A key focus of my PhD is on the topic of middle powers, so over a few topics I want to explore the concept and how it relates to Australia.
The concept of ‘middle power’ countries is as old as the middle ages, yet there still arn’t any clear definitions other than playing on the concept of ‘middle’ as in not great and not small. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the term was made popular by both academics and politicians. Academics noted that middle could refer to economic/population size, geographic size or location (such as position between two great powers). Another option was the slightly tautological choice of those countries who didn’t have the physical resources to demand leadership yet still managed to insert themselves into international affairs as significant players (tautological because its a self-selected role, with no clear requirements).
Australia, (along with canada, brazil, israel and india) has been consistently identified as a middle power, going back as far as the 1940’s. The Hawke/Keating government strongly endorsed such an idea. Being a middle power to them seemed to express a significance of power to Australia that could be achieved in spite of our lack of economic/military/material power. The Howard government ridiculed this approach and whilst occasionally using the term sought out slight synonyms such as a “considerable power” whose status as 6th largest in land mass makes us important. But this was a minor debate, largely ignored and inspired by a petty anti-intellectual attack of the howard government on the Keating government’s foundations.
Yet such sideline intellectual spats have a real-world significance. The Rudd government has picked up the term in its documents and self-identification, and scholars have respond. Scholarship on the term middle powers peaked in the early 1990s and has largely ceased since 2000. (save Ping 2004 on south east asia). What’s more while the politicians don’t read such papers, their advisors and the media occasionally do, leading to language such as Tony Abbott’s last week:
Mr Abbott attacked Mr Rudd’s belief he may have been able to influence the outcome of an agreement struck at Copenhagen. ”I think that it was always a great conceit to think that Australia could save the world on its own,” he said.
”The Australian voice should be heard in the world but I think it’s wrong for people like Mr Rudd to imagine that they can be much more than the mouse that roared.”
This is a logical outcome of the Howard Governments abandonment of the term middle power. Yet instead of it leading to a ‘realist’ assessment of Australia’s status, in the hands of Abbott, it seems a requirement to cower and hide our laurels. That Australia ought to recognise and keep to its place in the world in a ‘mouse’ like response to the giants wandering above. Such sentiments are similarly found out on the libertarian fringes of the Aus blogosphere over at catalaxyfiles:
Our Prime Minister has returned from Copenhagen, triumphant in having performed his role as Friend of the Chair at COP15 to almost universal acclaim… Admittedly, the Conference achieved nothing much of substance but we know that the Prime Minister will have done his duty with distinction. Without him it would probably have achieved nothing at all…..
Remember when the Keating government produced a series of policy pronouncements called things like “Working Nation” and “Creative Nation”? My guess is that the Prime Minister might be motivated to add to these with “Good Nation”: a plan to make our country Good, in fact to become the Goodest nation in the world. He will have been inspired by the feeling he got in Copenhagen when a grateful meeting greeted his arrival with a standing ovation: “You are the only one who can rescue this” they cried.
Yet both these responses beg the question : What is the alternative?
Take Copenhagen. It certainly didn’t deliver the response which Australia wanted. But take a look at those countries who were in the final critical meeting: USA, China, India, Brazil, South Africa. Of these countries, only South Africa has a lower GDP, and that liut excludes 10 countries with bigger economies than Australia (and thats including all EU countries as one). So what should Rudd have done instead ? Reticence? Apathy? Denialism (as some of Abbott’s colleagues would have us do) Though he has not the courage nor conviction to take a clear stand on the issue.
What other approach than Rudd’s creative middle power diplomacy would have earned Australia a significant role at the Copenhagen conference? We may not have been at the final meeting, but Rudd and Wong had significant roles both before (as close advisors to US president Barack Obama) and at the conference as friends of the chair and leaders of a country respected for its actions on combating climate change.
Wait. I tell a lie. Had Australia passed its CPRS legislation it would have been a developed country who had committed to wear the economic cost to ensure protection of the environment, yet instead thanks to Abbott’s reticence, the critical bargaining chip that Australia had to play: our ideological commitment was denied to the rudd government for nothing more than a short term partisan black eye by the opposition.
While Downer in 2003 tried to claim that labor was an isolationist party that undermined Australian strength with it’s label of middle power, it’s the conservatives who more often seem to underestimate the position and power of this country. While the support for the USA as a great protector is straight out of a realist IR theory playbook, the unwillingness to challenge any elements within the relationship, and the general reticence or interest in international affairs is a common feature of conservatives in Australia. It was not until the events of East Timor that the Howard Government gained the self-confidence to seriously engage with the Asia-Pacific. It’s first years were halting and unsure, a far cry from the end of the Keating years under Evans, and even Rudd’s confident first term. Realism as a theory of International relations plays a critical role in ensuring countries protect their own survival first, but its rigid hierarchies can lead to countries forgoing opportunities for increasing their wealth or status, roles that can eventually increase their chance of survival.
None of this proves the worth of a middle power concept or a country taking on such a role. But it is a worthwhile starting point noting that the main criticisms of the concept of ‘middle power’ countries are either based around (consciously or not)denigrating the country as a ‘mouse’ in world affairs -whilst denying it useful bargaining chips-, or attacks that simply to mock the idea that anything but powerful a-moral strategies can work in international politics. They are shallow and partisan, and none actually engage the real question of how much influence a country like Australia an have in world affairs.
Next week, I want to engage the views of serious academic commentators such as Hugh White and others on the topic of Middle powers, but given this is Boxing day, it seems a fitting time to throw the first punch in rejuvenating the concept at an academic and public level.
I’m going offline for a week to detox after a hectic year of writing PHD chapters and blogging. Thank you to all who have visited and read my site or posted comments.
Have a very merry christmas, and full service will resume in the new year.
From Talk Left:
I knew that his policy positions were like Hillary Clinton’s (or any mainstream Dem, as Kos puts it). But I thought, despite my disagreements with his political style, that the historic opportunity he was presented coupled with his immense political talent would lead him to become our FDR…
It seems pretty clear that I was wrong. Apparently, I was the only one. Everyone else knew what they were getting — small bore, incrementalist, Beltway centrism. Of course this is “better than Bush.” But I thought we would get something bigger and better. Yes, I am pretty darn disappointed.
