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June 19, 2011

I’m going to write a lot about Labor. I was originally going to write an article defending the current government (I know; what?), but I’ve been thinking about many things in Australian politics a lot as of late, so I think I’ll be writing a few articles, in a less-than-structured style, but at least you’ll get my cutting wit and brilliant insight!

I apologise in advance for all anecdotal and incidental references to quotes and articles; believe me in almost all cases I’ve spent considerable time attempting to find the article online, but it can be difficult when your keywords are “polling”, “Rudd”, “ETS”, “Abbott”, etc. Know that I only choose to include such references when I am sure of the accuracy of my recollections, which is as professional as I can be without sacrificing editorial integrity. This applies to every blog I write.

Rewind: This government was elected for being Coalition-lite. While we cannot compare Howard too strongly to Rudd – for instance Rudd has always been very genuine in his support for a legislative agenda to address Climate Change – they did agree upon more than a few things. Furthermore, if you really look at everything the Labor party did in their first term, asides from the Apology (although their subsequent inaction was 100% Liberal), you could attribute most of them to being policies that the Coalition could’ve undertaken. The stimulus package may have been smaller, the scheduled ETS would’ve been more business friendly (although Rudd’s one was so watered down that the Greens blocked it on legitimate concerns that it would have done very little and simply rewarded polluters, hardly encouraging change) and hell, Fair Work is hardly much of a concession to trade unions. Now a few observations deserve to be made about Labor’s first term:

  • The stimulus package was the second biggest in the world proportionate to the size of a nation’s GDP (which has always been a crappy measurement tool but nonetheless). The Coalition bleeted on about how awful it was, and how it only should’ve been half that size. One of Malcolm Turnbull’s lesser moments (there are many, but I do quite like the man), I’ll admit. As Ross Gittins pointed out many times last year and well into 2009, to calls that “the economy’s fine, why aren’t we rolling back the stimulus” , in fact the economy only held up as well as it did due to two major factors; the sharp interest rate cuts from 7.25% to 3%, as well as the immense fiscal stimulus that the Rudd government successfully implemented. While I cannot provide solid proof, I do recall reading how the argument that China and the resources boom pulled us through the GFC was absolute nonsense, as the mining sector in fact contracted significantly, whereas manufacturing and agriculture held pretty steadily.  Anecdotal and a weak way of saying it, I’ll admit, but I’d rather this blog be honest rather than issuing bland, meaningless and factless definitives. We already have the Liberal party for that. I digress; rather than the economy’s strength being in spite of stimulus, it was fundamentally because of it. I’ve read more than enough to understand that Monetarism, ie: “forget spending just lower interest rates” is not applicable to the real world. Good job Rudd, Swan & Tanner.
  • The current workplace is not particularly union-friendly; they only have about 20% membership of the workforce, which is frankly disgraceful, but does reflect the changing composition of the Australian economy. That said, while Fair Work was not particularly union-centric (it just restored some credibility as Workchoices would have utterly destroyed them in the long run), unions have too large a say in the Labor party compared to the average rank-and-file, which is a key issue as by-and-large unions have not really been keen proponents of social issues. Indeed, Labor’s internal debate could very well boil down to the persistent struggle between the socialists and the proletariat. It is not a fight socialists win very often.
  • Even very early assessments of Rudd as a Prime Minister acknowledge that he did not delegate work effectively, I remember listening to Jonathon Green from Crikey talk about this at the end of 2008. To say he was dictatorial is unfair. A more considerate assessment would be that he was a poor manager despite his obvious ability. I reiterate what has been said many times; Rudd’s fall from grace was not because of bad polling per se, but the polls gave Labor an excuse to dump the leader they so despised.
  • Every time that Labor went to the right or were indecisive about things, such as asylum seekers (thanks for making that an issue again Labor!), the Henry tax review that was practically ignored despite its excellent suggestions, deferring the ETS; it never failed to hurt their popularity and support. This is also completely ignoring the pet issues of the left such as gay marriage and mental health which have overwhelming public support (my favourite [unfortunately unsourced] figure is that gay marriage has about 60% popular support in the most Labor and Liberal electorates, whereas in the marginal electorates it is either unpopular or 50/50). I’ll paraphrase a quote I remember Rudd making, which goes along the lines of ‘When one pushes through big reforms of course they can expect to take a bit of flack’, and Peter Hartcher’s subsequent critique; ‘Well actually, Rudd’s popularity has gone down because he’s failed to push through key reforms, not because he’s been too bold’.
  • As an opposition leader, Tony Abbott did not have significantly high polling, at least while Kevin Rudd was leader. I remember an smh article accurately critiquing that in fact, Abbott could be called the most ineffective opposition leader in the last 20 years, as all opposition leaders six months prior to the assumed election time had all had significantly higher polling than the Prime Minister, with five out of seven cases resulting in the incumbent managing to claim electoral victory. Only John Howard and Kevin Rudd succeeded where Peacock, Hewson, Beazley (and Beazley again) and Latham failed [which brings me further to conclude that people vote parties out rather than voting them in, but that’s an issue for another day]. The point being that Kevin Rudd was in a strong position to win the election relatively comfortably. Seats would have been lost, but first term governments typically lose seats, so this would not be unusual. Maxine McKew would not have kept her seat in all likelihood.
  • Once Rudd abandoned the ETS (at Swan and Gillard’s call,  both of whom I am completely unaware as to how they could have justified such a mind-boggingly misinformed decision), he had little credibility. His almost-immediate health campaign was a transparent attempt at moving debate onwards, to an issue few really understood or cared about asides from “more beds in hospitals” and “more doctors and nurses” [huge amounts of people care about health, but few, myself included, really understand the core issues surrounding it asides from the very basic fact that it needs more money and doctors and nurses should be paid more, but alas i digress]. His “victory” in the health debate against Tony Abbott and successful negotiations with the premiers was accurately perceived as a distraction by the public from a very monumental decision made by the Prime Minister, seeking to defer discussion from what really mattered; what were we doing about climate change, which he had personally chosen as the issue to define him? He failed to express the ETS as a “deferral” as opposed to a backflip. Frankly even if everyone did understand it was a deferral, they were right to regard it as a reversal. Alas Wayne and Julia revealed their true lack of understanding of politics in this defining moment far more than Kevin did. However he was leader, and he rightly wore it.

