong. Leaving aside the fact that the last year has already defined his government, if they just cared to look, this is not a War on Terror against some vastly over-hyped threat or some trumped up Howard-esque non-issue. This is a real crisis over which governments around the world have shown no sign yet of getting to grips with. Furthermore, they enter it with their political authority weaker than it has been in all the downturns of the last century.
It is this political crisis, which has been bubbling under the surface in Australia for the last fifteen years, that the media continues to refuse to see. Rudd may have pragmatically responded to the problem of political authority but he has not resolved it. This is why the response to the GFC has veered between warning of ‘a rolling national security crisis’ and ‘don’t you worry about that’. It is a government that is faced with a crisis that demands a profound financial restructuring but can’t even bring itself to say the D-word on the Budget, let alone the possibility of the R-word, which if something is not done, could even turn into that other D-word.
Monday, 17 November 2008
The Australian’s editorial is a neat attempt to try and kill the ‘phonegate’ issue dead while holding on to its credibility. It maintains that its report was true but relies on the hope that there is one thing that Fairfax journalists will not want to do and that is run with a stale story from the Murdoch stable. In reality there is probably little further they can run with it anyway. Bush is going and this was the last meeting that he will be running where Rudd will want to make a splash. Rudd should have as little trouble staying clear of Bush at the coming APEC meeting as Howard did at the last one.
Nevertheless the issue has been a useful way for the Liberals to detract from the awkward questions over what they think of Al Qaeda’s preferred candidate winning the US Presidency. But the Liberals’ example is not just embarrassing, it graphically illustrates how out of line they were with the shifts in global politics last year and, judging by Julie Bishop’s inability to repudiate Howard’s comments yesterday, still are.
Because it might just not be unreasonable that Bush didn’t know what the G20 was before now. The real question for Australian politics is not whether it was Rudd or Bush who dreamed up the idea of a G20 summit, but why we are having it. The US accounts for over a quarter of the global economy and the G7 for over a half so if there was serious restructuring to be done, you would think co-ordinating it would be easier for the US to start with the main players (maybe including China and India) than having to deal with small smart-arses like Australia. When Reagan pulled together the global economy in the 1980’s for co-ordinated action, it was only the top handful that were asked to take the strain. Countries like Australia just had to follow. For the world economy isn’t a democracy. When big enough, economic quantity turns into quality and that quality is political weight.
At least that used to be the rule. Whereas the last economic superpower, Britain, clung on to its political prestige long after it lost its economic weight, the US seems to be losing its political influence while it still dwarfs its nearest economic rival. So we have a G20 that is designed to cover up this awkward fact.
The inability of the US to impose a real solution is why the summit’s announcements this weekend go nowhere near addressing the crisis. The fiscal stimulants are not restructuring, but just a way of delaying the effects of the crisis until the money runs out. Nor will more regulation do the trick. It forgets the reason why the markets were allowed to remain deregulated during the Clinton and Bush years. It was because the US needed the expansion of credit. That has now collapsed in a heap and regulation will only be stopping what has now become unprofitable anyway. Both greater regulation and fiscal spending have the potential to make the economic crisis worse. And of course, Rudd’s attack on the pay packets of financial executives is the most pointless of all, as though the economic crisis started on Wall Street instead of with the mortgage lenders in the US housing market.
However, the last initiative points to the reasons for the G20 summit that go beyond just the impotence of the US. The world’s political class must be seen to be doing something, and the more that can partake in the charade the better. Also, having small countries like Australia ready to take a moral stand on issues that don’t directly affect it very much, can be useful.
For what we have here is the resolution of an economic crisis being hampered by a political one. It is no coincidence that Bush’s death-bed conversion to multi-lateralism has coincided with a similarly late loss of confidence in the free market. In a summit of twenty global leaders there are surely a few who are willing to use an international forum to moralise in a way that a Republican US President still cannot. And mishaps aside, Australia’s diplomatic service must be pleased that we have one here.
Thursday, 13 November 2008
It’s no surprise that those who wish to explain the present by constantly using history, never know that much about it. The latest examples are the media’s frequent comparisons of Rudd to one-term Labor PM Scullin of the 1930s. You know the shtick, Scullin won office just before the Wall Street crash by defeating a Prime Minister who lost his seat trying to bring in anti-union legislation (geddit?). Scullin lost his Queensland Treasurer to scandal so all we need is Swan to buy shares in some dodgy copper mine and the analogy would be complete. The idea seems to be that just as Scullin sat and waited for his popularity to fall as the economy worsened, so will Rudd end up with the same fate.
