What a difference a fortnight makes. At the start of the campaign, Howard was in combative mode rallying the troops against the ABC. This time it was all fixed smiles and furrowed brows. The attempt to mobilize the party's members and supporters floundered by the debate at the end of the first week. Just how far the campaign has slipped from the government's control was indicated by the current election topics that Kerry O'Brien raised; climate change, cabinet solidarity and broken election promises on interest rates - none of which the government wants to talk about.
Commentators have noted that the campaign is not focusing on what the government does want to talk about - the economy. The trouble is that it is hard to do so because there is so little to say. There is no real policy difference between the two on the economy as we will probably see tonight between Costello and Swan. All it has come down to is who was around when interest rates were 17% or 22% or whatever. This economic debate by past association is now a problem for Howard as when he goes back to the past, his failure to keep his 2004 interest rate promise highlights that no-one really has any control.
If the past is a bit awkward, the future is not much better. Howard may want to talk about the future but every time he does, it brings up his retirement plans. It was an announcement he made to shore up his leadership but in doing so he undermined its authority. This in turn has compounded the fragmenting of the Liberals now under way, exemplified by Turnbull's hints of unhappiness at the cabinet's position on Kyoto, but it could be even worse than that if Glenn Milne's report that other cabinet members leaked it is true. O'Brien and Milne, like the rest of the media, still see this fragmentation in terms of a Costello/Turnbull leadership challenge (in fact Milne gets in a tangle trying to work out the leadership machinations of the leaking cabinet ministers, it could be they just didn't agree with the policy). It might be that the Liberals can't wait to start fighting over the lucrative prize of the leadership of a defeated party - if only their problems were that simple.
Tuesday, 30 October 2007
What a difference a fortnight makes. At the start of the campaign, Howard was in combative mode rallying the troops against the ABC. This time it was all fixed smiles and furrowed brows. The attempt to mobilize the party's members and supporters floundered by the debate at the end of the first week. Just how far the campaign has slipped from the government's control was indicated by the current election topics that Kerry O'Brien raised; climate change, cabinet solidarity and broken election promises on interest rates - none of which the government wants to talk about.
Monday, 29 October 2007
Maybe Malcolm Turnbull needs to be told, but there were two very important reasons why the government did not sign the Kyoto protocol. The first is that for the US, refusal was an important part of its geopolitical response to an agenda pushed by its European rivals. Straying too far from the US line is not a choice for the Australian political class, especially the coalition side of it. It is only that the US is now reviewing this position that makes it feasible for an electable Labor government to also change tack
The second reason is tied with the natural resistance that the party of business would have with a global warming agenda that sees growth as a problem or at least slow growth as a virtue (Howard's attempt to justify not signing Kyoto because it was not doing enough by leaving out the large emitters is highly unconvincing).
Of course none of this seems to matter very much to Turnbull who is clearly resisting the government's stance to save his own seat. That one of the government's few distinctive policies is being undermined by the Minister in charge of it, because of pressures from his seat, is a sign of how the cohesion of the Liberals is starting to break down.
He is not alone. The press is picking up that Howard is being left off campaign literature across the country. This is not because Howard is especially unpopular. But then he doesn't need to be too much of a negative to outweigh any need to identify with the leader. Or even the party for that matter, which is also being left off some of the candidates ads. Again it is not that the Liberals' platform is especially unpopular (despite what might be claimed about Workchoices). It's just that there is little in that platform to inspire dislike, or loyalty.
If this does not indicate much party loyalty from the candidates (which seems to be a big deal to some) then they are hardly being led by example. Howard is spending an inordinate amount of time off from what is a very difficult election campaign for his government, fighting for re-election in his own seat. As it happens if he retained government then he would have a good chance of holding Bennelong. But as seen by the preparations going on in Wollstonecraft, the thought of personal humiliation at losing his seat is now clearly intruding on the prospect of losing government. If the head of the government is prepared to give up time saving the seats of its members to look after his own personal interest, why should those members think differently?
The crisis in the Liberals is being underestimated because it does not look like a normal one. There is no clash of interest such as the turmoil in the union movement that led to the Labor split of the 1950s. There is not even a leadership issue, just a periodic collapse of confidence the media keep confusing with a challenge. But if it doesn't look like a typical crisis, it is because this is a particularly bad one. There is no clash of interest being worked through the Liberals because there is not much interests being represented in the party these days. Business doesn't really need the Liberals since the unions were wound up. What it prefers is someone to run the state more efficiently i.e. a bureaucrat, not a politician. There is now little in society to bind the Liberals together and as the campaign goes on, they will appear more like a group of independents than a party of government.
Saturday, 27 October 2007
One of the many fascinating features of this election is to see the return of the former PM's Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating to kick Howard as he goes down.
Especially amusing was to read Whitlam and Fraser launch an attack on Howard's undermining of Westminster tradition of ministerial accountability. Give us a break. Didn't Whitlam start off his government by-passing Westminster tradition, and the ministry, with a duumvirate of him and Barnard to enact some of the most critical decisions of his government? As for Fraser! The start of his government wasn't even accountable to the House of Representatives, let alone the ministry. There can be no period of Australian history when Westminster conventions were tossed aside than when those two slugged it out in the very busy years of 1972 to 1975.
More poignant was Hawke and Keating defending the role of the union in recent weeks. It was especially interesting to see Keating do so in a launch for Greg Combet only a couple of months after boasting how in his time he got the unions in a headlock and pulled their teeth with the co-operation of the then ACTU chief Bill Kelty. At the launch Keating reminded everyone of Bill Kelty's role by brandishing a cabinet note showing Kelty's willingness to help government policy by keeping wage rises down. It was this sort of devotion to the Labor government, rather than the interest of union members, that led to the decline in membership in Keating's day that was faster than Howard ever achieved. The union leadership was fatally compromised by their role under Hawke and Keating. If Keating is not seen as the great union-buster it is because of the willingness of the union leaders to do the job for him. Keating was less the executioner than the doctor assisting suicide.
There is no doubt that ministerial accountability has declined under Howard. But such accountability comes from below not above. Cabinet and its minsters normally represent real interest in society and it is pressures from those interests that force accountability on the ministers including the Prime Minister. Howard's problem has been that the Liberals have come to represent less and less real interests in society. It no longer even represents business, as shown by Workchoices, an annoying piece of anti-union legislation that business has little interest in. This lack of representation has been evident in the vacuum in the Liberal leadership and is the secret in Howard's' tenure, not only in that a lightweight like Costello can be considered as a serious contender but the party's inability to get rid of Howard once defeat became apparent.
