Best political moment – Rudd’s censure speech 12 February
Good political moments are those when the fog suddenly clears and a shift in the balance of forces is revealed. Such a moment came on 12 February with Rudd’s censure motion over Howard’s Obama comments. In a devastating speech (once he found his notes), Rudd made clear that Howard could no longer rely on the War on Terror to hide a government with an empty agenda. At the same time he flagged to his own side that the long nightmare of being on the wrong side of international events was over and it was finally on its way back to power.
Part II, Part III
Best politician – Kevin Rudd
No surprise here. He had his off moments but when he was good in 2007, he was very good, especially when he was tapping into anti-politics sentiment that confounded Howard and caused the press gallery to under-estimate him. Gillard is runner-up for maintaining her left-wing credentials and attack on Workchoices while campaigning for the most anti-union agenda in Labor’s history.
Best political paper – The Australian
This may be a surprise given the troubles of its political correspondents but its close government ties meant it was fully involved in the confusion that descended on the right and it remained an essential read in 2007. Columnists like Overington, Albrechtsen, Milne and Shanahan all became news themselves in 2007, even if not for the best of reasons. Given their inability to keep up with the new Labor party that has taken power, keeping relevant may be a bit harder for the paper in 2008.
Best political journalist – Matt Price
This has nothing to do with his sad and untimely death but the fact that he was one of the best at keeping up with the change in political landscape in 2007 while being one of the most readable as he did so. His high point came in May when he was one of the few journalists not to believe Costello’s last budget was the circuit breaker that the rest of the press gallery did. It probably helped that he injured his leg at the time and so was temporarily out of the circus that so disorientated the rest of the press gallery in 2007.
Best political interview – Keating on Lateline 7 June
The reappearance of Keating was one sign that the days of confusion were coming to an end and in this masterly performance he at last starts laying to rest the myths of the Howard era. In exposing not only the fallacy of Howard’s economic ‘reforms’ but also the sham debate over IR and Workchoices he didn’t win friends on either side of the political class, but entertained the rest of us. Tony Jones didn’t have to do much in this one but probably a runner-up where the interviewer did the best carve-up was Kerry O’Brien’s last interview with Howard. It is fun watching Howard trying to stop it from being a valediction and defend himself as O’Brien exposes the little fraud. The winner of the worst interview category is a toss up between any interview with Rudd over the Scores episode and the Howard/Costello love-in on Today Tonight.
Part II, Part III
Best political article - ‘Mortal Fears Exposed’ Peter Hartcher SMH
This excellent piece of investigative journalism in September exposed the implosion of the leadership at a time when others were still mistaking it for a Costello challenge. By the time Downer did his big ‘revelation’ after the election, we already knew everything we needed to know.
Best political ad – Confused?
It was not a great year for political ads. A good ad should spell out what we already secretly knew, something we didn't get much of in the campaign with both parties conducting a sham IR debate. We have to go back to before the campaign for this neat ad which Labor brought out in September immediately after Howard’s retirement announcement. It was a good break from the usual boring Howard-hating ads and showed his faltering grip on power and the implication that Costello was being duped. What a shame it took two months for Labor to find a focus group to tell them to use Howard’s retirement plans again.
Best political cartoon – Howard’s farewell, Mark Cornwall Crikey
Unsurprisingly, given the Australian political class’s periodic lapses into farce, Australia’s political cartoonists are some of the best in the world. However, they were generally ham-strung by the same myths of the Howard era that hampered the journalists in 2007. This one by Cornwall hit the mark just after the election when suddenly everything became clear and Howard’s Don Bradman moment was spoiled by the rest of his party running amok on defeat.
Best political photo – Rudd and Wong, December
This is a great power photo that sums up the regime change in Canberra. The rise of Penny Wong signals that this will be a very different Labor government from what has gone before. Someone who had already made a mark as the leader of Rudd’s anti-politics attack while in opposition, she is now responsible for setting up an anti-politics agenda on a national scale using the issue of climate change.
Farewell 2007 - Comment thread open
This is the last post of 2007. Many thanks to all the e-mails, hopefully most were replied to. Back in 2008. Until then the comments thread is left open if there are any alternative thoughts on the above.
Sunday, 23 December 2007
Best political moment – Rudd’s censure speech 12 February
Friday, 21 December 2007
There used to be a time when a political party would not only want to get into government, but would also want Senate control so it could implement its program unhindered by other parties.
Well not anymore it seems. Even leaving aside whether the Labor leadership knew that making a big deal over public service cuts would sabotage its campaign to get the crucial second seat in the ACT, it seems that Senate control was not what they wanted anyway. At least going by the news that the new government has taken the highly unusual step of getting a Senator from another party, the Democrats, to scrutinise public accounts.
This is very significant. Senator Murray’s role will be to ensure the public accounts are not used for political purposes such as advertising or pork-barrelling. He will be taking away one of the most important means by which political interests are exercised, not just those of the government, but of the party groupings within it.
The government leadership is conducting a silent clampdown of political activity in the Labor party. Ministers like Gillard and Tanner are setting about removing the power of factions and reducing the influence of the party over policy and spending priorities. This clampdown is silent because neither the old left nor right-wing of the Labor party have an agenda anymore from which to oppose it.
The federal ALP is now going through what has already happened in most of the state ALP branches over the last two decades. Over that time state politics has become depoliticised and about little more than providing services. The ALP has adjusted accordingly. While in government, the parties in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia have all, in various degrees, gone from being union-based parties to union/business parties - then a crisis (State Bank collapses, WA Inc.) – and ending up as largely technocratic parties more loyal to the state than either unions or business.