There’s much more to say. I may choose to say more in the future; I really have little idea of where I’m going with all of this, and it may overlap with my previous blog about Labor’s woes (which you can see here and here). That said, anybody who talks to me regularly knows that the issue of Labor in Australian politics concerns me greatly, so I will continue writing as I see fit, or at least until I get my broad point across.

Regardless, in conclusion, the Rudd government was not a bad government, and in fact somewhat resembled the Howard government in its initial few years – broadly activist, implementing several reforms after being elected in a landslide. Facing negative polling however, one party stood strong, while another stood fractured and divided. Many of Rudd’s schemes were hair-brained. The “BER” was largely misguided, the laptop scheme certainly was. That said, certain things were also very good, and some we really haven’t seen the full result of yet – maybe the BER will turn out good, the Health Reforms are unclear, the Mining Tax was certainly a very good idea and excellently designed tax if poorly executed [and watered down, thanks Gillard], not to mention proper fiscal policy that no Coalition government would ever have had the courage to enact.

That said, Labor was better when it was throwing money at policy instead of contemplating a more gradual and considered transition of policy into the twenty-first century. Then again, maybe it was best that Labor hit the floor (and subsequently the wall) running, as they’ve progressed little since. As I’ll discuss next time, the only path Labor seems to have taken is one following the conspicuous Rudd-shaped hole in the wall. Just with a 90 degree turn to the right.


From → Political

  1. Ozzy permalink

    i can’t believe i read and understood most of that. i guess economics isn’t as complicated as i thought. 🙂
    you just gonna write about the failings of labor? please say something about the generally awful and infuriating state of Australian/Western politics. i.e how oppositions basically dissent for the sake of dissenting and how it’s based on fear, negativity, etc.

    • There is very little here that’s really economic – and really the management of most countries doesn’t even boil down to cleavages in theory a lot of the time, but rather doing with what everyone agrees makes sense. The vast majority of economics is about a capitalist system, and there is frequently less theoretical disagreement than political disagreement, that is to say: more disagreement about what should and shouldn’t be considered important.

      Although I do stress that there are huge disagreements upon actual theory between the many different schools and even intra-school theorists, just that you’d be hard pressed to find someone that disagrees with the statement “monopolies create higher prices than competitive firms do” or “investment is good for economic growth”. While people may agree upon general concepts, they may disagree about how they’re enacted within an economy.

      Not sure regarding the rest of the world – certainly the whole twenty four hour news cycle is something I regard with disdain/bad for democratic societies, but I’m not sure if I could really write that much in regards to the rest of the world/write much more than hearsay and generalisations.

      I’ll say this much: I do plan on writing about at some point how the weakness and communicative incompetence of the current Labor government reflects the weakness and pure incompetence of the current opposition.

  2. John permalink

    “To say he was dictatorial is unfair. A more considerate assessment would be that he was a poor manager despite his obvious ability.”

    I disagree with your assessment. You’re completely undermining – and missing – the key reason for the disposal of Rudd. Rudd’s incompetency extended beyond poor delegation. He completely repudiated the Hawke system of a consultative team of MPs. His micro-managing of every member lost him respect. You cannot simply dictate to members their responsibilities – even telling some which school to visit, in their own electorate!
    Once he assumed the office of Opposition Spokesman, Rudd viewed with contempt his colleagues and failed to build any sense of commradery or ‘team spirit’. How then, do you expect the cabinet to support a leader, especially when policies – like the ETS – are pushed with little cabinet input or discussion. Like it or loathe it, politics is about compromise and consultation. The friends, that Rudd lacked, would have come in handy at that point. That is why the ALP changed leader. That is why the ALP hasn’t looked back.

    • John permalink

      But I agree with the other aspects of your analysis.

    • This blog was intended to be about the Rudd years and to give an informed background about his two and a half years as Prime Minister, I was going to save my analysis about the knifing (love it how Whitlam got “dismissed”, so polite, but Rudd got “knifed”) for my next blog. The one after that will likely be about current Labor’s problem, but I might throw in something about the Coalition, who knows. I don’t really have any notes written down.

      I agree mostly with what you’re saying. As I’ll explain next blog, while agree Rudd’s behaviour was unacceptable, it was also indicative of a fractured, self-interested and frankly immature party. I don’t really want to get into it because I was hoping to save it for the next blog, but in a nutshell; there should have been some safeguards and in general a sense of “let’s make our grievances heard”, not “fuck it we can get rid of him let’s do it”.

      I’ve read many reports and articles about the whole knifing issue, and from those I do agree with what you’re saying, of Rudd being a twat and an ineffective leader, I’m just trying to look at the bigger picture.

      • Indeed. Ultimately, though rarely acknowledged, I think the timing and substance of the David Marr article on Rudd’s behaviour dealt a significant blow as well.

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