There is that extra detail that before it happened, Scullin’s government broke apart and the Labor party split, mainly because of conflict between the pro-business and pro-union sections of the Labor party as anti-crisis measures were implemented. However, what distinguishes Rudd from Scullin and Curtin/Chifley and Whitlam and Hawke/Keating is that this is the first Labor government to be unable to do what unfortunately they usually do, namely call on their relationship with the unions to restrain their members’ living standards to help solve the crisis (what those who bang on about Howard’s Workchoices never like to remember is that the average worker did better under Howard than they did even during the good years of the last Labor government). With the left now party functionaries and the ALP Right now effectively dead, a Scullin-like split seems highly unlikely.
Labor's inability to call on the unions anymore is going to make what passes for economic policy fairly difficult. Instead the government is more focussed on trying to hold on to its own credibility than develop anything really meaningful to deal with the economic crisis.
That is why the government is becoming increasingly schizophrenic in its reaction to the turmoil. On the one hand it claims that there is a rolling economic security crisis, so as to look good, on the other hand, it claims there isn’t anything to worry about and growth will chug along with a two in front of it, so as to not look too bad either.
The economic response is guided by the same principles. Australians must be enjoying this downturn so much that we must be wondering why we don’t have them more often. Never have we had so many cash hand-outs and our bank accounts are safer than Chifley’s wildest dreams. However, to know that this is not about any principle of economic management, other than handing out money until it runs out, you only have to look at what Labor is doing in NSW where the money has run out and the cuts are on. People have complained that Rees’s cuts are going to reduce consumption. Well yes, that is what is known as a recession.
But even if Federal Labor does have to start making unpleasant decisions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will lose support, at least on a two-party basis. Unlike Scullin, Rudd does not face any alternative.
The Liberals have complained that the government is refusing to accept any criticism. But the opposition are also refusing to make any. The whole focus of their economic critique seems to be on those who are advising the government in Treasury and the RBA. The government is hiding behind bureaucrats no doubt, but amazingly so is the opposition, preferring to attack them than the government itself.
The opposition is focussed on procedure because they can’t focus on the government’s politics and they can't do that because of the collapse of their own politics last month. Janet Albrechtsen is so perplexed by Obama’s win she gives it the usual name sophisticated thinkers give to something they don’t understand, a paradox. But to explain how Obama won in a country showing no other sign of becoming more liberal you would have to fill in the missing gap, what happened to the Republicans, whose abandonment of their pseudo free market principles in the face of the crash was almost as craven as her own.
The US are having their own sunshine moment of Obama-mania and worrying about the name of Malia’s puppy. Over here we have a leader that the media was never thrilled by and still don’t get. So we get cash instead, thank you. Sometimes it's nice having a weak political class.
Thursday, 6 November 2008
Americans have just elected a President who eighteen months ago the Australian Prime Minster said was the preferred choice of Al Qaeda. If anyone thinks Rudd’s leaking of Bush’s telephone conversation would cause embarrassment in diplomatic circles, they might like to speculate how Howard would have dealt with a US President he associated with the group that caused the biggest peace-time loss of life on American soil. Downer on Insiders, who thought Rudd’s leak was a big deal, thought the Americans would have just laughed Howard off, probably revealing more about Australian-US relations than he intended.
Anyway such hypotheticals are pointless because the very political changes that caused Howard to so badly mis-step in 2007 means that he is no longer in the position to represent Australia in 2009. The media, in its own strange way of over-hyping a phenomenon like Obama but also under-cutting its significance, has put Obama’s victory largely down to the state of the economy. They forget that responding to the economy was supposed to be Obama’s weakness in the primaries against Clinton. Obama was supposed to be good at rallying the independents, the college students and money from the younger generation on Wall Street, but was not connecting with the concerns of the average working-class American voter. This seemed to be proved by the ground Clinton made up in the primaries as the economy worsened.
Indeed as the economy deteriorated, McCain still looked to be holding his own against Obama, not a bad achievement given the Bush legacy. But what the Republicans dreaded more than the economy was the ‘Katrina’ effect. The paralysis of government during the flooding of New Orleans in 2005 was what sent Bush’s mediocre ratings down into the levels of the select few. So terrified were the Republicans of a repeat of being seen both detached and incompetent, that the entire leadership of the party was prepared to abandon the critical first day of their Convention to run down in a panic to Florida when it was having what was only one of its regular cyclones of the season (an extraordinary move that received surprisingly little comment).