In Queensland, the ALP’s late emergence into government produced a fairly technocratic government from outset, with the Mandarin playing his part. While in contrast, the long-standing Labor governments in Tasmania and NSW, the latter which saw one of the earliest successful union/business governments under Wran, are now lagging behind (although an interesting piece by Stephen Loosley suggests that the situation in NSW may be about to change with the coming battles over privatisation).
The depoliticising of state government and the entrenchment of technocratic Labor governments at both state and now federal level is the basis of the new federalism that has been on display this week. Cooperation comes from the interest all of the states have in defusing issues like health, education and indigenous affairs by letting Canberra take responsibility for it. Depoliticising state spending issues is what Rudd means by ‘ending the blame game’. The fact that such political debates now have little substance is what made that slogan so effective in the electorate.
What Canberra has at its disposal to depoliticise any spending issues, was made clear by Rudd within hours of being sworn in, is the international agenda on climate change. The ‘number one moral issue of our time’, along with scares about the international economy, can be used to over-ride any claims on spending made by sections within the federal party and eventually the states.
With barely a name change (‘Australian Labor’ rather than the ALP), Labor has undergone a change to become a very different party from what it was in the last century. There is no clearer sign of how profound is this depoliticising that it is those from the left such as Tanner, Gillard, Wong and Faulkner, who are leading it. No doubt the unions will kick back as they try to regain influence over a party they created but have now lost for good. However, it is likely to be no more effective than this year’s attempt to embarrass Rudd by leaking the voting habits of his brother to the press. They will be trying to stop a transformation that with Rudd’s ascension, is now in its final stages. It makes the new Labor government perfectly in tune with the times both here and internationally and why, less than a month after taking power, it already feels like Howard was a long, long time ago.
Thursday, 20 December 2007
Paul Sheehan becomes the latest of the right-wing Howard-Haters stampeding onto the opinion pages of the nation’s broadsheets. Sheehan goes further than most in saying it was only about Howard hanging on too long, and not about any other issue such as Workchoices, climate change or interest rates.
Let’s follow the logic of this. If the Liberals’ problems are only about Howard being in charge, now that he has gone, their problems should be over, right? Well, not quite.
Indeed, as the party instinctively knows, more clearly than its acolytes in the press, his departure has only made things worse. The revelations from Downer and Paul Kelly mostly told us what we already knew, that there was no real challenge to Howard. According to Downer, Howard was going to go in 2006, apparently, but Costello was a bit rude so Howard decided not to, neatly showing the potency of that challenge. Even when Howard placed his head on the chopping block during the APEC summit, there was still no-one capable of swinging the axe, largely because there was seen to be no acceptable alternative. With Costello now out of the picture, the absence of any alternative is staring the party in the face as they look at the leader they now have.
Where do they go from here? Despite the delusions of commentators like Sheehan, the Liberals are well aware they are in a crisis. The leaked memo from a senior Victorian Liberal claiming that the Liberals stand for nothing is a sign of the depth of morale in the party. The problem is that in finding a resolution to their problems, they do not know where to start.
Strictly speaking the Liberals have never really stood for anything. In the UK, Conservatives can at least stand for the Monarchy, the Church of England and memories of Empire. US conservatives have the Revolution and military power. Against that, Australian conservatives have a military debacle and some pacifist with a donkey. They don’t really cut the mustard.
More important for the Liberals is what they are against. Since organised labour became a political force shortly after federation, non-Labor parties, in their various guises, have defined themselves against Labor’s pro-union, pro government spending agenda on behalf of those sections of society that had an interest in opposing it. The Liberals’ problem is that Labor has now dropped that agenda and, as shown by Howard’s IR flops, business has little use for them.
Howard had this problem from the first day of government but was artificially covered after 11 September 2001. The War on Terror was a mixed blessing for the Liberals, it may have solved the problem for a while but meant they were never forced to address their policy vacuum. The only sign was their dropping out, one by one, from electability in the states across the Commonwealth, where international issues had little resonance.
The Liberals’ crisis in the states gets surprisingly little mention. It seems to be regarded as the inevitable turn in the cycle that just seems to have coincidentally gone against the Liberals everywhere at the same time. As seen in the last Queensland and NSW elections commentators are still expecting the normal cycle of post-war politics to return, but there is little sign it is. For a party that had been historically state-based, the failure of the state organisations represented a hollowing out of the party that was disguised by their continuing hold on federal government. With the passing of the War on Terror and the defeat of the Howard government, the crisis in the states has now come to Canberra and suddenly exposed a crisis that is already well developed.
In resolving their problems they will get little help from their ‘intellectuals’ if contributions in the press are any guide. For the last decade writers like Henderson and Sheehan have been lazily conducting a pseudo cultural ‘war’ against an enemy that barely existed. This may have titillated their supporters, but fighting against an agenda that Labor has already abandoned has done little to prepare them against the new party that has now taken power in Canberra.
Wednesday, 19 December 2007
Here’s a question. Why is it that five months after a child abuse scare in the Northern Territory that created such concern and led to a clampdown on the behaviour of indigenous communities, has there been so little interest in the result? Especially since after nearly a thousand medical checks there has not been a single arrest relating to child abuse.
Here’s another. How did a clear stuff up by a Queensland judge and a prosecutor, which led to the latter being stood down, so quickly turn into a discussion once again on the behaviour of indigenous parents with calls for the NT intervention to be extended and social workers to be more ready to take children from their indigenous parents?
And here’s a final one. Why is an apology for the stolen generation now on the agenda thirty years after the practice was considered unacceptable and stopped?
The trouble with indigenous affairs is that they are never really about what they are supposed to be. That is why apologies are made whether it is timely or not. It is why child abuse cases stray off from catching the perpetrators and end up on discussions about the behavioural problems of indigenous parents, permit systems and welfare programs.
