The lot of them will be run over at this rate

Richard Glover is sadly dead on the money with his column in the Spectrum of today’s Sydney Morning Herald. He hits the nail on the head more beautifully and more succinctly then I fear I can manage just at the moment; consider these three cuts:

Week two of the “Me Too” election and Abbott and Gillard are like contestants in a three-legged race, middle legs lashed together, each with an arm desperately gripped around the other’s shoulder, fingers digging in, careering over the political landscape, determined never to be separated.

Same policy on asylum seekers, same squib on the environment, same anxious sidestep on gay rights.

On the magnificence that the belligerent focus on certain marginal seats has delivered us:

Since it’s all about attracting the voters of marginal seats, such as Lindsay, you do wonder why the rest of us even need to be involved. Why not just opinion-poll everyone in Penrith’s High Street and do whatever they reckon is the right thing?

And finally, on where this is headed:

Julia Gillard cites the Welsh socialist Nye Bevan as her political hero. Maybe it’s time she remembered his most famous quote: “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run over.”

The average Australian punter may not have a grasp of the finer details of public policy, but they have a built-in sixth sense when it comes to political disingenuity, aka bullshit. The baseball bats needn’t have been out for Labor just yet after only three years, but one just gets the sense after all this bickering, dilly-dallying and lowest common denominator marketing, a fair few are now going to be pulled out in the marginals on August 21.

Come on Julia. Give us all a reason to vote for you!

Parsing and decrypting Dennis Glover

I have quite a lot of time for Dennis Glover when it comes to ALP politics and matters relating to social democracy in Australia. Philosophically speaking I often find myself agreeing with his point of view – though I can’t say I agreed quite so much with Mark Latham, whom Glover previously served as speechwriter! In retrospect, given how things turned out, we might well consider that Latham could have done with a “bit more Glover” in him.

Glover had an interesting op/ed in The Australian yesterday – interesting because he seems to be firmly of the belief that the Gillard putsch is unequivocally a step forward for Federal Labor. From a purely “polling in suburban marginals” standpoint, events look set to bear this out, but there is no denying that the putsch has damaged the Labor brand, and junked a guy who could have lead Labor to victory in the process. The picture is indeed a fuzzy one, and to gloss over the negative aspects of the last few weeks for Labor is to do it a disservice.

Glover, for example, describes Gillard’s rather self-conscious hop to the right as follows:

… she has set out to bring Australians from across the political spectrum to her cause by paying them the courtesy of listening.

It seems a little egregious to represent what has certainly been an agenda (e.g. asylum seekers, population, de-greening) guided by targeted polling as a noble willingness to listen to the people. Is this a veiled barb directed at Rudd, whose non-consultative style of operating has been under the skin of many Labor folk since the days of The Latham Diaries were published?

Glover goes on to praise the “fishing” of Gillard, first in relation to the RSPT:

On mining, having listened to all sides, she found a way to allay fears while keeping the tax alive.

Let’s be frank – the manner in which she allayed fears was basically to reduce the size and scope of the tax. Yes, a deal of some description was necessary, but this was less deal than backdown, and reportedly very similar to a deal Rudd was about to announce before being rolled.

On asylum seekers, Glover notes:

And on refugee boat arrivals she found a way to maintain control without talking about “invasions” or making hollow promises to “turn the boats back”.

Once again, a solution was needed, but there is little denying that the Timor Solution is currently half-baked at best, and could have done with a bit more flesh on the bones before it was bobbled out there into the media spin cycle.

Yes, Gillard Labor is still an infinitely preferable proposition to Tony Abbott’s team of out-of-touch bunglers. But let’s also call a spade a spade – there is still a lot of work to be done before Gillard Labor can be held up as a shining beacon of political credibility and true Labor values.

Game on for Saturday 21st August

Suddenly, amidst a winter of some considerable political discontent, we have an election date. The circumstances are a bit ironic for me. I tuned into the Sky election coverage of the Australian election from London just under three years ago in November 2007 (a frabjous day!), and it seems that once again, I will be tuning in from the other side of the world to see who will lead Australia for the next three years. Just a week or so ago I registered to vote overseas, and am in the throes of organising personal matters and packing up my life in Melbourne. Just as I was fronting up to the reality that I would need to disengage from political events for a little while at least, Julia Gillard has called in for a cup of morning tea at Yarralumla, and despite the touch of malaise that has been creeping into recent debate, it is going to be hard to tune out.

Even considering the disorganised thrashings of the last few weeks in Labor Party circles, Tony Abbott and the Coalition will head towards this election as clear underdogs. Centrebet has Labor at an almost unbackable $1.22, with the Coalition not looking like a bad bet at $4.10, to be quite frank. This is not an election campaign much like that waged in 2007. This is not going to be an election campaign with a distinct choice, or clear water between the Government and the Opposition on a number of issues. Given recent events, most Australians would harbor some fairly strong negative thoughts about both major parties. It is only natural under the circumstances to be feeling a bit confused and uncertain about who to vote for. On the one hand we have a Labor Government which promised the world, has delivered on some levels and failed notably or reneged on some others, and still has a reasonable proportion of its original to-do list outstanding. On the other hand, we have an Opposition defined almost exclusively by what it does not stand for, as opposed for what it does, lead by a politically divisive figure in Tony Abbott.