The panic revealed by the Republican leadership at the start of their Convention was well-founded. When the storm did hit again in September, this time a financial one, the Republicans fell apart. It wasn’t just that the Administration again looked out of its depth, first refusing to bail the banks out and then doing so. Nor that Bush couldn’t carry his own party with him in Congress. It wasn’t even that McCain tried to look dramatic by suspending his campaign to go to Washington for no purpose before meekly re-starting his campaign when nothing had been resolved.
The main problem was that when they did act, the Republicans went against everything they stood for. There was a feeble attempt to salvage their credibility by sticking tax cuts onto the second package they passed, but the damage had been done. It took the wind out of McCain’s economic attack on Obama as a big-spending, high-taxing liberal. The difference became not whether government should or should not prop up the economy but whether it should be the Republicans’ Wall Street or the Democrats’ Main Street, hardly a difficult choice for the electorate.
The financial crash has been hailed as the death of Reaganism but that is to presume it was alive in the first place. Clinton never had any trouble in continuing, and extending, the financial policies of his Republican predecessor. The rise of the Right in the 1980s was really them making hay out of the collapse of the left, in which they that they had little direct role. What we have seen this year is the end of the pretence that the Right had a viable political agenda of their own.
The US election was more about what was coming to an end than what will be beginning. This was why the outcome was more uncertain than the media, desperate for a resolution to this political crisis, portrayed it in the final days. Obama does not present the return of the liberal agenda in the US, otherwise he could not credibly offer to join with Republicans as he did yesterday. He rather represents the clearest sign of the exhaustion and meaningless of the old political order, both left and right.
The most moving part of Obama’s campaign was the way he did it, through race. Running through the campaign was the powerful, but implicit message that there is no better way to draw a line under the old order than to elect a black President. This blogger finds some of Obama’s speeches windy and banal, but there were a few highlights. One was the speech in Berlin where he managed to get 100,000 German hippies applauding more military intervention in Afghanistan. The other was this speech in the arch Republican territory of Richmond, Virginia when he reminded college students, some of whose grandparents would not have been allowed to vote, that they now had the opportunity to send a black man to the White House. Obama’s ‘change’ was not a program he was going to implement but his very election to the Presidency.
As Gillard said recently, we do things differently over here. The US had Reagan to lead a second Cold ‘War’ against a crumbling Soviet Union, Britain had Thatcher to wind up an already demoralised trade union movement. We had everyone’s mate, Hawke, to wind up the left here and our right-wing farce only started after it was all over. What Howard did have to save himself was the foreign policy consequences of the US Right’s mission to rejuvenate itself through the War on Terror. Howard’s mis-step over Obama 18 months ago was the sign that this benefit was coming to an end.
Rudd seized on Howard’s mistake to signal to his own party that its nightmare was over and to the Liberals that their little game was up. Rudd’s popularity comes from exposing the left-right pretence, but if the electorate has got what is going on, the media have not. Perhaps now that they can see the process finally work its way back to Washington, they might understand Rudd a bit better. Obama’s victory is likely to enhance Rudd’s political position as the awkward period comes to an end between his election on the back of the death of the old political order and finally having it now reaffirmed on the global stage.
Wednesday, 29 October 2008
Peter Van Onselen is clearly miffed that not only could Julie Bishop not be bothered writing an essay for his collection “Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead”, but neither could the staffer she dumped the job onto, who ended up copying it from a NZ businessman. It may surprise some given Bishop’s call earlier this year for a ‘battle of ideas’ but in this blogger’s experience, those who bang on about the importance of battling with ideas are usually the least likely to have any.
Van Onselen appears to be especially peeved as he is hoping for the book to launch an intellectual revival in the party as the start of the Liberals reappraising their policies to regain power.
All of this is complete silliness of course. The Liberals’ problem is not that they don’t have a platform. It is that they don’t represent anyone who would tell them what it is. Business has lost interest in the Liberal party to the point that when they persisted with Workchoices after the election, business told them to put it away. This is the Liberals central problem; they are stuck with the natural response to a political party trying to work out what it is about is, why bother? Why not just disband?