Indigenous affairs are inevitably loaded because they always go to the heart of the Australian project, which is never quite sure whether it started at federation, colonisation or 50,000 years earlier with the arrival of the first indigenous population. It is a political mess and indigenous people are caught up in the middle of it.
For nearly forty years, indigenous affairs have been managed through an effective ‘two nations’ strategy organised around the concept of land rights. Its status has always wandered between being formal and informal over the years, but the ‘two nations’ and the racial thinking behind it are infused through nearly every area of Australian political and legal life. It is not just in the differential provision of services, which makes this description of funding for an indigenous community to bring it up to the normal standards of an Australian city sound like generous foreign aid. Or in the results of the federal election, which twenty years after voting was made compulsory irrespective of race still produces a turnout in Lingiari (NT) 13pts below the national average because authorities turn a blind eye to indigenous people not voting. To see it argued in the legal sphere look at the tortured logic in a submission made in January by the judge in the Aurukun case who argued for a racially different treatment to offenders.
However, the furore over the putting into practice a racially based approach to justice in the Aurukun case (that was presumably acceptable when Judge Bradley submitted it earlier in the year) shows that this compromise is now starting to unravel.
The event that has undermined this compromise was, of course, Howard’s NT intervention. But Howard could only do it because the ground was laid, ironically, by those who wanted to defend the compromise, specifically through the Wild Report that sparked the NT intervention. It is hard for this blogger to see a report that didn’t bother establishing proof of the extent of child abuse but spent the bulk of it outlining a myriad of social worker and funding initiatives, as really about little more than using child abuse cases as a tool for lobbying.
Unfortunately it went wrong. What those who tried to defend the old system in 2007 never seemed to realise was that by claiming something so horrific was happening, it undermined a system that allowed it to happen. That is why that once such claims were accepted, it made it easy for Howard to begin to dismantle the entire basis by which indigenous affairs had been conducted for the last forty years. This dismantling has been helped by the assessment, from any objective criteria, that the old regime has done little for the progress of indigenous people over that time.
Like the other regime-change project that Howard was involved in during his tenure, he found it easier to knock over a rotten regime than replace it with something more lasting. The vacuum left behind was why another example of this race-based ‘two nation’ approach in the Queensland legal system’s treatment of a rape case in Aurukun has now also provoked a wholesale review of indigenous affairs in that state.
It is not yet apparent what Rudd will do about this unstable state of affairs, but on past performance he will probably try and depoliticise it. That is why he has drafted in stalwarts from the other side of the Australian political class, such as Malcolm Fraser, to help draft an apology that Fraser failed to get around to doing in the eight years he governed the country. As Malcolm will probably admit, there is a time and place for everything.
Tuesday, 18 December 2007
It is extraordinary how much has slipped past behind the irrelevant sideshow about Workchoices and AWAs, a work contract that covered only 7% of Australian workers. This year’s pantomime of union thugs in braces and hard-nosed employers conducted on our TVs has disguised some profound changes in the industrial relations landscape, which again have been missed with yesterday’s launch of Labor’s IR agenda.
By making a fuss about AWAs, Rudd and Gillard have been able to abandon some of Labor’s, and the union movement’s, most cherished positions. It is not just that it looks like Labor will keep much of Howard's unfair dismissal provisions in tact. Nor is it that most of Howard’s restrictions on unions’ right to enter the workplace has been maintained. The right to strike is now only legal in a prescribed bargaining period for a collective agreement (so strikes against Workchoices would have been breaking the law) and only following a secret ballot, something that Labor had never supported before.
But probably the most profound indication of how much the industrial landscape has changed is Labor’s Fair Work Australia body, which is to replace the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The AIRC was the latest version of a body that has been adjudicating union-employer disputes since 1904 but which had its powers cut back by Howard. Through most of Howard’s government, the unions, and some in Labor, had wanted the powers of the AIRC to be restored, and by it, the importance of union representation.
However, the reality of the marginal role of unions nowadays makes any such representation, and its adjudication, irrelevant. When Rudd and Gillard launched the FWA in April, the Liberals claimed it was illegal because it combined the role of arbitration and enforcement in one body. They later quietly dropped that objection. Presumably because they realised that under Rudd’s IR agenda it didn’t really have a role of adjudication anymore, as with industrial action so restricted, there is not much left to adjudicate. Gillard has presented Fair Work Australia as a ‘one stop shop’ but it is probably more accurate to call it a ‘no stop shop’.
Labor’s IR agenda may not differ much in substance from Howard’s, but it does differ in its politics. Howard’s IR program was a faux Thatcherite attempt to politicise an attack on the unions. AWAs, Workchoices and his cutting back the powers of the AIRC were all designed to push unions out of the industrial landscape and give the Howard government an agenda it desperately needed. The problem was that Hawke and Keating had done most of the job and the unions were already becoming a marginal force by the time Howard took power. It was why business had little interest in AWAs when Howard brought them in 1996 and why he had little success when he tried to flog them again through Workchoices a decade later.
What Rudd and Gillard have done is not change the reality of individual contracts and restrictions on union activity, which reflect the real position of unions in Australia today, but depoliticise it. This is why they keep going on about Howard’s ‘extreme’ laws when they bring in laws that are remarkably similar (and are so slow to get rid of Howard’s). Howard left himself vulnerable to it because as his IR agenda met nobody’s needs, least of all business, it was easy to portray it as nothing more than Howard’s ‘bitchy vindictiveness’, as Keating so nicely put it.