In her noon press conference announcing the election date, Julia Gillard was organised, precise in her language, and confident. She looked and acted like a Prime Minister. She was convincing, but her mindless re-iteration of Labor’s election mantra du jour, “moving forward”, felt forced and was truly grating. The new Labor leadership team has made it clear over the past few weeks of their intent to distance themselves from the failings of Kevin Rudd; they really should be wise by now to the fact that people are sick of simplistic election slogans like this one. It should be possible to be direct and straight-forward without reducing your communication with the public to the level of a glorified infomercial.

The Prime Minister declined to make any new policy announcements, only promising that any new measures announced during the election campaign would be offset by savings in other areas. Politically speaking, this is a smart move, and pushes Tony Abbott into a very small space in which to operate. It mimics the “I’m an economic conservative” promises made by Kevin Rudd heading into the election campaign in 2007. Abbott’s natural instinct as a blue-blood is to either conserve the public dollar or to transform it into a private dollar, but to differentiate himself from the government, it might well be that he needs to fight that instinct and put some sizable spending measures on the table.

Tony Abbott’s response was mixed. For starters, it was made in a somewhat off-the-cuff fashion in an anonymous hotel in Brisbane, leaving him looking a bit like a hotel management trainee who stumbled into the wrong function room. He should have known given all the media speculation that an election date announcement was imminent and stayed in Canberra over the weekend. This was a mistake, right off the bat. His delivery was mostly quite assured, if seemingly not well orchestrated, and he actually did make a few good points that will resonate with voters, namely:

  • Why should we trust Julia Gillard if even Kevin Rudd evidently could not trust Julia Gillard?
  • Why should we trust Federal Labor if we have no idea who will fill the key ministerial portfolios in the government until after the election?
  • Why should we treat Julia Gillard and her team as being any different to the team lead by Kevin Rudd, given Gillard’s senior role in the Rudd Government?

These are all fair, thoughtful, and credible points. Unfortunately, the Opposition Leader did not deign to back them up with any positive policy announcements of note, or any real measure of what the Coalition’s agenda would actually look like if elected.

For the moment at least, the Australian people face a real conundrum. We have a decidedly second-order, tactical election on our hands. There are no grand visions, there are no inspirational plans. It seems certain that who people dislike more as a leader will largely dictate who they vote for on Saturday August 21st. Meanwhile, the Greens look set to win the balance of power in the Senate, and will likely pick up 1 (Melbourne) if not more seats in the House of Representatives. What does this mean for federal politics? I am not sure it is going to mean very much at all, at least beyond the symbolic.

It is difficult to see any future Gillard Government or Abbott Government wheeling and dealing very much with the Greens, particularly given that party’s staunch unwillingness to give some ground in order to gain some ground in terms of negotiation. Despite the likelihood of a record vote for the Greens at the election, I am more convinced than ever that the major parties, presiding somewhat slothfully over the middle ground of Australia, are going to be dictating the policy agenda over the coming parliamentary term. The marginalisation of the environmental left that took grip after the failure of Labor to deliver an ETS and the failure of the world to reach a meaningful deal in Copenhagen looks set to continue.

Given the recent performance of both majors, and the over-reliance of the Greens on Bob Brown as a credible mouthpiece, it’s hard to look forward with an enormous amount of optimism about the health of politics in Australia. Federal politics, arguably, has never looked more like state politics than it does at this very moment.

And if that’s not a put-down, I’m not sure what is.

ELSEWHERE: Mark’s views on the opening gambits over at Larvatus Prodeo are well worth a read.

Peter Brent echoes my thoughts on the odds being offered for a Coalition victory over at Mumble.

The deck chairs on the HMAS Gillard

With election date speculation now officially rife, speculation is now also beginning to mount about what any future hypothetical Gillard Government’s front bench would look like, should it win the election. In part to stave off concerns about instability at the top and in part to distance herself from Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister has declined to instigate a major reshuffle since becoming leader and has also declined to nominate who would serve in which ministerial role if Federal Labor is re-elected later this year.

The situation is complicated by the former Prime Minister’s obvious predilection for a high-profile foreign affairs role:

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd is reportedly determined to take on the foreign affairs role, if Labor is returned.

He has been telling journalists that as a former prime minister “he deserves the job”, ABC Television reported on Sunday.

