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Apr 16, 2012

Power in Canberra: parties fractured by inexperience

Political power in Canberra has changed in Australia in recent decades. It has become harder than ever to effectively use.

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Political power in Canberra has changed in Australia in recent decades. It has become harder than ever to effectively use.

True, the financial and legal power of the federal government has grown steadily at the expense of the states through years of centralisation. But there have been other forces at work. Privatisation has removed major areas of economic activity from political control. Governments are under constant pressure to adhere to the broad economic “Washington consensus” of budget discipline, deregulation, privatisation and low taxes. An independent Reserve Bank controls monetary policy. A floating currency and a liberal foreign investment further minimise the role of government.

And power is more contested than ever before. The tools of influence — lobbyists, economic modellers, market researchers and pollsters — are now widely available. In the last five years, two major anti-government advertising campaigns have seriously damaged governments.

Canberra may have greater power, but effectively using it is harder than ever.

And as The Power Index’s list of the most powerful people in Canberra will show, the people wielding power have changed. The professionalisation of politicians, the development of a professional class to whom governing has, in effect, been outsourced by voters, has altered the make-up of parliamentarians from the traditional post-war model of politics as a second career.

The result is the most inexperienced generation of political leaders since WW2. John Howard, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke, Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam all had extensive parliamentary experience and extended stints as leaders, ministers or in public life before becoming prime minister.

In comparison, Julia Gillard, like Kevin Rudd, has only been in parliament since 1998; Tony Abbott, the most experienced of the current generation, since 1994; Joe Hockey since 1996; neither Hockey nor Abbott held senior portfolios under the Howard government. But what they all have is extensive experience as political staffers: Gillard to John Brumby during his period as Victorian opposition leader; Rudd traded in his diplomatic career to work for Queensland premier Wayne Goss; Abbott was a journalist and then media adviser to John Hewson; Hockey worked for NSW premier John Fahey.

At the same time, political parties have not merely ceased being mass-membership entities, they have become disconnected from policy debates and increasingly controlled by the party hierarchy. As a consequence, the skills acquired by parliamentarians now revolve around internal party tactics and the delivery of factional patronage rather than ideological conflict, meaning the traditional skills of effective debate and policy disputation have been lost.

Labor has travelled further down this road than the Liberals, and it shows in its struggle to effectively communicate with the electorate. It is no coincidence that two of its most effective ministers, Greg Combet and Bill Shorten, come from senior positions in the union movement, where policy debate and dispute are still important, rather than via the more usual route of ministerial advisers.

Political power comes in different forms, too. For most politicians, their power is confined to the hard power of regulation and spending, limited by government process, heavily contested, highly accountable. But for leaders, and a limited number of the most influential senior politicians, they have access to soft power as well: the capacity to influence debate, to set the public policy agenda, to attract voters with their vision of Australia and to inspire and reshape the country beyond the direct capacity of law and spending.

The most effective Australian leaders of the last generation — Hawke, Keating and Howard — all combined both forms of power, giving the electorate a clear narrative about where they saw Australia’s future, what they wanted to do to achieve it and their agenda for doing so. And soft power was also deployed effectively against political opponents, particularly by Howard to paint Labor as weak on border protection.

Gillard has proven adept at wielding hard power, with a remarkable record of legislative success for a minority government and a solid record of reform — a carbon pricing package, the MRRT, the Future of Financial Advice package, winding back middle-class welfare. But Gillard has struggled to master soft power, to exploit the bully pulpit of the prime ministership to shape public debate and electoral perceptions of her and complement and strengthen her reforms.

This failure to master soft power is the key reason why Labor currently faces an intensely hostile electorate.

*Read the full story at The Power Index

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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31 comments

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31 thoughts on “Power in Canberra: parties fractured by inexperience

  1. Gillard and Swan have been saying for 12 months or more that is struggle to effectively communicate with the electorate.

    Gillard added 200 staff in the last budget and the same excuse prevails.

    Perhaps the penny is not dropping that the electorate does not like her message, as experience in the last two State election, where there was Federal spill over.

    Votes have more information now, more sources, more arguement and less of the ABC’s left wing bias as there are more alternatives to reality

  2. Gillard to John Brumby during his period as Victorian opposition leader; Rudd traded in his diplomatic career to work for Queensland premier Wayne Goss; Abbott was a journalist and then media adviser to John Hewson; Hockey worked for NSW premier John Fahey.

    duds one and all:
    Brumby turfed as opposition leader and famously impervious to polling and stats he didn’t like;
    Goss Won with a bigger swing than Campbell Newman only to p!ss it away by 1995
    John Hewson? nuff said;
    And John Fahey lost to the far cleverer Bob Carr;

    What classrooms!

  3. If Gillard, wasnt so dull and boring to listen to, maybe people would listen to her message, definately the wrong person to LEAD??.
    I am going to get some recordings of her speeches, to use to put me to sleep.
    Hopefully, Christine will bring some sense and interest to parliament!, surely we deserve better than the present crop of seat-warmers.