It was also because Howard’s agenda had so little basis in reality, that despite the $30m union campaign and Labor’s uninspiring one, Workchoices never appeared as anything more than a middling issue for the electorate in Textor’s research, Fairfax focus groups, AC Nielsen and Newspoll surveys, including the one following the election. This is something that is vigorously ignored by left wing commentators who, like Howard, want to pretend that the old IR debate still has political reality, when in fact 2007 is likely to be the last time it is a serious issue. The role of Workchoices in the Labor victory has especially been mantra to those in the party who want to believe it is the one they thought they joined. Don’t worry, Rudd and Gillard will sort them out.
Monday, 17 December 2007
In review, 2007 marks the end of an era in Australian politics. The defeat of the Howard government signals that many of the rules of Australian politics over much of the last century are now redundant. It didn’t all happen in 2007, it has been building up for a decade. But several factors came together in 2007 that have brought it to the surface and is now becoming very clear with the new Rudd government:
1) the change in the international situation
For six years, Australian politics has been suspended while the War on Terror gave the Howard government an ability to have a sense of purpose, and Howard himself to appear as a conviction politician. The growing unrest over Hicks’ incarceration was a sign that the War on Terror’s domestic impact was starting to fade. The clearest sign that Howard was losing the ability to use the issue against Labor was Rudd’s ferocious censure motion over Howard’s Obama comments in February. The Haneef fiasco in August showed that the war on Terror was even losing support from sections of the state that would have been critical in imposing anti-terrorism measures in Australia.
2) the leadership crisis in the Liberal party
In hindsight, the turning point came in July 2006 when the leadership issue erupted on the revelation of McLachlan's notes claiming that Howard had promised to step down. It exposed that Costello’s challenge was a sham and effectively locked the Liberal party behind Howard until the end. Even when Howard left himself vulnerable during APEC in September and defeat was clearly imminent to the party leadership, there was still no-one capable of removing him. It exposed once and for all the political vacuum in the party that was behind Howard’s control of it. With Howard gone, that leadership crisis has not gone away but is now in the open.
3) a new leadership of the ALP
After a tortuous decade of leadership convulsion, the election of Rudd/Gillard in December showed that a new ALP was forming that would have fundamental differences from the party that bore the same name in the 20th century. From the start, Labor’s first non-union sponsored leader broke internal precedents with his no longer attending the meetings of his faction (along with Gillard) and over-rode them with the appointment of his shadow front bench and later his Ministry. He distanced himself from his predecessors association with the unions' campaign against Workchoices and made a political show of expelling trade union leaders. Most importantly, he hitched Labor firmly with the international agenda on climate change. While this transformation was obscured during the campaign, it has now accelerated after the election.
These three developments have not by themselves shaken up Australian politics, but rather have exposed the underlying trends that have been present for over decade, namely that the historical issues that dominated Australian politics over the last century, such as industrial relations, federalism, foreign policy and indigenous affairs, as well as the role of the political parties that conducted them, are either fundamentally altered or have come to an end.
Friday, 14 December 2007
The latest, slightly sophisticated version of the denial that there has been a change in government is to take Rudd’s refusal to set interim targets at Bali as a sign that he is as reluctant as Howard to go all out on the global warming agenda. On the contrary, it is a sign of how serious he is.
Something happened this week that doesn’t happen very often in Australian politics: domestic politics was opened up to the international scene. As a medium-sized power, Australia’s political scene is always heavily dependent on international developments, but it’s usually not polite to talk about it. Australia’s place in the world order and indigenous affairs are the two unmentionables in Australian politics for similar reasons, neither are that flattering for the Australian political class. Indigenous affairs are its great policy failure, and the reality of international power politics exposes how little influence the Australian political class really has.
It is a sign of how chronically desperate the coalition government was in its last days to try and use indigenous affairs to give it some credibility, it is a sign of how exhausted Labor’s historic project is that the current government looks overseas to establish its sense of purpose.
Rudd hasn’t supported the interim targets for precisely the reason he said, he is waiting for the economic assessment of the Garnaut report due next year. However, whereas for Howard deferring to an economic assessment was an excuse, for Rudd it shows that he intends to make the global warming agenda a framework within which domestic politics will be conducted going forward.
The need to meet emission targets will change the whole nature of economic debate in this country. It will change it from being about achieving maximum growth to fitting within the constraints that Garnaut sets out. In effect this caps off the way economic growth targets have changed since the recession that Keating had to have when maximising growth became subordinate to non-cyclical growth, which in turn led to the loss of control over monetary policy to the Reserve Bank under Howard and now a ceiling being placed by international climate change forums.
It will also provide a framework for the new federalism, it being fortunate that the Murray-Darling system goes through four states and so locks them into one of the few joint projects between them since federation.
There are risks in this strategy. Even the goodwill from this week did not mean Rudd was immune from the flak of what is essentially a tussle between the great powers. Unlike the War on Terror, which just involved hitching Australia to US foreign policy, the climate change agenda is highly fluid as US tries to regain lost leadership against a European agenda with China playing the wild card. Managing all of this and the politics at home, it is as well a foreign affairs bureaucrat is in charge to recognise the need to make bows to the science and have a dig at the US to keep the Europeans happy until the domestic agenda is sorted out.
What Rudd benefits from is the vacuum back home. Neither the Liberals nor his own party are likely to develop an alternative agenda to challenge him any time soon and Rudd can use the moralism of the climate change agenda to ride the vacuum. In a way this is similar to how Howard used the War on Terror, but while it had political uses it never really established itself here, as shown by the fuss around Hicks and more brutally by the rebellion of the judiciary the one time he tried to use the anti-terrorist powers. In contrast, climate change, and the austerity around it, has the potential to gain much more traction.