While some such as Andrew Sullivans understudy Patrick Appel calls it a ‘quote from the cocoon’, I still think the analogy is pretty apt. For all the talk of a new camelot in the white house (Ie JFK only less womanising), FDR has always seemed a more potential analogy to Obama. Neither was a close fit to their base, yet immense political skills and historic times allowed them significant achievements. Their skills as strategists and writers also parallel at heights that Kennedy and Clinton’s don’t reach.
But perhaps the most interesting US political event of 2009 has not been the astoundingly dumb way health care has been debated, nor the tea baggers (or that they choose to call themselves tea baggers), but the lefts rapid desertion of Obama.
9/11 obviously throws things off, but the Republican party and voters largely stuck to Bush throughout his time in office. It was only from 2006 onwards that you had enough voters shift that the republicans faced any real electoral losses, and even by 2008 when independents and democrats couldn’t stand him, a majority of the right still supported Bush.
Yet Obama for all that he has achieved has been deserted by many on the left. That is despite overseeing a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, beginning to close Gitmo and transfer to traditional legal prosecutions, a successful stimulus package, and coming closer than even FDR on meaningful healthcare reform (the public option is dead but something will still be passed).
Of course, left wingers like everyone else have jobs and mortgages and are suffering in a sluggish American economy, but and some changes like Dont Ask Dont Tell and full exposure on Torture have gone begging with no good justification. Yet after the rigid party discipline of the Clinton and Bush years, a style of politics we are very used to in Australia (Rudd’s support ratings amongst ALP voters has barely moved in 2 years, and Howard’s even longer), it is significant how little the bond holds for Obama and the Left.
In part this is because I think many misread him. Yes this could mean the conservatives were right that some saw Obama as ‘the one’, but more likely they thought that he could convince congress just as he had convinced them. There was also a general policy ignorance that let many think his proposals were more liberal than centrist, which closer watchers wouldn’t have thought so. Bush had the same issue (being not as far-right as many boosters thought), but he included enough lines to appease the base that they thought they were getting what they wanted, something the more cerebral Obama has always been very reluctant to do.
The depression on the left also says much about the post 1960’s left’s inherent pessimism and at times infuriating lack of courage in their convictions. Obama consistently said during the campaign that this would be a long slow, tough process, yet after one year of pretty significant successes (though health care is what really matters), many have like the blogger quoted at the top simply given up. Which in turn weakens Obama, in turn reducing their support for him.
I also think its easy to over-read the electoral significance of this shift. When health care is passed, the economy picks up, and Obama hits the road again to campaign both for congressional elections next year and his own re-election in 2012, we can be sure that much of the enthusiasm will return. Secondly, there are still signs that the Organising for America organisation, (ie the volunteers who put Obama in the White House) are still in good shape and keen to get involved again. Obama when campaigning will return the energy many feel has been lost while Obama has been governing.
But it may also indicate a significant shift in the left more long term. Even though they have just taken power for at least 4, perhaps 8 years, the lack of a clear agenda other than fixing the Bush era mess, and bringing America into the 21st century (ie accepting globalisations changed their industries, fixing health/welfare to similar standards to the rest of the developed world), the Left lacks a clear agenda. And so when the individuals at the top get in trouble, it is all too easy to fracture and bitterly divide.
Until liberal/left/centre-left wing politicians, thinkers and writers, begin to coalesce around a clear vision of what society should be, then even the most skilled of smart, pragmatic politicians like Obama are going to have a very tough time keeping the group together. Rudd has only escaped it in part because of a weak opposition but now that the euphoria of victory is slipping away, the left is faced with the same question it was 2 years ago : What do we really stand for? Ie: What should society look for? What are the top 5, top 3 principles we want to see embodied in society? What changes are impossible now but should be advocated for eventual implementation? What does the good society look like?
You can still win elections without answering that fully as Obama and Rudd show (both ran as people to fix the current problems in a pragmatic way), but you’ll struggle to keep the energy and enthusiasm going long term. That vision of a better society was what led the conservatives both in and out of government to dominate politics in the Anglo-sphere for the last 30 years. If the Left wants to do similar it has to do more than just win elections, it needs to return to the books and decide just what it truly wants to use political power for.
Otherwise this is going to be a very short and rather forgettable decade of left wing power.
Tomorrow, December 15th, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will be in Japan with his counterpart to launch the new report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament(ICNND). Co-Chaired by Former Keating Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, this report is Rudd’s first (and perhaps biggest) shot at making Australia a key player in ending the proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and planning for their eventual disarmament.
Once the report is out, I’ll do an assessment of Rudd’s approach, but for the time being I want to quickly look at the Hawke and Keating Governments actions on Nuclear Weapons and how they should inform Rudd’s actions.
While the Hawke Government was significantly concerned about the issue of nuclear weapons, it’s power to achieve any change during the cold war was obviously limited (Although this was a period of significant disarmament successes). Instead it set about addressing issues like Chemical Weapons, via a range of non-politicised conferences and workshops, building a coalition of major chemical exporting states, and extensive engagement with expert advisors who could both run the education campaigns, and bring the chemical industry onside for aiding negotiations and export controls. The Hawke Government also managed to sign the Treaty of Rarotonga, or South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, an approach that has been replicated in Asia, Africa and Central-Asia. Interestingly domestic concern over nuclear weapons peaked during this period (such as the Nuclear Disarmament Party lead by future ALP minister Peter Garrett), however it was largely dismissed by the Government who wanted to continue supporting Americas nuclear shield and related alliance issues.
The Keating Government came to power with the end of the Cold War imminent, unleashing ‘unprecedented and possibly unrepeatable opportunity’ for change in the eyes of Paul Keating. It continued the Hawke governments desire for Australian involvement in stopping the flow of nuclear weapons and disarmament, however there was a more conscious question of identity involved in the governments actions. Keating & Evans wanted Australia to ‘be and be seen to be a good international citizen’, and no cause was more clearly in line with this than preventing the development, testing, sale or use of nuclear weapons. However in 1995 when the French announced a series of Atomic Tests at Mururoa Atoll in the pacific the government suddenly had to make good on its nice sounding words. The actions of the French outraged the Australian population, and little the government did seemed to satisfy the public. In part prompted by recent events, the Keating Government set up the Canberra Commission to report on the elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which the Coalition reluctantly pledged to support if they won office.
