Mumble has been suggesting that Howard could go to an election as early as August. It certainly would be feasible. As set out in the last post, Howard’s NT intervention has altered the dynamic of this election campaign the government‘s way. While it may not translate directly into votes or even opinion polls, it has filled a policy vacuum in the government created since the failure of the War on Terror. It gives the government a moral foundation from which it could re-try the attacks on Labor that it made so unsuccessfully earlier this year.
However, it does not have much time to do it. Despite the emotiveness of the issue, the basis of this intervention is weak. Evidence of a child abuse epidemic such as that contained in the NT report is based on hearsay rather than solid data. This has meant that the response of the indigenous communities has tended to be more bewildered and concerned than welcoming at the arrival of federal police and troops, especially the town that was at the centre of a child abuse smear last year. The original aims of the intervention are already starting to drift, as shown by the government position on health screening changing over a matter of days. Initially Howard talked of imposing compulsory checks to ascertain abuse, then Brough changed it to mandatory general health checks and then Abbott said that no medical examinations of any nature were to be compulsory. It has ended with Howard only giving a vague commitment to reverse the cuts in health spending he has already imposed on these communities. As the practical difficulties of this intervention becomes more apparent, the sense of purpose it has revived in the government may start to wane.
There is another problem that is restricting the government's room to maneouvre and would certainly make Howard careful how he uses the issue in a campaign. Before the intervention, Labor was starting to have some impact by using an anti-politics sentiment against the government. An emotive issue like child abuse has allowed Howard to rise above the charge that he is doing this for political purposes - but not completely. The charge keeps coming back as it did on The 7.30 Report interview with Mal Brough, who appeared unprepared on how to handle it. For the same reason, Labor is also restricted on how much it can politically attack the government, instead having to leave the media to do it. However, the more the purpose of this intervention starts to drift from its original emotive premise and move to more mundane issues of housing, health and services the more the cynicism over this venture will become easier to express. A recall of Parliament flagged by the government may give it the last chance to lay the grounds for a winter poll.
Friday, 29 June 2007
Mumble has been suggesting that Howard could go to an election as early as August. It certainly would be feasible. As set out in the last post, Howard’s NT intervention has altered the dynamic of this election campaign the government‘s way. While it may not translate directly into votes or even opinion polls, it has filled a policy vacuum in the government created since the failure of the War on Terror. It gives the government a moral foundation from which it could re-try the attacks on Labor that it made so unsuccessfully earlier this year.
Thursday, 28 June 2007
The Australian reports that senior pollsters are sceptical that the NT intervention will not be positive electorally. In this blog’s view they are wrong. The intervention gives significant support to the Howard government, at least in the short term. It stops what was a potentially damaging opposition strategy dead in its tracks.
To get an idea of this, it is useful to review the dynamics of this ‘unofficial’ election campaign over this year. It can roughly be divided into phases separated by three decisive events that have altered its momentum: Howard’s comments on Obama in February, the Therese Rein affair in June and now Howard’s NT move. To look at the phases of the election campaign in turn:
1. (Dec 06 – Feb 07) Nothing ever changes …
In the first months after Rudd’s ascension last December, the state of politics was widely perceived to be unchanged from the dynamic in the 2001 and 2004 electoral cycle. This was despite the unusually high polling of Labor and Rudd, which commentators ascribed to little more than a normal honeymoon period for a new Opposition leader. The degree to just how much things had changed since 2001/4 didn’t really come to the surface until February, when Howard suggested terrorists would be supporting the election of US Democrat hopeful Obama.
2. (Feb 07 – May 07) Rudd’s balancing act
In previous times Howard’s crude comments about Obama could have been dismissed as no more than a gaff. However, Rudd’s censure motion over it on 12 February exposed that Howard had lost the Iraq war and national security as issues that could give a positive sense of mission for the government. With that political cover gone, it exposed a profound vacuum at the heart of the government’s policy agenda. It meant that despite media expectations that Howard would erode Labor’s lead through using Iraq, character issues, immigration or even a popular budget, they were ineffectual. This was especially so as Labor had a positive mission of its own, on climate change.
However, in a way it was understandable that commentators did think Howard would eventually find an issue against Labor because there was a sense in which Labor were sitting ducks. The problem for Labor was that it still hadn’t solved its ‘union problem’. This is not the problem resulting from excessive union influence, actually the reverse. Labor’s union problem comes from the fact that it is internally organised around institutions that no longer have much social weight in Australian society. It means every time it deals with internal needs, it runs the risk of appearing irrelevant to most of the Australian electorate. Labor had dealt with this through a Rudd/Gillard double act over attacking Workchoices, with Gillard talking tough for internal needs and Rudd translating this to a ‘fair go’ to the rest of the electorate. It worked, although there was a danger that Labor was starting to exaggerate the electoral impact of Workchoices, especially after the NSW election.
Ironically, after continually mis-calling the end of the Rudd honeymoon, when it did end, or at least tone down, the commentators mostly missed it.
3. (May 07 – Jun 07) Rudd on the move
The Therese Rein affair ended the double act over IR as it exposed that Labor’s opposition to Workchoices was largely a sham. However, it also enabled Rudd to start to get to work on Labor’s union problem. Almost immediately Rudd started the process of ditching the unions with high profile expulsions and being more open over the acceptability of individual contracts and the marginal role that unions will play in any future government. This has reached the point where Gillard has even been reported as agreeing to the right to prevent unions entering workplaces, about the last objection Labor had to Workchoices.
This may have impacted its primary vote and reminding everyone of the union issue may have not worked with some swinging voters. However, it was setting Labor up in a much stronger position. In ditching its special interests, Labor was also starting to turn it into a principle of conduct and attacking the government on the link between political interests and the state. The Kirribilli furore showed the power of this attack, wiping the government’s union attack off the front pages with the potential to be highly embarrassing if the AEC had not blocked it.
The government was vulnerable on this issue for the same reason Howard was vulnerable to the charge of being a 'clever' politician – the government’s policy vacuum made it appear it was in power for its own sake and the spoils of office. This has now been addressed at least for a while with the NT intervention.