Thursday, 13 December 2007
When the Criminal Justice system stuffs up in dealing with the sentencing of a gang of rapists of a 10 year-old girl, who do you blame? The girl’s family, of course. The furore over the Aurukun case has now led to calls for the NT intervention to be extended into the indigenous communities of Queensland. Once again, a case of child abuse becomes not about the perpetrators but indigenous parents.
The Aurukun case looks like the muddle-headed application of justice, which may appear to be based on helping indigenous people (going by an earlier submission written by the judge in January) but is racially based and inconsistent. Surely the answer is to sentence the rapists on a basis that is racially blind and ignores the skin colour of the defendants. If The Australian’s report is correct, it might even have been helpful that the welfare authorities had listened to the warning from the girl’s family to deal with the boys that had raped her before. In fact, contrary to how it had been generally reported, the family told The Australian that they requested that the welfare authorities not send the girl back from the foster parents until it was safe to do so.
It would seem that if anyone requires intervention it is the institutions of the state that ignored the requests from the girl’s family to protect her and didn’t even bothering telling them that the rapists were being tried. Indeed, if the girl’s family is to be believed it would appear that the problem was that the views of the judge and the prosecutor came from a mis-guided belief that under-aged sex is more tolerated in the communities than it actually is. Now where could they have got that idea?
The Wild Report that kicked off the NT intervention with its claims of widespread child abuse in indigenous communities, had a similar focus on the behavioural problems of indigenous parents, instead of directly dealing with the perpetrators (both indigenous people and white miners) as would be normally be the case. That was why it never bothered compiling any proof beyond hearsay, and why after five months and nearly a thousand medical checks, there have been still no arrests for sex abuse (and the white miners were reportedly just sent home).
What the Wild Report did was to undermine the way indigenous affairs have been conducted since the 1970s. That wasn’t the intention of the authors, who actually wanted to bolster it by encouraging more funding and social worker intervention. Unfortunately, in making such lurid claims about something as horrific as systematic child abuse, it undermined the integrity of a system it had intended to support. It enabled Howard to seize on the claims to build a campaign to try and morally renew a floundering government and so blow the whole system apart.
The NT intervention undermined the old system but put nothing viable in its place. The vacuum that has been left is why the Aurukun case has gone beyond just an isolated, cack-handed example of the judicial system’s gross paternalism with indigenous people. Instead it has led to calls for the intervention to be extended and a shake up of the Queensland system as well (despite the failure of the NT intervention so far).
Rudd is under less pressure than Howard was to act, but is still facing a system that has been fatally compromised. Fortunately for now, he has the incoherent Noel Pearson, who can argue that indigenous people need to take more responsibility at the same time as claiming they can’t deal with what they already have. Pearson’s brand of intervention through his Families Commission project is something that he and Rudd have been discussing since June and Rudd will probably use this as a way to fill the gap in at least the medium term. Pearson was mouthing off about Rudd and his lack of support for the reconciliation referendum before the election, but was singing a very different tune on The 7.30 Report last night claiming Rudd was fully funding his project. That’s the good thing about technocrats, they may not have much time for political stunts, but can cough up the cash when needed.
Wednesday, 12 December 2007
Is Gerard Henderson the new Dennis Shanahan? Just as The Australian’s Chief Political Correspondent summed up the political fallacies in the run up to the election, Gerard seems to have taken over the lead after it.
His latest piece on the state of the Liberal party argues that talk of it being in crisis is overdone and that they will probably pull through. Yet his article suffers from a very basic flaw – he confuses a political crisis for its resolution. The Liberal party probably will survive until the next election, but that is precisely their problem, they have no alternative from which to create a new party. Just as the lack of alternative before the election became a leadership implosion instead of a challenge, it is quite likely that the party will continue to fragment into individuals rather than reform to a new party.
The Liberal party resembles a car that has gone over a cliff but is suspended on a ledge above the abyss. It sits precariously in an unstable stability because the next move will be even worse. This is the secret of Nelson’s leadership. When a political party becomes redundant it either has a leader that stands for what the party believes in but is unelectable (Abbott) or a leader who is more electable but doesn’t agree with his party (Turnbull). As neither are palatable alternatives, the party has ended up with one who is neither especially electable nor especially able to remember why he joined the party.
This is not a very stable position, but perhaps more so than commentators are arguing, especially if they are expecting Turnbull to take over soon. There is a strange under-estimating of the problems of a Turnbull regime that led to most commentators thinking he would be a shoe-in in the leadership ballot. They see his failure as down to technicalities, like campaigning openly through the ABC rather than what he was actually saying to Fran Kelly. The problem of a leader that sounds more like Keating than anyone from the Liberal party may not be obvious to even right-wing commentators like Pearson but would be to those in the leadership who know the importance of having something distinctive to stand for when facing their opponents in the electorate.
It was why Abbott withdrew from the leadership as a move to make sure it was Anyone But Turnbull. Who it did end up being is probably not that palatable to the senior Liberal hierarchy either, but will do until Turnbull’s support can be undermined, which is probably the ‘mentoring’ role that the old leadership is conducting in the party right now (a notable exception is Downer who seemed to be the only senior Liberal who backed Turnbull, which may have done for his chances at the President post). At a guess, it is probably the party’s right, rather than Turnbull, that Nelson needs to worry about – keep an eye on Julie Bishop.
The Liberals were helped by an election campaign that enabled them to reverse what had been unsettling the party during the year, Rudd’s dramatic inroads into their core supporter base. As a result of their focus on the party’s traditional core themes, and Labor stupidly banging on about theirs, the Liberals made sure that Labor achieved a lot of its swings in its own seats rather than the Liberal heartland. However, as Rudd re-takes control, talk of industrial relations and Workchoices has evaporated and the message is back on the core Rudd themes such as climate change that will help him regain the momentum he was making before Tim Gartrell’s really brilliant campaign lost it. As he does so, he will expose the real problem for the non-Labor parties, there is no longer a Labor party to be against.
