Sunday, February 14, 2010

2010 election: Much ado about nothing

Sometime later year Australia will go to the polls to elect a federal government. Following previous precedents, the incumbent Labor administration will be returned to office with a similar majority it gained in 2007 or slightly less. Both sides of politics will portray this is a victory. For Kevin Rudd, there is the obvious success of being returned as Prime Minister a second time at an election – a feat only ever achieved by three Labor leaders (Andrew Fisher, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke). Meanwhile the Coalition will paint a narrow defeat as a success for their strategy of appealing to the right-wing base when it handed Tony Abbott the leadership in a three-way ballot on 1 December last year.

But first to Rudd, for whom the result will be the end product of three years of communications discipline and dedication to the task. This is something he learned from his predecessor John Howard, an equally ruthless electioneerer. Nothing else – be it the GFC, climate change, or reform in education and industrial relations - has come remotely close in Rudd’s everyday calculations. Ever since 25 November 2007, Rudd’s Government has been devoted to one task: how to stay in office in 2010.

Rigid control of communications is the key and Rudd’s closest acolytes are in his PR machine and kitchen cabinet (Gillard, Swan and Tanner). The downside of such a tightly-run communication strategy is that it has left Rudd looking inflexible, remote, humourless and without charisma. Having personally seen Rudd in action at one of the community cabinets in 2008, I can confirm that he is flexible, engaging, and humorous though he is never quite charismatic. But Rudd has been perfectly willing to sacrifice these attributes when dealing with the medium that still most decides elections: television.

His Government deserves credit too for mastering the strategy. With the possible exception of Peter Garrett (whose previous life allows him frequent gaffe credit points which he continues to spend at an inordinate rate), they have been a superbly efficient team that has also managed to successfully communicate the message du jour. And despite the fact that Rudd is a somewhat isolated figure within the party and not attached to any of the factions, they have offered resolute and unquestioning support for his leadership.

It is the matter of leadership which has been the Achilles Heel of the Opposition and a direct consequence of Peter Costello’s refusal to go down with the ship in 2007. Brendan Nelson was a lightweight who offered only comic value as leader. Malcolm Turnbull was a brilliant mind but too out of touch with the zeitgeist of the party and too arrogant to even see there was a problem. Joe Hockey ruled himself out with his ETS conscience vote (though I happen to agree with him that voting on climate change ought to be a primary matter of conscience) and fell between the two precarious stools of the party room.

That left Tony Abbott as last man standing. So far he has enjoyed a good run in the media which is keen to run with his pitch as a virile outdoorsy leader standing in stark contrast to the nerdy PM. It is a risky strategy that could alienate as much as it attracts but so far it is working well. Each photo op of Abbott's pre-dawn lycra excursions or weekend “budgie smuggling” manages to exude an air of virility that was lacking in previous Liberal leadership teams. It also acts as a distraction to the fact that the extreme right has taken over the party and he is surrounded by a bunch of ageing has-beens that looked tired in the Howard era and doesn't look any more inviting five years later.

Abbott is the same age as Rudd so will feel he has plenty of mileage ahead of him. It is unlikely he will want to stand aside as leader in defeat and if he manages to keep the majority of his comrades in office he will be regarded with affection by sitting MPs who thought they were heading to the slaughterhouse as recently as six months ago. But the net result of Abbott retaining power in the party is to make a Coalition victory in 2013 more unlikely. Though the 2010 political narrative has been about the success of Abbott’s aggressive “opposition to everything” approach, it cannot be sustained in the longer run and will make the party seem obstructionist and negative. No one will be listening to him in 2012 if he is still spouting on about a “great, big tax”.

Of course on one level, Abbott is on the money: an Emissions Trading System is indeed a “great, big tax”. But working properly, that is what it is designed to do. It is designed to make traditional means of creating power more expensive so that we move away to non-carbon alternatives. If he was really serious about tackling this problem, Abbott could go further and attack Labor’s hypocrisy over nuclear energy it is prepared to sell but not use. But Abbott is heart a populist without the stomach for a campaign against the large NIMBY opposition it would attract.

Make no mistake, if Australia is to have any chance of getting to 2050 with 80 percent emissions reductions it has to go nuclear - and soon, given the long lead times to build power stations. It may only be a temporary measure for 20 to 30 years while the technology to convert solar or wind energy for mass baseload is ironed out. But that doesn’t make it any less urgent. Or unfortunately any more likely. Rudd is perfectly aware of nuclear possibilities but his dedicated eye to election mechanics stops him from looking too closely at it. The Greens are also too blinded by their environmental purity to actually do anything concrete to solve the problem (witness how they dealt themselves out of the ETS debate last year). And so when scholars of the future look back on the 2010 election, all they will see is squandered opportunity and rank political hypocrisy across the spectrum. Happy voting.

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