When those responsible for winding up the union movement like Hawke and Keating and those great chrashers through of convention like Whitlam and Fraser join to attack Howard for being mean to unions and not adhering to Westminster tradition, it suggests things are not what they seem. There is some displacement activity going on for sure, they are blaming
Howard for things for which they are culpable. But it also reflects a clear difference between Howard and his predecessors. They all belonged to that post-Menzies project of turning the Australian state and government from a post-colonial hangover to a modern political entity that could encourage participation from home and command respect abroad. If there was one thing that isolated Howard in the years running up to taking power it was his lack of belief in that project. It was a view that was vindicated when what was supposed to be that project's coronation, the republican referendum of 1999, turned into a fiasco. Howard's problem is that he never managed to find an alternative as illustrated by his attempts to promote 'aspirational nationalism' (remember that?).
It was that key distinguishing feature of Howard's politics that he referred to in his final back-to-the-womb comments in his last debate when he talked about Australians not being ashamed of their history. Unfortunately it had little to do with who was standing at the other end of the stage. The Mandarin is a bureaucrat par excellence, not a politician. He has much less interest in the traditions of parliament than Howard, he treated the Budget ritual with disdain and turns his back on Question Time. He has little interest in the political project that so absorbed his Labor predecessors and is likely to treat issues like the republic and indigenous affairs purely on their technocratic merits. His election will mark the end of a period begun with the 'modernising' elections of 1966 and 1969. When it happens, Howard will probably be the first to appreciate that the time when opinions of former PMs were indulged is over.
Friday, 26 October 2007
They just don't give up. Having spent most of the year using the strong economy to dismiss Labor's polling lead, now the media are using the economy to explain it. The possible rise in interest rates on Cup Day is being touted as a major blow to the government's re-election. Yet why interest rates should be such an issue this election is not obvious.
Australian interest rates are low. Maybe so-so against international comparisons but certainly low by historical standards in this country. It is possible that high mortgages are exaggerating their effect but the RBA doesn't think so, which is one reason why they keep raising them.
Nor is it really Howard's broken promise that is a problem. The record low interest rates ads in 2004 only ran for a couple of days and besides, it was not how the Liberals posed the issue. It was on the basis of trust, not especially because Labor was proposing anything wrong on the economy, but because Howard translated the doubts raised over Labor's commitment to the US alliance to their handling of interest rates as a way of bringing it home.
Grattan and Shanahan get closer to the truth when they claim a Cup Day rise by the RBA will help Labor's claim that Howard has little control over the economy. It is noticeable that Rudd has made little connection between the rate rises and government policy (although Swan has come out with some stuff about productivity, maybe prepping for the debate). Certainly having a rate rise in the middle of the campaign would emphasise that lack of control, something the politically astute Treasurer has now compounded with his hysterical warning of a 'Tsunami' from the Chinese economy.
The trouble is, how long have the public worked this out? The leaked Crosby/Textor report suggested it was picked up in at least July, the Sky News focus group confirmed it a few weeks later (although ignored by the election expert they brought over from the US). Indeed, maybe that the economy is no longer a political issue is why Labor has held such a strong lead during the entire year despite the strong economy.
In fact despite the rate rises, the polling has been stable and saying the same thing all year with little indication that the voters don't mean it. It is not the government's support that has been falling away this year but the media's confidence in it's survival. What we are seeing is a re-writing of what has been going on this year that suggests that as the year progresses, more and more reasons are building why the government is on the way out. Not because of what is happening in the electorate but in the mindset of a media that is finally waking up to what has been staring them in the face all along. So we have a growing uprising over Workchoices in the electorate which seems to be building in inverse proportion to the Labor leadership's opposition to it and now every interest rate rise delivers another blow to a floundering government.
Definitely the cheekiest example is Dennis Shanahan who talks of another rate rise being a devastating blow to the government and then follows up with a piece berating Rudd for pretending that this election is losable. This is from someone who has been pushing Howard's comeback all year. The 2004 result was rewritten to become a Latham fiasco by those not wanting to think of what happens when international events impact a hollow Labor party. Wait to see the re-writing that will happen now that it's the Liberals' turn.
Wednesday, 24 October 2007
Without underestimating the Treasurer's ability to stuff it up, Labor probably has more to lose at next Tuesday's debate between Costello and Swan. No matter how many mistakes the Treasurer makes, he will at least be more associated with the strong economy than Swan.
But this is all the economic debate is really about. Those who think the management of the economy is an important factor in deciding between the parties, would have to find the economic issues over which they would be divided.
It is hard to see what they would be. In the last century there were only ever three real economic issues: union power (inflation, wages, productivity), how much to open up the national economy to the world (tariffs, currency) and how much business profits were to be centralised for the economy as a whole (government spending, tax cuts) . The first has been resolved, the second also with the deregulation of the 1970s and 1980s which in turn pretty well now decides the last one.
Rudd's me-tooism on the economy is not a tactic, it is economic reality. Neither party can create much difference over something on which they have little influence. This is the reality that has been exposed since Howard promised to keep interest rates at record lows at the last election. It is not that he is to blame for the rate rises since (or the one that could be coming) it is that no-one is to blame. He was simply making a promise that he had little influence to keep.
That lack of control is why both parties have such a preference for promises that won't come in until years away. But it is not only the long-range timing that limits their political impact, it is also the fact such promises reflect little real political difference between the parties, but seems a normal part of keeping the budget accounts. This is likely to be the last election which will see such an emphasis on pork-barrelling.
The media, still largely stuck in the past when political differences on the economy did exist between the parties (a long time ago now) are still discounting Labor's lead by the fact that they are lagging in economic management. But the coalition's current lead on economic management more just reflects their closer association with it from being in power. As Labor's turn approaches, this is likely to be the only real polling gap that closes during the campaign.
Monday, 22 October 2007
The debate looks as though it could be the circuit breaker - for Rudd. It is not so much that his performance last night was exceptional, rather that Howard threw all he had and nothing much happened. It is a sign how the government has been living in a one-sided debate bubble that Howard thought the first question he could ask was about Rudd not bringing up climate change with George Bush! The government had been going on about it before, but it was the first time it could be directly countered by Rudd in public and was easily brushed aside. He is likely to now feel much less restrained by the ritual of the campaign as he appeared to be in the nervous start to last night.
Howard failed to achieve his objectives in the debate. He did little to cheer up his own side and the media perception that the government was back in with a chance has now dissipated, especially after another bad Newspoll and we know how important they are. The debate undid any benefit he got from the start of the campaign. What a waste of $34bn.
While all the media attention has been on whether Rudd will slip up in this long campaign, it is the mood of the Liberals that is the critical factor in this election. Having played all his cards, Howard has left the party open to further demoralisation and fragmentation for what is still a long campaign left. With little to bind them as a party, there must be a great temptation for government MPs to now run off back to their electorates and fend for themselves as best they can.
