The Failure Of Factionalism


When failed US presidential candidate Al Gore described climate change as a moral issue beyond the traditional Left/Right of politics, he earned a kind of political redemption by tapping into an issue that has seen many familiar old factionalisms lose their grip on the way politics works.

It’s a phenomenon that many others in the political classes around the world have used to their advantage. Facing the malaise brought on by a lack of clear purpose at home, governments in Europe especially have looked to tackling the threat of an environmental catastrophe to fill the gap. Yet as Copenhagen showed, the same factors behind their malaise at home are merely being reproduced on a global stage — both in the excessive expectations they created before the event and in the inconclusive result they produced.

On top of that, the US, facing eroding political control over the international community, is forced to come along and try to assert it on an issue that — unlike the Cold War or War on Terror — turns the US’s dominance into a problem. Nevertheless, the new uncertainties seem to be offering opportunities to leaders willing to confront them as a way of addressing weakness in their own situations.

Here in Australia, the outward signs of Kevin Rudd’s weaknesses are much less apparent than they are for many of his European counterparts. Nevertheless, the Government has the same need to replace an exhausted domestic program with an international agenda. We saw in 2009 that a central problem for the Government, the uncertainty and lack of direction in the international order, became more apparent. It was not just in the inconclusive results of international summits like Copenhagen, or the earlier economic one in London. On the regional stage, incidents like China’s arrest of Stern Hu, Indonesia’s wrangling over the Oceanic Viking, or the Indian Government’s escalation of the stabbing of an Indian student in Melbourne, only served to highlight that Australia has become an increasingly soft target as the authority of the old political order declines.

Yet however difficult the international agenda is to manage, retreating from it is no real option. As state Labor has learnt, depoliticising government to become merely a provider of services might facilitate the end of old political programs, but it does not replace them. As WA most graphically showed, even when government and the premier are polling relatively well, they can suddenly be turfed out for little more reason than the fact that voters didn’t like an early election — and that the opposition managed to avoid looking like a basket case for a few weeks in a row. That is why there will be Labor nerves about the Victorian and South Australian elections this year, whatever the polls are like.

The perceived failure of Copenhagen will require a political response. Yet the Government looks unprepared. Even before the summit, Government tactics towards Copenhagen did not even respond to the Senate’s dumping of the ETS, and since it finished, the Government has tried to play down the summit’s failure. China-bashing appears to be the preferred excuse of European governments, although this probably won’t work too well here (at least not openly). Here, a sharper response is needed which strengthens support for success, rather than simply blaming China for the lack of it. Possibly it will involve a fleshing out of the attack in Rudd’s November speech, when he sought to link an international conspiracy to thwart climate change action with Malcolm Turnbull, Barnaby Joyce, Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen back home.

What will help Rudd is what Gore alluded to above, the way that the climate change agenda undermines the legitimacy of the old politics. Nick Minchin may argue that climate change is just a left wing conspiracy to de-industrialise the economy, but he apparently forgets that for most of the last century, the labour movement Left were strongly opposed to de-industrialisation and the loss of jobs it would entail. If this is a left-wing agenda, it is not the Left as we know it.

Fortunately for Rudd, while 2009 was the year in which the drift in the international order became much more apparent, it was also a year when, at home, the old political order handed its head to him on a plate — as the two most successful political organisations of the post war period, the NSW ALP Right and the federal Liberal Party, gave us a spectacular synchronised display of decay.

There have been attempts by the Liberals and some in the press to argue that Rudd’s reliance on the NSW Right to take the leadership means that its death throes are bad news for him. Nice try. There is no doubt that support from the NSW Right was critical to Rudd winning the leadership just as it had been for every other post-war Labor leader. But what distinguishes this Labor leader is the critical role played by the Left — a section of the party usually relied on by Labor leaders at the end of their tenure, not the beginning.

Except Rudd’s alliance with the Left is not based on any left-wing program, but their common antagonism to the old faction system. In the management of the Government this finds its reflection in the shift of power away from the cabinet, where the factions would traditionally assert themselves, to a "kitchen cabinet" confined to Rudd, Julia Gillard, Lindsay Tanner, and Wayne Swan.

This core plank of Rudd’s agenda is still not grasped by the media — especially not how this is putting Rudd on a collision course with what is still the most powerful faction, the NSW Right. Articles such as this one by Peter van Onselen are at least an improvement on those at the start of Rudd’s government that warned the factions would eventually get him. Van Onselen is right that Rudd faces more of a threat from the disintegration of the factions than from them asserting their power. But he misses the fact that Rudd is against the factions, not just neutral about them. This type of oversight was also evident in 2008 when the media completely missed the significance of "Iguanagate", with Rudd allowing Gillard to escalate the affair in his absence. The target of that was not so much Belinda Neal, the federal MP for Robertson, but her husband, John Della Bosca, who as NSW industrial relations minister at the time was opposing Gillard’s plan to centralise IR in Canberra.

