Stand for Something or Fall for Anything

March 2013 will long be remembered by political tragics as a month of brutality that would surely have made Brutus himself wince.

Labor’s botched leadership coup may have been Rudd-less but it certainly wasn’t bloodless, with a series of ministers caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, on the conservative side of politics, a premier and a chief minister were knifed after a string of unfavourable opinion polls.

Leadership change and renewal are inevitable in any democracy. Ultimately, even the most successful leaders must eventually step aside or face their makers, be they in the parliament or the electorate. However, the frequency of the leadership changes of recent years suggests a disturbing trend in our politics.

It is fashionable to blame the media and its preoccupation with opinion polls for this unedifying musical chairs, but in truth the major political parties themselves have also driven this shallow political culture.

The seeds for this current malaise were sown during the Hawke and Keating governments. While this period is often hailed as a golden age of economic reform, Labor’s embrace of economic rationalism precipitated its current identity crisis.

The party of protection was no more. Labor’s new economy not only shrunk its traditional working class support base, it exposed sharp divisions between that conservative demographic and Labor’s other constituency, its progressive middle class.

The ‘party of the workers’ has struggled ever since to construct a coherent narrative, one that the reflects the reality of globalisation but also resonates with its two competing constituencies.

Rather than resolve these internal contradictions during its 11 and a half years in opposition, from 1996 Labor adopted a small target and relied on leadership changes to paper over the cracks. The brand was fine; it was the salesperson that was the problem. Enter Beazley, Crean, Latham, Beazley (again) and Rudd.

The prevailing view was that Labor could beat the Liberals by offering Howard era policies, with a softer edge. In the end, Labor’s identity crisis remained unresolved when in 2007 it was swept to power by a broad coalition of voters disillusioned with Howard and his toxic industrial relations policy.

In office, however, Rudd struggled to hold this coalition together. Leading a party without a shared vision made it easy for the new Prime Minister to shift with the polls. It also made it easy for his party to dump him when those same polls turned against him.

Like Rudd before her, Gillard has struggled to spell out a clear Labor vision, adopting a raft of contradictory positions, again seemingly with an eye on the polls. Like her predecessor, lack of conviction has only served to feed speculation about the Prime Minister’s leadership. For if you have faith that you are heading in the right direction, there is simply no need to change the captain.

The Liberal side of politics has faced its own crisis of identity. Hawke and Keating’s embrace of economic rationalism wrong-footed the Liberals in opposition and they too struggled to determine their agenda in an era in which Labor appeared to have stolen their thunder.

Under John Howard they found a new focus; continued support for economic liberalism and the reforms of the Hawke/Keating era, but with a staunchly conservative social agenda. Gone was the small ‘l’ liberalism of Menzies and Fraser.

The fall of Howard saw the Liberal Party remake itself once more. Under Tony Abbott it has adopted a new course; that of reactionary populism. While Abbott may well support many of Howard’s policy prescriptions, this doctor is more about “no”.

Abbott’s Liberal Party is committed to destroying the Labor government, whatever it takes. If this means disowning initiatives of the Howard era or contradicting long-held Liberal policy, so be it. The policy detail will come later, we are told. Probably after the election.

Should widespread disaffection with Labor propel Abbott to the Lodge, he too will struggle to set out a consistent agenda. As demonstrated by the fall of Ted Baillieu and Terry Mills, like Labor, one can expect the Liberals to turn on a leader without the unity that only shared vision can bring. After all, a politician will only stare down the barrel of an opinion poll or follow their leader off an electoral cliff if they have faith in what they stand for.

Australian politics has become a peculiar paradox. Government now oscillates between a Labor Party that is not labour and a Liberal Party that is not liberal. There is consensus on so many fundamental social and economic questions that, free of the ideological constraints of the past, the major parties simply tailor their positions to suit the political circumstances of the day.

The result is politics without conviction and the superficial preoccupation with leadership is symptomatic of this shift towards reactionary, short-term populism. In this sense, rather than being the nadir of our politics, 2013’s Ides of March may well prove to be an ominous sign of things to come.

This piece was first published on the ABC’s Drum Opinion on the 8th of April 2013.

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