Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Australian politics is in dire straits.

Nothing is going right for Julia Gillard. Tony Abbott isn't putting forward any policies, but neither is Labor. A vacuum occupies centre stage.


It's always the simple stories that work best. The continuing electoral triumphs of John Howard were, in part a product of an underlying drumbeat. His message was one of economic competence and prosperity. There was anger -- great anger in many cases -- within the broader community about many different aspects of his government. This stretched across groups as diverse as the ‘doctors wives’ of Sydney's north shore through to One Nation supporters in rural Queensland; but always there was a ticking metronome in the background, droning on relentlessly, "economic security, economic security, economic security".

In 2007 Kevin Rudd sold the Australian public on a new meta-narrative. He promised to continue that steady monotone of prosperity, but assured voters that this alone was no longer enough to secure the future. Unless climate change was dealt with, everything would be thrown into jeopardy. This became the new, overarching, imperative. But that was not all. To those uncertain about the science, he offered more. The idea of prosperity from engagement with Asia and the promise that any reductions in greenhouse gasses wouldn’t really hurt. The hip-pocket was safe. In the November of that year Rudd became only the third ALP leader since 1929 to overthrow a conservative government at the ballot box. He didn’t want to jeopardise this and so, in power, the second aspect of the agenda took precedence over doing anything about the environment.

The party lost its focus. Instead of burnishing that single idea it became distracted. It was as if Rudd thought he could ride a unicycle, play the drum, crash the cymbals and blow the horn all at the same time. As a result the leader's office concentrated on winning the media battle every day. There were a plethora of new announcements, initiatives, ideas and programs. Unfortunately, in the midst of all these offerings to the seemingly insatiable electorate, the government lost its big idea. Voters juct heard a cacophony of noise. Labor successfully guided us through the financial crisis, but everybody knew this had depended on spending the enormous surplus bequeathed by the coalition. It became increasingly evident that Rudd's commitment to global action to cut the production of greenhouse gases was a blind alley leading nowhere. At the same time Labor was conspicuously failing to offer alternative policies to mitigate the effects of drought and bushfires or floods and cyclones. The party's grand narrative had fallen apart.

On the morning that Julia Gillard took over from Rudd she gave her most inspiring speech ever. The government had become bogged down: she was promising to restore the vision that had seen it elected. But from that moment nothing went right. She too became submerged within the petty, day-to-day problems of government, seemingly unable to delegate and equally unable to bring her authority to bear in resolving problems and cutting through. No one was sure why but, no matter how well Gillard's private office was actually working, it was not allowing her to become the Prime Minister she needed to be. Every effort was being concentrated on solving the continually erupting crises of the day rather than resolving the deeper, underlying issues that confront the country. Gillard has taken a positive first step towards resolving this problem by rearranging her office. But the decision to install a new chief-of-staff will not be, in itself, enough to guarantee the government renews its focus.

Associated with this is a nagging doubt: perhaps Gillard herself does not actually believe in the problem of climate change or is not convinced that she has the right answer for it. Does she really believe the cyclone (floods and fires) are all one-off events, never to be repeated? The reason a miasma of doubt surrounds and diminishes her prime-ministership is simple. There is no overarching consistency in the government's approach. If, for example, climate change is a real and present danger (and possibly implicated in the severity of the climatic events that are increasingly buffeting the nation) why is she slashing money previously allocated to carbon abatement schemes in order to pay for the restoration of infrastructure in Queensland?

Rebuilding just risks further destruction the next time we have a once-in-a-hundred-year climatic event, which, judging by the increasing speed of the climatic cycle, will probably arrive within a decade. That's why we're witnessing the extraordinary spectacle of environmentalists joining with conservatives to oppose the tax levy. It's not the levy that is the problem (although slashing important carbon reduction schemes is). The other difficulty is that, until now, accusations have been allowed to stand that Labor’s programs have been poorly managed and squandered money.

Unless Gillard can articulate how her spending will fit in with the meta-narrative of combating climate change, she'll have a problem because the party is having considerable difficulty with another theme. During the Hawke years it established a reputation for competent management. The ideological differences between the left and right of politics were blurred as the government suggested it was essentially about management. This reputation for efficiency kept the party in power through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism and the resulting loss of ideology.

Nowadays, however, it's obvious that managerialism will not be enough to keep the party in power. When Gillard asks us to trust her to spend our money wisely voters begin to examine if the government has been effective in controlling expenditure so far. Unfortunately, the record is littered with enough questions (for example, Building the Education Revolution, indigenous housing and the pink-batt disaster) to throw into doubt the ‘line’ that Labor is a competent manager.

This is the only reason Tony Abbott has been so far successful in avoiding any serious challenges from the government. He has assiduously avoided building any case for his election. Instead he's offered a plethora of little programs that would operate on the margin. It would, however, be a major mistake for Labor to underestimate the appeal of some of these. If Abbott promises to close down the Yallourn power station (Australia's worst producer of greenhouse gases), it suddenly gives a vacuous phrase, like "direct action", real bite. If the Liberals offer real programs to deal with youth suicide (instead of meaningless platitudes about this being a second-term agenda issue) voters will look at the Labor alternative and find it badly lacking in substance.

Gillard urgently needs to find her meta-narrative. Unless she gets that basic tune right everything the government does will revert to little more than background noise.

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