4. (June 07 - ?) Howard’s second Iraq
Using emotive, but largely unsubstantiated claims of an epidemic of child abuse in the NT indigenous communities, Howard has revived a sense of mission to the government that has been absent since the Iraq intervention became bogged down in the streets of Baghdad. It has allowed Howard to not only assume leadership of federal politics but over (most of) the states as well. With this consensus there is nothing Rudd can do but tag along as close as possible. It has ended his strategy of taking advantage of Howard’s policy vacuum (we will hear at lot less of Howard being a ‘clever’ politician).
There are strong similarities to Bush’s Iraq intervention; the dubious use of evidence to justify it, the way it has been used politically to bring other governments (the states) in line, the lack of clear programme once the forces get there (even using Rumsfeld’s favourite homily against planning ‘this is a time for action not talk’). However, there are important differences as well. Child abuse is obviously much more emotive than Saddam’s regime, so the ability to challenge the premise of this intervention initially will be much harder. But controlling the message and the way this will be reported is much easier in a military intervention thousands of kilometres away than one that is going on just up the Stuart highway. Doing this on home soil not only means that it will be harder to manage the political impact, but this is one intervention with no exit strategy.
Tuesday, 26 June 2007
The women and children of Mutitjulu who have fled into the bush ahead of the first wave of troops and police were presumably not those who Howard was referring to when he said
"I have no doubt that the women and children of indigenous communities will warmly welcome the Federal Government's actions"According to a community member, Mutitjulu women were afraid that the children would be taken away: “They have long memories; they remember this from years ago” referring to the last time the political class acted on the belief that the indigenous population were incapable of looking after their children. Their memories would not need to be that long, only to go back to the unproven allegations of sexual child abuse that this particular community suffered a year ago.
The gap between expectations of a cheering welcome and the reality, of course, recalls that other intervention and already this blog is not the only one to start drawing parallels to Iraq, with others such as the SA Premier joining in. Everyone has their own interpretation of what happened in Iraq, for Rann it was the government’s 'shock-and-awe' approach that invites comparisons. To keep the parallel, some of the states are starting to act a bit like ‘old Europe’, with neither Beattie nor Carpenter questioning the premise of the intervention but rather standing back and criticising the way it is being carried out.
On Sunday’s Insiders, Mal Brough gave away the effort to which the government tried to provoke a political reaction from the states by keeping them out of the decision and then calling on them to act (when it is starting to appear that the Commonwealth has the legal powers to act itself in the states anyway). Howard was clearly scripted for a political fight (it was interesting that the only time Brough smiled on Insiders was when he was asked whether they could be in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act). But despite Howard’s best efforts, this issue refuses to rise above logistics among the political class. This is clearly frustrating to Howard, as shown by his incoherent response to the states’ reaction.
However, there is a very good reason why the states are wary on the logistics. What they mean by drawing parallels to Iraq is that this could very easily become a mess that would undermine the authority of the government to the detriment of the entire political class. Just wait when criticisms on the operation extend to Howard's side of the fence beyond just Fraser. The political class's concern seems understandable if an intriguing, albeit rather confused, comment by Mal Brough on the same Insiders interview was true:
"We actually received this report officially only minutes before we made our announcements and of course, we pulled it down off the net on the Friday [TPS italics]."In what looks like a desperate effort to turn around a dying government, Howard has hastily grabbed an unauthoritative report and thrown the federal apparatus into an unwelcoming community to impose draconian laws that the states themselves cannot enforce. To top it all off, it must also conduct an extremely sensitive investigation into child abuse, the medical logistics of which even Brough was starting to balk at. George Bush at least never had to contend with that.
Monday, 25 June 2007
How appropriate that one of the first places where the government’s child abuse crusade in Aboriginal communities will begin is Mutitjulu, a small township near Uluru. According to The Age, when Brough opened a police station there last year:
he was threatened with violence by people angry over claims he had made two months earlier that there was a paedophile ring in the township. When questioned, he did not produce evidence to support the claim.What the residents were angry about was a child abuse smear by what appears to be a shoddy piece of Lateline journalism a year ago and dutifully repeated by the government. Despite that report being discredited Brough was having another go last week saying “elements were back drinking, breaking into houses, threatening people again” on nothing more than the hearsay of a caller into the ABC. The government’s intervention into the township is unlikely to be any more popular this week.
It was the allegation that girls were being prostituted for petrol in Mutitjulu that was one of the motivations for the NT report, which in this blog’s view, is equally reliant on hearsay rather than conclusive statistical evidence. Any doubts on the government’s right to intervene, however, are not being raised outside the Aboriginal communities.
However, this consensus could be Howard’s problem. It was interesting watching him on Meet the Press yesterday. He seemed to be giving the impression that he was reading from a script where the other actors were not coming out with the right lines. Three times in a few minutes he came back on criticisms in a similar way:
"... protecting innocent children is far more important than subservience to a doctrine or a philosophy."Howard here is obviously trying to pose as the down-to-earth practical doer against the philosophes in Canberra. The problem is such ‘philosophical’ objections are not being raised. There is such a rock solid consensus behind the premise of Howard’s intervention that any criticisms have been mainly practical. Rudd even upped the ante on the Sunday program with the promise to increase the number of federal police to help it along.
"... the problem with these debates, they always descend into generalised philosophical exchanges instead of a serious debate about how you make a difference on the ground."
"... we're falling into the old Canberra trap of talking about this as some kind of generalised philosophical debate."
However, it is the practicality of this intervention that is precisely the problem. Not only is the intervention based on evidence of dubious quality, but what the federal police is actually meant to do is also unclear. Howard said the first role would be to apply NT’s existing laws that are not being enforced by the Territory’s police. However they may have a good reason for not doing so, the same one as why some of the states are reluctant to be involved – they are impractical. Such draconian laws may be good politics at the local level, but the actual widespread control of a population that would be required in their enforcement is unlikely to be feasible, especially to one that is questioning their legitimacy. It looks as though it was Howard who really wanted a philosophical debate, but is now being left to deal with something else altogether.
Saturday, 23 June 2007
There has been some speculation that Howard is doing another Tampa with his intervention in the Northern Territory. This seems to be based on the idea that Howard is engaged in ‘dog whistle’ politics that is tying into underlying racism in the electorate. However, while there were some racist tones to the Tampa reaction, it was not the primary driver. Even those proposing this would concede that another boatload of refuges entering Australian waters now would be unlikely to generate the same response, presumably not because the level of racism has changed since 2001. The Tampa reaction was primarily a response to a drift in international relations at the time, that in Australia’s case, was particularly a problem with Indonesia who was no longer stopping refugee boats passing through its waters. It was the same problem in Washington that led them to seize upon the events of 11 September later that year as a foundation for a new global order.
