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Australia's political goldfish bowl from the outside


'Election 2013' by Chris Johnston. Childlike depictions of Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, with Abbott looking proud of his large pieces of Australia and Rudd looking despondent about his small piecesWhen an election results in a change of government, a stock line of punditry is to search for a 'when was it lost?' moment.

There will be those, for example, who cite Kevin Rudd's stilted and uninspiring performance in the first leaders' debate. Others will point to his increasingly panicked, policy-on-the-run approach to campaigning, which resulted in eyebrow-raising pledges about tax cuts for Top Enders and moving the Garden Island naval base to somewhere north of the Tweed.

Those who seize on these promises will typically do so by way of arguing that the 'old' Kevin, the one sacked by his Labor colleagues in June 2010 for not being a team player, had resurfaced — indeed, that he had never really gone away.

Still others will attribute Labor's downfall to the toxic atmosphere of disunity that characterised its second term in office, steadily leaching away the voters' trust. Depending on who gets cast as villain-in-chief, the blame in this line of argument is attributed either to the beneficiary of the coup of 2010, Julia Gillard, or to the undermining of her prime ministership by Rudd, the man she deposed.

These explanations are favoured by intra-party pundits, who on Saturday night could be heard telling interviewers that disunity is death, and that if Labor is to rebuild it must move beyond the divisions of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era. Since most of these party elders also hinted at whom they blamed for disunity, it may be doubted whether the divisions will heal anytime soon.

Good arguments can be made in support of each of these theories, and they are not mutually exclusive: they all go some way to explaining why later this week the Governor-General will commission Tony Abbott as Australia's 28th prime minister, at the head of a Coalition Government with a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives.

But for me the real when-it-was-lost moment came just past the midpoint in the campaign, and it was truly bizarre, far stranger than anything Rudd might have said about relocating the navy or tax inducements to live in the tropics. And if the campaigning politicians and the media pack following them round the country noticed it, they chose to ignore it. That is not surprising, because it was an event that exposed the assumptions both groups work by. It was the publication of a leader in The Economist, calling for the return of the Rudd Labor Government.

I do not, of course, suggest that this text, lucidly and cogently argued though it was, could have had any direct influence on an Australian election. That is not only because in this instance the magazine's advice evidently went unheeded, but because scarcely anyone in the demographic that actually decides elections — voters in outer-suburban marginal seats who really aren't interested in politics — is likely to be a reader of The Economist.

Nonetheless, the international news magazine turned a very dry eye on the murky goldfish bowl of Australian politics. And in the process it demonstrated, without intending to do so, why Abbott was better placed than either Rudd or Gillard (or, by extension, any prospective Labor leader) to hook and reel in the bowl's inhabitants.

As The Economist's leader noted apologetically, endorsing social-democratic governments does not come naturally to the magazine, which is philosophically aligned to parties of the centre-right. Thus The Economist flagged the strangeness of its own intervention in Australia's election campaign. Then it set out its reservations about the Rudd Government: most notably, the adoption of an Abbott-like punitive attitude to asylum seekers; Rudd's 'mercurial' temperament; and internal divisions that made 'the Chinese Communist Party look harmonious'.

But against all that, the magazine set 'Labor's decent record'. It pointed out that, exceptionally among developed economies, Australia has enjoyed 22 consecutive years of growth. It was impressed that Labor had been able to maintain growth, even after the global financial crisis, while introducing reforms such as fairer education funding, disability insurance, the pricing of carbon emissions and a national broadband network. The magazine was not perturbed by the size of budget. On the contrary, it argued that Rudd's approach to reducing the deficit was 'more likely to add up' than Abbott's.

All of this is why Australian politics, and especially the election outcome, must seem weird to those who do not inhabit the goldfish bowl. The Economist was not the only international observer to judge that, by most objective measures, Labor's achievements should be preferred to the Coalition's offerings. The US Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote that the alarm so easily aroused among Australians by low levels of public debt was laughable; the US, Japan and most EU nations would all gladly swap Australia's debt problems for their own.

That is the big picture, yet none of it was acknowledged in Australia's dismal, dispiriting election campaign. The Economist's leader is my when-the-government-lost-it marker precisely because its informed arguments described everything about this country except electoral reality. The Government defeated on Saturday can take a substantial share of the credit for creating the material conditions The Economist lauded, but it was the Opposition that created the voters' mindset.

Rudd and his treasurer, Chris Bowen, put as little effort into conveying the big picture as Gillard and Swan had done before them, and most journalists have shown little interest in doing so, either. Abbott, however, always seemed instinctively more attuned to whatever it is that persuades people in one of the world's most affluent nations that their prosperity is under imminent threat, and that it must all be the government's fault.

