The Only Way Is Up


Suddenly Labor seems to have remembered that politics can be about leading as well as following.

Perhaps it is simply that Labor has no other options left. The government has shown itself to be manifestly inadequate when it comes to the day-to-day tactics of selling a policy, defending a position or winning a contested argument.

Time and again over the past 18 months, Labor has lost or conceded crucial arguments that it should have won: on the stimulus package; on the deficit; on the value and effectiveness of building school halls and libraries. Crucial political advantages, like a once-impregnable lead in the polls, a mandate for genuine policy change — even a first-term PM — were squandered in a breathtaking succession of unforced errors. Nor did a change of leaders stop the rot. The undoubted talents of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, were obscured by a string of fatal campaign blunders, like the "real Julia" debacle.

And yet, by the narrowest of margins — indeed, by a negative margin in terms of primary votes and Parliamentary seats — the government somehow scraped back in. Labor does not govern in its own right, but rather at the pleasure of a Green and three independents. Well behind in all the 2011 polls, Julia Gillard and Labor are as close as it possible to being to opposition, while still being in government.

And yet Labor is still the Government. The Opposition is still the Opposition. And over the last fortnight, that reality has started to re-assert itself.

In part, that’s because Labor has started to perform better. It could hardly perform worse than it did in the second half of 2010, so perhaps this is not unexpected. But Labor also seems to have finally begun to get on with the job of governing, and that has started to make a difference. A couple of recent examples demonstrate the point.

In January, Julia Gillard’s flood levy was pilloried by much of the conservative media, but turned out to be surprisingly well received by voters. And this week, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen’s hesitant and tortuous reiteration of the Government’s support for multiculturalism also showed surprising signs of courage.

In contrast, the Opposition’s iron discipline of 2010 has started to fray.

As this week’s events have shown, the Liberal Party was never intrinsically unified and always harboured the usual amount of backbench disaffection, factional combat and leadership intrigue. But, enforced by a belief that it would soon win government, the Coalition stayed remarkably cohesive during Tony Abbott’s term as leader. Now, as it begins to dawn on many that they will remain in Opposition for another three years, the leaks and the manoeuvres have begun.

One of these leaks — the revelation that Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison argued for anti-Muslim rhetoric as a tactic to unsettle the Government — turned out to be quite damaging this week. This is not just for the obvious reason that Morrison’s arguments are deeply disasteful. It is also further evidence of the Opposition’s ruthless streak. Sometimes this ruthlessness can lead to tactical misjudgments, as with Abbott’s knee-jerk attack on the flood levy, or Morrison’s nasty race-baiting on the issue of the government paying the travel costs of some attending the funerals of victims of the Christmas Island boat tragedy. There can be little doubt that many in the right of the Liberal Party want to race Labor to the bottom on immigration policy.

But what happens if Labor takes a stand? Bowen’s speech to the Sydney Institute showed tantalising signs. It has already had an impact, not least by reminding us just how successful Australia’s experiment in diversity has been. The Government may find there is more latent support for diversity and multiculturalism than it realises. Back in the 1980s, Labor’s support for multiculturalism proved devastatingly divisive for John Howard’s Liberal Party. Since that time, Australia has become more diverse, not less. And for conservative politicians representing diverse electorates, there are dangers in appearing too extreme. Western Sydney may or may not be full of rednecks, but it is certainly full of people born outside Australia.

This is even truer for Australia at large. Despite the fantasies of conservative politicians and commentators like John Roskam, Australia is and has always been more than a "Judeo-Christian" society. The term itself is a strangely hollow one: conflating two hugely different and diverse world religions and equating them to the values of modern society is intellectually disingenuous, at best. Conservative thinkers also seem to forget that democracy itself began and flourished in the fundamentally pagan society of classical Greece. And even when we take Australia since 1788 as our focus, multiculturalism is perhaps best understood as a brute fact of history, rather than some modish relativism adopted since the 1970s.

There is the not insignificant matter of Australia’s Indigenous peoples and heritage, for example: a continent full of nations before 1788, all of them about as far removed from the Judeo-Christian tradition as it is possible to get. There is Australia’s long history of Chinese and south-east Asian immigration. Nor does our society’s dominant economic ideology — focused on profit, obsessed by free markets and trade, almost a faith in itself — have much in common with the teachings of the Jesus of the New Testament.

Examined with anything like the necessary rigour, the "Judeo-Christian civilisation" idea breaks apart easily. Conservatives can hark back to a whiter, more European Australia, but to do so requires a wilful blindness to the true complexity of Australia history and society. Labor can gain strength from the embrace of this reality, while the conservative movement sidelines itself in Kipling-esque fantasies of White British-ness. Like it or not, modern Australia is a society of many hues, colours and faiths.

One of the other things that happened this week was a deal on health reform. Apart from showing that federalism is still alive and kicking, its significance remains clouded. Certainly, few health policy experts were impressed.

But politically, this was a win for the Prime Minister. It was classic Gillard: while the policy particulars were disappointing, Gillard needed to neutralise the health debate so she could move on to other priorities. This she achieved. Policy matters little when you are polling 32 per cent of the primary vote.

Since taking Labor’s leadership, Gillard has consistently shown herself to be an effective behind-the-scenes negotiator. She knows the value of securing a deal, and seems prepared to sacrifice previous positions.

On health reform, Gillard grasped the essential point: ordinary voters don’t care about the funding arrangements for public hospitals. They just want waiting lists reduced and emergency departments to function. Ultimately, it is the states who voters will blame for botched operations. The Commonwealth’s political capital will be spent elsewhere, while incremental reform continues to trickle through the system. Kevin Rudd tended to bluster and berate; Gillard negotiates and compromises.

On hospitals, the end result was much like her compromise on the mining tax: where she sacrificed billions in potential tax revenue to enable a deal at all. Gillard’s pre-election deal on the resources super-profit tax could cost $60 billion over the next 10 years — one of the most expensive compromises in history. On the other hand, such numbers are by definition hypothetical: should it pass Parliament, Gillard’s mining tax deal also means billions in extra dollars for roads, schools and hospitals that Australians would not otherwise have shared.

Gillard’s deal-making will expose her to the inevitable attacks that she is all about expediency. That won’t worry her, one suspects. Her real challenge will be to pull off enough agreements in enough critical policy arenas to convincingly argue that she has achieved her goal of "decision and delivery". If the same trick can be pulled off in carbon pricing, Gillard might just be able to point to a "reform".

It’s worth pausing on the obsession that many in the commentariat have with the notion of "reform".

It has been taken as given that the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating era were both brave and necessary milestones on the path to Australia’s current prosperity. The historical truth of this assertion is very much open to debate. One of the results of lowering tariff barriers was savage deindustrialisation in states like Victoria and South Australia. Nor do the pedestrian longterm returns of most superannuation funds live up to the arguments made for these compulsory savings accounts. "Reform" is a goal asserted by political elites, not ordinary voters.

The wisdom of this can be debated long into the future, but its political effectiveness will become apparent rather sooner. Over the last fortnight, Gillard and Labor have shown enough mettle to suggest that they are far from finished as a government. If this momentum can continue, further cracks may open up in the Opposition. And if Labor can manage to govern quietly and courageously for a while, the focus will remain on the Opposition.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.