However, if there is one similarity to Tampa it is the spurious way that children are being used. One of the assumptions of the current debate is that the NT report that kicked this off had conclusive evidence of widespread child abuse. It did not. In fact, it was not the report’s purpose, as it noted in the introduction:
In the time available, the Inquiry has preferred to concentrate on what is perceived to be the real task - prevention of sexual abuse, rather than a historical cataloguing and statistical analysis of precise incidents (p27).
That the enquiry did not feel the need to establish conclusive data on the level of child abuse was not because they already had it, for as the report noted; “Accurate statistics about the incidence of child abuse and other family violence in Aboriginal communities are scarce”. Indeed where the data was available, it showed the incidence of sexual abuse was low, which, incredibly, the enquiry found concerning:
It is interesting (and concerning) to note that the present number of substantiated [TPS: indigenous and non-indigenous] cases labelled as “sexual abuse” in the Territory has consistently been below 50 cases since 1997-98 – despite increased interest and awareness of the issues.
The low proportion of substantiated cases may be due to:
• a generally low prevalence of sexual abuse in Australian communities (which this Inquiry and other sources would dispute)
• a reluctance to report
• difficulties in obtaining concrete evidence of sexual abuse which limits the number of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous cases that are able to be substantiated. (p242)
This report was more about focussing on Aboriginal behaviour than the gathering of actual evidence of child abuse. The lack of evidence it preferred to put down to lack of reporting rather than the possibility it might not be actually occurring. How the report was so confident that child abuse was endemic in the Aboriginal community without conclusive evidence, other than largely unsubstantiated testimony from those it found the time to interview, comes from some distorted social worker logic so well explained by Pat Anderson, one of the report’s co-authors, on The 7.30 Report:
Where those conditions prevail, we know from the literature and certainly from our findings, where there's unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, drug-taking, over-crowding, unemployment, you can guarantee that those children at some point are going to be severely at risk and eventually going to be sexually abused or abused in some way. The end of the final degradation of course, is sexual abuse of children. [TPS italic]This has all the classic hallmarks of a child abuse panic that we have seen elsewhere in the western world, with the two essential ingredients: 1) the lack of conclusive evidence, which to some only confirms that the issue is being covered up or under-reported, 2) the focus on living conditions that do not meet the approval of social workers (such as the sight of Aboriginal women playing cards) that will apparently inevitably lead to child abuse, and which curiously enough seems to find child abuse especially prevalent in working class areas. Probably the only difference here is the degree to which moralising about how Aboriginal communities conduct themselves in the intolerable conditions they are forced into, has overwhelmed any interest in finding any child abusers.
Does an intervention based on dubious evidence sound familiar? There are other similarities to Iraq. The lack of any idea on the part of the military alliance of what to do once they entered Iraq is starting to find parallels already in Australia. There is such an agreement across left and right that of course Aboriginal parents are so degraded that they are incapable of preventing their children from being sexually abused that Howard’s attempt to find much of a wedge in the Labor party will be difficult. It will just be left to the isolated Aboriginal communities to protest about the shameful assumptions behind this intervention.
Where the disagreements are coming from, however, is on the effectiveness of any intervention. That is why the splits in the ALP are less on political lines than on the role they play in the state apparatus i.e. the state governments are more reluctant than a federal opposition that does not have to consider the dangers of such an action. For there is one big difference to Iraq. Whereas the allies in Iraq can partially get away with blaming the chaos arising from their incoherence to the mysterious workings of Al Qaeda operatives, at home it will be much more difficult to cover up any failure.
Howard has set on a highly risky strategy here. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the change in Australia’s racial segregation policy from a formal one around denial of citizen rights to an informal one using the language of culture and land ‘rights’. Whatever form the segregation has been conducted, the results for the Aboriginal communities have been the same, they continue to live in squalor. But at least the government was not seen to be directly responsible for it, rather the blame ended up on the Aboriginal people themselves. The NT report takes this to the extreme conclusion where even an allegation of child abuse by a white miner can be viewed in the context of Aboriginal conduct. By attempting to over-ride that strategy and taking a more overt responsibility for the conditions of the Aboriginal communities, Howard is attempting to turn back the clock. But we are not back in the 1950s. Just as the major powers are finding in Iraq that they do not have the authority for direct rule that they did in days of Empire, so Howard might find the same return to direct rule is far more complicated than in the days of the White Australia Policy. The last post’s views that a failure of Aboriginal policy has never lost votes still stands, but as seen in Iraq, a failure of the political class may do more electoral damage.
Friday, 22 June 2007
There used to be a straight-forward way of stopping child abuse, lock the offenders up. But we are talking here of Aboriginal children, so, of course, the solution cannot be that simple. Indeed getting around to finding the perpetrators, either Aboriginal or white, and arresting them, seems to be the last thing being talked about here. Instead the discussion is entirely focussed on the eternal Australian question, what is wrong with the way Aboriginal people organise their lives? How on earth any of the proposals to address Aboriginal alcoholism and gambling will deal with the problem of a white miner who is inclined to pay for under-age sex is something no one can answer.
The worst thing about all of this is that while the report with its sickeningly sentimental title “All Children are Sacred” spends 150 pages on what is wrong with Aboriginal behaviour, it hasn’t even bothered conclusively establishing there is an Aboriginal child abuse crisis in the first place (see the discussion on the actual data evidence on page 207 and on).
This blog intends to restrict itself to political issues only in as much as they affect the political class and electoral behaviour. There is such a crushing consensus on the Aboriginal question that it rarely affects voting. After all, this is a country where the idea of separate cultural development on racial lines, one of the underpinnings of South African apartheid, is actually considered progressive. Let’s just say this, when a political class is seen to be acting against such a horrendous issue as child abuse, it will probably win the leader of that political class, Howard, some votes.
Let’s also admit that it is inevitable Howard’s initiative will end in failure - but then has a century of the Aboriginal issue being a national disgrace ever lost a government a single vote?