While waiting for the report, the Keating Government also participated in an International Court of Justice case on the legality of Nuclear weapons. Represented by Foreign Minister Gareth Evans Q.C, Australia argued that it is ‘illegal not only to use or threaten use of nuclear weapons, but to acquire, develop, test or possess them’. (Evans however, like Hawke before him was careful to argue that any views Australia had should not be taken as offering commentary on the alliance with the nuclear armed USA). The court was not quite persuaded, and in a split decision held that ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law’. However they could not rule on the legality of their use as a tool of survival or self-defense. Little was expected from the case (the Nuclear Weapons powers states would ignore even a unanimous decision against them), but it showed the range of arenas in which the government was willing to act to push their case.
The voters had other issues on their mind and in March 1996 Keating and Evan’s were tossed from office, and the Canberra Commission report emerged into the arms of a very reluctant step-father. The new foreign minister Alexander Downer went through the motions launching the report and taking it to the Convention on Disarmament in 1997, but without strong Australian backing, it was hard for other countries to get excited.
However – The Canberra Commission report of 1996 is still one of the pre-eminent documents on addressing the question of nuclear weapons ever produced. In the coming years it received strong support from India, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Austria, Sweden and Brazil. To the Nuclear Weapons states, it offered a pragmatic and sensible recognition of their core security needs, to the non-nuclear weapons states it offered a clear draft with viable steps for taking action. The Canberra Commission centered around three main proposals: a cut-off convention; no-first-use agreements; and support for nuclear weapons free zones. Unfortunately without any significant Australian government support the effort spluttered out of energy, and the Clinton Administration, having previously embraced the new found optimism of the post-cold war period was distracted by domestic issues. Still, a look at any of the major commentary on nuclear weapon control and disarmament will show you finger prints of the Canberra commission.
Finally, while the Howard Government effectively ignored their predecessors efforts to eliminate or even reduce nuclear weapons (except in the case of nuclear terrorism), they did recognise one asset in the effort which this country has above all others: Uranium deposits. While Labors internal debate prevents any real use of this resource (even under Rudd), the Howard government realised the role which Australia as a leading world supplier of Uranium could play in both controlling and influencing the way in which nuclear weapons and nuclear power was developed in the world. While still early days, (even they ran into significant domestic complaint), this is an asset which gives Australia a unique strength amongst the many other middle power countries who want to see an end to nuclear weapons. As yet, we have not had either an opportunity to exploit this resource diplomatically, or a government with enough popular support in the area to do so, but it remains a valuable potential.
In re-starting Australia’s efforts towards nuclear disarmament, Rudd showed his strong desire to learn from the Hawke-Keating governments in choosing Gareth Evans to Co-Chair the commission (along with Japans former foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi). But as this quick survey shows, it needs to go beyond just Evans. Having studied some of this for a chapter in my PhD, it seems clear that the following requirements of Australia’s promotional effort will have to be in place:
1) The report has to be pragmatic and offer concrete suggestions.
2) It has to bring both Nuclear and Non-Nuclear weapons states along and recognise the different needs of both.
3) The further it can be de-politicised the better. Involving experts (again linked to suggestion 1) is critical to credibility and making it an issue of management and specifics, rather than grand empty principles.
4) The continued activity of the Australian government to push this will be critical. While few doubt the energy of Rudd 24/7, this is something where he may,perhaps, just, see initial results for in his final term. Continued pressure rather than once off launches are key (and why is it being launched during Copenhagen & at the end of the year??)
5) The Labor party will need to resolve division on uranium and seek ways to strategically exploit this resource, or at least let other countries know we could.
6) The US alliance and nuclear shield for Australia somewhat demonstrates Australia’s hypocrisy, however, and this is a big however, our clear understanding of the security needs of nuclear weapons states gives us an increased credibility. Important to all this will be the views and actions of Barack Obama and perhaps even moreso the US Congress. Obama gave a great speech in Prague, but unless he can convince skeptical conservative democrats like Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and sees changes to the destructive minority veto of the filibuster, all his support in the world wont see political change. Australia needs to stay in the alliance, and ahead of the US helping to guide its path along, without getting so far away that Obama can’t see our lights.
So, cautiously, we can say that Australia already has a strong reputation as a country that is both serious and committed to address the proliferation and disarmament of nuclear weapons. A serious effort by Rudd, building on this success could return momentum to a path that stalled in the 1980’s & 1990’s. To do that, we need to lead with experts rather than politicians, be relentlessly pragmatic, and maintain a determination to keep at it for as long as it takes.
Later in the week, once i’ve digested the new ICNND report, I’ll come back and discuss how Rudd’s doing on that score.
There is a tendency when it comes to political rhetoric to always go nuclear. To deploy the most strident, attacking, and damaging language you can to label an opponents position or policy. And no word has more power today than ‘Tax’.
Case-in-point: In the US 2008 election, the Republicans attacked Obama for ‘palling around with terrorists’ and saw no electoral traction. Yet when they caught him saying he wanted to ‘spread the wealth’ to Joe the Plumber, their spirits soared. It didn’t help their cause that Obama had a tax cut for about 95% of the country, yet McCain still devoted almost the entire second Presidential debate to claiming Obama wanted to raise people’s taxes, causing a few wobbles from Obama’s campaign.
While there was certainly a strong case for Tax Cuts in the 80’s & 90s, today when there isn’t much fat left on the revenue side of the budget, the social stigma applied to the word is impeding our political debate. Of course this criticism has been mounted before by social democrats who want to spend more on infrastructure or key social services, but it’s also damaging the way Liberals and Conservatives develop their policies too.
A few months ago when The Nationals were the only party against the ETS in principle, Barnaby Joyce took the obvious rhetorical step of calling it an ‘Emissions Tax Scheme’ (clever guy huh). As the vote got closer, he increased the volume calling it a ‘massive tax on everything’. A theme picked up by a number of other opponents of the scheme, and instantly adopted by Tony Abbott when he took over as Coalition leader and defeated the Governments’ policy. This was not the only rhetorical attack on offer against the governments CPRS (it could also be called complex, confusing, ineffective, counter-productive, special-interest laden, bureaucratic etc etc) however “Tax” was the leading punch. To Abbott’s reckoning he had given the Government a black eye (a defeated policy), a cruel new nickname (big taxer) and was now the hero who had saved the people from a major tax. Only, and annoying for him, the people still want something to be done. However, nothing that looks or sounds like a tax can possibly be advocated by the Coalition, leaving very few options available.
