Land of the Flip-Flop


What’s been happening to conservative politics over the past few weeks? Is this Topsy-Turvy World or what?

The flip-flops have been coming thick and fast and they range from the world-shakingly sublime to the mildly ridiculous. Here’s just a few examples:

President George W Bush’s policy in Iraq shifts from ‘stay the course’ to ‘let’s just chat a spell, whittle some cherry wood, boil the hickory root tea and come up with something we can all feel comfortable with, pardner (oh, and by the way, we’ll be out of here in a year).’

Bush again: from saying that Don Rumsfeld’s here for the next two years, to ‘no, no, no you must have misheard, I said two weeks.’

Former US Secretary of State James Baker and now UK Prime Minister Tony Blair suggesting that the Coalition of the Willing need to talk to both Axis of Evil powers in the Middle East — Syria and Iran — about finding an exit strategy out of the Iraqi quagmire.

Prime Minister Howard’s metamorphosis from coal-clad Kyoto Protocol sceptic to organiser of meetings with the dust farmers in the bush and emergency Water Summits, fast tracking water trading, launching anything to do with alternative energy, pushing for Kyoto II (starring Bruce Willis as Howard), and setting up an advisory committee on carbon trading.

Howard’s message to the Reserve Bank of Australia before the latest interest rate rise: ‘Bring it on, baby!’

Treasurer Peter Costello’s remarkably sanguine attitude to carbon trading, his sudden ease in saying the word ‘recession’ (rural-only, of course), and the solid-gold hints that further tax cuts are off the table for next year’s Budget spending bonanza.

Health Minister Tony Abbott’s agreement with the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee’s (PBAC) recommendations that Gardasil, the miracle cervical cancer vaccine, is too expensive to subsidise; then his disagreement with the PBAC, but agreement with CSL, the drug company that manufactures Gardasil, that the first possible vaccinations would begin in 2008; and then his disagreement with CSL, and his vehement agreement with Howard that the vaccination program should be rolled out in 2007.

The Fair Pay Commission awards $30 a week increase to the basic wage and Howard’s hailing of the moment as a triumph.

Rupert Murdoch’s reported shift to the Left; a shift that worried the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Mark Coultan so much that he wrote an article about why we ‘have no cause for concern’.

The Senate voting to allow therapeutic cloning of embryonic stem cells.

The Howard-boosting member of the elite commentariat, Janet Albrechtsen, agreeing with Paul Keating (it’s true!) about the corrupting influence of donations to political parties.

You’d think that all this chaos and fury on the right would mean a lay down misère for their opponents, wouldn’t you?

Think again.

Despite the Howard-Costello team facing their most difficult Budget yet with oil prices on a hair trigger, Iraq on the nose, global warming and the drought catching a somnolent Coalition on the hop, a decade of under-investment in education and infrastructure coming back to bite them, health costs rising, interest rates following inflation northwards, the commodity boom at least plateauing if not beginning to tank, backbench rebellions aplenty and the Telstra Board giving the entire Cabinet the bird where do the latest opinion polls put the ALP?

The latest Newspoll in The Australian suggests that ‘state sleaze’ (in the form of scandals in State Labor Governments in NSW, Queensland, WA and Tasmania) have seen the ALP’s two-party preferred vote drop from 52 per cent (on 27–29 October) to 50 per cent (on 10–12 November). This is level pegging with the Coalition (up from 48 per cent in October).

It gets worse if you look at the primary vote: Coalition down by 1 per cent to 41; ALP down by 4 per cent to 37.

And in a stunning example of (yet again) managing to snatch disaster from the jaws of victory, the ALP is embarking on a suicidal round of recriminations and name-calling on the issue that should see it wipe the Coalition clean off the field: climate change. The coal unions and their supporters are making it clear that they are keeping a close eye on what the ALP proposes to do about alternative energy sources. And there are dire warnings being voiced about the dangers of the ALP ‘hunting the green vote’.

Stay tuned for a classic Howard wedge campaign on global warming and have I mentioned nuclear policy?

This is serious. If the ALP’s support is this volatile at a time when the Coalition should be reeling, what’s going to happen when Costello starts rolling out the pork barrels in May 2007? You can bet your T3 dividends that next year’s spending spree will make Shadow Treasurer Wayne Swan’s eyes water. And will it surprise anyone if the majority of the spending is in health, education, infrastructure, alternative energy — you name it — anything that Labor might usually call its own territory. That whoosh! sound you’ll hear on Budget night next year will be the sound of rugs being pulled out from under Beazley’s feet.

If he manages to survive, that is.

Already, today’s headline on The Australian‘s front page reads: ‘Party Gets Jitters About Beazley’s Ability To Cut Through’. Sure, this is a typically provocative headline from The Oz and Murdoch’s minions aren’t renowned for their cuddling up with the ALP lately, but there shouldn’t even be this kind of pressure on the alternative Prime Minister at this point in the election cycle.

Although there have been rumours of ALP leadership spills in the recent past, Dennis Shanahan in today’s The Australian (‘Bomber Has To Start Hitting Targets’ p8) dismisses the current disaffection with Beazley as ‘not [presaging]a leadership challenge, but its intensity is at a new high.’

The most depressing part of Shanahan’s column, however, comes near the end when he explains: ‘What is saving Beazley now is that the [opinion]polling is not as bad as it was under Simon Crean’s leadership when Beazley challenged him, but, the weakness remains because people still don’t consider him an alternative leader.’

Read it and weep anyone who hoped that the level of political debate on really important issues might improve in the lead up to next year’s Federal election; or if you were dreaming that the Coalition might be seriously challenged.

José Borghino

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