Thursday, 21 June 2007
The Opposition Leader continues with his messianic bid to make the Australian union movement the most courteous in the developed world. Despite what the press are saying, the video of Joe McDonald being rude is not an embarrassment but another opportunity for Rudd to distance himself from the unions. These ‘Sister Soulja’ moments were made possible after union acquiescence to the Theresa Rein affair allowed Rudd to stop having to worry about the internal impact of not keeping the unions on-side. Even before the government was calling for Rudd to do something about McDonald, Gillard was indicating on Sunday’s Insiders that the Labor leadership was itching to get rid of him.
The problem for the government is that as Rudd ditches the special interests of the Labor party, he is starting to make it a principle of political conduct. There is now a raft of issues on which Labor is attacking the government on mixing political interests with the functions of the state: funding for government advertising campaigns, the use of Kirribilli and the Lodge for political entertaining, the use of Ruddock’s staff for a political ‘dirt’ unit and now, the use of government advisors Mark Textor and Lynton Crosby (and possibly government polling) in a political campaign run by big business.
Some in the media have tried to make a parallel between the recent furore over unions campaigning for Labor and this business campaign for the government - but there are important differences. While Labor, at least until now, has always had an open, if awkward relationship to the unions, the Liberals have always tended to avoid being too overtly associated with big business (after all, the social base is not that large!).
To form such an open campaigning association between the non-Labor parties and the big end of town is an unusual step. It has come from Howard using the IR issue as a means of cohering his own supporter base but has now developed an external momentum where Howard will now find himself publicly campaigning with business (this is despite even Textor providing more uncertainty that IR is a leading issue with the electorate).
Furthermore, this move towards a more open alliance with big business may just be coming at a time when it will become more awkward to do so. Because there is another important difference between Liberal/business and Labor and the unions: the unions are an empty shell and as we are now seeing, fairly easy to dump. Business of course is not. If Labor’s attempts to make a virtue out of it becoming less aligned with special interests start to gain traction in an environment that is always hostile to the political class (as seen by the latest moaning over MP pay), the Liberals could be exposed.
Wednesday, 20 June 2007
There is a moment in Keating’s seminal interview on Lateline when the old teeth-puller starts to come over a bit mushy. It comes when he is explaining why Workchoices will have a negative effect on productivity:
If you go to 200 or 300 people in a factory […] and come to a three or four year bargain to improve productivity and share it between wages and profits you've got a good chance of getting productivity from the whole enterprise. But if you just take one person at a time, bring them into the boss's office and cut their wages, there's no chance of getting any productivity. That's why trend productivity is now rapidly on the way down.
But who would have been the ones under Keating’s system that would have negotiated a three to four year bargain with the work-force? None other than the unions, who had just had their teeth pulled out by Keating and were left “dying on the vine”. This was the problem with his enterprise model: once unions had been pushed aside, there was nobody to conduct enterprise bargaining and the move to individual contracts was inevitable even before Workchoices.
It was also why, after spending an hour claiming every feature of the current economic success was due to his structural reforms, Keating was careful to avoid taking credit for a negative consequence, the removal of an active union agent to push through productivity. As ALP Senator Nick Sherry notes in Rudd’s briefing document leaked to the government, Howard’s IR changes were too recent to have any real effect.
Having wound down the union movement, no Labor leader can seriously talk about a programme to improve productivity these days and Rudd has been found out. In terms of electoral impact, this is really the flip-side of the IR debate and given that the government has no alternative productivity strategy, it is unlikely to make much impact. Noticeably The Australian avoided mentioning that the significance of industrial relations as an electoral issue in its latest Newspoll continued to decline to middling importance. Rudd will just have to grin and bear it and hope for more news from the AEC.
Tuesday, 19 June 2007
For the last couple of months, Mumble has been waging a fairly sensible campaign against commentators who have been touting the betting markets as superior to opinion polls for predicting the coming election. It is not just that the evidence for this proposition appears based on some very thin electoral data but the whole idea that anything is a predictor of an election is highly suspect. Election betting odds reflect nothing more than punters' guesses as to an election result at any one time and the bookies’ margin, just as the opinion polls are no more than a sample of voting intentions at any one time (and the current fashion for trending opinion polls in a straight line to the election date is just as silly).
Jason Koutsoukis who pushed the betting markets again in Sunday’s Age gave the game away as to what this is about:
The problem with [the last month’s] poll results is that they are ridiculous — no one really believes that's how people will vote on election day. Talk to any professional pollster who has done work for either of the major parties and they dismiss the published polls as virtually meaningless. i.e. the published polls have no credibility so the betting markets are a more realistic alternative.
It is hard to think of an electoral cycle where the polls have been so continuously dismissed as this year. Recent government dismissing of the polls is only after the media have been doing the same thing for months. The latest, slightly more sophisticated version is to point at the government’s still strong showing on economic management as indicating that Labor’s lead is soft - as though a minute after answering the question on the economy the punter forgets what they said when asked about voting intention. Koutsoukis’s assertion that even the pollsters are starting to disown them has a ring of truth after the recent extraordinary downplaying by Galaxy principal David Briggs of the findings of his own organization.
Yet ironically it is hard to think when polls have been given such attention and awaited so breathlessly by commentators. This seemingly contradictory treatment of the polls is for the same reason, media pundits are lost as to what is going on. This was no better illustrated than yesterday when political commentators treated the nearly identical polls from Nielsen and Newspoll in totally divergent ways.
The confusion is probably best summed up by Jason Koutsoukis himself who in December, in an uncomfortably personal piece, was writing off Rudd’s chances in this year’s election barely after attaining the leadership and who in February was talking about Rudd being taken apart on the dissecting table by the political geniuses in the Liberal party. Then as little as two weeks ago he was arguing the exact opposite saying that the Liberals should “face reality” and recognise that since Rudd has been leader “Howard has never looked like getting his measure” and that the reported polling numbers, far from being ridiculous, indicate “that disaster is certain”. It is no wonder that commentators like this are relying on the betting punters to tell them who will win the next election. It is probably in line with their prejudices, modest odds on for a Labor win, and besides, their guess is as good as anyone’s – especially commentators who are all at sea. A smart bookie should be able to clean up this year.
Monday, 18 June 2007
In parliamentary jostling running up to the winter recess, two issues emerged that give an interesting picture on political trends. One was a farce posing as a real issue, the other, a real issue posing as a farce.
