Often described as a pursuit for adolescents, politics is in some ways a lot like adolescence itself: all panic and drama on the inside, while all that’s transmitted to the outside is a set of vague and incomprehensible impressions.
Living in the bubble of the Government-Opposition-Press Gallery axis can condition folks to thinking every twist in the story is tragedy or triumph. There’s not much to do in Canberra sometimes except gossip and write copy. But for the Australian voter the real meat of the thing lies not in the political thought of Bonhoeffer but in bread prices; not in arguments over Milton Friedman but in mortgages.
This is true of the Australian electorate more than almost any other body politic, which is largely unmoved by great ideologies or spine-tingling rhetoric. The grand William Jennings Bryan-style oratorical schtick bombs in front of an Australian audience. To accept that kind of proselytising, that kind of oratory and leadership, requires first an acceptance of the greatness of the evangelist and as DH Lawrence wrote, "… no man in the colony believes another to be better than he, merely better off". It’s why the word "elite" remains an insult and why climate change denialism has found a more fertile home here than almost anywhere else in the world.
Consequently, the Australian people remain unmoved by appeals to the spirit. The cultural and political Left never grasped this — never understanding why their attacks on John Howard failed, they assumed that racism and xenophobia were behind his appeal. No doubt that was partially true, but only partially. Howard was the safe, the known, the comfortable; the neighbourhood accountant providing good results in your pocket.
The small-picture message Howard stuck to wasn’t just a preference of his own. The small picture is the Australian way. We feel a need to be comfortable with our political leaders, sure that they won’t rock our insulated boat too much. Some would deride Kevin Rudd as "Howard Lite", but such analysis ignores the reality that Rudd’s being anything else would’ve merely guaranteed three more years of Original Recipe Howard.
Likewise, the complaints from conservatives agitating against Malcolm Turnbull, the complaints that they wanted a leader "like Howard", ignored history. Howard, the great conviction politician cherished in conservative memory, spent most of 1995 disavowing his core beliefs in order to become acceptable to the Australian mainstream. From Medicare to immigration, industrial relations to the GST, all the principles Honest John had previously declared inviolable fell away in a fair imitation of St Peter and the rooster.
So the question facing the Liberal Party has been, what is the core of their belief? What is their soul, their nut, their raison d’être? For a party which combines anti-unionism, classic liberalism and conservatism this has been a bewildering issue and — in the bewilderment — they forgot, for a while, that the Australian people demand small-picture vision from their leaders, not great clashes of academic ideology.
For their part, the Labor Party has been enjoying the rosy reflected glow of office. Kevin Rudd never held himself out to be ideological warrior so much as competent salesman. Unlike Beazley, Crean or Latham, Rudd is no creature of the Labor Party; instead he comes to politics with an attitude born of bureaucracies and foreign embassies.
In fact, the Labor Party has more and more become a creature of Kevin Rudd. Since becoming leader in 2006, he has cajoled and bullied the institutional ALP in a way his predecessors wouldn’t have thought to do, let alone tried. Unionists found themselves expelled for swearing on construction sites. Candidates have been variously disposed of and imposed upon electorates. Rudd’s office is now in control of the decisions of the wider ALP to an extent that Hawke or Keating in their heydays never dreamt of.
Rudd has been enabled in all this, not by a powerful factional base, but by the Government’s standing in the polls. As long as he and his administration continue to enjoy popular approval, he’s been able to dare the party machinery to publicly oppose him in the full knowledge that they won’t. It’s a long way from the ALP’s "36 faceless men" who Menzies scared Australians with because of their power over Labor leader Arthur Calwell.
Given that Rudd’s internal position with the ALP is even more dependent than previous leaders on public acquiescence, the result has been a deliberately non-confrontational style of government. In strategic terms, the Government has been content to promulgate policies that are generally one degree to the left of wherever the Opposition has staked a flag. Approval ratings and poll numbers stay high, Rudd stays leader and the Liberal Party has largely stayed irrelevant to the political discourse except as sideshow.
Little wonder, then, that more than a few Liberals went looking for an issue on which to "take a stand" and differentiate themselves from Rudd Labor. The first two years of ALP government saw only one minister’s scalp claimed (that hapless, hopeless professional descendant Joel Fitzgibbon) and the only other major Opposition attack was hoisted on the petard of Godwin Grech’s mental illness.
As a broad strategy, therefore, Rudd’s plan has worked. As a mechanism for achieving results, however, it leaves much to be desired. Seeing high approval ratings as an end in itself has led Rudd to manufacture his policy and rhetoric to maintain record poll numbers rather than use those numbers to deliver strong policy results and the necessary rhetoric to sell them.
The most glaring example is the ETS, where, after controlling the climate debate for almost all of his leadership, Rudd now finds himself on the back foot. Rather than use his position to forcefully lay out his plans for climate action, his softly-softly approach has left Labor vulnerable to spurious charges of ineffectiveness and financial catastrophe. This is a miscalculation: when you’ve got the bully pulpit in front of you, that is not the time to be playing well-intentioned defence but to produce strong results and explain clearly what you are doing and why.
The Government can claim among its victories a remarkably deft defusing of the global financial crisis and some generally positive economic indicators. From interest rates to employment, Labor has answered almost every economic question put to them by circumstance. The case is less clear in education, with unions and self-appointed progressives pushing against Julia Gillard’s policies while the public appears to roundly endorse the execution. The less said about health by the ALP the better.
It is too early to tell whether the Opposition has put enough distance between itself and the Howard government, whether the electorate buys their climate policy and whether Abbott himself is seen as familiar enough to be trusted with the prime ministership or too well-known as a loose cannon to be considered safe. From the vantage point of February 2010, however, it seems clear that these three issues will go a long way towards deciding the election and the party that can leave the rhetoric at home and deliver a vision of practical results for suburban families will be in government come 2011. If it delivers nothing else, Abbott’s leadership seems, right now, to have returned the Liberals their focus on the average Australian.
And that means we have a contest.
In the months before the coming federal election, Luke Walladge will be writing a series of snapshots for newmatilda.com looking at key players in the contest.
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