Making those specific interests appear as universal as possible is the art of politics. Nowadays, with political parties not really representing any section of society but still hanging around, politics has become more about trying to make the universal specific to somebody. So we have Rudd’s working families and Nelson’s Commodore parents (Turnbull so far seems to have produced no-one). In the US we have the Republicans almost running an entire election campaign around some plumber named Joe.
This lack of agenda is not that new either. Howard hardly came back to power on a wave of ideas in 1996. In fact, everyone but Howard knows that he won on not having any ideas but instead posing as a safe pair of hands against Keating’s agenda. Not standing for anything in particular was the one lesson they decided to learn from Hewson’s defeat in 1993.
For the record, it might also be added that the ALP was not exactly an intellectual salon while in opposition over the last decade. In fact, after the 1996 loss, intellectual life in Labor pretty well imploded (and took much of the left-liberal commentary with it). There were some important speeches, for example, by Gillard, but mostly they were about dumping the past than setting out anything new for the future. Howard came to power on no ideas and spent a decade trying to pretend he had some (it fooled a few). But if there is any government that has been explicit from day one of not having any preconceived ideas, but rather leaving it to reviews and summits run by the great and good, it is the one we have now. Despite how much difficulty the media has with this, it has so far proved extremely popular.
The reason why we have the most popular government for at least a quarter of a century is that Rudd has adopted to the political reality that such narratives are not possible and to break from a decade of phoney cultural wars and contrived political agendas from both left and right made out of thin air. If Turnbull has one political attribute, is that he doesn’t seem to have an agenda either. No surprise that he didn’t contribute to Van Onselen’s book.
The problem Turnbull has is that the party behind him is not as comfortable with that fact. The majority still like to think the last government stood for something, even if it is recognised as unpopular and can only be talked in polite company as ‘sound economic management’. Unfortunately, two weeks ago they gave the game away and since then have been trying to claim it back (look at Janet Albrechtsen having a go at all those pro-statists coming to the surface in Europe. At least they had a banking crisis. Two weeks ago Albrechtsen was cheering the world’s most complete government bank bail-out in a country that didn’t even have one). For Turnbull' an insecure party will be a major barrier to him making a pragmatic response to anything. Unfortunately for us, it will probably mean more empty calls for ideas, more tedious books from politicians with nothing to say and more academics like Van Onselen telling them how to do their jobs.
Monday, 27 October 2008
You can always rely on a Senator to give an idea of the mood inside the party because these strange political functionaries owe their existence more to internal dynamics in their own party than the electorate. The public stoning of Dr Henry in Wednesday’s Senate hearing and George Brandis’s bizarre behaviour on Lateline on Friday shows that the coalition had more in mind than political point-scoring last week.
There is a basic misconception that Turnbull’s call for Dr Henry to be sacked on Tuesday was no more than a slip of the tongue that was twisted by Rudd. If so, why didn’t Turnbull tell coalition senators to ease off when interrogating Henry on Wednesday? If the issue was really that Rudd didn’t take enough advice from Stevens, why did a Liberal backbencher then attack the RBA Governor’s own handling of the crisis at the end of the week?
What we have seen in the last week is the coalition trying to wriggle out of its support for a bail-out package that went against the core of what they are about. For several decades following the Great Depression, direct pump-priming by the government was seen as an acceptable way of maintaining growth. It was accepted on both sides of politics, especially Menzies through the 1950s and 1960s. It wasn’t until Whitlam in the 1970s when, both here and elsewhere in the world, that it started to lose effectiveness as an economic tool.
Since then the mainstream Right have defined themselves by leading the charge against government spending as an economic cure. It was something eventually accepted by Labor as well, reaching its apogee at last year’s Labor campaign launch when Rudd told the party “this reckless spending must stop”.
In reality it didn’t spell the end of the government’s economic role, far from it. But it was now directed at more structural issues, like dealing with the unions, subsidising business indirectly through public-private ‘partnerships’ and laying the framework for the expansion of credit through the financial markets. All the while the right portrayed it as vindication of their side of politics. A con trick, no doubt, but as Howard did so well, he could carry out record high spending and still make George Brandis think he was a free marketer.
No longer. The financial crisis has changed that and now the government is taking an upfront role in the financial system and back to pump-priming the economy. And the Liberals have agreed to it. It wasn’t even so much that they supported the bank guarantees and the $10.4bn package, but that they think it will work. If, according to the right, interfering directly with the financial markets and printing money to boost spending is wrong in ordinary times, why is it acceptable during an economic crisis? Surely it would make it worse, according to them.