The farce posing as a real issue was, of course, industrial relations. The absurdity of the government attacking the unions for campaigning for Labor has been pointed out in the media. What has been missed is that union bureaucrats need an instruction manual to tell them how to do it. The government seems continually, wittingly or not, to be highlighting examples of union power that are actually signs of union weakness. The sad flight of trade union refugees into the parliamentary Labor party is a sign that the game is over in the union movement rather than growing union influence. In the medium term, the unions’ decline may cause embarrassment for a party whose historical role had been to represent them, but in the longer term it just speeds up Labor’s transition.
Where this transition is going is suggested by the real issue, which appears like a farce, the “Cash for canapés” affair. Let’s get clear on what is being raised here. It is apparently all right for the PM to bring his personal friends home, he may also presumably bring government officials home, but if he entertains political party members or supporters, then this is not acceptable and the Liberals must pay up. Essentially, this issue is about separating political special interests from the functions of the state, which as said earlier, is in complete contrast to the basis of Australian democracy for the past century. It is interesting to see Gillard and Penny Wong from the left keen to attack business financers of the Liberal Party. However, the logic of this is that it will not just apply to financial supporters, and indeed now Hockey has been forced to defend entertaining ordinary party members as well.
The “Cash for canapés” affair suggests that Labor, having lost its role as representing union interests, now appears to be turning it into a principle. Under a leader who is unusually isolated from both the union movement and their party factions, Labor is responding to government pressure by arguing for a full separation of political special interests and the state.
This is a new development and is a result of the winding down of the representative roles played by both sides of the political class. It is why Gillard can brush off Hawke’s confessions that he did the same twenty years ago and talk about Howard being out of line with the “contemporary debate” as she did yesterday on Insiders. It points to a transition for political parties from representing particular interests to representing no one at all, except perhaps the apparatus of government. If this is the case, the ALP shows at the state level that it is much better than the Liberals at being nothing more than state functionaries. By attacking the end of the Federal ALP’s historical mission, the Liberals could be setting up the end of their own.
Saturday, 16 June 2007
A recent post noted that while the government was indulging in union-bashing, the Leader of the Opposition was playing a different game with his questions on Kirribilli entertaining.
It seemed to have worked rather well. But it is not immediately clear why. Inviting supporters of the government to the PM’s residence as a way of thanks does not seem out of bounds, and there is no better supporter than a financial one. Linking a donation to the invite may be a bit more explicit but the principle seems the same. No wonder Howard can point to similar actions by earlier PMs.
What seems objectionable in this fairly normal political activity, is the idea that money can buy influence and that the government and its property are open to sectional interests. But running government on sectional interests has been the basis of Australian, and most other Western democracies for over a century. The union movement set up and funded a Labor party explicitly to represent union interests and was expected to bring in laws to support those interests once in power (although the problem was they often didn’t). To prevent them, business interests likewise financed and supported the Liberals and other non-Labor parties. As this week’s farcical debate over the union threat shows, these roles played by political parties are largely at an end. This leaves the question: what are the major parties for?
So it is unsurprising that Howard and Abbott looked uncomfortable defending this on TV. When Howard says, rather pathetically, “Its my home!” what he is saying is that he is entitled to use it as the leader of Australia’s political class. But an attack on normal practices of the Australian political class implies an attack on that class itself. That is why the coalition’s defence that earlier Australian politicians did it too, will not work. The charge of a self-serving political class was something Howard used so well against Keating. Now with so little policy agenda that he looks as though he is in power for its own sake, Howard himself is vulnerable. A rushed decision by the AEC will probably not be enough to kill this story.
Third time lucky perhaps? After the coalition wasted two opportunities to gain control of the global warming debate; firstly with the Budget of the inept Treasurer and secondly with Howard’s climate change taskforce, it probably has one last opportunity in the APEC meeting in September. Howard has been busy in New Zealand putting together a joint working group over the last few days in preparation for APEC and The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan, who has been talking up the potential of the APEC meeting, had a fairly considered review of the climate change debate last week.
APEC is the best shot as it gets closest to what the climate change agenda is about, international diplomacy. No one in this country likes to say it, but international politics determines the parameters of Australian political debate. It is the government’s falling out of step with the shift in the global agenda that has been the ultimate source of its problems this electoral cycle.
There has been some heavy-handed irony made of the Howard’s government reliance on a regional forum given its professed disdain of Labor’s regional focus. However, the debate about whether Australia should have a regional focus is rather false as it has always had one. Besides the fact it would be a geophysical impossibility not to, Australia started its nationhood as an agent for British colonial interests in the region and it was the international edge to the White Australia Policy. Whether it is the UK or US, Australia’s relations with these powers has always rested on what it can do for them in the region and it is why Australia has rarely avoided a regional military conflict.
Where the regionalism debate comes from is when the interests of the great powers are disrupted and Australia is left to deal with the vacuum. There was a brief period after the fall of Singapore when the regional debate came to the fore and again with the collapse of US interests in Vietnam. The regional policy was also obvious during the 1990s, when the framework for international relations drifted after the end of the Cold War. It was during that time that Keating persuaded a reluctant Clinton to beef up the APEC talking shop started by Hawke. Howard is hoping that he can do the same again with Bush and use the APEC meeting to set up an alternative to the European climate change agenda.
Unfortunately, the US does not do regionalism. For it to align itself, say, with the APEC countries would be to implicitly reduce its influence with Europe, something a superpower like the US cannot afford to do. This has been the painful lesson of the Iraq war that is causing such anguish in the US political class. It is why Bush was forced to tag along with the Europeans in Rostock. Shanahan’s article, along with most of the Australian press, have glided over what happened, but the US got rolled. It went in trying to prevent the setting of firm emission targets, the European ignored him and Bush was left to go away and think about it.
That is a situation that is intolerable to the US and right now the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are discussing how to regain lost influence. If Bush came to Sydney in September with the idea of setting an alternative agenda to the Europeans, he would represent no more than a weakened and desperate administration rather than the US political class as a whole.
The funny thing on all of this is that Australia doesn’t do regionalism neither. Australia has a highly unusual international position based on its role as client state par excellence which seamlessly made the transition from one global superpower to another as the US took over the UK’s lead. From Doc Evatt becoming the UN’s first Secretary General to the regular flattery from the US administration, Australia has always got away with pretending it had an influence above its weight, as seen by the government laughably posing Australia as one of a coalition of three in Iraq.
