Chasing the Norm

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

Warning: Turbulence ahead

I’ve deliberately not been blogginig as much on domestic politics lately because it seems to me to have entered a swirling phase where clear outlines of either camps positions, strengths, weaknesses and direction are largely obscured. The reasons for these are many, the ‘inevitable’ ETS has collapsed, the GFC has finally passed having distracted the Rudd government from its agenda for its first 18 months, and most of all, Tony Abbott has taken over the leadership, giving the press gallery the long awaited contest they have been seeking.

Much like the early months of Mark Latham in 04 or Sarah Palin as VP candidate in the USA, Abbott’s election has given his base a 12 can injection of Red Bull, while the general public are still trying to work out what they think of the bloke. What passes for conventional wisdom in the press about Abbott is still largely based on snap reactions to him, rather than cultivated analysis of him as a leader. Take this missive from Laurie Oakes:

The Government has had such a trouble-free run until now that ministers and backbenchers are unused to pressure. They made mistakes.
One thing Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is very good at is attack. He knows how to go for the jugular.

Abbott was reasonable as an attack dog under Howard, but he was aided by John-The Howitzer- Howard and Peter -Rapier- Costello, to which Abbott’s lower undercuts could contribute once they had the victim knocked down to their level. On his own however, Abbott runs the risk of being too much of a street fighter, enabling the PM to simply rise above the insults (Indeed Latham did this to good effect in his first few months, comparing the Govts anger at him, with his own calm. A discipline which faltered as the polls dropped). The press’s view that Abbott is good in attack isn’t born out by the last weeks events, giving doubt to Oakes other claim that the government is making mistakes.

The story of Peter Garrett broke fully on Monday the 8th. Yet the Abbott lead opposition ignored the issue almost entirely, focusing on “broken promises”. Labor tried to ride this pony home for about 9 of the last 11 years of the Howard government, and it only worked once. To borrow another parties attack line, against a new government is a pretty good sign you’re not that well prepared in your attacks. Not even when the question comes from the mouth of babes (well young liberal ones) is it likely to have much effect.

For the rest of the week, the press took the lead and the Opposition haltingly and lazily pursued garrett, (Grog’s Gamut has a good overview of Monday, Tuesday, Wed & Thursdays question time). In each case the Government was well prepared for the questions and after a few lobs at Garrett the Opposition switched to attacking the Governments best performers Gillard, Tanner & Rudd.

So not only were the tactics wayward, Abbott (like Turnbull over OzCar) let their hatred of Rudd overwhelm their attack on the relevant minister. They went for the strongest hit they could think of (a ridiculous claim of industrial manslaughter), and such as on the Thursday censure motion made Rudd the focus, not Garrett.Garrett should have been forced to resign by Wednesday morning, instead he will (save for a re-shuffle) keep his job until the election and well afterwards. Abbott may have laid a glove on the government, but it’s only left a minor bruise and shown it’s not disciplined or that willing to do the hard work. It almost seems to be expecting the press to cull government ministers for it.

Meanwhile Joyce is doing untold damage to the Coalitions economic credibility (and Labor researchers are surely digging through Abbott’s early career discussions of economics – back when he was yet to learn to love the free market), and the public is still largely ignoring politics at a federal level. If Joyce keeps on Abbott will have to either sack him (demonstrating he made a mistake) or give the public pause for concern about the “talent” behind the leader.

So for the time being, there is too much noise and chaos for any really sensible analysis of Federal Politics. The essential factors of a reasonably competent first term government with a healthy economy make Abbott’s job very difficult. Likely he will go the way of Latham and Palin in making noise before slowly sinking as the public start paying more and more attention. Polls at this time should especially be taken lightly. If he can gain some discipline, and demonstrate some actual effectiveness in attack, then Rudd may be in for a much tougher fight. But likely this is just the afternoon shower that does more to refresh things for the Rudd government’s first term than threaten its foundations.

