The Year That Will Be

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There’s at least one certainty in Australian politics in 2008 – it will be a largely election-free year, with the exception of the ACT in October and Local Government elections, where the race for the Brisbane mayoralty may attract some national attention as Campbell Newman fights to hang on to his position as the most senior Liberal in the land.

But although pseph junkies might have their eyes fixed on the race for the White House, I think it’s safe to say that we also have an interesting year ahead of us in domestic politics.

For one, 2008 will be the year when the character of the Rudd Government reveals itself. There’s some truth to the accusation made during last year’s election campaign that Kevin Rudd was an unknown quantity. We know how he will govern – judiciously, prudently and with determination – but not so much about what he is passionate about.

In many ways, the Rudd Government will be an interesting exercise in determining how electorally popular bureaucratic managerialism is. Metrics and measures will dominate the assessment of hospital reform and the education revolution. But quarterly COAG meetings and working parties aside, there’s a smart politics in Rudd’s governance style. Whether or not it genuinely constitutes ‘ending the blame game’, there will be huge pressure on the States and the bureaucracy to deliver, and concrete yardsticks of progress. Roping other institutions and political reputations into the success of your agenda is the act of a very clever politician, as well as a canny bureaucrat deeply steeped in process.

Tying all this in with an effort to loosen the strings of regulation and eliminate overlap and waste is also a pretty clever way to co-opt business lobbies. It’s hard to see the top end of town getting too upset with the Rudd Administration, which will aggravate the political and financial isolation of the Liberals.

Rudd got off to a very good start, successfully orchestrating an image of energy, competence and hard work – with a few symbolic gestures thrown in to signal a change of national direction. The year ahead will see a number of challenges arise when policy flesh is grafted onto campaign bones – most importantly, the release of the draft Garnaut report in June. The climate change debate is only one where the electoral verdict has shifted the pivot of public debate, but while the promise to make climate change a whole-of-Government issue is most welcome, it also contains some potential pitfalls.

Some of these relate to the competing agendas of powerful stakeholders, and it’s here that the comparison often made between Rudd’s style and Bob Hawke’s consensus politics is to the point – the PM will seek to negotiate differences and appeal to the national interest.

But the Liberals will have at least one point of traction in Parliament: the edict that Wayne Swan, not Environment Minister Peter Garrett, will take questions on climate change. It’s also an ominous sign that Agriculture Minister Tony Burke has already flicked a hospital pass to Penny Wong to avoid controversies over the impact of climate change on farming practices.

John Faulkner may find himself having to get down and dirty more than he’d like in sorting out ministerial snafus, and he might like to turn his attention to Attorney-General Robert McClelland, who’s given those few who were watching through the holiday torpor every sign that he has a tin political ear and has already been captured by the keystone cops of the AFP, whose shenanigans gave the late Government so much grief.

Wong has been a standout in the Ministry so far, and as much as she and Julia Gillard might decry the importance of the symbolism, there’s no doubt the presence of smart and savvy women in Cabinet sends its own message. The true test for the Rudd Ministry will be its performance under pressure when Parliament resumes. It’s interesting to note that John Faulkner has reportedly circulated some advice about Question Time.

Parliament will assume a renewed importance in July with the swearing in of a Senate not controlled by the Government. The Coalition have tied themselves into all sorts of knots over industrial relations and I can safely predict that they will find maintaining support for ‘pre 2005′ IR policy but opposing WorkChoices a very difficult juggling act in practice.

The politics of legislating in the Senate will be fascinating. There’ll be scope for the Nationals to revivify their relevance, but not without tension between the Barnaby Joyce camp and the Party leadership. Progressives may be disappointed by the compromises that will likely be made to mollify Family First Senator Steve Fielding and possibly independent Nick Xenophon.

The Greens will also face challenges in carving out a role for themselves. Given their numbers, and the inclinations of the Prime Minister himself, there’s probably not much scope for shifting legislation in a progressive direction, but the Greens’ agenda-setting role will need some careful thought by Bob Brown and his Party.

There is no doubt some disappointment in store for civil liberties advocates and the proponents of progressive policy on social issues – particularly those associated with the rights of Indigenous people, women and same sex couples.

The ALP has never had a particular attachment to legal liberalism, and many within the Party are not particularly wedded to social liberalism either. The Democrats will be sorely missed, as, unlike in Britain where the Liberal Democrats mobilise a strong vote for social liberals, there’ll now be no cohesive parliamentary party that prioritises these issues.

Many of the issues that were such emotive touchstones of opposition to John Howard – refugees, for instance – will no doubt be more humanely administered by Rudd, and it may be that much of the force of the anger around them was actually a response to Howard himself. Those concerned with these causes may have to find new and creative ways of keeping them in the public eye.

One comment made by Federal Director of the Liberal Party Brian Loughnane in his spin-laden review of the election campaign was true – it is significant that third parties such as GetUp! and the ACTU had so much traction, and that’s something the Labor Party would do well to ponder, as it won’t always work in their favour.

But what will most concern the Government is the economy. The Liberals will go to town on Rudd claiming he made watertight promises on interest rates and the price of housing, petrol and food during the election campaign. They forget that new governments are given considerable goodwill by the electorate for quite some time, but that’s not to say that the economic engine room of the Government will not be sharply focused on restraining inflationary pressures. The Budget will obviously be very important in showing the colour of the Government’s money. Many commentators have already called for the junking of promised tax cuts except for the low paid, and that would be a very good move indeed.

Although Rudd boxed himself in somewhat with his ‘me too’ campaign strategy, he will be determined to ensure that there are no ‘non-core promise’ incidents in the first term. In many ways, this is a great pity, because some of Labor’s own promises – for instance the weight checks for school kids – are distinctly unappealing when translated from sound bite into reality, and some of the expenditure in areas like the education revolution is a lot of bucks for very little bang.

In this preview, I haven’t made much of the plight of the Opposition, and that’s partly because I think some commentators have found Howard-era habits hard to break and are still paying undue attention to the Liberals and their woes. The Coalition Parties are worth discussing, but can wait until Parliament resumes. We’re in for a fascinating year ahead as we watch what sort of impact the first new government in over a decade has on the country.

New Matilda

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