|Yes Mr Abbott, it's a little black hole.|
I have been trying to think of a way to describe what Australian federal politics has turned into across the last two election cycles. The consensus on the 2010 election was that it was the worst in memory, and while that hasn't been said much about the one just gone, that's probably because it was no better and people have accepted this low quality debate as the new norm.
There were a number of signifiers during the election of what I think of as the statification of Australian federal politics - which I would define as the federal level devolving in influence to the level of states, with federal-level power being ceded to global markets and the RBA.
The first, and most emblematic, was when Tony Abbott stood in front of a pothole on the Great Ocean Road as he was announcing a rather small investment in road maintenance. This is normally the province of state or local government... but that is what federal government is becoming. The Liberals are nominally the party of small government - albeit that their history from Menzies through Fraser and Howard has been to increase public spending. Now we are faced with the prospect of a government so small that it doesn't function at all, as the Abbott government still hasn't been sworn in more than a week later. You can't get much smaller than no government!
A couple of articles also crystallised this view. The Piping Shrike has been pushing the line that the economic debate has changed in that prospective Prime Ministers can't get away any more with claiming that they can control the economy to the extent that they used to in the Good Old Days, pre-Keating, when we were hid behind a wall of tariffs from the coming globalisation.
The government enters this election with what appears a confused economic message. On the one hand it seems to be saying that it was its stewardship that meant Australia avoided a recession through the GFC. On the other hand it is warning that a Chinese slowdown will mean unemployment will rise whatever it does.
This seems contradictory if the economic debate is still seen in the old way. However, the common theme running through the message is a new way economic policy is being viewed, namely that government is not responsible for the state of the economy, rather just for protecting the electorate from the worst of it.The Shrike's original post on the election assumed it would be fought on the economy, as has been the default assumption on any Western election post-Clinton, but this turned out not to be the case at all. The Shrike has been, to the extent that it is possible to assign labels, a Rudd backer. His underlying narrative was that Rudd was going to usher in a new era of technocracy, with Labor being reborn from the ashes of unionism into a Zegna-suited, wonkish future. They would succeed where British Labour has failed, supposedly, in reinventing themselves as a party of Confucian smarty pantses, free of the vestiges of class struggle. In this scenario, the antediluvian Libs flailed about still speaking the superseded language of Howard, playing the role of "stupid" in "it's the economy, stupid".
His next article expanded on Labor's attempt at technocracy in the same vein, but showed indirectly why it wasn't going to work.
Having gone to such lengths to confirm the independence of the RBA and Treasury, we are now seeing on Labor’s side an increasing political synergy with them. But not as before. Not as institutions that are ultimately subservient to the government, but what could be described at best as an equal partnership or even subservience in the other direction.If Rudd was to be our new emperor, was his manifesto to be to follow whatever Glenn Stevens wanted? Who runs the show? There is a conflict between acknowledging that we are a small fish in a globalised pond full of external sharks we can't control, and pretending that we can solve our problems through wonkish nudgery. It particularly doesn't work if you swallow the austerian rhetoric of the other mob, and leave the task of expansionary policy to the monetary side. Stevens is more flexible in his policy than Rudd was or Abbott is, given the bipartisan obsession with debt. The Prime Minister is like a state Premier now, with Stevens in the role of the PM doling out favours in the form of interest rate cuts.
There are major flaws with the theory of Labor becoming a technocratic ruler class. The main one highlighted in the election campaign was that Rudd's slogan was "A New Way", but he never attempted to define what that was in any way at all, as I highlighted in a recent post. It's all very well to harken back to Blair's Third Way, but if there's no substance behind it then it's not going to work. There was not actually a new way at all, just old ways trotted out one more time, like Bruce Hawker's cheap suits. It's easy to make fun of the Libs for having the ineffectual Arthur Sinodinos and the black cloud that is Andrew Robb as their brains trust, but where was the vision from Rudd? Perhaps more importantly in the long term, if the caucus is renewed by apparatchiks, former staffers and celebrities, where is the fresh thinking going to come from?
Speaking of Hawker, the defining article of the campaign was this one by Peter Hartcher, detailing his descent into the murky depths of a focus group, probably set up by Hawker. Abandon hope for a compassionate society, all ye who enter here. 22 years without a recession breeds complacency, no better illustrated in this series of #firstworldproblems complaints. This is how Rudd played the game, and he lost badly to Abbott. He failed the vision test. Keating would have listened to such whinging and whining, and changed the game to make all of it irrelevant.
Now, at this point you might be thinking that I'm looking with rose coloured glasses at Keating and all he stood for. We don't necessarily need another PJK. Part of the problem is that so much work in making the Australian economy globally competitive has already been done, so what is there left for a putative Prime Wonk to do? Stand in front of potholes like a pissant councilman, make an effort to balance the books, and leave the heavy lifting of Keynesianism to the RBA? To accept that is to accept the framing of government by the right.
It is difficult to see the next Labor leader as being able to drag Labor into the 21st century. The party is still riven by left and right factions, by unions versus technocrats, by the NSW Right versus the rest. Talk of the party dying is silly, yet the barriers against someone leading it into a future of government in the short term are numerous and high. The best they seem to hope for is for the Libs to implode, since the internal inconsistencies and weaknesses of the Abbott platform are legion.
For the record, I think Albanese would be the better candidate. Shorten has looked like a beaten man since making the fateful shift to Rudd. Albo would take the fight up to Abbott, and energise the caucus if not the base for the likely long stint in opposition ahead. His similarity with Daniel Andrews, however, can't be denied. Just as Andrews has proven to have a lack of cut through in Victorian politics in the face of the broadly disappointing Baillieu/Napthine snorefest, as merely another state politician who is about as exciting as an accountant, Albo may not be able to get enough media coverage to get the public to see the punches he lands on Abbott.
When even the Prime Minister doesn't think the business of government important enough to sign up for it in the first week after winning an election, the public can be forgiven for turning off. They turned off state politics long ago, and now they are turning off federal politics in droves. This is a failure of the political process in Australia, and represents the ultimate victory of the right if it continues. It will probably take a recession to jolt us out of our complacency... and if the Coalition follows its own austerian bulldust, it will allow one to happen, probably during its first term if various forecasts are correct. That may be the only catalyst possible for all sides of politics to sit back and reassess where the whole Bruce Petty style contraption is going.