It is the ongoing erosion of the Liberal heartland that will determine where the party goes from here. Tony Wright is probably correct that the Liberals face a potential nightmare in by-elections in the safe seats held by Costello, Ruddock et al and this could increase as Rudd reassures Liberal voters just how mis-leading Labor’s old-style election campaign really was. Poor by-election results would potentially destabilise the Nelson’s leadership and, the best fun of all, the timing is largely in the old leadership’s hands.
The problem of the Liberals’ heartland is really what the problem of Turnbull is about. While the Liberals held onto their urban heartland banging on about core values, Turnbull did even better distancing himself from them, especially on Kyoto and social issues. When Liberals look at Turnbull they see the heartland they have already lost, the ‘heart’ that Howard broke in the Republican referendum by doing no more than campaigning for a core position of the party that Menzies founded. For the Liberals to accept Turnbull as leader, it would be to openly admit that that party is over and to step off the ledge into the abyss.
Monday, 10 December 2007
Two weeks after taking power the initial restrictions on political activity in the Rudd government are in place. There are three main pillars so far to his clampdown:
1) clampdown on political behaviour
This varies from the subtle, such as sending MPs out to schools and homeless shelters, with the implicit message they are out of touch, to the less subtle banning of shareholdings by ministers as part of a sweeping code of conduct. This code of conduct is not especially in response to any major breakdown of ministerial propriety in the previous government (Santoro and Reith notwithstanding). Rather it is in response to a mood that politicians should not represent any particular interests.
Of course, this has been the basis of Australian democracy for the last century but with those sectional interests (unions/business) no longer politically relevant, parties have had to adjust. Howard, who caught the anti-political mood in 1996, had the problem that his party was unable to adjust to this need for politicians to detach themselves from sectional interests. Judging by Bishop’s cautious response to Rudd’s code, it looks to be a problem the Liberals still have.
The clampdown that has received less attention but probably with the most far-reaching implication is the way it has gone right to the top with the halting of any political entertaining at official residences. This followed the effective attack Wong made this year on Howard’s Kirribilli entertaining. It essentially makes a sin of linking the state apparatus to political interests.
2) clampdown on political spending
The severing of political parties from the functions of the state goes further with the ban on political appointments to the RBA board. Why a democratically elected politician should not be able to influence a key part of government policy, that political parties used to be elected on, is something not really discussed these days. It is just assumes that, as political parties don’t really represent any economic agenda, any fiddling with it will just be for the purposes of their re-election.
In hindsight, Costello’s moaning about Howard’s pre-election spending was feeding a growing resentment of a political practice of pork-barrelling that, again, had been a mainstay of Australian politics for a century. Howard’s switch to talking up economic threats to create fear about Labor’s spending on its political program halfway through the campaign, rebounded on Howard because as Rudd showed at the Labor launch, Labor didn’t really have a political program that demanded spending. What Labor did have was an anti-political pitch, which Rudd rammed home with his call that “this reckless spending must stop”. Ironically, this anti-politics attack on government spending was reinforced by Rudd using the coalition’s over-hyped inflation fears, which Swan has been happy to run with since.
3) the international clampdown
Almost immediately after coming to power, Rudd locked Australia into the biggest anti-politics agenda of them all, the global warming agenda. When the founder of the NGO, World Future Council, said in Bali that “political action must do justice to the scientific facts”, he neatly sums up the straight-jacket that is now being placed around national political agendas and economic policy in international forums.
This agenda is now coming home. The degree to which Australia accepts the interim emission targets will be based on how confident Rudd is on implementing that agenda in domestic politics. Garnaut’s recommendations will be an important step, but Garrett will probably also have a much more important role than commentators are now expecting in popularising it. If they are dismissing Garrett’s presence in the cabinet as token, it is because they are unaware of what Rudd will be bringing in his luggage when he comes back from Bali.
Friday, 7 December 2007
If Penny Wong is Rudd’s agent for changing relations with neighbours overseas and the states at home using the issue of climate change, Gillard is Rudd’s agent for changing the internal structure of the party, using the issue of education.
Gillard has been constantly mis-read because she represents what is new about the ALP under Rudd, but comes from a tradition that seems to be the old Labor party. This confusion has not been helped by this year’s IR pantomime of union-bashing and Workchoices bogey-men which pretended that the old left-right battles still had relevance. She also tends to receive overly personal analysis, which also totally misses the point.
Gillard’s speeches are often the most interesting on the Australian political scene and if commentators are not getting what she is about, it is certainly not because she doesn’t spell it out. Probably the first important speech she made leading to her current role, was the one she gave at the Sydney Institute on 7 March last year attacking the faction system. This was not the first time Gillard had done this, faction unity was periodically breaking down during Labor’s leadership contests while in opposition and Gillard had already called for Beazley to end his factional ties after she withdrew from the leadership race in 2005.
However, an opportunity came to ram the point home following the fiasco of Crean’s pre-selection. The end of the Socialist Left’s long held control of the Victorian branch in late 2004 resulted in the right faction not only targeting left candidates but also turning on one of their own, supposedly in payment for Crean’s flirtation with the Left in the last days of his leadership. This row within the right faction gave Gillard the opportunity to attack Beazley, not just for abandoning Crean but for pandering to factions whose roles were becoming meaningless.