If Abbott had avoided dropping the Tax bomb on the governments scheme (and he did not need to do so to have it voted down the bill) he could have offered a much simpler and attractive scheme: A Carbon Tax.
By Jeremy Hansen in the NYT (Who Paul Krugman calls “a great climate scientist. …the first to warn about the climate crisis”)
‘Under this approach, a gradually rising carbon fee would be collected at the mine or port of entry for each fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas). The fee would be uniform, a certain number of dollars per ton of carbon dioxide in the fuel. The public would not directly pay any fee, but the price of goods would rise in proportion to how much carbon-emitting fuel is used in their production.
All of the collected fees would then be distributed to the public. Prudent people would use their dividend wisely, adjusting their lifestyle, choice of vehicle and so on. Those who do better than average in choosing less-polluting goods would receive more in the dividend than they pay in added costs.
For example, when the fee reached $115 per ton of carbon dioxide it would add $1 per gallon to the price of gasoline and 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour to the price of electricity. Given the amount of oil, gas and coal used in the United States in 2007, that carbon fee would yield about $600 billion per year. The resulting dividend for each adult American would be as much as $3,000 per year. As the fee rose, tipping points would be reached at which various carbon-free energies and carbon-saving technologies would become cheaper than fossil fuels plus their fees. As time goes on, fossil fuel use would collapse’….
Emissions Trading Schemes were preferred because they let governments set a limit on emissions which can be reduced over time, giving assured levels of pollution reduction. Carbon Taxes are more elusive in this area, but the same logic of a rising price = less use of carbon emitting fuels/products/technology applies. This offers a wiggle room would perfectly suit a coalition party which both wants to look serious on the issue, but doesn’t want to be too tied into international deals and wants to be able to regulate Australia’s actions in line with economic circumstances.
Carbon Taxes have the advantages of being more economically efficient, and ‘just’ in a Liberal sense of being applied equally across the population. While small refunds could be applied to some industries (such as agriculture), it likely wouldn’t be the hodgepodge of deals and allowances & exceptions that the Government has set up with its ETS (which for the Greens make it now useless). And given that a carbon tax would reward individuals who act positively to reduce their own carbon footprints, it would also be in line with the parties preference for individual responsibility and reward. Not only that, but the Coalition could even piggyback some of the potency of the tax argument, by offering to sharply reduce all income taxes in line with the CO2 taxes. Just like the GST, not all taxes are equal, and given the public demand for action, this would be strongly in line with their past actions.
Finally, if they chose to keep back just a small part of that revenue, it could be invested in what is perhaps the real and only solution to climate change: better technology. This was an argument John Howard made consistently during his final years in office, and one the Coalition could pick up and run with. Australia has the minds, the education system, and the incentives to be the ones who create the next big breakthrough that fundamentally changes how we create and use energy. We’re doing it already, but with a big injection of funds imagine what we could create, what industries would come to call Australia home, what economic returns await us.
Of course Carbon Taxes are not a new idea, and I think Paul Krugman is somewhat right that having spent so long building up a Cap&Trade system, to throw it away and start down a different path just means too many delays to accept. But it’s worth noting again, how the rhetoric we use in one area, deamonising all taxation as bad harmful policy, if not outright ‘theft’ has left Conservatives (and many liberals) unable to offer sensible alternative policies in other areas. A Carbon Tax might not be considered as effective environmentally as an ETS, but it’s just as effective (if not more-so) politically for the Coalition. But it’s now off limits.
Instead, because Abbott accepted the rhetorical framework of calling a market based system a tax (thereby ruling out both) he is left with prescious little other than Command-and-Control type regulations. Not only does this also run up against 30 years of liberal and conservative economic thinking in Australia, it may well be at least twice as expensive(p152) if not even more so. But Abbott has no real options left if he wants to propose a policy that at least looks serious.
As Al Gore has said, what is ideally needed is to ensure we “tax what we burn, not what we earn”. Gore is another who has long supported a carbon tax. If the Copenhagen Summit succeeds, then to cap and trades we must committ. But if it fails, if it is all smiling handshakes with no commitment behind them, then a Carbon tax is an alternative we need to have a serious debate about.
If only we could get over the rhetorical stigma of the word ‘Tax’.
(Incidentally, this is why I like the Constructivist approach in International Relations. Everyone wants to be a ‘realist’ about the world and how to respond to it, but when you mentally close off avenues through certain rhetoric, then your options can be utterly distorted, even harming your own interests.)
For a more details explanation of Carbon Tax (and fully sourced), I recommend having a look at this testimony to the US Senate by Ted Gaynor of the Brookings Institute
The big news of the day of course is the front bench reshuffle, most notably, Barnaby Joyce to the Finance Ministry. In some ways it’s a wise move by Abbott, as Barnaby will be closely watched & reported by the press (giving their attacks on the debt more oxygen than otherwise) and hopefully the demand of shadow cabinet solidarity will keep his tongue in line.
That said, it’s a fundamentally bad move because it strikes at the heart of the structural separation that is the basis of the Coalitions strength & unity on economic issues. The Nationals have largely been kept away from financial levers, never gaining a treasury role, and only rarely taking on finance (Such as John Stone as shadow finance in 1987-1990*) allowing both parties to play their preferred electoral role. The Libs get to be the serious managerial ones, keeping the financial industry happy, and the Nationals use their freedom to rail against market economics (whilst voting for them) keeping their rural base in line. This is the deal that lets two parties with very different views on economics keep as one.
Appointing Joyce destroys that deliberate separation and forces him to try and appeal to both the Bush & the Suits, a challenge he is sure to mess up (I don’t think anyone could manage it). Joyce’s role risks scaring the inner city financial crowd, and at the least betrays if not deliberately ostracises the very anti-govt rural sentiment that has made him a star. This move is sure to expose the weaknesses of the coalition, rather than its strengths as hoped.