While I can understand Julia Gillard’s decision not to “rock the boat” before the election, I also see a number of drawbacks to this approach. If Gillard were to take her new, finalised team to the hustings and subsequently win the election, her team would have received a proper imprimateur from the public to govern the country, and would inherit a certain significant amount of public good will as a result. Under the assumption that the team of Ministers that Federal Labor currently has in place is set to be scrambled and subjected to fairly thorough recomposition post-election, I think that people are right to feel a little uneasy. Do we know who the Gillard Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs will be after the election? No. Do we know who the Gillard Government’s Finance Minister will be after the election, with the resignation of the wonderful Lindsay Tanner? No.

It is almost certain that the Coalition will exploit this sense of uncertainty with respect to Federal Labor’s team in the lead-up to the election. One may well not like Tony Abbott’s team, but at least one can be fairly certain of what Tony Abbott’s team will look like if elected. I am not sure that the general public is particularly enamoured with the idea that the archaic factional engines responsible for turfing out the old Prime Minister will also be responsible for deciding who will govern the country – not them.

Wolf howls, beer coasters, small targets

It’s fair to say that supporters of the centre-left can not plausibly be heartened by the actions of Julia Gillard’s actions since her coup d’état. As Michelle Grattan points out in the Sydney Morning Herald today, the rumblings we are hearing from the Gillard Government on asylum seekers are much less dog whistles than wolf howls. This is naked electioneering at its most breathtaking. It is not just that the East Timor Solution is effectively a carbon copy (admittedly with a bit of spit and polish) of the Howard Government’s own maligned offshore processing regime. It’s not just a question of whether the government is leaning self-consciously to the right, it’s becoming a question of good policy-making and good governance. With an election pending, issue neutralisation in the shortest time possible has been the order of the day for the past two weeks for Julia Gillard’s team. Political fixes to get the government to what it feels to be a defendable position in the outer suburbs before the election have been the focus, at the clear expense of well-thought out, well-planned policy solutions. Suddenly, it would seem, both major federal parties have succumbed to the lure of thought bubble, “back of a beer coaster” politics.

No formal deal appears to have been brokered or serious talks undertaken with the governments of East Timor or New Zealand regarding the approach that the government wishes to take to their supposedly collaborative asylum processing solution. It has been reported that President Jose-Ramos Horta was only contacted in relation to the proposal a matter of hours before it was announced. Meanwhile, as two of Labor’s most senior and most widely respected policy champions make haste to abandon ship, I wonder just how many Labor supporters out there are wondering what on Earth is going on? And I wonder how many non-aligned voters in outer suburban swing seats are starting to think that what Julia Gillard really does stand for is even less apparent than what Kevin Rudd stood for?

If the trend of recent weeks continues, Federal Labor will have created a very stark contrast between its dissembling leadership team and Tony Abbott, whose opinions on a wide range of issues are comparatively rigid and consistent and firmly held, even if they are controversial and /or abhorrent. And Federal Labor still has a little problem called the Senate that it doesn’t seem to have been putting too much thought into. A prolonged, damaging debate on the cut-down resource tax and asylum seeker issues seems practically guaranteed for the next couple of years, with the current proposals unlikely to attract the support of either the Greens or the Coalition without significant amendment.

Troubling times.

The Gillard faceless men putsch

A month ago, I couldn’t see it happening. There has been quite a bit of speculation around the traps in recent weeks about the leadership of Federal Labor, but I’m not sure that too many people took it completely seriously. Then suddenly, in a matter of hours yesterday evening, it all happened. Senior factional figures within the party evidently put forward a case to Gillard for standing against Rudd that she could not refuse. It would be very interesting to know exactly what precisely compelled her to act, to turn on a dime under pressure after months and years of proffering resolute support for her leader. She has been pushed off the proverbial cliff on this, and I think we all deserve to understand why.

Federal Labor has just shot itself in the foot in a dramatic way; one recalls the damage ultimately done to the party by the Latham challenge. I’m not sure what sort of risk assessment was conducted by the folks pulling the strings here. If Rudd somehow clings to power, against all odds, he will be critically diminished. The Opposition will be able to pick at the bones of Rudd’s credibility all the way up until the impending election. If Gillard wins, she will have a lot of explaining to do, and not a lot of time to do it in. An election may be called within days so that Gillard can establish a mandate from the people, nullifying the Opposition’s likely line of attack. What is she going to do differently – what is she offering that is really any different? If she is going to do a number of things differently to Rudd in a policy sense, how can the people trust what Federal Labor say anymore, given that just days and weeks ago she was talking up her leader’s credentials and direction? We have no idea about what Gillard’s personal views are on the RSPT, climate change, or any number of other issues. Presumably, at least in part, her personal views may be deemed irrelevant. The so-called faceless men may well decide what her views will be.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Julia Gillard will make a great Prime Minister – one day. But that day is not today, and I still don’t think this is the right time or the right path, for her, or her party. If the putsch succeeds, it will have been a rise to the top characterised by cowardice and panic, driven by people who care more about polls and the state of the spin cycle than just about anything else. Of course the alternative, now that the putsch has been rammed maniacally into motion, may be even worse.

Happy unbirthday, Tony Abbott!