Sunday, 21 October 2007
Rudd's performance in the debate tonight was solid, but there was little sign of the anti-politics panache seen occasionally from him this year, showing that he has yet to break out of the constraints of the campaign ritual.
Probably more interesting was the performance of Howard. The contrived bravura we have seen in the opening week to rally the troops fell away and he was again looking as though he was about to be unjustly dealt with by the Australian electorate.
It was notable that the two areas where he looked a bit more confident were those where he has had to recently shift to new positions, reconciliation and climate change. Both at least were fresh stances and gave the government an appearance it still had the capacity to respond to political developments. Both were a result of Howard needing to prevent Labor's agenda eroding the government's core supporter base. What a shame he didn't develop his agenda earlier as a response from a real challenge within his own party to modernise his programme. Unfortunately the only one in a position to do that was incapable of contributing anything more than some heckling for which he was told off, leaving Howard to close his final debate by going back to where he started, with a cultural war as though he was once again debating the last Labor Prime Minister all those years ago.
Saturday, 20 October 2007
This election comes at a time when Australian politics is realigning. Already this year, many of the assumptions that have underpinned politics for a long time, at least during the Howard years, have been undermined. The start of the election campaign ritual has given the appearance that we are back on old ground, but it may not last.
The source of that realignment has been the end of the old roles of the major parties. That has been evident in Labor for a while, but the difference this election is that it is now coming out with the Liberals. Labor meanwhile, has made some headway in changing itself and the Rudd/Gillard leadership has taken that further this year. Where that change appears to be going is to identify Labor more with the apparatus of government and provision of services (like the state governments) rather than represent any particular section of society. This change, which lies behind Rudd's anti-politics strategy, attacks the whole way that politics is normally conducted and it is probably what has caused Howard most trouble this year.
Howard is in danger of running into trouble with it again tomorrow. His main task in tomorrow's debate will be to rally his own side and improve party morale battered by a year of terrible polling. He may take the approach he has this week, attacking Labor on the unions and economic management and pushing the strength of the economy through tax cuts. In doing so, however, he makes himself vulnerable to Rudd's anti-politics. Already Labor's willingness to replay the Libs' attack ads shows that they are more comfortable in opposing the government's right to run attack ads than anything the government may say in them and Rudd will play up Howard's negativity. If Howard accuses Labor on me-tooism on tax cuts, Rudd will again argue against the need of old politics opposing for opposition's sake.
In short, Howard can do little than repeat the tactics of the year that have borne little success. It will be interesting to see whether Rudd also does what he has been doing all year, breaking the rules and showing that a new game is now being played. The worm, that anti-politics sign of how lowly politicians are regarded that the public can now continually talk over them, will be monitoring it all.
Friday, 19 October 2007
Anyone who remembers the worm that went through the roof every time Latham opened his mouth in the 2004 debate will doubt the importance that the debate will have on the election. Howard's insistence on an early debate this Sunday is for one reason only, for the morale of the core supporters and media who are likely to be the main ones taking notice of it. It gives Howard a chance to remind everyone why his government is wanting another term (in case they have forgotten) and having non-supporters intrude through the worm would not be helpful.
In the first week Howard has fired every shot he has, a flurry of negative ads on the main themes he will attack Labor (economy and unions) and $34bn of tax cuts. The main purpose of the first week has been to stabilise the party rather than necessarily move the polls. So it is probably more important that party supporters (and the media) think Howard has a chance than the polls moved modestly towards the government. The government was posting a 47/53 split in the Galaxy poll last June after the Therese Rein affair.
The problem for the Liberals is where to go from here. Howard is acting like this is a very short campaign rather than a very long one because the need to improve morale was urgent. Finding another $34bn of tax cuts would be difficult. Of the two themes they have attacked Labor on, probably the most effective is the one attacking the union background of Labor's front bench. This is less because unions are seen as a major influence on Labor and Rudd (Costello was right the public would be surprised at the union background of the front bench because it doesn't come through in policy). Rather it is effective because it highlights that this is a party that has lost its old role, giving it a feel that it comes from and relates to no firm base in society (a feeling also given by the government's exposure of Gillard's Socialist Forum background). Labor has avoided this by personalising its campaign around Rudd. It hasn't really got the time to do the same for the others. However, in pursuing this attack the government's problem is, as shown by Rudd's relaxed ability to refer to the government's attacks in their own advertising, sustaining such a negative campaign is difficult in an anti-politics climate.
Wednesday, 17 October 2007
The media has become as awed of the ritual of the campaign as they were of the Budget in May when Costello announced the last round of tax cuts. If they are surprised that such a major launch is announced now rather than later in the campaign when it might make more electoral sense, then it is because they under-estimate the urgency of the Liberals' morale that a strong start of a big round of tax cuts are intended to address. However if the media is taking the Liberals campaign start too much at face value, they are making the same mistake with Labor's start on Workchoices. Labor has its internal needs too.
While Labor doesn't have a demoralisation problem like the Liberals, it does have a morale problem of sorts. There are still an awful lot of Labor party members and supporters who want a return of a traditional Labor government that they are not going to get. Managing the internal needs of a party still formally organised around its old role of representing union interests has not been easy since that role was wound up during Keating's time. Fortunately, Howard wanted to keep the charade going as well, so campaigning against an anti-union measure like Workchoices has given the Labor leadership a way of managing those expectations to a degree.
There are those who have even got carried away thinking that opposition to Workchoices is why Labor is polling so well. This is despite surveys like yesterday's Newspoll and past ones like ACNielsen, as well as focus groups, suggesting, often to the surprise of the media, that industrial relations remains a low-ranking issue and Workchoices, an anti-union measure employers are hardly bothering with, being something of limited concern outside possibly Labor's core supporters.
A recent article in The Age summed up the dubious analysis which is going around to justify this view, namely slapping the timing of Workchoices' introduction on to the rise in Labor support and concluding one caused the other. Unfortunately he goes into a little too much detail on what actually happened to Labor's support over the last two years which undermines the case. It is probably fair to assume that some of the rising support Labor posted in 2005 was due to the unions effective scare campaign against Workchoices and Beazley's strong association with it. The trouble was that as it became a reality, the momentum faded (possibly because it didn't transform the industrial landscape like Labor and the unions said it would).
The campaign was double-edged for Labor. It highlighted that Howard's laws were excessively punitive on unions, but it also highlighted Labor's and Beazley's links with a union movement with fading relevance to Australian society. It also gave Howard the appearance of an agenda he didn't really have, so concealing his crucial weak spot. In fact it was that inability to deliver momentum to Labor's polling that led to the replacement of the leader associated with the union campaign against Workchoices with one who wasn't even union-sponsored.
