Friday, September 02, 2011

La Gillard enchaîné

The merry-go-round of Australian politics is revolving at sickening speed. Society’s craving for instant gratification has led to demands of perfection immediately. The inevitable failure makes us repeat the mistakes of the past in a desperate attempt to avoid the errors of today. And so the talk is of replacing Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd. This way madness lies - Rudd’s knifing was wrong but there is no reason to believe he will become Lazarus of Queensland.

It is well to remember the ALP still runs the country and despite the High Court and Craig Thomson the only imminent threat to that is to replace its leader. Its coalition with the Greens and independents is predicated on the leadership of Julia Gillard and all bets are off with anyone else at the helm. Such a governing arrangement is common in Europe but is considered the devil’s work in Anglo-Saxon countries (apart from Ireland where amoral politics will tolerate any governing arrangement as long as it can turn a quick buck.)

In Australia, power-sharing is the subject of fear and suspicion from both the major parties. Keating called the Senate “unrepresentative swill”. He was half right because tiny Tasmania had as many seats as NSW where 14 times as many people live, but not right about the wonderfully complex proportional representation and plethora of candidates that made the ballot paper the size of tiny Tasmania. What Keating was really complaining about was the Senate did not agree with him. Similarly there is a perception today the country is overrun by anarchy when all that is happening is there is a government in power whose policies some people don’t agree with.

The fact "the Coalition" does not like coalitions is particularly rich as it tries to combine the neoliberals of the dry Liberal bent with the agrarian socialists of the Nationals. Totem of the latter, Senator Barnaby Joyce would profess to hate any taint of socialism but is a crucial figure in leading opposition to the Government. The US Government was worried Joyce had become a lightning rod for the resistance, particularly over climate change. It was his implacable opposition to climate change action that led to the unseating of Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader and Tony Abbott taking the party to the right.

I was at a meeting in Roma on Monday where Joyce spoke to the local business community. His ability to communicate effectively shone through. But there was little new from I hadn’t heard him say before, except perhaps, the admission he was the only accountant in parliament which “scared the hell out of him”. His audience may not have been entirely made of accountants (there was at least two there) but it was one disposed to be sympathetic. Whatever anger in the room was directed at the government. There was a question from a lady still livid our political system allowed Gillard to replacw Rudd in the first place. This lady was personally affronted and shocked a leader not elected by the people was now running the country. "How can Labor get away with this?" she asked Joyce.

It was a reasonable enough anger but as Joyce explained, the Westminster system allowed it. “You as voters chose your MP and the MPs come together to decide who leads them.” Joyce conceded it could happen on both sides of politics (Hawke/Keating in 1991 and McMahon ousting Gorton in 1971). He did take the opportunity to put the boot into Labor, by saying Rudd’s overthrow was the first time it has happened to a first-time prime Minister (Gorton won in 1969).

It is not enough of a distinction to hang current Labor over but given the presidential nature of election campaigns, politicians should not be surprised when voters see it as a failing in the system. As I wrote at the time, Rudd’s overthrow was a very Australian coup. Again like now, there was no rioting on the streets nor did the stock exchange collapse. The voters stored away their unease and anger and took it out at the ballot box where Labor was badly mauled in 2010.

Yet the Government scraped over the line thanks to Julia Gillard’s formidable negotiating skills and willingness to bargain and compromise with a variety of political perspectives. There were more conservatives than non-conservatives in the parliament so the Liberals played their cards poorly. Tony Abbott’s treacherous nature put off Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott and the pair knew any arrangement with him would be jettisoned as soon as Abbott had the numbers. Instead they dealt with Labor – already in control – who offered a power sharing arrangement guaranteed to 2013. Despite the ideological contortions Oakeshott took 17 agonising minutes to talk through, he knew Gillard made the better offer.

Falling just one seat short of Government left the Coalition with a strong sense of injustice it has nurtured since the election. The party has constantly attacked the “legitimacy” of the government though there is no sign of the police commissioner coming in to arrest Gillard any time soon.

Gillard chose the high road for her administration when she did an about turn on carbon taxation. It was an enormous gamble which she knew would excite opposition on two fronts. Firstly it opened up the breach of trust of going back on her word. Keating and Howard both survived similar breaches though neither suffered a nickname from Alan Jones like Juliar.

Secondly it galvanised an Australian tea party movement still convinced carbon emission issues are overstated and the response to it are the work of a cabal of left-wing fellow travellers. Personified by the recent “convoy of no confidence” (run by the Australian truckies, who will be hit hard by the tax) it sought to magnify the illegitimacy of the government by means of a massive people movement.
To that end the Convoy failed. It attracted poor responses from most towns it visited (except Bob Katter’s own Charters Towers).

But it had a sympathetic run in the media as it fed the “government in crisis” narrative. The convoy supporters’ angry attack on Anthony Albanese yesterday showed what it was really about. They were not there to listen but to jeer. None of those present were likely to vote Labor long before this crisis despite the exaggerated talk of defection of life long Labor voters unhappy with the alliance with the Greens.

This is a confected crisis. The parliament has two years to go and Labor may as well govern their way through it. Saving a by-election or a more serious charge for Craig Thomson, Gillard should survive to the next election. That will give the electorate enough time to look carefully at achievements as well as promises. By 2013, the carbon tax and the NBN will be realities too hard for Abbott to overturn and this week’s High Court result may actually make refugee processing easier for the Government to sell morally because it forces them to do it in Australia. There is also the loose cannon of Tony Abbott and his glib glass jaw that has not yet been fully tested. Despite all the noise and fury, Gillard could still win in 2013, if given the chance.

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