To see what he will be like in the role, you need to do no more than take a peek at Banaby’s first blog post/media release in the new job:
I must admit that after the appointment to Shadow Finance Minister my comic relief came from Treasurer Swan’s media release stating that I must follow Labor’s strict rules on fiscal discipline.
It’s like Captain Calamity’s instructions on yoga. There’s one thing that is absolutely certain, I will not be taking any lead, whatsoever, from a crowd who have taken us from having tens of billions of dollars in the bank, to debt up to our eyeballs, with more dogs tied up around town than Bernie Madoff.
Labor has gone on a spending bender and is now waiting for the fairy godmother to come and rub the red ink from the books.
Let’s get this right from the start. The Labor Party have not got a clue what money is worth. They have no respect for debt.
Currently, so the Australian people know, the debt they owe, to a range of countries such as China, the good people of Japan and the Middle East and everyone in between, amounts to $115.71 billion dollars.
I will bet you London to a brick that this debt is only going to go in one direction under the Labor Government and that is up.
Such language may bring a smile, but it’ll instantly bring creases to the carefully ironed pants of the financial community and add grey hairs to their heads each time. Half of the analogies wont even make sense to most people “more dogs tied up around town than Bernie Maddoff??” and at some point it stops being interesting and you just want him to get to to get to the point. Political language on finance must necessarily be very deliberately articulated, and it was one of Costello’s greatest assets that he never misspoke as treasurer. Joyce’s sloppy language is going to spook markets and voters. (And likely keep them from donating to a Liberal Party that is already badly outclassed in funding)
Similarly Joyce’s line’s about the Chinese, Japanese and Middle East owning our debt have a bad odor of insularity if not xenophobia. He has run consistently on anti-foreign investment lines (such as his campaign against Chinese investment in Rio Tinto) which will jive against the Liberals natural business constituency, and seems to be taking Abbott with him.
Labor should eat Joyce alive, and entrench their position ahead in the polls on economic (In Jan 2007 the ALP was -21 points to the coalition on economic management. By the time of the worst of the GFC they had pulled even. In October Rudd had a 15 point lead over Turnbull on economic management.) So while Joyce and Abbott will be able to ‘cut through’ on hitting Rudd over the economic costs of the ETS and Debt, they won’t inspire any confidence in their own ability to handle punters cash themselves. Joyce may have a background as an accountant, but Abbott, Hockey and Joyce will be a very weak team to take against a government which is most acutely sensitive to economic attacks. Rudd, Tanner & Swan started without much credibility, but with the GFC and power of incumbency have built a solid image of competence.
As for the rest of the reshuffles I fondly remember a time when I was working in Parliament in 2005, and saw Browyn Bishop declaring that the coders of Mp3 & Mp4 formats (ie what everyone uses on their ipods) were “cartels” that were anti-competitive. While just about everyone knows that commonality of format for electronic goods is the basis of competition (hello Betamax!), Mrs Bishop sees a common format (one popularly chosen) as a threat to liberty and our economy. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so breathtakingly ignorant.
* I had missed/forgotten John Stone as Shadow Finance Minister 1987-1990. However he helps prove the point. Even though Stone had been a career public servant and former Secretary to the Treasury under Fraser, he rebelled along his National Party instincts once in the shadow cabinet. He caused John Howard no end of grief over a consumption tax, broke cabinet discipline on a number of issues, attacked the ‘business wing’ of the Liberal party, and even declared that the coalition did not deserve to win the previous election. (From Kelly, P 1994 p412). Sound like anyone we know?
This is as good an op-ed as you will read this year: Dr Robert Dean via the SMH.com.au
The day the sheep sold out the farm
December 8, 2009
By not backing Malcolm Turnbull, the small ”l” Liberals have betrayed the Menzies dream.
I AM one of the poor bastards who is a liberal Liberal, not a conservative. I’m a lifelong member of the Liberal Party now feeling like I don’t have a party any more. I feel like a child who has been left on the footpath alone because his mother and father had a fight and were so full of each other’s anger and vindictiveness that they stormed off in opposite directions completely oblivious that they had left me standing on the footpath inches from whizzing traffic.
Read the full article »
Around the traps a new idea has begun to take root: How about Malcolm Turnbull runs for leadership of the NSW liberal party and come March 2011, become Premier of NSW.
While Barry O’Farrell is now owner of the closest thing to a Golden Willy Wonka ticket in politics (a guaranteed rise to the top job at the next election) his job has come under intense speculation. Whether for goals fair or foul, senior liberals were (off the record) touting the idea of Joe Hockey heading for NSW politics and O’Farrell’s job. However with his position now safely locked in as the default leader if Abbott falters at the election (or rather when) he is staying put. Turnbull however has nothing to lose, (he will never, ever be PM), enjoys excellent name recognition and an image that would appeal across the board if rightly managed. Voters may not have been willing to hand him the nuclear launch codes, but might enjoy watching him bring his iconoclastic style to the usually drab state level. Moreso it would appeal to Sydney’s ego to have such a Premier.
However this is more than just a question of jobs for the boys, it may be the only way to save the state. As John Birmingham demonstrates so eloquently in the latest edition of The Monthly (no online copy) the single biggest problem in NSW is not labor but a culture of corruption which has steadily overtaken labor. As much as a vote for the liberals (which I urged in 2007) would get rid of the worst problems, there is still a significant problem across the states industries, institutions and departments of governance and regulation that will remain. O’Farrell has taken the position of inevitable only because of the weakness of Labor. He has not been able to strongly force his will on his own party, or in the parliament, so his likelihood of taking on the developers, councils and moneyed interest is extremely doubtful. Birmingham argues that O’Farrell has probably also learnt the lessons of Nick Greiner who snared himself in his own anti-corruption efforts and so would be quite hesitant to try and do too much, lest it suddenly see his downfall after so long waiting for the prize.
Turnbull on the other hand would have no such concern. He has the independent wealth to be incorruptible, great knowledge and experience of the sydney business community, and having failed to be PM, being the man who resurrected the premier state of the country would be an impressive enough replacement (and sure to be climate martyr as his new blog post seems to position him). Like Obama his own story and image would instantly restore credibility and energy to the government, and he would be willing to fight till bloody end to win policy fights. Turnbull doesn’t need to be premier of NSW, if anything it’s a step-down, which is why he would be perfect to go in, shake things up, take on the corrupt and stogid elements and make the changes where weaker career politicians fear to tread.
