Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Can Nerds deliver wedgies?

Our Prime Minister is by nature a conservative man. Nothing wrong with that, in fact it by and large contributed to his victory over John Howard where others before him such as Latham had tried and failed. Yet Rudd now faces an opponent who is seen as not just a common sense conservatie, ie a pragmatic cautious man (as Howard managed to claim for himself), but as a capital C Conservative, nay regressive who wants social change towards a long past (if ever existing) ideal.

Labor spent much of the 1990’s seeing Howard as a reactionary, while the public didn’t, but it might work with Tony Abbott. To be fair to Abbott, he isn’t anything like the theocons in the USA, and he is resigned to being in a minority and seeks mainly to argue for, rather than legislate his views on social morality and conservatism. However his election to the liberal party leadership represents a substantial opportunity for progressives.

The Labor party has already set about calling Abbott and crew ‘extremists’ (esp on climate change) but this is a ham-fisted way of making their point given the low level of public and media attention. It’s not that these groups arn’t paying attention, its just that this kind of language has been done to death and generally passes the ears unheard.

The future for Tony Abbott ?

Instead Rudd needs a policy challenge, to force Abbott to show his real views. An issue where he either says what he believes, alienating a public majority, or he goes along with Rudd’s policy, disenfranchising some of his core base. In short, it’s now the perfect time for Rudd to return the favour of 2001 and deliver a rather liberal wedgie to the Coalition, of the sort that wasn’t too viable against Howard, Nelson or Turnbull.

Issues that might play well include: Abortion funding and access (bringing it into federal control as a pre-cursor to full takeovers), relaxation of some drug laws, such as decriminalizing marijuana (as occurring in the US, and somewhat in the ACT), increased flexibility for euthanasia, granting civil unions nation wide (having already agreed to accept it in the ACT), or further opening up the country for foreign investment. The latter would alienate labor from some rural electorates, but could help divest a lot of economic liberal voters/few remaining city voters from the Coalition to Labors waiting hands. (I’d be keen to hear any readers suggestions of other issues that fit)

None of these are critical pressing issues, but each represents good policy and good politics. Too much was made of Howard’s wedge efforts against Labor, and they came to be seen as a dirty tactic (or at least a smelly one). But if Labor is implementing good policy that simply forces the opposition to choose between it’s core ideology and being in line with the mainstream, then there is nothing wrong with the approach.

More than that, it also offers progressives a way to shape an influential role within the Rudd government. This is a very cautious, poll driven government. So any policy proposed to it for implementation needs to be able to deliver strong electoral benefits. If progressives can offer policy that delivers votes for the government now, then it will create goodwill and credibility for advocating more significant and controversial reform in the future.

Choosing the specific issue and nature of the legislation will need careful polling and focus grouping, but it’s worth a trial now, early in the year before the defenses are re-erected for the years political combat. With luck, Labor might well get Abbott to simply respond at a door stop to a spreading rumor of new labor policy, without carefully organising his response. At worst, the effort will let Labor see how Abbott responds to new issues (does he wait, or will he just go ahead with his own response, and how will his independence play to his divided party room). At best, it gives Labor the chance to directly define Abbott as well outside the mainstream, and implement some good progressive policy.

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  1. John Pyke

     /  January 11, 2010

    “An issue where [Abbott] either says what he believes, alienating a public majority, or he goes along with Rudd’s policy, disenfranchising some of his core base”? Or even better, one where Abbott’s stance alienates a majority of the public including a majority of conservative voters – an Australian republic, but a republic of the right kind, ie one with a directly-elected President! See http://www.ipa.org.au/library/publication/1210898407_document_pyke.pdf

  2. Hi John

    I can’t believe i forgot the republic! It’s a perfect example. Good article, though i’m a little surprised by the poll. While you’re right that conservatives are wary about granting additional power, that wouldn’t be the case with parliamentary selection of the president (which would in fact defuse the Prime Ministers influence), but most definately would be the case with a direct election (creating a President who would quickly become a significant political force). Plus it would bring in all the vulgar crass elements of democracy that conservatives usually recoil from.

    Personally I really fear the introduction of a directly election as a fundamental shift in the way Australian democracy functions, with little discernible benefit.

    Many people argued Rudd should use Turnbull’s ascendancy to push the republic, ensuring bipartisan support (usually a requirement for a referendum to pass), but if done via a duel plebiscite (one on republic yes/no, one on model) it could work even better against Abbott.

  3. Benny Jones

     /  January 11, 2010

    Andrew, how did you miss the elephant in the room? Rudd should re-introduce the republic debate. Abbott is the former head of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. Turnbull is the former head of the Australian Republican Movement. It is too perfect. Not to mention with over 75% of Aussies supporting the move it would really make Abbott squirm.

  4. Benny Jones

     /  January 11, 2010

    ok, so i should have read the other comments before making mine.