The Political Rip Snorter That Was 2009


It’s been a fascinating year in Australian politics. The year that began in the shadows of economic downturn has ended economically brighter and dominated by the issue of climate change. Kevin Rudd’s Government looks almost guaranteed to win next year’s election, while the Liberal Opposition licks its wounds after an unprecedented episode of blood-letting. Australia has escaped a recession, but we didn’t escape a devastating bushfire or the progressive desiccation of our inland rivers. And while the media remains fascinated with the sex lives of celebrities, the very business model of news journalism itself appears under threat.

A lot has happened in a short time. State politics, for instance, has remained a fertile and controversial field of Australian public life, seeing the re-election of Anna Bligh, the dumping of Nathan Rees and the sex scandal of Mike Rann; more generally, the states have continued to exercise their baleful self-interest over issues like water rights and mining and energy licenses. The Black Saturday tragedy in Victoria also had a huge impact on politics in that state.

It’s also been a highly charged year for politics around policies affecting Australia’s Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and many important and highly detailed areas of public policy, like Communications Minister Steven Conroy’s madcap attempts to censor the internet. But the biggest story has been what the Federal Government has — and has not — done.

Throughout the year, Labor has reigned supreme in the polls. Rudd’s Government, the most disciplined and regimented in modern history, has typically shown a deft touch with media issues. Rudd and his senior ministers speak calmly and carefully in their television sound-bites and for months at a time the Government has gone to ground to allow the Opposition’s internal instability the maximum media exposure possible.

Conversely, on the nitty-gritty of policy detail, the Government’s record has been halting and mixed. Julia Gillard’s "education revolution", for instance, has so far only just begun to deliver reforms like teacher performance pay and a national curriculum; much-needed money for higher education has only trickled in. Likewise, in health, Kevin Rudd’s promise to comprehensively reform the entire system, take over public hospitals from the states and build "super-GP" primary health clinics has yet to materialise.

There hasn’t been a lot of visible progress either on the National Broadband Network, or much of the micro-economic reform promised by the Council of Australian Governments. In keeping with the Rudd Government’s bureaucratic style, there have been plenty of inquiries, but much less policy follow-through. In water policy, for instance, the states continue to strangle the Murray-Darling while Penny Wong has been distracted by more politically pressing responsibilities. And on the very biggest policy issue of all, climate change and what to do about it, the Government has comprehensively put its own perceived political interests ahead of those of the country and the planet.

On one policy issue the Government and its senior bureaucrats got it very, very right. The Government’s decision in late 2008 to announce a huge stimulus package has proved to be a spectacular success. Indeed, so successful has it been it is now difficult to remember that it was a massive political risk, taking the budget into deficit and racking up a small but significant amount of public debt.

Australian electorates had become used to seeing their federal government awash with cash, handing back regular tax relief and still recording healthy surpluses. But the "cash splash" worked, putting money into the pockets of consumers, who gladly spent it, and propping up retail employment at a crucial stage of the economic cycle. Combined with emergency levels of low interest rates, the economy coughed and sputtered but did not catch a cold. Luckiest of all, Australia’s banking system largely escaped the carnage of the big US and European institutions, which meant that Australian taxpayers have not had to spend trillions on bank bail-outs. If a major Australian bank had got into trouble, our exceptionally mild recession might have resembled the severe downturn of the US and the UK instead.

As a result of skilful handling of economic policy by Wayne Swan, Ken Henry and Glenn Stevens, the Government should have had a clear run at implementing much of its first-term agenda in the second half of this year. It didn’t quite work out like that, mainly because of the sheer difficulty around the centre-piece of that agenda: the Government’s emissions trading scheme, formally known as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. The CPRS has had a long and torturous gestation, beginning with two long policy inquiries by Ross Garnaut and ending in an unseemly orgy of special interest concessions and Government cave-ins to big polluters. Even so, for most of the year it seemed as though the Government would be able to pass the bill with the assent of the Opposition, after a long and drawn-out negotiation process. That didn’t happen, because climate change sparked an ideological civil war that engulfed the Liberal Party over the issue.

Political journalism is often criticised as reporting complex issues like a horse race or boxing bout, but sometimes events justify that approach to their coverage. This year, it has been almost impossible to ignore the spectacular self-immolation of the federal Liberal Party. Transitioning from the Howard government to opposition was never going to be easy, but the Liberals have compounded the typical problems of first-term oppositions with poor tactics, a lack of policy development and a devastating ideological split over climate change. Malcolm Turnbull, the Opposition Leader for only 14 months, performed well in stages of the early part of the year and, while failing to dent Kevin Rudd’s ascendancy in the opinion polls, at least looked to be stamping a measure of his own personality on the role.

All this was undone by his staggering misjudgment in the Godwin Grech case. This bewildering affair electrified the Canberra press gallery. Although it largely failed to register on the broader electorate, for politics junkies it had everything: encounters at the Parliamentary Ball, a supposedly incriminating email (later found to have been forged), dramatic Senate estimates testimony, accusations of political impropriety that stretched all the way to the top, and reciprocal calls for the resignation of both Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.