His assuredness in this line of attack was underscored by the fact that by the end of the campaign he had adopted, with no loss of credibility, many of the Labor policies he had once inveighed against: the Gonski school reforms (at least the initial stages), the NBN (albeit in cheaper, weaker form), and even a receding date for returning the budget to surplus.

As it happened, the Coalition's victory, though clear, was not the obliterating landslide some of the newer, seat-based opinion polls cited during the campaign had suggested. The outcome on election night was also a victory for the methods of older researchers such as Newspoll and Nielsen, whose predictions closely approximated the result. Yesterday Labor was on track to win at least 57 seats in the 150-seat House, and the Coalition at least 86.

Rudd's pride, evident is his concession speech, in having saved so many of his colleague's seats is justified. Gillard partisans may demur, but remember that when Rudd replaced her as prime minister polls were indicating that Labor would win barely 35 seats. One internal party poll even predicted Labor would win as few as 27 seats.

Nonetheless Rudd made the right decision in announcing that he will step down as party leader. He should also resign his seat at the earliest opportunity, and bring the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era to an end. Labor must start over again, but finding a leader who can eventually lead the party out of the wilderness will not be its hardest task. That will be finding a narrative that is not composed by its opponents.

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, election 2013, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Labor, Coalition, The Economist, Joseph Stiglitz



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Existing comments

If Rudd stood down and the libs. got the seat he would then be blamed for letting down the team.

Marilyn | 09 September 2013  

It was certainly a resounding victory to the Coalition and I think Abbott's disciplined and focussed electioneering made a difference - although I do agree with the adage that "elections are lost by governments not won by oppositions". The whole sorry Rudd-Gillard-Rudd scenario is over, thankfully, and Labor now needs to truly regroup behind a new leader. I think the significant vote bestowed on minor parties (including Greens) shows the disenchantment of voters with the major parties and, unless Abbott & Co. take serious note, this trend may well continue. Clive Palmer may henceforth be too busy striding the corridors of Parliament House to worry about building his Titanic replica!

Pam | 09 September 2013  

This excellent article sets out incisively the fundamental problem besetting the contemporary ALP. While the ALP may foolishly believe there is such a thing as post-ideological politics, the truth of the matter is that its opponents do not.

Tim B | 09 September 2013  

Thanks Ray for an excellent analysis. Those of us who live in the real wider world are gobsmacked by the myopic self-interest and crass ignorance of many of our fellow citizens. This election has been a very sad comment on our community.

Paul Collins | 09 September 2013  

The Economist has been an increasingly left-leaning mouthpiece for several years. This statement says it all about its grasp on things here: "It was impressed that Labor had been able to maintain growth, even after the global financial crisis, while introducing reforms such as fairer education funding, disability insurance, the pricing of carbon emissions and a national broadband network." Why did no-one tell the Economist that, with the exception of carbon-pricing, none of the huge spending sprees for these alleged "reforms" has actually made its way into historical budgets? Stiglitz' point is equally off-base. The fact that cancer patients in palliative care would willingly swap places with someone just diagnosed with stage one colon cancer doesn't prove that the latter is a healthy specimen.

HH | 09 September 2013  

'The whole sorry Rudd-Gillard-Rudd scenario is over, thankfully'? Wishful thinking, Pam? Rudd hasn't gone, nor will he resign from Parliament. Even now, I suspect that he is planning for his return to leadership for the election in 3 years' time.

Ginger Meggs | 09 September 2013  

Maybe it's not so complicated, Mr Cassin. May be simply poetic justice. Kevin-07 set off for his heaven Mounted on a pony But when he got there The saints didn't care They said, "Hey! This bloke's a phoney".

john frawley | 09 September 2013  

Fear and greed won over social equity and reform. Tony Abbot attacked our social responsibilities and put today's surplus ahead of real standards of living and investment in the future.And Abbot is a devout catholic ? Rich get richer,and poor become poorer.We will pay with more social malaise and the cost will be dealt with in the decades to come. Foreign ownership is more troubling than a few thousand refugees.Australia will become a tax haven for the rich: a lean, mean fortress. Kevin and Julia were both strong,visionary leaders handing over buoyant economy along with impressive reforms but..the message was undermined by caucus and the hunt for a celebrity. A Conservative 'Liberal' stranglehold is not a healthy democracy. Gone is the definition of A Fair Go. Historically, Eureka is where the heart and soul of this country is defined.. Balance of power is essential.Voters gave Independents and Greens increasing support thankfully and ALP must give power back to members at the grassroots. Obama has shown it can be done.