Keating’s ‘regionalism‘, as with much of the agenda of his last term, was making a virtue out of a problem (as he also tried with the Mabo mess) and fill the gap left by the end of the Labor’s traditional project. But any loss of Australia's global pretence is unlikely to generate enthusiasm, which is why Howard campaigned successfully against Keating’s regionalism. Howard’s regionalism now looks to be doing the same thing. It is trying to make a virtue out of the fact it has tied itself to a US administration that has lost influence internationally, and therefore within its own political class. Howard runs the risk of the same happening to him.
Thursday, 14 June 2007
If The 7.30 Report’s Kerry O’Brien was right that IR is one of the main political fault lines of our time, they all seemed remarkably happy discussing it in parliament yesterday - from both sides. For the government, Howard and Costello were clearly using the ACTU briefing manual as a means of cheering up their own team. It is always a sure sign that an internal debate of little consequence is going on when the Treasurer gets into his stride. But Howard too was going for it like he was the biggest union buster since Thatcher. Joe Hockey was also letting his wit run amok, although his ability to generate a laugh across the house is perhaps a little too easy these days.
Unfortunately it didn’t translate so well outside parliament. When Hockey was quizzed later on specific examples of the union practices he was condemning he struggled to come up with examples other than Joe McDonald (again) and to reply why then had Rudd expelled Dean Mighell? That’s a good question. The answer was that Rudd needed a symbolic target to signal his distance from the union movement, rather like Clinton attacked rap singer Sister Soulja back in 1992 to distance himself on the race issue.
That this is all about symbols rather than anything substantive is indicated by the existence of the ACTU manual itself. The fact that ACTU bureaucrats need detailed instructions for how to approach their membership indicates what an empty shell the union movement has become. Sharon Burrows’ comment that it wouldn't surprise anyone that unions will talk to their members, might come as a surprise to the members themselves for whom the relationship with their union has become no more than a fortnightly direct debit for dues.
The relevance of all of this to the electorate is highly questionable. While industrial relations ranks high as an issue for coalition voters one wonders how much IR is a convenient issue for those searching to justify why they were going to vote for the coalition anyway. Certainly on specifics of IR policy, the polls suggest indifference. An Age/Neilsen poll cited that on the abolition of AWAs, the electorate was evenly divided but half had no opinion at all, something an Age columnist put down to Labor’s mixed message but more likely to be the issue itself.
A more detailed breakdown by market research group Sensis suggested that this was an issue largely confined to the dwindling union membership with 47% of union members believing AWAs would be negative compared to 24% of non-union employees. Perhaps more tellingly, the same survey found that even in the small business community, a group which should be the most supportive of AWAs, only 22% surveyed thought it would have a positive impact (against 8% believing it would be negative).
From the Labor side, Gillard and other Labor members looked far more comfortable being accused of being pro-union than they did defending Therese Rein’s business activities a few weeks ago. However, the other leaked document from yesterday showed the real situation. A report prepared for one of the loudest opponents of Labor’s IR platform, the Australian Constructors Association, suggested threatening a political campaign against Labor. The proposal was not taken up because “constructive discussions with the ALP leadership resulted in significant concessions in terms of their position on the future of the Australian Building and Construction Commission”, an anti-union concession which had been criticised by former ACTU head, Greg Combet.
There was one figure who was not participating in the fun and games yesterday. The Labor leader, the first in living memory not to be sponsored by a union, husband of the owner of a non-unionised job placement agency, preferred to ask questions about Liberal fund-raising at Kirribilli. The essence of this question was the same as his media response to the ACTU document, when he said that everyone could campaign on what they liked, but the problem with the government is that theirs was funded through taxpayers’ money. Both raise questions about what had been normal practices of the Australian political class. While the rest of them spent yesterday re-hashing old battles like they still mattered, the Foreign Affairs mandarin was probably having more resonance in the electorate attacking the political class itself. No wonder we are seeing more of Keating on the telly these days.
Wednesday, 13 June 2007
The Galaxy Queensland poll has already been fully covered by other commentators such as Mumbles. There was little in it that was new, a modest softening of Labor support, in line with that shown by the national Galaxy poll and a recent Morgan poll (although subsequently reversed), but still showing a thumping 9% anti-government swing since the last election. There would seem little grounds for the more up-beat assessment Howard gave to the party-room this week.
But of course Howard was not thinking about the mood of the electorate but of the party-room he was addressing. There is a sleeper of this election year that has been largely missed by the media but is guiding the actions of the leaders, which is the demoralisation and internal weakness of their respective parties. The weak cohesion of the Liberals has already come to the surface twice this year, the exposure of Santoro by his Queensland colleagues and the panic and leadership speculation that broke out after Howard’s ‘annihilation’ comments.
The internal weakness of the Liberal party is not always obvious as there is no particular issue for them to divide over. Nor is there anyone capable of mounting a challenge, which is why Howard can dare his colleagues to get rid of him, implicit in his line “I’ll stay as long as the party wants me”. Rather the main danger is that the party will simply fragment into a group of squabbling individuals. This is why the industrial relations issue is so important to Howard as a means of reminding the party of one of the few things, nowadays, they have in common. This surely must colour his assessment that "the union issue resonates strongly" with the electorate.
However, there is an important danger for Howard in raising the union threat from Labor – it doesn’t exist. As Keating already blew the gaffe last week, Labor has no intention of restoring the power of the unions. If it has appeared so, it is because the Labor leadership had also used industrial relations as a means of cohering its own supporter base, a tactic which fell apart when Therese Rein’s business affairs came to light. The need for such cohesion in Federal Labor is suggested by an intriguing report in The Australian that complaints about Ingeus’s employment conditions were brought to the attention of the government a few weeks earlier in a letter from a senior Labor MP, who didn’t bother to inform Rudd, and who apparently didn’t think the government would exploit it politically (hmmm).
It is feasible that the Therese Rein affair had some impact on Labor’s support, a conclusion that others seem surprisingly unwilling to draw. However, the mute reaction of the unions has now given the leadership confidence that they can drop the pretence and begin to tackle any perception that they will let unions back in. While this might weaken the cohesion of the party and its primary vote, it should allow Rudd to recover grounds in parts of the electorate where the threat of union power is seen as an issue, as appears to be the case in WA. For Howard, this in turn will make it harder to use industrial relations as the glue that binds his party. The results should be interesting to watch.
