Like many, I am cautiously optimistic about the progress Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd is making in presenting himself as an alternative prime minister. Cautious, because I have a strong sense of déjà vu. I remember feeling hopeful about Mark Latham at about the same point in his run for office. And even Kim Beazley looked like he might have a chance of beating Howard in 2001, until the Tampa sailed into view. As the Prime Minister himself has said, we have been here before.
Nevertheless, Rudd seems to be playing things skilfully and wisely. There’s no sense of great excitement, as there was with Latham, but nor is there the accompanying sense of danger. Here is a man who understands his electorate — vital antennae for anyone wanting to take on that master of the Australian mood, our current Prime Minister.
It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I sense a new nervousness in Howard as a result. He never looked very rattled by either Beazley or Latham, but he does look a little less confident at the moment. Perhaps that’s because Rudd seems to be setting the agenda, rather than merely reacting as Labor has done for so long to the one set by Howard. Mind you, as always in life, this is probably less to do with skill on Rudd’s part than it is to do with luck and good timing. (Although The Age‘s political editor, Michelle Grattan, has argued that Rudd’s preemptive timing has nothing to do with luck.)
The Australian electorate is less influenced by the minutiae of policy or individual election promises (and pork barrelling), than they are by a broad understanding of what each individual Party is both more committed to and better at.
Despite the brilliant work of the World’s Greatest Treasurer (Paul Keating), the Australian electorate believes the Liberals are always better at managing the economy. Despite Beazley’s love of and expertise in defence, Australians turn to the Liberals to protect them in times of peril.
Berkeley-based linguist and political philosopher Professor George Lakoff talks of ‘Mummy and Daddy’ Parties, and I think our two-Party system bears out his hypothesis. ‘Daddy’ Liberal Party is preferred by voters when they feel a big stick is needed, when hard-nosed, supposedly masculine decisions need to be made. ‘Mummy’ Labor is turned to when the electorate feels that ‘Daddy’ has gone too far, people are suffering, and the institutions or even the planet which nurture us are being neglected.
Until very recently, despite some unease in the electorate about the environment, it was terrorism and the economy that dominated our thinking. Terrorism was a godsend to conservative and incumbent governments all over the world. As I have argued in a previous New Matilda piece, better the devil you know in times of high anxiety than the devil you don’t.
But, despite the best efforts of the Howard Government, terrorism is fading a little from the agenda. Indeed, it could be said to have rebounded on them, thanks to the growing outrage over the treatment of David Hicks. A classic case of the big stick being wielded too brutally, perhaps.
Howard continues to maintain that the economy will remain the major issue in this election. Far be it from me to disagree with someone as canny as our PM, but my instincts tell me different. The public, unlike our Government, are beginning to realise that without a viable environment there can be no prosperous economy. The two have been on a collision course for decades, possibly centuries, and if we don’t put the brakes on now, we’ll crash.
Rudd’s great stroke of luck is this new orthodoxy about the environment. No serious government, however much they might like to, can afford any longer to pooh-pooh the seriously frightening predictions about global warming. I no longer hear the few scientific skeptics being trotted out by conservatives to disprove climate change. Whether the current drought is a part of a normal El Niño event or not, it is extreme enough to increase our fear of global warming above and beyond our fear of suicide bombers. When mainstream figures like Al Gore, Lord Stern and the UN begin to preach the need for a global U-turn, even great deniers like Howard have to respond.
Thanks to Bill Leak
As Hugh Mackay pointed out years ago: oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. If that is so, John Howard’s decade long enviro-skepticism may cost him office.
It’s horrible to say so, but every major bushfire helps Rudd and hurts Howard, and the longer the rain stays away, the better it is for Labor and the worse for the Liberals. Even if it does rain, however, it is impossible for the Liberals to catch Labor on the environment firstly, because they failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change all those years ago (I bet they’re kicking themselves about that now); and secondly, because the electorate isn’t stupid. They know it is not something the Libs really care about or can understand. After all, at its absolute core, defeating climate change requires collective effort and if there’s one thing the Liberals can’t stand, it’s a collective.
(Interestingly, the issue may offer the National Party a chance to gain prominence.)
Howard has been blindsided by the speed with which predictions about environmental change have come home to roost, but then, he is the last politician left over from another era.
I confess, I was pleased to see Beazley go, though I was moved by the tragic co-incidence that accompanied what must have been one of the worst days of his life and impressed by the dignified way he handled it. I wasn’t pleased because I thought he was crap, it was sadder and more ruthless than that. I was pleased because, as with Simon Crean, his departure from the leadership signalled a final letting go of that great Labor wound, Gough Whitlam’s dismissal as PM in 1975.
Unfairly or not, having a Beazley or a Crean lead the ALP harked back to a time long past, a time when environmentalism was an extremist movement pushed by hippies, greenies and rock stars.
(Speaking of rock stars, it was a stroke of long overdue genius on Labor’s side to put Peter Garrett in charge of the environment. No matter how clever Malcolm Turnbull may be, how can a millionaire ex-merchant banker whose only known passion is the Republic, match the green credentials of a decades-long campaigner like Garrett?)
The focus of the world is changing from the obsessions of centuries past like war, industrialisation and development to something new. Whether we have noticed our predicament in time to save ourselves remains an open question, but yesterday’s political warriors are not likely to have any of the answers we need.
But to return to my initial caution; the ALP needs to hope that Rudd’s run of good luck continues. One serious terrorist incident, for example, is all it would take to blow Labor’s chances.
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