Crean’s turn to the Left is almost a ritual for Labor leaders near the end of their tenure as support from the Right that put them in, ebbs away. Rudd, who is also from the Right, is highly unusual making an alliance with the left from the outset. In particular, it was his alliance with Gillard, whose Sydney Institute speech was an important factor in destabilising Beazley’s leadership, that has brought those two together on a similar agenda. The importance of Rudd’s alliance with the left is being missed. Mike Steketee is right to highlight the high number of those from the left in Rudd’s Cabinet (nine out of 20, compared to just one at the start of the last Labor government and he didn’t last a year). However, he is wrong to say it is mainly because they have become just like the right. They play a very different role. As the perennial losers of the faction system, they now have the most to gain from it ending and this brings them in line with Rudd's agenda to depoliticise government. That is why Rudd’s inner circle of Gillard, Wong and Faulkner are all from the left.
In the Sydney Institute speech, Gillard called for the party leaders to leave the factions, and her and Rudd have done so. By taking away the factions’ power to pick the Ministry and choose candidates, Rudd and Gillard now want to end the faction system throughout the party. This is also why Gillard has taken the industrial relations and education portfolios.
At the core of the faction system is the representation of the unions. Gillard has said she doesn’t want to end the unions’ role in the Labor party. However, by attacking the faction system she is cutting off their means of exercising their power and her portfolio gives her the political means to do so. Anyone who bothers reading her speeches, such as the two she gave to the National Press Club in May and June, will see that Gillard has little time for the union movement. In May’s speech she boasted how quickly they declined in the last Labor government (faster than during Howard) and in June she set out why the next Labor government would be more anti-union than the last. Essentially Labor’s IR policy is not to see the return of union negotiation but to replace it with a state-run body, the Fair Work Australia authority, to set awards and conditions. Vagueness over unfair dismissal and the leadership’s commitment to individual contracts suggests that the repeal of Workchoices will give little comfort to the union movement. The $30m advertising campaign they spent to buy influence with Labor’s campaign will do them little good.
It is so as to set the political ground for Labor to move beyond the unions, which is why the leadership is focussed on education. Commentators like Brian Toohey have rightly noted that Rudd’s Education Revolution may be full of high profile gestures like a computer for every school-kid, but it is highly under-funded. After talking about how far Australia lags the world in education spending, as yet Labor has set out no plans to get anywhere near bridging the gap. Indeed by the end of the campaign the message was more to put a straight-jacket on any spending.
However, that does not mean that Rudd’s education rhetoric is empty. Education and re-training always has a double edge in industrial relations that is rarely commented on. In industries in decline, re-training and re-skilling are often posed as alternatives to, and to undermine, unions defending jobs. Education also links to a topic that used to be highly sensitive for unions fighting wage claims, productivity. It is a sign of how union influence has declined that Gillard can now openly boast that's what her portfolio is about. As an aspirational alternative to the union movement, it is why education has been made such a big deal of by Third Way leaders like Blair and Clinton.
Education is about individual, or family, aspiration than the collective of the union and this focus on the individual leads to the third part of Gillard’s portfolio that will lay the ground for Labor life after the unions, social exclusion. She goes through this fairly thoroughly in another Sydney Institute speech in July. Social exclusion seems to be about fairly non-controversial issues like the homeless shelters that Rudd told his MPs to go and visit. But there are some loaded assumptions behind it. As Gillard noted in her speech, it is about people who are left out when economic times are good. For this to happen, it usually because of behavioural problems either of those excluded, or of others (e.g. racism). In the UK and the US, this has often led to some rather intrusive legislation. It will be interesting to see whether this happens here.
Rudd has rapidly set up the people to carry on the ALP’s transformation that was indicated at his first party conference in May; the decline of the factions, the erosion of union influence and the internationalisation of the ALP. This latter one could be the most troublesome going forward. Australian politicians are usually wary of being seen as too directly dependent on international events. Relying on something they have little control of can be risky for a political class that struggles to get authority in the best of times. This is the potential flaw in what Rudd is setting up and will come through more with his relations with Gillard than anyone else. Just as the state of Hawke and Keating's relations exposed when Labor’s last reform program was exhausted, the Rudd/Gillard partnership will be the one to watch.
Wednesday, 5 December 2007
Commentators are seriously missing the point over the reallocation of climate change responsibilities away from Garrett. The trouble is that they are taking too much notice of Labor’s uninspiring campaign, which had more to do with the past than the government now taking shape. This is less about Garrett’s performance in the campaign but the emergence of the real role of climate change in Rudd’s agenda that was obscured by the campaign.
As Rudd has signalled in an interview with the SMH, climate change is now to form the basis of Australia’s position in international affairs and largely take the place that the War on Terror has occupied since 2001. Global warming will not only be the language of Australian diplomats in international forums, but also increasingly with the US as Rudd begins adapting to the changes in the political order to replace Bush (whether Democrat or Republican). It will also form a more successful basis for Australia’s regional policy in Asia than anti-terrorism.
However, as Howard tried to do with terrorism, this international agenda is now being brought back home to shape domestic politics. Nobody likes to talk about it in Australian politics, but the domestic agenda is heavily reliant on international developments. It has been airbrushed out, but trust over national security formed a major part of Howard’s re-election case in 2001 and 2004. However, in reality anti-terrorism never became as a major component as it did in the US or the UK and, as shown by the Haneef fiasco, had definitely lost its power this year, which was why Howard’s policy vacuum became exposed.
Climate change is likely to prove a much more important influence in Australian politics. As already seen by the way issues like water infrastructure and rural aid are discussed through the prism of global warming, it is now influencing even key areas of government policy and expenditure. In the discussion around the Murray, for example, climate change will also have an influence of the future shape of federalism.
Because climate change raises fundamental questions about the nature of growth it will inevitably impact economic debate. As shown by the campaign, and Howard’s loss, the old debate of economic management has been drained of meaning with the declining importance of industrial relations and the globalisation of the economy. Climate change provides a new framework for that debate and reinforces the global constraints of growth. The dependence of the domestic economy on climate change will become more explicit early next year when Ross Garnaut presents his report on the economic measures needed to meet Labor’s emission targets.