Monday, 11 June 2007
So it is not only Paul Keating who feels like telling it like it is. After having rejected Howard’s earlier call to fund a campaign supporting the government’s IR policies, if the report in The Australian is correct, business groups are now ready to launch an IR campaign - but with a twist. The ads will not only focus on Workchoices but also the contribution made by the end of collective bargaining under Keating, something, of course, Labor has no intention of reversing.
Business’s exposure of the sham behind the IR debate would have been more embarrassing for Labor if it happened a month ago. However, that has now already been done by the Therese Rein affair. The unions’ reticence to criticise the business practices of the Labor leader’s wife now gives the Labor leadership room to start distancing themselves from the unions, shown not only by the toning down of Labor‘s IR campaign but also the expulsion of Mighell and Gillard’s recent emphasising of the anti-union credentials of its IR policy.
But it is not only the unions that have been caught out. It is interesting to see how Labor’s left-wing supporters, so keen to promote IR as a vote winner have been remarkably reticent to draw any negative conclusions from the Therese Rein affair and the toning down of Labor’s IR campaign, despite some apparent softening in Labor support. This again must give the leadership reassurance that its base has nowhere else to go.
Sunday, 10 June 2007
If the economy is the coalition’s trump card, then they seem to be taking a long time to play it. Since the beginning of the year the government has preferred instead to try all of its old tricks. Just as a drowning man is supposed to see his life flash before his eyes, so have we seen this year Howard revive every tactic used over the life of the government; Iraq, character, illegal refugees, moral values, even education (remember that?), the Budget contribution from that political maestro Peter Costello. Rather than being the trump card, the economy looks like the last card after all the others have been played.
This is not surprising given where the phrase “the economy, stupid” came from. James Carville was supposed to have pinned it up in Clinton’s campaign room in the 1992 US election. Recall what a highly unusual election this was. It was the first election after the end of the Cold War, which had provided the backdrop for US politics for almost half a century. Its end had removed a framework for conducting political debate, that extended beyond just geopolitics. Remember that Clinton, even before the election, had already torn up the political rule book in the Democratic primary with him surviving his exposure as a draft-dodging adulterer. Indeed it was the media writing him off too quickly, because they could not grasp how the old rules had been thrown away, that gave Clinton his moniker of the ‘Comeback Kid’. Carville was basically reminding Clinton that they were fighting an election in a vacuum, where the old political values were irrelevant. There was no point in getting caught up in any issue other than the basic one of jobs and living standards.
There were arguably only two US elections where this applied; 1992 and 1996. By 2000, the lack of a values had started to be of concern, seen in the reaction to the Lewinksy scandal. In Australia, this craving for a framework for conducting political relations was also starting to be exploited by Howard, especially in the Tampa affair in 2001. The gap was finally filled with the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York.
The War against Terror has provided Howard his framework for winning ever since. The 2004 election may have come down to interest rates at the end, but only because Howard had already won the issue of trust on national security and the US alliance. In this election, however, the War on Terror is not working and now the coalition appears to have nothing left but the economy.
The trouble is, the economy is no longer a political issue. As Keating so eloquently said the other night, most economic decisions have been taken out of government hands. This is because the one real economic political issue, industrial relations, was wound up by Keating himself. Howard’s attempt to make the economy political through Workchoices is unconvincing even to his supporters.
There is only one real issue in this election, the fight for ownership of the international agenda which is now shifting from the War on Terror to climate change. Howard has constantly lagged this change-over, unsurprising given how the old agenda saved his government. He is now trying to reduce the political significance of the new climate change agenda by turning it into an economic issue. In this blog’s view, it will probably not work. It misses climate change’s significance as the new orthodoxy of global politics. It might only work if the US can also push economic pragmatism onto the global agenda. However, by the look of Bush trying to keep in step with the European leaders in the Rostock photo-op, and the language now being used by his potential successors in both the Republican and Democratic sides, it looks unlikely.
Friday, 8 June 2007
Over the last few months, with the confidence of the Labor party returning, there have been some calls from its supporters in the media to bring Keating back into the fold. Last night’s extraordinary interview on Lateline is a reminder why that is unlikely in the near term at least. It was not so much Keating’s attack on the Labor team, but the basis on which he did it. While some on the Labor side of the political class will not forgive Keating’s role in dismantling its project, the coalition is unlikely to be comfortable with him either. As he said last night, after the Hawke/Keating years, the coalition had little left to do, accurately putting his finger on the policy vacuum at the heart of the Howard government.
The interview (and Gillard’s reaction) must have given food for thought to those being sentimental about Labor’s attack on Workchoices. Keating again went back to the structural reforms of the Hawke/Keating years but clarified what they were. While the float of the dollar got the headlines, Keating emphasised that it was only possible through the lowering of wages. It was Hawke’s ability to deliver the unions for this task that gave Labor its relevance during the global deregulation of the 1980s.
But as he said last night, Keating took that further with the dismantling of collective bargaining in 1993-1994. As Keating described it:
I was the guy who had to get the ACTU in a headlock and pull its teeth out with a pair of pliers.But as he goes on, those teeth were already rotten. The unions in his words are now “dying on the vine” and have little influence.
Keating’s problem, however, is that he fails to see what such action did to the party that was supposed to be the political defence of those unions. His attack on the political advisors Epstein and Gray for being focus group driven and lacking the appetite for power misses the fact that this would have been a natural response for a political party whose social base had been cut off at the knees.
It is also why he misunderstands the role of Gillard who he believes, quite accurately, is giving the impression that Labor is turning back the clock on union influence when it is doing no such thing. As this blog maintains, she was presenting Labor’s inoffensive IR policy this way for internal reasons to cohere a demoralised supporter base, something they were managing quite well up to the Therese Rein affair. Since then the Labor leadership has become more relaxed about keeping unions on-side and her response to Keating was pretty open. As the SMH quoted Gillard:
Labor's new industrial relations policy featured a tough scheme against industrial action, uniform laws for the private sector, plenty of flexibility and the genuine ability to make non-union collective agreements without union involvement.
Keating is disowned by the political class because he reminds them that their traditional roles are over and their domestic differences are largely a sham. As he said, domestically, government these days have little to do but make sure they don’t blow the budget. The only contest now is over the international agenda. It is why Rudd is re-making the ALP in a way that is not yet picked up by the media, and the coalition's more painful makeover is coming.