This has come only months after the Liberals were already facing an identity crisis from having finally had to accept that their anti-union agenda is irrelevant a decade after it actually was. If the Liberals aren’t about keeping the unions under check, opposing government spending and allowing free financial markets, what are they for?
The dilemma for the Liberals now is that they may not be happy with what they have just supported, but they had no choice. It is not because Rudd’s measures will necessarily work. In fact, a government that is so unsure of itself that it feels the need to look decisive for its own sake and hide behind the advice of bureaucrats when it does so, may not be best for restoring confidence in the markets. But whatever problems the intervention causes, the direction is now only one way, more government intervention to solve it.
That is why whenever the critics on the Right are asked for their alternative, like Bolt was on yesterday’s Insiders, they have nothing to say. Instead with no alternative, and no way back, we have this furious attack on process, who said what to whom and when, but getting caught up in contradictions as they do so. So they were claiming that the government didn’t seek advice while attacking the integrity of those they would have got advice from. Accusing the government of being too quick to act and delaying too long. Indeed, the Liberals and The Australian have been so quick to find a breakdown in procedure that they have even got tangled up in claims that the government ignored advice from the RBA before guaranteeing bank deposits based on a letter written by Stevens a week after they made the decision.
Throughout the mess, the Liberals have revealed their dislike of the government bureaucracy. As Australia’s last political party, the Liberals are less comfortable than Labor about the decisions of government taken out of the hands of politicians and, given that they are at least elected, they do have a point. But it is an abstract one since political parties don’t especially represent anything much in Australian society these days anyway. That is why, whether Liberal or Labor, they will inevitably have to hide behind the bureaucrats for authority. George Brandis, after having just been involved in attacking the Secretary of the Treasury, was quickly deflated in the middle of his rant on Friday night when asked by Lateline’s Leigh Sales what the coalition’s attitude was to the government’s revised policy. He had no view than to say they would wait until they had heard from Treasury and the RBA.
Thursday, 23 October 2008
The Australian may be making the right point that somewhere along the line, the RBA Governor probably did state the obvious, i.e. that banking guarantees distort the financial markets. But Turnbull’s disastrous appearance on The 7.30 Report last night is a reminder that politically it’s a stupid point to pursue.
For future reference, the coalition might do well not to take its political lead from The Australian. The paper has its own agenda, and its own problems. In positioning itself in the quality market as the ideologue of the right, it has meant its editorial, and those of many of its journalists, spent the last decade engaged in a phoney cultural war that may have absorbed some of the right and the left, but was ultimately a sham. Part of it was believing there was a real neo-liberal economic agenda abroad and an anti-union Thatcherite one at home. This was supported by views so strongly held that when market forces really did hit, The Australian editorial and even its most free marketeer journalist went running for the government’s apron strings. The paper’s ‘revelation’ about who said what to whom over the banking guarantees (which it supported) is just an attempt to salvage some free-market credentials.
The Australian is just a newspaper that will be wrapping tomorrow’s fish and chips. The coalition doesn’t have that luxury. It too is saddled with a delusion about Australia’s economic policy over the last decade that it may have believed was a coherent ideological program but was in reality little different to that in Labour-governed UK. But unfortunately for the coalition, it can't just drop it. In fact this fallacy was only recently repeated again in this ‘critique’ of Howard by George Brandis:
Howard's most conspicuous achievements were in the economic field, where his liberalising instincts prevailed. His greatest insight was to grasp that Deakinite policies were obsolete; his most important legacy was the fundamental structural reform over which his government presided, and which gave Australia an economy fit for the 21st century. Brandis thinks he is talking about the introduction of free market efficiency, but he really means a sales tax, doesn’t he?
Turnbull politically had little choice than to support Rudd’s move and should have stayed close, if at least with a bit of sceptical distance in case things go wrong. Unfortunately, to please those of the old leadership who didn’t want him in the first place, he has taken a good tactic too far, much as Nelson did before him and for much the same reason. What we saw yesterday with the grilling of the Secretary of the Treasury was the coalition finding anyone to hide behind, whether Henry or RBA Governor Stevens, to retreat and salvage some ideological credibility. But just as for The Australian, everyone knows what we saw a fortnight ago posing as a national-spirited act of bipartisanship - a loss of free market nerve.