It is also why, over 2007, Rudd and Gillard's objection to Workchoices have become less substantial and more and more distant from the unions as the year progressed. What their opposition boils down to is for awards to be set centrally through a government body to meet employers' general dislike of AWA's individual negotiation, what they are certainly not for is any return of union influence that Workchoices intended to diminish. If there are those who think that this is just to please employers rather than how they want it coming across to the electorate then they should listen to Gillard's speeches to the profession that would be carrying Labor's message to the electorate, the journalists, in two fascinating appearances at the National Press Club in May and June.
In May she first of all quoted approvingly an employer view noting the distance of the new leader from his predecessor:
Many employers will and should already be relieved that Mr Rudd’s announcements represent a more employer-friendly approach than pursued by Labor under Beazley. However, much more extraordinary was her noting the rapid decline in union membership under the last Labor government.
During [Labor's] reform period the decline in trade union membership levels averaged 5 per cent per year, compared to an annual average fall of 2 per cent under the Howard Government. Readers can make up their own minds, but it reads like a boast. June's speech followed Keating's claim that Labor were presenting their IR policies as more union-friendly than they were. Gillard then devotes almost the whole speech to setting out five reason why Rudd's government will be more anti-union than Keating's or Hawke's ever were.
This is a long campaign and at this stage both parties are addressing their internal morale problems that comes from having lost their historic role. As Howard trips off (again) to the symbolic marginal of Eden Monaro to talk about tax cuts to give an appearance of normality to his party, Rudd talks about Workchoices and goes to equally symbolic Werriwa to talk about housing affordability. As the campaign progresses it is likely Howard will stay focussed on holding onto his core supporter base, while Rudd will become more open about why he is making such inroads into it.
The voice over for the Liberal's first attack ad is good with its quiet, insinuating tone of concern. The graphics are less successful. No image really sticks as they should in an attack ad of this type. The tabloid Singleton-style used to depict the Labor team may have been effective in the 70s and 80s against the staid format of the time, but these days looks less serious and a little dated.
The dated feel comes through in the content. Is the economy still a political issue these days? The L-plate label stuck on Latham, but even that was less on economic management but ultimately on the US alliance, which the Libs later turned into an interest rate scare. There has been no real policy from Rudd to engender distrust and, as suggested by the fussy graphics, the government has not really hit home on the rest of the Labor team either. It is still hard to feel from this ad why Labor nowadays would be any different running the economy from the Liberals.
If the Liberals are struggling to make the economy a live issue, Labor is much more comfortable with the current anti-politics climate. Labor's ad dispenses with the graphics, showing just Rudd casually sitting on an office table as though taking a brief stop mid-campaign. Yet while posing as a positive ad against the Liberals' negativity, it is Rudd's anti-politics attack on the Liberals' campaigning which stands out the most. Rudd's own policies are less distinctive than the up-beat strumming that overlays them. Both ads are basically negative, Labor's seems less so because it is more in tune with the anti-politics times.
Tuesday, 16 October 2007
The new feisty John Howard on The 7.30 Report last night, compared to the steadier Rudd, highlights that Howard is the one to watch in this campaign not Rudd. Labor is changing in a way that is being largely missed by the media, but it is the state of the Liberals that is the volatile factor in the campaign as it struggles for an agenda to connect with its own supporters and cohere the party.
Howard's aggressive mode reflects that his immediate priority is rallying the core and being confrontational on the ABC never hurts for that (right to the end with his combative sign-off). Yet the tone for core supporters may not be the one for the broader electorate and several times he checked himself. However, it was definitely an improvement on his demeanour in last month's appearances when his leadership was being questioned.
Delivery aside, the interview did show the problems Howard has in making the economy central to his re-election. The question comes down to how much control the government has over the economy and how much credit it can take for it, something Rudd has translated to 'riding the Chinese boom'. Howard's claim that this was an insult to those not in the mining sector was weak, his charge that it was a negative view was better. But even if he can make it a question of stewardship, the problem is distinguishing his from Rudd. The Me-tooism not only came from Rudd last night on fiscal conservatism but Howard was also being me-too on his defensiveness over his earlier spending cuts, another core platform of Howard's agenda being put away. In focussing on the economy, Howard is running on an issue that is becoming depoliticised. He may have attitude, but the programme to rally the troops is still not there.
Back in May when the politically astute Treasurer handed down his twelfth budget, he included tax cuts totalling $31.5bn over four years. Commentators saw it as a political triumph and forcing Rudd onto the back foot. Rudd's response was to run a telly ad on his personal conservative values and talk in Parliament about something to do with putting more lathes in schools. In the end, the polls barely moved.
Part of the reason was hinted at in a Galaxy poll taken in August that showed the economic debate has changed. Over half of voters saw the budget surplus as a result of paying too much taxes while only a third saw it as a result of economic stewardship. The declining credit given to economic stewardship is a sign how the economy has been depoliticised as the major points of economic difference, over union power and government spending, have gone. Whether a budget is in surplus or not has little meaning other than tax revenues are being held back by the government (ironically, this view that tax cuts are really “your money” being given back is normally a favourite argument of conservatives). In fact there is even a negative for the coalition if Rudd's anti-politics campaign makes surpluses look insensitive against people's struggle to balance their own budgets.
The Liberal leadership is probably aware that the impact of tax cuts has changed and the latest $34bn announcement may not improve polling, even with its core voters at whom this round is aimed. However, at this early stage of the campaign it is more important to cohere the party and maintain morale than win votes. A tax cut announcement gives the campaign an appearance of normality and highlights what internally Liberals believe is one of the government's few strong points. Given that the media still generally sees this campaign as a rerun of the past and believe in the hip-pocket fallacy, they will probably help.
Monday, 15 October 2007
Australian politics is heading for a realignment and neither party is fully prepared for it. The basis of that realignment stems from when Labor ended its historical role of representing union interests during the Hawke/Keating years and so at the same time ending the Liberal's role of opposing it. The problems this has caused both parties was evident in the first half of Howard's government when both parties struggled to bring a programme to the electorate and the government itself floundered almost from day one. It was suspended from 2001 by the War on Terror which gave the government a sense of purpose but now with it fading, that realignment is coming back with a vengeance.
Howard's problem in this election is not to get people to agree to his policies but to get them to believe he has any policies at all. That is the message behind his 'Love me or loathe me' which must surely make him one of the few leaders ever to marshal those who dislike him as part of his case for re-election. Unfortunately, most voters neither love or loathe him but are indifferent, a natural response to a government that stands for nothing. Howard's call is a reminder of what a favour those 'Howard-haters' actually do him.