While some on the Labor side of the political class will not forgive Keating’s role in dismantling its project, the coalition is unlikely to be comfortable with him either. As he said last night, after the Hawke/Keating years, the coalition had little left to do, accurately putting his finger on the policy vacuum at the heart of the Howard government.
Thursday, 7 June 2007
Let’s start by getting one thing clear. The winner for Howard on the ‘trust’ issue in 2004 was not interest rates or Latham’s character. Howard could only raise doubts about these issues and begin to clawback Labor’s lead when he had raised doubts about a much more important issue, Labor’s commitment to the US alliance. It was the unilateral tone of Latham’s promise to bring troops ‘home by Christmas’ made on Sydney radio in March 2004 that undermined Labor’s campaign. Latham had made the mistake of confusing the unpopularity of Australia's involvement in the Iraq war with the alliance that made it necessary.
By itself, the interest rates debate had little substance, as there was little real policy difference between the two parties on the issue. Indeed the government goes out of its way to emphasise its lack of control on monetary policy by handing it over to the Reserve Bank. If Latham’s signing of a big ‘cheque’ to promise low interest rates was a meaningless gesture, it was because it was a meaningless debate. Interest rates was merely a way Howard could translate a fundamental concern about Labor's international policy to the domestic arena.
Of course, things have now moved on. The War on Terror strategy has failed as a means of the US leading the international agenda. How the US can reassert its lead is the primary policy debate in the US political class and the over-riding theme of the US election. There is widespread recognition that the European global warming agenda is gaining ground and that the US needs to respond.
Howard’s problem now is that he has tied himself into an administration that no longer reflects the view of the US political class on either the Democratic or Republican side. This was graphically brought out in February over Howard’s comments on Obama, when Howard showed he was out of touch with the shift in US thinking. It gave the opportunity for a devastating censure by Rudd and it is interesting to see it again. In one of the most effective parliamentary performances in recent years, Rudd signalled to the coalition that the international agenda was now once again up for grabs and to his own side that the long agony was over. For the first time in many years, Labor’s policy is coming back in line with the international order. It is why, whatever issue ends up being the reason people vote, it is climate change that is the critical one in this election.
The US cannot afford to wait until there is a change in administration to recover lost ground and Bush has been forced to do a U-turn and try to re-take the initiative through a new post-Kyoto treaty. However, his personal association with the previous failed agenda is obviously a barrier as shown by the lack of effectiveness of the US intervention in the G8 meeting in Rostock this week. Howard has no choice but to tack along with Bush’s efforts and will try again at the APEC meeting in Sydney in September to show that he, not Labor, is in line with global trends. However, while Bush himself is struggling, it is unlikely that Howard will succeed.
Howard’s use of the international agenda is what has enabled a politician renowned for duplicity to campaign on trust. It is what has allowed a politician with little policy agenda to appear as one with conviction. It has enabled the survival of a government that was floundering almost from the start, despite the benefits of an opposition that had lost its historical role. But things change.
Wednesday, 6 June 2007
After months during which the commentariat used every incident to predict the end of Rudd’s honeymoon, it is curious that after two polls (Galaxy, Morgan) showing a drop in Labor’s primary support, nobody now seems willing to link it to the events preceding it.
For the past few months Labor had been running with a problem that has now become exposed. Essentially it is the same as the coalition, no distinctive domestic agenda. This was especially the case in industrial relations where the Labor leadership was in agreement with key elements of Howard’s policy, maintaining the marginalisation of the unions and allowing individual contracts to replace collective bargaining.
The trouble with this, of course, is that internally such a stance would have problems in a party whose existence had historically been to politically safeguard the role of unions and collective bargaining. Labor managed this problem by attacking Workchoices. This allowed a double act in the leadership where Rudd talked vaguely about a ‘fair go’ to the external audience and Gillard could make more threatening noises to employers to keep the traditional support base onside and the unions happy – and quiet.
The lack of substance behind Labor’s IR attack would have inevitably been drawn out but it happened earlier than expected due to the publicity over Therese Rein’s business, which was run precisely on the lines the unions were supposed to formally oppose. The collapse of the ‘double act’ could feasibly have had a negative impact on Labor support. The primary vote could suffer as some supporters drift off to minor parties, while swinging voters might be turned off either by the details of Ingeus's employment conditions or by the sudden resurgence of the unions’ voice. If it did, it is likely to be temporary as traditional supporters will inevitably return, even if only through preferences. Support from more swinging voters will be helped by Rudd’s clampdown on the unions, something that should be achievable against what is now a politically compromised union base.
So perhaps it is not so surprising after all, that few outside Morgan (who is being ignored), are willing to suggest the negative impact of the Rein affair. For the coalition and its supporters, it would not be pleasant that the public could react negatively to a business run on the lines that tie in with its ethos. For the left-wing commentariat, who had been deluding themselves that Labor’s attack on Workchoices was a real one, the exposure of the sham at the heart of Labor's traditional project could simply be too awful to contemplate.
Monday, 4 June 2007
The Galaxy poll today showing a narrowing of Labor’s lead follows the latest Morgan poll recording a similar move. These are less of a surprise than the last Newspoll which showed a jump the other way following the fuss around Rein’s business affairs. As said earlier, the episode was probably more negative for Labor than the media suggested. The public’s thrill that Rudd has a modern marriage probably had less impact than the publicising of Ingeus's employment conditions had on Labor’s IR attack. However, IR was less of a vote decider than Labor supporters liked to believe and the impact of Rudd's retreat and subsequent disassociation from the unions is likely to be a temporary one.
Having said that, a more fundamental development in climate change politics, that occurred after the polls were taken, may have slightly more lasting benefit for the government. While Howard still looked like an old man feigning interest in the report of his taskforce, the equally clumsy attempts by the Bush administration to adopt the climate change agenda does at least make Howard look less out of line than he did a few days ago. At the end of the day, however, climate change politics is about a fight for leadership of the global political agenda and both Bush and Howard are too personally associated with the previous ‘War on Terror’ agenda to be able to make a convincing transition.
Friday, 1 June 2007
When Keating lost in 1996, he had an agenda on national identity and reconciliation that had no relation to the trends in international politics at the time. Against that, Howard could present himself as having a pragmatic and sensible (i.e. non-existent) response to both. Howard is now trying the same response to global warming, an issue that is becoming the basis and orthodoxy of international politics. He hasn’t a chance. Being pragmatic is being out of touch.
Posted by the piping shrike on Friday, June 01, 2007