(Meanwhile in completely different news: Pauline Hanson is quitting the country for the UK. Hanson was often portrayed as a authentic Aussie. However she and many in her party are more accurately recognized as the lingering rump of the deeply conservative British Australians who migrated out here, hated most of the locals and set themselves to defending an image of Australia as the last white outpost. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

7 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Tim

     /  February 15, 2010

    Andrew, on Hanson, do you think that lingering rump of deeply conservative ex-pat Brits are the same that have rallied around the climate skeptic cause. If so, then that would explain the welcoming of Monckton.

  2. I agree, for this group is very sensitive to shifts in the hierarchies of Australian society & politics. It’s not class so much as a perceived worth/linage with them near the top whatever their income. So when migrants appear in bigger numbers and threaten to leapfrog them from the lowest stations into the upper-middle class, many felt threatened. Likewise when environmental politics (via climate change) threatens to move from being a 6-9th order issue to center stage they again instinctively want to reject it. It’s seen for who it will benefit (green politicians, the left) rather than discussed on merits.

    Thankfully Abbott despite his British birth/Anglophile love is a much more authentic Australian in character and intellect, like his predecessor Howard.

  3. Matt C

     /  February 15, 2010

    I don’t see why the Coalition would want Garrett sacked. Best to keep him around as a constant reminder of the stuff-ups in his dept, which go well beyond just pink batts.

  4. I think they are desperate for a scalp as a way to give meaning to their attacks on the government. They are spending all their time on attacking over policy development so they want something to show for it. Im not sure I agree that Garrett’s presence is damaging the government but he is certainly the weakest front bench member. I think Rudd might re-shuffle either when Abbott does pre-election or soon after winning and demote him.

    Unfortunately for the Coalition their own time in government proved the rule that if you stick it out 95% of the time you’ll escape within a week and people/the press will forget and move on. Chris Pyne on insiders even made the argument that Rudd came to office proposing a new form of open and accountable government, which was introduced in response to the Liberals own stubborn defense of incompetence and misleading of the parliament!
    Btw matt – Thanks for the suggestion of Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics Essay. A very interesting read.

  5. Matt C

     /  February 15, 2010

    No worries Andrew.

    I think your “duck for cover” strategy works well with scandals that have limited shelf life (say like an expense scandal). Once the story is out there is not much more details and people move on.

    But this seems more serious. First, people have died. Second, more stories will keep coming out, fires in houses, potential further electrocutions, litigation, etc.

    So, I don’t understand why Rudd doesn’t just sack him. Your argument can be used in reverse. So the govt bear some pain for a week over the ‘scalp’, then they have a new minister that can wipe the slate clean and be seen to be fixing things. Howard was the master of the backflip, I think Rudd needs to learn a new trick.

    I can only think of one reason that would make Rudd reluctant to sack. Perhaps there is evidence linking him to the problems. So he doesn’t want to admit defeat in case it is revealed that, say, Garrett really did try and stop the program but was overruled.

  6. Unlikely that Rudd is implicated, but you’re right that the political pain can be shortened by sacking. And the hook of dead workers gives the dimmer lights in the press something to focus on, when arguably other policies like the green loans scheme are much worse problems.

    Still sackings an admission of being wrong, a name that will be remembered and revived at the election. A passed scandal leaves only a mark on the skin, sacking ministers is like a lost tooth, people notice long after it’s gone. Rudd’s too stubborn and likely hates* Abbott too much to grant him such an early victory

    I think Garrett should go, but wont. And its John Howard’s fault 😛

    * I assume Rudd does, after all Abbott loathes Rudd with a passion. Even in his book Battlelines he lays the boot in.

  7. Matt C

     /  February 18, 2010

    Not looking so unlikely now:

    “At a press conference yesterday, The Australian asked Mr Rudd whether he and his cabinet bore responsibility for having Mr Garrett administer a scheme in an industry sector they now acknowledge had inadequate safety regulations.

    “He failed to answer and declined to comment on opposition claims the Department of Environment warned cabinet against a rapid rollout of the scheme early last year.

    “Later, The Australian asked the same questions in writing, prompting a demand from one of Mr Rudd’s press secretaries that the newspaper reveal whether it had any documentary evidence of advice from the Department of Environment.”