It is this profound policy vacuum that the Liberals are grappling with in this election. It means that the government has no policy basis to connect with what used to be its core supporters. The significance of Workchoices is not that it is turning the electorate away from Howard to the extent commentators have claimed but that it was an IR reform that business didn't even need. The balance in the workplace shifted decisively away from the unions years ago. Workchoices highlights that the Liberals no longer have anything to offer that section of society that helped create them.
As a result, the Liberals' problem in this election is not so much even the size of the swing, but the nature of it. The Liberals' support base is eroding and they no longer know who their core supporters are. It was an attempt to bolster its old core base that made them bang on about wall-to-wall Labor governments and union power. However, the first does not really work if the traditional Liberal voter nowadays has no particular problem with Labor on a state or federal level, the second scare has little basis in reality. The government's more recent U-turns on climate change and reconciliation is tacit admission that not only are these traditional scares not working, but that Labor's agenda is eating into its base.
The Liberals are less campaigning for government than their political survival. This is intensely demoralising and Howard has had to grapple with the impact this has had on the party, and his leadership, all year. When he talked of annihilation in May, at a time when Newspoll was recording the government behind even in its safe seats, it panicked, rather than galvanised, the party. This in turn undermined his authority and it is why Howard has been careful to give the impression that the government is still conducting a normal campaign over the marginals. When Howard made a big show of going to Eden-Monaro shortly after the last party-room meeting it was for the same reason he talked of some spurious internal polling showing the Liberals had a chance in this symbolic seat. It was also largely for symbolism that Howard went to Tasmania, to give the party the message that he could repeat the trick of 2004.
These symbolic gestures for party morale are in sharp contrast to the real battle that keeps being leaked to save their core seats in Sydney, Melbourne and South Australia. It is also why the pleading of backbench MPs to talk about marginal seat issues like housing affordability were ignored while the government focusses on those issues of more concern to its traditional voters.
Symbols can only do so much. Howard is struggling against a political reality his party and ministers must be well aware of, despite Howard reportedly no longer even letting his closest circle see internal polling (perhaps not surprising given that it includes that astute political operator Costello, who not only gave away the last day of sitting and the election date but also told ABC Radio “I don't think there's anything such as a safe seat any more.”) Without a party agenda on which to base a case for re-election, individual government members that aren't retiring are left to fend for themselves under their own personal appeal rather than the party.
There is no better example of all of this than Howard himself. His failure to move to a safer seat (like Beazley did before '96) shows his lack of preparedness for what has happened this year. But more importantly the increasing time he is spending campaigning for survival in his own seat rather than the survival of the government (an act of extraordinary political selfishness by a party leader that has received surprisingly little comment) shows the fragmenting of the party that goes to the very top. While most of the attention of the long campaign has gone on the pressure it will mean for Rudd, what has been forgotten is the impact a long campaign will have on the cohesion of a party, with nothing to bind it, fighting for its existence.
Saturday, 13 October 2007
What value does an apology for taking children away from their parents in 1957 have from a political class that supported an initiative in 2007 based on exactly the same assumption – namely that indigenous parents are incapable of looking after their kids? At least they weren't accusing indigenous parents fifty years ago of allowing their kids to be sexually abused.
The fact that such degradation was assumed without any convincing evidence suggests attitudes to indigenous people have not changed as much as some like to think. The disapproval of the nuns of the mission has merely been replaced by that of the visiting social worker. To read the NT report again that kicked the intervention off and its sniffy social worker disdain of mothers playing cards brings out that the problem is still seen to be the same - the behaviour of aboriginal people.
What has really changed is not the way Australian politicians feel about indigenous people but the way they feel about themselves. This is about a political class that has lost its mission and confidence in themselves and whose greatest policy failure has come back to haunt them. That is why both parties could go blithely through the 1970s and 1980s with little worry about the stolen generation and born-agains like Fraser and Chaney could largely ignore it while in government. It is only in the last fifteen years with both parties losing their political mission that the chest-beating began in earnest. That was why the release of the Bringing Them Home Report of 1997 could be treated as shocking news to politicians who seemed curiously unaware of what had been a major part of government policy from both sides of the fence.
Amongst Australian politicians there are two approaches to deal with this issue. The first is to carry on the policy of the 1970s and 1980s and not accept responsibility. This is based on the view that it would compromise the authority of the political class to be associated with it. This has been Howard's approach and is what he means by an apology not being a basis to move forward on.
The second approach is to take the hit, apologise, but to minimise the damage on the political class by spreading the blame as wide as possible to say we are all responsible. Well of course we are all not. Not just those who were not of voting age at that time, but not even all of those who were, approved of the policy and do not feel the need to defend the two major parties who did.
They will inevitably end up taking the latter approach. That erosion of confidence continues and indeed it is the lack of confidence of Howard in his own prospects and the hold on his core supporter base that has forced this latest move. But he is too bound up in the political tradition that is trying to rehabilitate itself. What is needed is someone who is so detached from the political class that he has been effectively campaigning against it all year and so put the responsibility on all of us, whether we like it or not.
Friday, 12 October 2007
After all these years, it is still hard to get the hang of this. How racially pure does an indigenous person need to be eligible for recognition under Howard's new constitutional amendment? Is it full blood or half-caste indigenous blood? Or, as they used to use in the days when they took the children away, one-quarter? Or is it a cultural thing? What about an indigenous person whose cultural activities go no further than the footy on Saturday? Whatever the criteria, indigenous people are certainly on the fast track because they will have gone from underclass to constitutionally privileged without even having to stop off at equality.
The children, however, must already be up there. The rush which both sides of the political divide over-rode the rights of NT indigenous parents this year on the back of a report full of hearsay, but empty of evidence, shows the privileged status indigenous children have in this country. Certainly protectors of white Australian children would have been prevented by the awkward need for evidence.
It is a tradition of special protection that goes way back, to the governments which the current PM proposing this new constitutional amendment fully supported in his younger years. Surprisingly, after all this special treatment, those children still have the health standards and life expectancy comparable to those raised in Calcutta. And of course we have still to await the mass arrests of child sexual abusers in the aboriginal communities that bleeding hearts like Sue Gordon and the authors of the NT report led us to expect. As far as this blog understands, after nearly a thousand medical checks of indigenous children since the report was released by these best friends of the indigenous people, only two police referrals for sexual abuse have been made and as yet they have led to no arrests.
It could be possible that the likelihood that indigenous parents would be so degraded that they would allow that sort of thing to happen to their children on such a widespread scale would be about the same likelihood of it happening in those suburbs of the cities where conditions may also not reach the standards required of a social worker. However, that would require indigenous parents to be thought of as ordinary Australians. That has never been the basis of political discourse in Australia and now that difference will get enshrined in the Constitution.