Federal Labor would love it & assist it, for while Turnbull would be hard to bargin with, he is likely to be less parochial and more willing to find common ground with Rudd at COAG on issues such as Health and Water. The Conservative rump which now rules the Liberal Party might figure it would be a way to distract his prodigious energy, and keep him happy and away from federal issues. O’Farrell and his people would obviously fight like wild jungle cats to keep their golden ticket, but Turnbull has shown he’s not afraid of a fight and if he was willing to work with the rest of the NSW liberal party, could likely prise their support away.
So how about it? Turnbull for Premier? Sounds pretty good to me.
A big congratulations to Senators Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce for crossing the floor to vote for the CPRS scheme.
For the last month the central debate amongst political insiders was how many conservative climate sceptics were going to cross the floor to vote against the CPRS. No one doubted the threat was serious, and on some of the early amendments they even carried out their threat to vote no. This wasn’t enough for the cons, and following one failed spill motion they resigned on mass, forced a second leadership challenge and though expecting to lose, pulled out a surprise victory in the leadership stakes. Of the 10-15 Liberal senators who still supported of the CPRS in line with a strong majority of the public only 2 voted yes, and the bill failed.
As for Turnbull, he surged amongst Labor voters in his final days for his defiant support of the CPRS, and provided himself an exit narrative far more historically praiseworthy than the already pencilled in outline of having badly lost an election arguing for policies he didn’t support. His biographers have their story, and while not the PM outcome he thought himself destined for, it’s one he can be proud of. (And out of bitterness or convictions he’s still arguing for an ETS. Watch this space.)
So what is the moral of this story: In Australian (&US) politics, it seems only conservatives have the courage of their convictions. In government the conservatives ruthlessly pursued their policies, and now in opposition are fundamentalist in their rejection of the lefts agenda (Such as Tony Abbotts sudden disapproval of mandates). True, this stridency isn’t always the best electoral politics, Bush & Howard went down humiliatingly and Abbott is miles below Rudd on the polling. But in policy and momentum terms it matters. Bush got through much of his agenda (save reforming social security), as did Howard, and in office Obama and Rudd have struggled to get their signature issues through (Health & ETS respectively) and only barely scrapped through a stimulus package (whose debt they now wear like a bad smell). All of which makes their re-election campaigns so much harder as they have little to point to as achievements. This isn’t a startling new observation obviously, but it is worth recognising when it occurs. There’s all sorts of explanations floating around, assigning rational reasonableness to the left & irrational ignorant passion to the right, but it doesn’t really hold weight. Likewise theories that this is just a post-election backlash (as the US teaparties have been seen) don’t work either because the same determination was evident in government.
Instead, it seems to reflect the pattern of the last 30 years. The right emerged circa 1970 with a clear vision of society and agenda, easily won the rhetorical war against the dying remnants of Post-WW2 liberalism, and has stayed in the ascendant ever since. Though the left had some electoral victories (Hawke, Clinton) and has made good advances in some areas (homosexual rights, environmental, retaining welfare net), it hasn’t ever really gotten up from its crouched, defensive position. It hasn’t been willing to be blooded and potentially risk any kind of electoral backlash in order to carry out its policies. It was so anxious to gain government it weakened or deferred most of its real beliefs, and having gained it is even more anxious to keep it. This isn’t always the worst thing, sometimes good government means just pragmatically minding the store, something that is in the best of the conservative tradition. But when it comes to big critical issues, it also can translate overwhelming strength into policy defeat. Rudd’s suffered it here, and we are just waiting to see if Obama can escape it in the US (the public option is dead, but surely something will get through). So good on Troeth and Boyce for having the courage of their convictions that seemingly few other liberals and moderates do. To vote as they see their conscious and beliefs dictate, not based on calculations of self-interest.
If liberals/the left is to escape this, the option is not more strident politicians, but a much clearer and more thought through agenda. One that can carry liberal/left/progressives of all tempraments through, and mutually re-enforce various elements. It’s not enough to support health care & climate change as individual policies, we need to show how these build towards an clear vision of a better country. I’ve started to begin such work here, I hope you’ll join with me on this.
While Tony Abbott began his first press conference saying he wasn’t afraid to fight an election on Climate change, it seems likely from early indicates he won’t have to. It will lurk in the background but, cold war style, it’s going to be fought through proxy wars in Economics and Foreign Policy.
Economics: As is obvious from Abbott’s early media appearences, he’s not running to deny climate change, rather the economic costs of acting:
7:30 Report Transcript
TONY ABBOTT: Kerry, I was doing my best to support the then leader. And that’s what frontbenchers have to do. But the Liberal Party is liberated as of today to follow our natural instinct, which is to oppose the Government. Now, this isn’t about climate change, it’s about the mechanism for dealing with it. This isn’t about climate change denial, it’s about stopping a great, big new tax.
TONY ABBOTT: Well I’m not sure that anyone is that happy about being out of pocket. But let’s look at the Rudd Government’s ETS. It looks, at this point in time, to be a great big tax to provide a great big slush fund to produce great big handouts administered by an enormous bureaucracy. It looks like a mechanism for a political slush fund more than it does as a mechanism to help the environment.
This kind of rhetoric didn’t take on when Barnaby Joyce was sprouting it, but Abbott is a far more effective comunicator, and the press is already starting to question labor using some of his language. But the more important reason why the politicians will shift from talking climate change to economics is that it is unfertile ground for winning votes. For both groups. As Possum Pollytics helpfully notes views on climate change are effectively locked in. The deniers are stuck fast, and whilst the pro-efforts could ebb some support, those who see the environment as a primary issue already voted Labor in 2007 (or Greens though after their no vote on the CPRS I don’t know why). Instead the fulcrum of the argument is two issues: Timing and Cost. The timing issue is labors to own next year.