Catherine | 09 September 2013  

This election was lost by Labor due to too much self interest and not enough on ordinary Australians. Disappointing to read Catherine judging Tony Abbott as a devout Catholic: if it is not a criticism then what is it? No one can judge another's faith response. If the ALP have been providing a Christian response over recent years, then I must have missed it. I am pleased Australia has a PM now who will not deny his beliefs or bow to populist policy

Jackie | 09 September 2013  

If Rudd had been able to resign his seat after the 2010 election we may all be in a better place - unfortunately the hung parliament made this impossible.

Michael | 09 September 2013  

I thought this was an interesting considered article and fascinating to put beside Frank Brennan's essay. Reading the comments one can only consider the frequent futility of discourse when so many minds are settled before reading a word.. Frankly the new government will do some relevant things, some irrelevant, some stupid and a few immoral rather like the last, But in general the Economist and Joseph Stiglitz had more to offer than the diatribes we have read before and often from HH ,John Frawley and Ginger Meggs. I suspect they could basically be written without reading the article. Then some of the diatribes about Abbott are equally predictable.

Brian Poidevin | 09 September 2013  

If you are right, GM, and Rudd is plotting (yet another) comeback, then Bill Glasson should stick around. He won't have to do much at the next election!

Pam | 09 September 2013  

Well said Jackie! I could not have said it better.

Penny | 09 September 2013  

Good afternoon, Brian Poidevin. Diatribes are indeed funny things. I have read somewhere that they exist in the perceptions and sensibilities of those who detect them and that those who produce them don't recognise them. In our pluralist society, I suspect that we all dish out the odd one.

john frawley | 09 September 2013  

Surely the elephant in the room which neither the Economist nor Ray has mentioned is the roughly one third of voters who could not bring themselves to vote for either major party in the Senate. This is an increase on the 2010 results reflecting increased disillusion with both major parties. Orderly changes in government are a healthy element of our democratic system; increased disillusion with the system is not. Neither major party shows any interest in addressing this problem.

Ginger Meggs | 09 September 2013  

What is meant when one calls another devout? Tony Abbott told Annabel Crabb he doesn't get to Mass every Sunday and he made no mention of going to church yesterday(when asked by a journalist of his plans for Sunday)- only of a bike ride and meetings! Jackie should watch 'Kitchen Cabinet'-and listen to Tony Abbott on faith and politics. Labor deserted its roots with its asylum seeker policy; it failed to sell its economic successes and aired its dirty linen in public. Penny Wong refused to play the blame game with Leigh Sales (on the ABC last night); one hopes all other ALP party members follow her lead and unite to refocus and rebuild the party.

Daria | 09 September 2013  

What is forgotten is that the Westminster system of Government relies on a Cabinet System and team work. A prime minister is the head of a team not a president. Unfortunately we have adopted an American style of political advertising based on personalities. Basically we elect a local member of parliament . If he or she do their jobs well they will be re-elected.

John ozanne | 09 September 2013  

A question we cannot answer of course is, did Rudd save Queensland at the cost of Victoria? Or perhaps, he can thank Campbell Newman. But, it always puzzled me that Labor never took the initiative to defend its activities. Swan bleated away about how tough the economy was, when it was actually in good shape relative to other economies. Gillard never defended herself against the "no carbon tax" myth with "but I did say there would be a price on carbon". Or even, "when circumstances change (requiring Greens and Independents support), one must respond with a changed policy". The only explanation I can think of is that they did not understand that doing the job competently was not enough. Doing a good job gains nothing, because that is what you are meant to do. But, any negatives, deaths caused by incompetent pink-batt installers, for example, become magnified into big issues which distract and detract. Maybe Australia was lucky and the Keynsian solutions applied were just the right strength and prevented a collapse in demand. But perhaps, the mining boom increased supply (of exports) at just the right time too.

Peter Horan | 09 September 2013  

I agree very much about the ex-government's failure, for two terms, to explain the real economic picture to the electorate. Their advisors seem to have no faith in the ability of people to respond to anything more complex than buzz-words. I hope the next leaders learn something from the failure of that strategy.

Andrew Lynch | 09 September 2013  

The Australian Labor Party needs to have a 'good hard look' at all aspects of it's organisation. In the last 30 odd years it has alienated itself from the Australian community. It has become a very insular, centralised and bureaucratic organisation. There are no political strategists of the calibre of blokes such as Bob Hogg or Mick Young. There are no altruistic visionaries such as Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan. In the last 30 odd years Australia has developed a culture of apathy and complacency which has been borne out of affluence, social and political stability and a very mild climate with no serious natural disasters.

Mark Doyle | 10 September 2013  

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