No government gets elected unless it has some basis in reality. Howard's 'practical' reconciliation tapped into the reasonable view that maybe the problem did not start with addressing some deep profound spiritual need (mainly of the political class) but maybe with providing the sort of access to basic amenities like running water, electricity and health facilities given to other Australians. Of course he never provided them but at least it countered the silliness that Labor tried tapping into as it searched for a new social base in the late Keating years. Howard is only doing this latest move because that social base is located in the Liberal heartland which is now melting away. It is fascinating to watch a government that once had a base in reality and pragmatism, slowly roll up its programme and die.
Thursday, 11 October 2007
Soft on terrorism, that was the accusation that conservatives kept liberals in check over the last six years. Labor walks right into it with a moralising position on the death penalty and the Liberals stuff it up. LAWS: Do we have any right to interfere with another country's laws?
Like most moralising, McClelland’s speech not only takes little regards of people’s views (such as the victims of terrorist outrages, ignored until it came back home to relatives of Australian victims) but is also contradictory. Australian politicians complaining about Indonesians using the death penalty for terrorists tried in a court of law must look especially strange coming from a country that is prepared to embark on two wars to deal with them (one of which Labor supports). As will be shown by wars that will inevitably involve even the death of civilians in pursuit of terrorists, there are always exceptions to a principle.
As a result, the policy could never be taken to its logical conclusion and it is the unreality of such positions that Howard used to be good at exploiting. There was still some sign of his old dangerous pragmatism with such moralising in a classic exchange with John Laws yesterday as Howard happily lived with being inconsistent:
PRIME MINISTER: Well I have argued that it's a very difficult thing to do particularly when you're dealing with citizens of another county. I assert the right to argue in relation to Australian citizens and my policy on this, my attitude on this and people can criticise me for being inconsistent and I'll have to wear that criticism, but my policy is this: I don't support the death penalty in Australia and therefore by extension if any Australian is sentenced to death overseas I will argue for remission of that sentence, but in relation to the citizens of other countries I find it very hard to argue against the application of the death penalty in particular cases. And when it comes to people who've murdered Australians there's no way I as Prime Minister or as an Australian, as an individual, that I'm going to argue that the death penalty should not be imposed. Now people think that is inconsistent, well I'll have to wear that criticism.
The danger with McClelland’s speech was that it momentarily revealed Labor’s core weakness. Labor is a party that has lost its historic role and its basis for representing the interests of a significant section of the electorate. Adrift from a real social base, its policies had reflected more the moral positions of a group of individuals like the Australian Democrats than that of a party of government. That was the truth that was glimpsed last election with Latham’s forestry stance and came back again on Monday night.
That was why the Liberals attack on Labor’s speech had some bite as it exposed Labor’s lack of touch with reality. Yet what did the Liberals then do? They spent the rest of the day highlighting the very means by which Labor is resolving that problem. Labor is a party in transformation. The Rudd/Gillard leadership is not only aiming to win the election but to transform the party in the process. Following from what has been going on in the state ALP, Labor is now identifying more with the state and the provision of services than the unions. The change in the Labor party is being driven by Rudd through the marginalisation of the unions and the factions and re-centring the party instead around a narrow cabal of the leadership. This assertion of Rudd’s control was mis-read a couple of weeks ago when he put all the front bench positions in play and the Liberals are mis-reading his slapping down of McClelland now.
When the Liberal leadership attack Rudd for being mean to McClelland what on earth point are they trying to make? It is not just the shameless bald-faced hypocrisy of Howard’s accusation that Rudd is passing blame to his staff, something that even Laws picked up regarding Howard’s conduct on children overboard and the AWB scandal. Or the laughable comparisons with the way the Liberal leadership conducts itself as Downer points out:
I have been the Foreign Minister of Australia for 11-and-a-half very happy years, and […] not on one occasion has Mr Costello or his office rung me and complained about what I've said or done, and nor has Mr Howard.Maybe Downer should wait for his biography. When Howard calls McClelland “a strong Labor man [who] fights for his cause” he is defending exactly the type of Labor party that the electorate has been rejecting for the last decade and has made a political wash-up from the 1980s like Howard look relevant. It is unlikely to be missed that much.
LAWS: Do we have any right to interfere with another country's laws?
Wednesday, 10 October 2007
Tactically, Rob McClelland’s proposal to oppose the death penalty for the Bali bombers would have to be the worst thing to have come from Labor’s campaign all year. It was so off-message that reports Rudd did not know the content of the speech could be credible.
But the hypocrisy of this is not that Australian politicians are saying one thing at home and another overseas, but that they are saying anything overseas at all. It escapes this blog what gives Australian politicians the right to go to somewhere like Indonesia and tell them that their sentence for a terrorist who blew up 38 of their own countrymen was too severe.
The only reason there is a furore here is that the same bombs also killed 88 Australians. If it is understandable that some parents of Australians killed in Bali may be upset at Labor's position, then it must also be understandable why Indonesians are even less impressed with such moralising from foreigners. McClelland’s apparent lack of diplomat's ear for such hypocrisy that would encourage him to back off, will probably disqualify him from keeping his portfolio after the election.
Having said that, the front spread of The Age on the “Me-too mess” suggests a growing frustration at Rudd’s policy positions from some quarters. A charge that had been mainly levelled by the government a few months ago at the time of the NT intervention and Haneef, is now shifting to the left (in fact the government preferred yesterday to create policy differences where none existed). It is a sign that traditional supporters of Labor who assumed Me-tooism was an electoral tactic, must be recognising that what they see now will, after the election, be what they get.
Tuesday, 9 October 2007
The trouble with the discussion over the Tamar pulp mill is that it tends to be treated too much on its own terms. There is no reason why the siting of a mill in a heavy industrial sector of the Tamar should be anything other than a local issue (if that). Instead, like most environmental issues for the last twenty years, this is really about the major parties.
Usually it’s been about Labor. Labor’s adoption of green issues since the 1970s has been about filling the void left by the decline of union radicalism. The 1983 Franklin dam issue may not have directly won votes, but it did give the Hawke government a sense of modernity to younger and middle class voters that its union links could not. As the union links became increasingly devalued with their role in the economic reforms of the late 1980s, so did such environmental issues play a greater role, but ultimately not enough to fill the gap left by the end of the role for which the party was set up.
This time it is about the Liberals. What gave a local Tasmanian issue national importance was not Bob Brown, or even Geoffrey Cousins' threat to campaign in Wentworth, but Turnbull’s response to it. His over-reaction to Cousins’ threat by calling for him to be dumped from the Telstra board created a national issue that he has only just defused by hiding behind the Chief Scientist to make the decision.