Garnaut’s recommendations will tighten the straight-jacket in which Rudd has already put the economic debate with over-done inflation fears. It will make economic management less about the goals of a sovereign government and more about fitting inside constraints over which it has no control. Wayne Swan’s taking up of any questions for Penny Wong in the HofR may take the limelight off Peter Garrett, but Swan himself will be answering increasingly important economic questions which are now come under the Senator’s portfolio. Ministers will have to adjust to the way that foreign affairs and the economy will be influenced by Rudd and Wong’s climate change agenda.
As the global climate change agenda takes shape as a domestic programme, the restraint and austerity it will inevitably entail will require the cool and progressive makeover that only rock stars can give. If anyone should be worried it is Wayne Swan and Stephen Smith who could find the power of their traditional plum jobs of Treasurer and Foreign Minister become eroded as the importance of Penny Wong's role becomes clear. Don’t worry about Garrett, he might have plenty to do soon.
Tuesday, 4 December 2007
Just over one week on, a cute game has broken out in some corners of Australian politics and commentary. Those who spent most of the year denying that a change of government was coming are now starting to deny one has happened.
Gerard Henderson who enigmatically predicted that the polls would prove to be wrong (not really) shows the way the game is played. It usually starts with a bit of Howard-bashing. Since the election, Henderson has been leading the new breed of Howard haters from the Right who argue that it is all because the old man hung around too long. It wasn’t really new policies the public wanted, just Rudd’s fresh face.
Former senior Liberals have also been trying this one on, although the politically astute former Treasurer managed to stuff it up on Friday's Lateline, which is surprising given that you would have supposed he'd have given this particular issue a bit of thought. Costello got caught up in this revealing exchange:
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Rudd’s] immediate success in the polls must have been something that galvanised your thinking. Was that part of why you were arguing forcefully with your colleagues for generational change? Because the people the polls clearly liked him first off and that didn't change. Did that start to spook you?Hang on, when did Beazley become fresh? Beazley and his ‘black hole’ typified the legacy of the Keating government that Labor could not move beyond. Costello had to make up Beazley’s freshness because, in blaming the Liberal party for not accepting his, he had to pretend that that was the reason he argued for a new leader.
PETER COSTELLO: I actually think, Virginia, if you look at the polls, Labor was getting a lead even under Beazley. Labor was in front under Beazley. When Rudd was elected, I think it confirmed that trend. My view is that from some time late last year, a substantial proportion of people had decided they wanted a fresh government or a fresh face at the top of the government and really nothing we said after that cut through.
Of course this is not what actually happened. Costello didn’t make a pitch because he thought the government was in trouble from Beazley freshness, nobody at that time did (least of all Labor, which is why they dumped him). Costello simply thought he had been promised the leadership and it was his turn to have a go. The trouble is that he had no alternative to Howard, other than his fresher age, so it was barely a pitch at all. It was also why when it was clear this year that the government was in trouble, the Liberals were paralysed to do anything about it.
It is this profound policy vacuum that the Liberals still cannot see, even now when they have a leader who can’t seem to remember why he left Labor to join the Liberal party, narrowly beating someone who doesn’t even sound as though he is in it (as usual the Nationals descend even further with a deputy who really isn’t in the party!). Policy emptiness has been a feature of the Howard government since the beginning, nicely brought out in a Channel 9 review of the Howard years which noted how Howard even needed the GST to fill the hole. A hole that persisted until the leader of a hapless Australian government saw the transformation in a hapless US government when visiting it on 11 September 2001.
If the Liberals have trouble coming to terms with the vacuum that existed through the life of the Howard government, it must be especially tough for right-wing intellectuals like Henderson who have made a career out of conducting a faux cultural war with left-wing straw men over the last decade, which for Henderson has now even descended to getting huffy with those criticising the dead of the 1914-1918 War.
The Liberals’ policy vacuum is the main reason for the government’s defeat; it is why Howard’s age finally became an issue but also why he wasn’t that unpopular. It meant even Beazley could have possibly won, certainly Labor’s election campaign looked like his (by the way, it is strange the way people keep going on about how really brilliant Labor’s campaign was, it must be one of the few really brilliant campaigns where the party lost support through it).
However, while the right’s policy vacuum is not being recognised, there is an additional factor which commentators are even more struggling to acknowledge. It is where Rudd made the difference and what makes the change of government highly significant. It was submerged through the campaign but is now coming out as Rudd takes power – anti-politics. His latest example of sending MPs out to schools and the homeless is classic Rudd. Never mind that MPs must visit schools about as many times as Rudd did himself in the last month, nor that it will be only schools in Labor seats that the government will get informed about, nor even that there might be a whole bureaucratic army of inspectors whose job is precisely to inform MPs what is happening. The political message is clear, and probably appreciated by the electorate, politicians are out of touch and need to get out into the ‘real’ world.
Labor has spent a decade in opposition getting used to a policy vacuum, which the Liberals are now just starting to face, and Rudd is the culmination of that process. He is now starting to sweep away the structures of the party that have been in place since its inception and creating a new party that is no longer representing specific social interests but more identifying with the state itself. Despite the unprecedented nature of the Labor government that is now taking shape there cannot have been a Labor government with less discussion about what it will be like. All the attention has been focussed on getting Howard out. Keating summed it up when he said he wasn’t happy about the election result, just relieved at the end of Howard’s ‘toxicity’. Henderson is wrong that the expectations of Labor supporters are high in the Rudd government; some of them seem barely able to look at it.