Rudd’s real attitude to the NSW Right became clearer as the premiership of Nathan Rees reached its climax at the end of 2009. His highly public support for Rees, and equally public snubbing of his replacement Kristina Keneally, was hardly for popularity’s sake — rather it was to support Rees’s attempts to undermine the Right’s power base. The problem for Rudd is not the NSW Right’s decay as such, but that it is not happening fast enough.

Just a few hours before Frank Sartor was punching the air having dumped Rees, factionalist politics had won another battle in the Senate, with Eric Abetz and Minchin celebrating their walkout from Turnbull’s front bench. Just as Keneally has exposed the power of the Right’s faction bosses in all its bankruptcy, so has Abbott’s ascension exposed the bankruptcy represented by the old guard of the federal Liberals.

To get a grasp of the political problem Abbott’s rise indicates, it is not even necessary to look at his historically poor start with the electorate at large. Abbott’s real problem is precisely in the area he was supposed to address: galvanising the "core", and that’s illustrated by the Bradfield and Higgins by-elections — the very examples many have used to vindicate promoting Abbott to the leadership.

The striking aspect of the by-elections was not that the Liberals could win the same number of votes when their main opponents weren’t running as when they were, but that senior Liberals were apparently nervous that they wouldn’t manage even this non-achievement — and relieved when they did. Why? Weren’t these precisely the core seats that Abbott was supposed to bolster up? No doubt the preceding ructions would not have helped, but weren’t these constituencies full of the type of people who were supposed to be right behind Abbott, justifying his move up?

Of course, one reason why there were nerves was uncertainty about how the issue on which Abbott had taken power, climate change, would actually play with such core voters. In fact the confusion was compounded after the election because Abbott pointed to success not with the core voters (in areas like Toorak West they swung sharply to the Greens), but with voters who weren’t even normal Liberal voters at all, let alone core ones. Following elections that were supposed to show Abbott’s ability to rally the core vote, he instead decided to talk about Labor voters who voted Liberal in Labor’s absence, even if in numbers no differently than past second preferences would suggest.

Coalition fantasies about making inroads into Labor’s voting base may be an excusable indulgence when they are actually winning elections, especially at a time when Labor is uncertain about its grip on its base (as was the case during the Howard years — even if the mythical Howard "battlers" had little to do with electoral reality). But having the same fantasy about Abbott’s "army" when the Liberal primary vote is bumping along below 40 per cent is more an indication of the confusion over exactly what their core is than anything else.

Traditional Coalition voters may prefer someone who tells them the "game is back on", but Abbott has no real basis for keeping them on the team. The problem is that when it comes to the real Liberal "core", big business, Abbott may be able to amuse them by being rude about Rudd and hairdryers, but he has no actual program to offer them. As far as IR goes, big business seems more concerned that the Government properly communicates its policy rather than changes it. On Government spending, big business was fully in favour of the stimulus — their only concern was to make sure they avoided paying for it. Given that Lindsay Tanner is more focused on cutting back the public service than touching Howard’s tax cuts, they probably need not worry.

With nothing especially to offer the interests of the "core" that set up the Liberal Party, Abbott represents an attempt to create a core and a program out of thin air, serving more the interests of a Liberal Party looking for a role, rather than serving its traditional sponsors. In doing so, Abbott is adopting the tactics of a party that is in an even worse state, the Nationals. This is a party that has actually lost core seats that once provided former leaders, like Lyne and New England. Barnaby Joyce is the Nationals’ experiment in trying to create a constituency out of anti-politics sentiment and is using climate change scepticism to do so. The fact that they lost their core seats to strong advocates for climate change action is conveniently ignored in their upside-down view of political reality. The Liberals are following the Nationals down this path before they’ve even reached the Nationals’ level of decay.

There has been advice in the press for Rudd to back away from the climate change issue but it remains his strongest weapon against the Coalition. It is why Abbott has flip-flopped around on it and has had to make his first policy speech on the environment. But no end of local initiatives can change the fact that the Coalition has blown the gaff on its real attitude to the one issue that Copenhagen at least confirmed is critically important internationally. Labor will probably need a focus group to tell them this, but the simple response to Coalition attacks on Labor’s climate change policy is not to get into the ins and outs of who will be better/worse off or costing and funding, but merely to remind everyone of what the current leadership was boasting only a few weeks ago — they don’t think there is a problem in the first place. By doing so it will remind everyone of the central weakness of the current leadership of Australia’s traditional establishment party, and that it is out of touch with mainstream opinion here and abroad.

But while the exhaustion of the politics of the past may be the central problem affecting the Opposition, it’s also a problem for the Government. No doubt Abbott will raise all the old political themes of the past — boat people, union power, wasteful government spending — to unnerve Labor, and given Labor’s lack of a social base it may have some effect. It will be a confusing year as the media mistakes the often violent decay of the old politics for its revival, while waiting for the old comfortable parameters of the past to return. Unfortunately for them, the political class is still being led by someone who has a very different objective on that score.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.