The problem is that the issue that made Turnbull over-react in the first place is still there. Turnbull is in danger of losing his seat, not because of Cousins or the pulp mill, but for the same reason Joe Hockey is in trouble in North Sydney and even safe Liberal seats in Melbourne are looking vulnerable, the Liberals are losing their core supporter base. The last survey of Newspoll reported a 12% swing away from the government in its safe seats and like Labor in the past, environmental issues are looking to be a focal point for a disaffected base.
However, it is difficult to see the Liberals adapting to it like Labor did. Labor had problems enough incorporating the two wings of union bureaucrats and environmentalists (there was especially a fault line in the state with the most unreconstructed old-style Labor party, Tasmania). This was why it was easier for Labor that the environmentalists organised outside the party even though their programme was very similar to the Labor left. It would seem especially difficult for the Liberals to reconcile the anti-growth agenda of the environmentalist with its traditional business supporter base.
If the Liberals will struggle to know how to use environmental issues, Labor probably won’t need to. The need to give a modern image to its old role with the unions becomes less necessary as the unions’ role in the party is wound up. Once again, commentators are seeing Rudd's me-tooism on the pulp mill as a tactic rather than a sign of the new Labor party that is coming to power. Environmentalism is now the language of diplomats and there is no need for Labor to pursue a local environmental agenda, so it is hard to see the Greens survive as a significant influence on national politics. Bob Brown’s swinging between threatening Labor on preferences and then trying to point out Labor is missing a chance to repeat something it did a quarter of a century ago, looks increasingly like a desperate old man clinging to the past.
Thursday, 4 October 2007
The controversy over the report on the impact of Workchoices released by the University of Sydney’s Workplace Research Centre is strange because there was a much more damning report on the government’s IR reforms by the same group a few weeks earlier that was virtually ignored by both parties.
The latest report is certainly embarrassing and it is no wonder that Hockey and Costello felt the need to attack the authors. It is an authoritative 110 page review of Australian work practices since the introduction of Workchoices in 2006 based on a sample of over 8,300 employees. It shows that AWAs are mostly used in the lower paid section of the work-force and contrary to how the government motivated them, around half involve no negotiation between the employer and employees. So it is not surprising that the study found low-skilled employees on AWAs were on a $100 a week less than those on collective agreements.
Yet the use of AWAs remains relatively low. AWAs have been around since 1996, and before Workchoices came along, covered less than 4.5% of employees. Even after more than a year after Workchoices began encouraging greater take-up of AWAs, the report estimates they still make up only 6% of employee contracts. Contrary to that implied by union advertising, over half of employees (55%) that go on to an AWA since Workchoices was introduced, have done so through changing jobs rather than being made to by an existing employers. This raises the question, given AWAs allow employers to pay less, why have they been so reluctant to use them?
Partly the answer is in the report itself, they didn’t need to. The report describes a decisive shift underway in employment contracts from union collective agreements to either non-unionised collective agreements or individual and award contracts. Several times in the report, however, the authors noted how striking it was that the employers preferred moving employees to individual and award contracts rather than AWAs (by over two times). In fact award contracts, the most popular destination (for employers) of less skilled workers, paid even lower than AWAs both on an hourly rate and per week.
In other words, even before Howard tried to make AWAs more popular with Workchoices, employers already had plenty of ways of moving employees off higher union collective agreements to less generous contracts. This mainly reflects the steady decline of the unions, which now cover only 20% of the Australian work-force. That was why, in a much more telling survey of employers' attitudes just prior to Workchoices being introduced, released by the same group a few weeks ago, it found little need for further IR reforms. Over 80% of workplaces had no union, only 3% of employers reported any industrial action and a striking 96% of Australian employers were satisfied with the industrial scene and saw no need to change IR laws at the time.
This puts the real light on Howard’s IR laws. It is not so much an attack on the unions, but an irrelevance to employers given the collapse of the unions that has already occurred. The latest report noted that over the last twenty years it seemed as each IR change was introduced it was based on less and less research on what was actually happening in the workplace. This is because as time goes on such legislation is less about industrial reform than politics – and so is the opposition to it.
As one of the authors noted, the row about Workchoices is not about industrial relations but just a means of brand identification for both parties. For Howard, Workchoices is how a government with a Senate majority it didn’t need, tried to fill the gap in its chronic policy vacuum. The current report may suggest the legislation has been vindictive to those who can least afford it, but at least the fuss makes the government look like it stands for something. But the preceding one showed that Workchoices, the government’s only idea for the last three years, is like the government itself, superfluous.
Wednesday, 3 October 2007
It is possible that Howard has been talking with Abbott for a long time about handing hospital management to local boards as he claimed yesterday. Although they must have settled on it in the last two months because there was no word of it when they took over the Mersey Hospital in August. Maybe it was just unfortunate that after all the careful planning they were pipped a day early by Rudd's announcement of a national tour of hospitals. Then again, maybe this major 30 year shift (wind-back) in national health policy was concocted some time in the last few days after the woman's miscarriage at Royal North Shore. Or is it even possible that it was hastily drawn up after Rudd's announcement the day before? A possible clue was when Abbott called it 'an important expression of the Howard government's philosophy', which for this government means policy-on-the-go.
Such policy making is what defines this government and will probably define the coming election campaign. Media interest over when the PM will call the election seems to assume that something will change when he does. Some commentators even believe that it will give the government the opportunity to roll out its strategy to claw back Labor's lead. If the government had that strategy, it would be using it now. It is inconceivable that it would be sitting on a means of pinning back Labor's lead and letting it drift to twelve points. Campaigns don't create a new momentum, they just accentuate what is already there. The government can't yet create a positive momentum because it has no policy basis on which to do so. This is probably the reason we are waiting for the campaign, the government is waiting to find something to campaign on.
But the government is not the only one with this problem. Rudd's hospital plan was also a tactical response (but an effective one) to the vulnerable position Howard left himself when he went chasing off after local hospital funding issues in Tasmania. This 'policy as tactic' is a long way from the days the two parties faced each other with a well developed platform. 'Policy as tactic' was also a feature of Labor's campaign in 2004 although the government at that time still had their position on national security and the US alliance, which they pursued relentlessly through the campaign on the issue of trust (a policy attack that seems to have been air-brushed out of Labor's history of 2004 which prefers to regard the result as a Latham aberration). This time, of course, the government has no such cover.