Most voters support an ETS despite recognising there will be an economic cost. Abbott can’t shift those voters into denying the environmental need for an ets, but he can make them think the cost imposed by Rudd is too high. Rudd likewise will whack Abbott occasionally on the issue, but he probably can’t shift too many votes on it from 2007. It’s easy to vote for someone pledging action, its much harder to vote for someone who is making your bills higher. If he doesn’t have some big policy on Climate, or looks like he is slipping into denialism he could still (unintentionally) make it the issue again, but I think the moderates will prevail in getting some kind of a policy there.
The other reason I think economics will be the major issue of the election is because 2010 offers Labor a historical chance to fundamentally re-shift voters allegiances. John Howard, just like Reagan governed a coalition of economic liberals and social conservatives. But that has broken asunder. Facing a proudly self-identifying conservative candidate, Labor has the chance to peel those economic liberal voters to it long term. It would become the socially and economically liberal party, though keep control of the mainstream & its working class base thanks to its historical support for ensuring fair working conditions. This is what Keating envisioned, what Beazley abandoned, and what Rudd has the chance to complete.
Rudd came to government pledging to be an economic conservative, a term that was widely ridiculed when he launched his stimulus package. This spending allowed Turnbull perhaps his only effective attacks on debt, a theme Abbott will be sure to run on. But Rudd can claim those were extraordinary circumstances, and with a good faith effort on debt, some wise reform in the area of tax, and a couple of symbolic acts (revisiting parallel imports would be an example) he could convince the economic liberals that he shares their values. (His articles here on neo-liberalism havn’t helped, but can be ignored)
Along with the campaign to entice them, Labor is going to try and put the fear in those who have liberal views on both economic and social fronts. Socially Labor will argue that Abbott unlike Howard is not just conservative, but regressive. They’ll raise the concern he may restrict access to abortions, re-introduce no-fault divorce, punish the gays etc. It’s going to be ugly, but could be effective. Economically, note that while Abbott is going to run on tax, debt and ‘freedom’, he isn’t an economic liberal like Costello or Howard. It’s a late adopted faith for him, and his books and speeches are full of reticence about such reforms. Abbott is very much in the mould of a big-government conservative as more perceptive economic liberals like Andrew Norton have noticed. Carefully appealed to we could see those who consider themselves liberals seeing Labor as the only viable party.
Foreign Policy: No PM has come to the job as aware of foreign policy issues as Rudd since Whitlam, but Rudd hasn’t yet had a chance to use that strength to his electoral advantage. It’s like the six shooter strapped to his ankle as backup. But with Abbott having thwarted Rudd’s chance to go to Copenhagen with a deal, it may be pulled out early. Rudd will charge that Abbott wont be in line with international governments, and won’t be able to do advantageous deals with international governments across the ideological spectrum because of his position on climate change. Along a similar line over at The Interpreter there is the intriguing suggestion that the deniers problem with the CPRS is less about the environment than multilateral institutions, hence their revulsion to needing passage by the time of Copenhagen. Rudd can’t gain too much mileage from his multilateral credentials, but it can all fit a narrative of an Abbott government being uncomfortable with issues beyond the shores.
This will be even more potent attack in the context of SE-Asia given Rudd’s steady development of links and influence. Thanks to his strong popularity, and activism on the Asia-Pacific Community (which is starting to get support), Rudd will be able to argue that Abbott will be a foreign policy disaster in the region. He won’t exactly repeat Keating’s line on keating that Asian governments wont work with him, but he could come close.
Rudd also has the natural advantage of incumbency. When Labor won the election in 2007, the liberals were seen as the better party on national security by a 49-26 margin. By Feb 2009, that had essentially levelled. I havn’t seen a more recent poll, but expect the government to now be well ahead. There was always the faint air under Turnbull that the Liberals weren’t comfortable on foreign policy, from his slip of the tounge labeling of China as a friend, to Julie Bishop’s suggestion we should bow to china’s demand and not let in Rebiya Kadeer. Indeed staying just on China, there are also some odd claims in Abbott’s book Battlelines. In his very short section on foreign policy, he claims that in the case of conflict between China and Taiwan, Australia ought to side with Taiwan, “In Australia’s case this would not be choosing America over China, but democracy over dictatorship” (p 160). It may sound good to supporters to base your foreign policy on such ideological choices, but it would raise up the worst of the Bush/Neo-Con incompetent idealism. Remember Latham was very very careful to avoid talking about national security, but still lost badly on this score. Abbott’s lack of desire to talk about this issue is going to be noticed by the public who will interpret it as a sign of lacking competence. If Rudd is able to set the agenda, expect a lot of discussion about foreign policy come election time.
Things could easily change, but while Labor’s new adds are already reticent of 2007, i think the campaign this will mirror more will be 1996. Rudd will present an image of Labor as a party bold and open and willing to engage the world. An Australia on the make regionally and internationally, in a pair of hands whose already passed their first big test (gfc). Abbott may gain some early traction on taxes and welfare, but could easily scare voters with too much policy purity and it’s not likely to swing too many given slowly improving conditions (Rudd will be praying that was the last interest rate rise before the election). Instead he will be seen more to represent a cultural howl against Labor that, inverse to 1996 can only work to Labors advantage, entrenching them as the mainstream party against a rump conservative party. Abbott could be a very attractive leader, but it’s hard to see how he gets that 35% core support to go much higher.
By 1 vote in the party room Tony Abbott has defeated Malcolm Turnbull to lead the Liberal Party. So what can we expect from his time as opposition leader?
Federalism: In his book Abbott makes a strong case that federalism is broken, that the conservative position ought to be to do something, and that the incompetence and irrelevance of the states leaves no choice but to place health and education (amongst others) under Commonwealth control. Whilst stepping back from his earlier call to get rid of the states, Abbott suggests that if a Government can pass a bill in both houses twice, separated by 6 months, then it should be able to override the states, in the way it can with the territories currently. This move would be tough to sell for a referendum, but if proposed Labor would be fools not to jump at the chance. Equally, an Abbott opposition offers by far the best chance for a Rudd/Gillard Government to really deliver an era of ‘New Federalism’. And by that I mean Centralisation.