But while Turnbull’s claim that Kevin Rudd has pressured a senior bureaucrat to give favours to a mate seemed politically explosive at first, the revelation that the crucial email was found to have been forged instead backfired on Malcolm Turnbull. In fact, no favours were shown to have been given, and Grech turned out to be a mentally ill Liberal Party mole in the federal Treasury. The unsavoury wash-up left many in his own party questioning Turnbull’s political judgment and character. From that point on, his leadership was fatally weakened. Characteristically, Turnbull pressed on, confident as ever in his abilities and leadership skill.

If Turnbull’s judgment and tactics were the only cause for discontent in the party room, he probably would have survived to fight the next election. But 2009 showed that the Liberal Party is riven by ideological differences far more serious than anyone had realised. The key issue, of course, is climate change: whether it exists, whether anything needs to be done about it, and if so, what. For many conservatives, climate scepticism and denialism has become a badge of honour, driven by a vociferous campaign of misinformation from the increasingly radical anti-science right. For those like Nick Minchin who remain implacably opposed to any form of environmental regulation that might cost jobs or crimp growth, Turnbull’s decision to negotiate with the Government over the passage of an emissions trading scheme was tantamount to apostasy, and justified the commencement of an open civil war for control of the party.

The result was an extraordinary week in federal conservative politics. First, the denialists on the back-bench revolted and refused to vote for the ETS, then launched a spill which led to the dumping of Turnbull and the election of the far more conservative Tony Abbott to the post of the Opposition Leader. In confirmation of the conservative take-over, a ghoul’s gallery of old hardliners was recycled for key shadow cabinet roles and the CPRS was duly voted down. Turnbull was forced to retire to the back bench, from where he will continue to campaign for the validity of his position on climate change. He has every chance of inheriting a defeated party leadership after a seeming inevitable electoral defeat next year.

The amazing disunity within the Liberal Party reflected an emerging reality of Australian political life: the centrality of climate change as the defining economic and political issue of the coming century. For the first time since the early 1980s, environmental policy has moved to the centre-stage of the political arena. The short-term result has been upheaval in the Liberal Party and the frustration of much of Kevin Rudd’s legislative agenda, but the long-term consequences will be even more significant.

For nearly 30 years now, environmentalism has been an important force in Australian politics. The movement first came to national prominence in the early 1980s over the campaign to stop the building of a hydro-electric dam on Tasmania’s Franklin and Gordon Rivers. That campaign polarised Tasmania but helped Labor win the 1983 election against the Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser. It also introduced Bob Brown to national polities.

Bob Hawke, in a 2008 speech for the 25th anniversary of the blockade, observed that "as you look at the arguments and the positions of political parties today you see a complete replication of what we experienced back there in 1983". Hawke was right: the arguments made by conservatives in favour of the Franklin-Gordon Dam were the same as those mounted against taking action on global warming today.

Particularly in English-speaking countries (though not, paradoxically, in England, where David Cameron has mounted sophisticated arguments for addressing climate change from a conservative position), conservatives have increasingly turned against environmentalism in the past two decades. The foundation of this antipathy is their commitment to validating our industrial order through an irrational attitude described by mid-century German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer as "instrumental reason". Looking around at the smoking ruins of Europe at the end of World War II, Adorno and Horkheimer argued that the tremendous advances of industrialisation had led humanity into a cul-de-sac, and decided that science, industry and "mass culture" had only given us more advanced ways to destroy ourselves. "Enlightenment," they wrote, "has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant."

Adorno and Horkheimer were Marxists, and there is a sense in which the modern attack made by environmentalists against rampant consumption and polluting industries shares a common ancestry with their ideas. It also helps us understand why those on the political Right are so suspicious of environmentalism as a creed.

Most conservatives have never accepted Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis, seeing it as an attack on their liberties — indeed, their very rationality — from the Left. As Liberal Senator Nick Minchin told Four Corners‘ Sarah Ferguson in November, many conservatives believe climate change is simply the latest issue seized on by the Left to advance an anti-growth, anti-capitalist agenda. This helps us to understand why conservatives today are so horrified by the widespread acceptance of the need for action to protect the environment — they cannot accept that the environment is more important than the economy and jobs.

Underlying this argument is a visceral aversion felt by many on the political Right to the cultural characteristics of environmentalism, seeing its attacks upon concepts like consumerism and industrial development as attacks on personal liberty and the right of individuals to pursue happy and industrious lives — in Minchin’s words, "for the extreme left [climate change]provides the opportunity to do what they’ve always wanted to do, to sort of de-industrialise the Western world."

None of this will help the Liberal party get elected in the federal election which will be held next year. In fact, it may lead to the long-term break-up of the party itself. Climate change, after all, is here to stay.

So too, it appears, is Kevin Rudd, even though so far, his government has been far better at media management than it has on policy delivery.

In 2010, voters are likely to give his Government a second term in which to implement more of its agenda. He will need to ensure that things like the National Broadband Network and the health, hospitals and education reforms do actually happen — otherwise federal Labor may fall prey to the same fate as its New South Wales counterpart, where media releases and internal intrigue have trumped infrastructure and service provision. And the Greens may well hold the balance of power in the Senate after the next election, giving Rudd a whole new set of challenges in terms of getting his policies enacted.

2010 promises to be every bit as interesting as 2009.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.