The parties' lack of platform also influences this question of 'campaign pressure' that has been seen as a potential threat for Labor. It might be more of a problem for the Liberals. Labor has managed the policy vacuum, much as they did in 2004, by making it personal. In the current anti-political environment, this makes it difficult for the Liberals to attack Labor without being seen to be 'smearing'. For the Liberals to adopt the personal approach is now much more difficult after the recent blow to Howard's authority over the party. As a result, with neither a personal strategy or policy agenda, the government has greater difficulty in controlling the message. Yesterday's inept escalation by Hockey and Costello of the damage caused by a Sydney Uni report on Workchoices is a case in point. Add to that a potential for a further outbreak of panic in government ranks such as we have already seen, and it is not surprising they seem in no hurry to up the tempo.
Tuesday, 2 October 2007
Anyone thinking the government will be able to make up ground during the campaign will not be encouraged by how it is handling the hospital issue. It shows everything that is wrong with its political tactics and there is no reason why that will change once the campaign starts. It started badly with its move to stop the closure of the Mersey Hospital's intensive care unit in August. For a government struggling to have a credible national agenda, stepping off the national stage to fight with the states over a local hospital funding issue was a disastrous move. Worse, it had picked a fight on no principle other than whether an intensive care unit should be kept open twenty minutes drive from another. It left it open for one of Rudd’s best moments this year as he took control with a national plan to end the political squabbling.
The hospital issue is ideal for Rudd’s anti-politics strategy. First because there is no point of real difference between the two parties. The $2bn in Rudd’s national plan amounts to no significant difference in funding priorities, so any attempt to make a political row between Labor and Liberal will have little content. On top of that, pointless political scoring is especially inappropriate for something that is a matter of life and death. Rudd’s national hospital tour consolidates his position as he listens to the problems that he can easily admit to being at both state and federal level, with a promise to get them to work together. The subtle anti-politics agenda of the tour is supplemented by a much less subtle one that the money spent every day on the government’s political advertising could be spent on hospital beds etc.
The government still doesn’t know how to respond to this type of tactic. Its plan to hand over hospital control to local boards at least looks more like a national policy than bailing out a Tasmanian hospital, although it is hard to see how a local approach that may make sense for parents of a school will reassure patients that need a hospital fitted with specialist staff and equipment.
But then this is not really about how to run a hospital. With no change in spending there is no reason why Rudd will be any better at running a hospital than the state premiers. This is more about how state and federal politicians relate to each other now that political differences between the parties on issues like this have become negligible. Just how far behind the government is on this change in political conduct was best summed up by Abbott’s idiotic attempt to blame a woman’s miscarriage in Royal North Shore on Labor, which went down like a lead balloon. It showed that despite wide expectations of a nasty campaign, in this anti-politics environment, it will be a lot harder than commentators think.
Monday, 1 October 2007
The Australian can be an enjoyable read. The ideological bent of its columnists is often more interesting than the burnt-out liberalism of the Fairfax stable that seemed to have lost its spirit somewhere in the Labor years.
It has been especially enjoyable reading The Australian this year, as like most ideologues, they get it wrong as things change. Throughout the year, they have consistently underestimated the resilience of Labor’s lead and overestimated the impact of government attempts to claw it back. As an editorial defending its view gave away in July, their reading of this year has been hampered by a constant expectation that Howard’s past will repeat itself, when any objective observer would see how conditions in 2007 are very much different from 2001/04.
Part of The Australian’s problem has been precisely what is has liked to boast about in recent months, its close political contacts. By political contacts, of course, this means mainly from the government side and here is where its problem lies. As the government loses its grip on power and therefore clarity on what is happening in the political landscape, so do some of The Australian’s political correspondents. Most notable is its chief political correspondent Dennis Shanahan, whose analysis increasingly reflects the lack of reality that comes from a government now holed up in its bunker. Expectations back in March, the Budget in May, the periodic Rudd gaffes through the year have all pointed to a recovery in the government’s polling that has not happened. It is not so much how Shanahan interprets the polls that is the problem, but that he does not seem to know what drives them.
Dennis Shanahan is hardly alone in getting things wrong. Right across the media, and the political spectrum, commentators have struggled to get to grips with this year’s developments. In 2007, all the political ‘truisms’ (and excuses) used to explain the Howard years; the power of terrorist scares, the hip-pocket nerve, the character issue, voters that don't want to vote for the same party in state and federal elections, the incumbency factor, have all turned out to be rubbish. Both left and right have tended to over-estimate the political power of Howard and his programme, and under-estimate his reliance on the international situation and an opposition that had lost its historical role.
However, while The Australian has joined others in distancing themselves from Howard, what is distinguishing commentators that have tied themselves to the Howard incumbency is their growing inability to see what is coming. This has been especially evident last week. Anyone who has listened to what Rudd has been saying and watching what he has been doing over the last year will know that we now have a very different Labor leader compared to what has gone before. It is also not hard to conclude that it also must be a very different Labor party that has chosen him to be its leader.
Just looking at the distancing from Beazley’s previous strong opposition to Workchoices over the year (despite the apparent electoral winning appeal of that opposition, according to some) and the public displays of union-bashing of Mighell and McDonald shows that relations between this first non-union sponsored leader and the unions is very different than before (Gillard’s role in this also shows how the Labor left is changing). A more important sign was last week’s declaration by Rudd to end a century of Labor practice and over-ride the factions with the appointment of his ministry, which again should come as no surprise from someone who took the unusual step of no longer attending faction meetings and over-rode the factions over his shadow bench from day one as leader.
Yet while the Fairfax press is picking this up, there is hardly any sign of this new Labor party from columnists in The Australian (with the possible exception of Matt Price but certainly not its Labor-supporting columnist Phillip Adams who seems to be waiting for the return of Gough). It is all very well for the Liberals to talk up the threat of union influence in a new Labor government as a political ploy to prop up its core support base, but to see the same view reflected by what is supposed to be the paper’s chief political correspondent shows how far removed from reality The Australian has become. The thought that unions will see a significant recovery of influence in a Rudd Labor government must be something shared only by the most deluded traditional left-wing Labor supporters (and the late-night participants of a very curious on-line poll that The Australian ran last week). To share the world outlook of such a marginalised group in Australian politics should not be a comfortable position for a paper that wants to be a journal of influence. Even if it has plans to be a voice of opposition if the Liberals lose power, the trouble with analysis like that is that it will be opposing a government that doesn’t exist.
Back in August, an article in The Australian seemed to be advising Australian political bloggers to be more like their US counterparts in gathering alternative news. Joining the conspiracy theory hysterics of the US may not be the best advice but here, in the spirit in which it was given, is some in return. The Australian might like to get a bit more touch on what changes are now underway, otherwise someone might take a break from sorting out the staff of a New York financial paper and sort out those closer to home.