Health: Abbott as the former health minister is deeply tied to the Howard governments approach. While his support for private schools may limit his support for centralisation in Education, under Howard Abbott regularly argued for a federal government take over of the system, and was the key proponent by the last-minute takeover of the Mercy Community hospital in Tasmania. Abbott also supports the idea of a paid maternity leave (though seems to prefer a Baby Bonus style one off handout). Roxon got the better of Abbott on health in 2007 so if her re-design of the system is strong, this should be a issue Labor would love to talk about, without it being a major vote changer.
Abbott may try to tie such discussions to the issue of Indigenous health & living standards in general, an issue he shows genuine concern for. His policy prescriptions are likely to be of the paternalistic variety (with a dash of Pearson entrepreneurialism thrown in), however it could demonstrate to voters a more emotive side to him than previously recognised. Not necessarily huge vote winner, but could soften up some voters to him.
Abortion: While Abbott has a rather extreme image to much of the public, he would be able to gain immediate credit and re-newed attention simply by making clear his actual views of abortion. While he disagree’s with the principle, he see’s draws a clear line between efforts to reduce australias 75’000+ abortions a year and efforts to re-criminalise it. Equally, he seems to recognize that his own past (a child out of wedlock, reputation as a ladies man), mean that he doesn’t have a good basis for being a moraliser. His views are most clearly set out in his 2004 speech “The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician”. This is still an issue that has great potential to get Abbott in trouble, but he isn’t the extremist he is often made out to be. He’s more like a Bill Clinton, who thinks abortion should be ‘Safe, Legal, and rare’. A pretty hard statement to disagree with. The rhetoric may frighten some on the left, but that over-reaction could if anything help Abbott with the mainstream.
Welfare: In welfare, the difference between Abbott’s conservative and liberal instincts is clearly apparent. As a Conservative, Abbott recognises the cost of raising families and the benefit of stable incomes, proposing to add significant extra levels of support (such as a guaranteed minimum income) and removal of almost all means tests due to the hideous marginal tax rates that apply as incomes rise and welfare is taken away. Yet as a Liberal Abbott also worries that welfare distorts peoples principles, and for the poor drives them towards poor moral choices such as a life of ease on unemployment benefits. As such he seemingly endorses universal welfare for all but the poor, with untold and uncalculated costs accumulated to the federal government to provide for all this. If Rudd went hard on cutting middle class welfare he could trip up the contradiction between Abbott’s complaints about debt and his desire for expanded welfare. Likely instead he would race him to offer even bigger handouts.
Foreign Policy: The great unknown. Abbott touches on the issue very briefly in his book, but it’s the usual boilerplate stuff of supporting the US, taking the fight to the terrorists, and supporting the Howard Government’s great leap into East Timor. He’ll probably go along with the foreign policy direction of the Govt, take a few opportunistic pot-shots where possible, but otherwise leave it to his foreign minister. If he starts getting hit on the issue by the commentariat, expect him to retreat to nationalism and supporting increased defence funding to prove his strength in the area. If Abbott started getting closer in the polls to Rudd, expect a strong retaliation on the issue of who is better at handling international issues (and going with the consensus on climate change is relevant here). Abbott will have to hit the books to be taken seriously, and needs to hire a good foreign policy advisor as one of his first acts.
Climate Change: The only reason we are discussing the rise of an Abbott leadership is because he is the most recognisable face of the anti-CPRS movement inside the Liberals. Obviously his position is dependent on those outright deniers such as Minchin (Abbott seems to have taken just about every position on this issue), so he will seek a lengthy delay and more generous handouts for the CPRS. More important will be his ability to control the pro-ets senators such as Troeth, Humphries, Trood etc. Despite winning due to support from climate deniers, Abbott surely knows the electoral risk of the CPRS, so he may propose some alternate form (A carbon tax could be appealing) to placate the supporters and appear to be serious about the issue for the public. But have no doubt, he is willing to fight, and hard against Rudd’s CPRS. He already road tested a number of lines against it, so expect to hear the words “giant new tax on everything” consistently for the next 9 months.
Rhetoric and Strategy: While Abbott came to the leadership because of his opposition to the CPRS, he has a moderate view of the role of oppositions, writing in his book: “An oppositions job is to clarify its own thinking rather than actually to govern the country… What is the point of opposing legislation when it is likely to pass anyway….There’s much to be said for adopting the view that the government is generally entitled to get its legislation through, because thats what the people voted for” (Battlelines 2009 p53). Recognising the harm Beazley’s constant oppositionism did to him, and the harm Workchoices did to the Howard Government, i’d expect a Abbott opposition to voice constant complain, whilst generally stuttering that they will give the government the noose to hang itself.
Abbott’s not a bad speaker, he doesn’t mince words and uses plain language. It could appeal strongly compared to Rudd’s detailed linguistic specificity. He does have a slight stutter as he thinks about what to say, and I’ve yet to hear him give a really impressive or inspiring speech. He is best at press conferences, which is handy as that is where most of our political discussion comes from. He will make the occasional inarticulate gaffe, and say a lot of things that will drive segments of the left crazy, but his policies are likely to be pretty conventional. It’s not a bad act, similar to what Howard pulled. (Interesting the left rarely seems to do this, showing the rights rhetorical domination in recent decades). On that issue, as his first press conference as leader showed, a great rhetorical challenge for Abbott will be to claim the credit for what the Howard government did well, without being too tied to it, or looking like he is just advocating its return, as Labor will charge (it already is with its first -online- add “Dont Go Back”)
It will be easy to over-estimate the radicalness of Abbott as leader, but he will end up earning brownie points from the public for being more moderate than they were lead to believe. I doubt he can win, but he will be a tough leader to beat. Despite his years in the ministry, I have a feeling Australia doesn’t really know Abbott, or will at least give him a honest second look. So expect some volatility and change compared to this weeks polls. (When done here, you should follow that link to check Possum’s excellent breakdown of the post-split polls)
Abbott is a very committed, hard working and decent bloke. He spends a lot of his time helping charity/volunteer groups, he keeps himself fit and healthy, and he is passionate about public life and improving the country. Rudd in comparison could come off badly as a nerdy spin machine. That shouldn’t happen given the governments domination, but if Abbott can survive to face a second election he will be a real threat. I’m certainly look forward to this election. For all my political disagreements with Abbott, I rather like the guy. He’ll infuriate, he’ll make the Liberal Party a much more conservative beast, but he will be offering a clear and strongly believed alternative.