  4. What has border protection got to do with anything.

    Why does every freaking bloviator and mindlessly cretinous commentator have to use that expression.

  5. BK has completely avoided the role of a partisan media.

    Led by Limited News which has dragged Fairfax down to it’s level, Australians are badly served by a corrupt media that reports scandal , gossip and press releases as real news.

    The real rot began with the claims Paul Keating was “arrogant”, repeated ad finitum by Packer’s network and News Corp and eventually picked up by others like Fairfax who perpetuated it as the claim that “Keating is perceived as arrogant” myth until every man and his dog believed it.

    We witnessed just recently the corruption of the media promoting a handful of billionaire mine owners anti-tax campaign and not one single ghastly hack ( except Ross Gittins) bothered to investigate the truth of the mines situation.

    Now we know that these wealthy mine workers (unlike the deceitful adverts on TV which depict them as homes pun Aussies) blow into towns, drive up rents and spend little money there, departing as quickly as they came while mine owners buy steel abroad.

    How can you not equate the media as part of the problem?.

    In the end we get KENNETHROBINSON2 saying “if Gillard wasn’t so dull” as though Howard was the life of the party. Gillard’s policies and actions are what count as where Howard’s when he invaded 2 countries that never harmed Australia.

  6. “This failure to master soft power is the key reason why Labor currently faces an intensely hostile electorate.”

    Keane says it’s just a failure to “influence, “attract” and “inspire”. A marketing ishoo. They lack “experience”, etc.

    As political analysis, this is obtuse: the Coalition front bench is, if anything, less attractive than Labour’s. With the comedic exception of Joyce, there’s little flair or charisma on the Right. And Abbott’s polls are similar to Gillard’s.

    The chasm between the two is due to policy, not incapacity at wielding “soft power” or any personal characteristics. Labour’s mess derives from bad policy incompetently managed. Abbott hardly needs policy- and hasn’t much to offer.

    It’s not about selling. It’s the product, stupid. Voters know the carbon tax is pure Monty Python: a tax handed directly to the “polluters” and the losers, a penalty which cannot change behaviour. A “tax on carbon” in the midst of a colossal state-sponsored carbon boom. A unilateral tax in a global market. A tax on the weakest links of local industry.

    Voters also know the energy substitute (“renewable energy”) is premature, rorted, very expensive and cannot possibly replace fossil fuels given current technology. Yet much of the “carbon tax” will be squandered on wind, solar etc.

    No point inventing more Real Julias or clinging to flotsam like Bob Carr…Labour will rendezvous with the iceberg unless it dumps the carbon tax and associated renewables fiction.

  7. Here I was thinking the ABC was mainly right wing ,stacked by howard,then of course snout in the trough,reith,costello,vanstone,hewson,abbott,howard,mirrabella,hunt,morrison, making biased untruthful comments, appears the first poster thinks they are lefties.

  8. Michael de Angelos
    Posted Monday, 16 April 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    “BK has completely avoided the role of a partisan media.

    Led by Limited News which has dragged Fairfax down to it’s level, Australians are badly served by a corrupt media that reports scandal , gossip and press releases as real news.”

    Couldnt agree more both the biggest selling newspapers (sic) in Australia the Hun the Tele have both gone feral against the ALP and PM Julia if Abbott was given the same treatment his rating would be zero!

    The ABC also seems to want to lick Murdochs arse and will follow the News Ltd line hook, line and sinker.

    Fairfax is in a race to the bottom and turning into a sleazy tabliod trying to stem the gallons of red ink!

    Its a pretty horrible time to live in OZ

  9. Newmans Police Miister has had to resign,wow just two weeks in office,for driving without a licence before the election,should have to resign from parliament as well.

  10. [“What has border protection got to do with anything.

    Why does every freaking bloviator and mindlessly cretinous commentator have to use that expression.”]

    Hey Marilyn,

    How many of your boaties died this week on the high seas? Doesn’t worry you a bit though does it

  11. Hey geewizz does not bother the two biggest rascists in abbott and morrison either,who both support the greens policies on onshore processing,even though the liberal policy is offshore processing is abbott voting against his own policy if put to a vote,nowthat is facts.

  12. Christine Milne becoems grand leader of the Greens Party(aka Quasi Prime Minister).

    The next day Gillard announces Australia is pulling out of Afghanistan.

    Coincidence anyone?

  13. @ truffie – yes, the Afghanistan withdrawal and Milne’s ascension is a coincidence. These decisions aren’t made overnight. It would not have been done without the impramatur of the US.

    @ Frank Campbell – so the renewable energy sector is “premature” in your language – what’s that code for? Not to pursue it all!? You are too chicken to come out and say you openly support the fossil fuel industry, and this, from a professed ex-green. You really are a coal-chewing fraud.

  14. An ex-Green, but not an ex-green, Karen.

    The “fraud” is pretending that current renewables can substitute for fossil fuels. Rapid reduction in CO2 emissions is only possible in the short term by switching to gas. The world is heading for a gas glut right now, with US gas prices very low.
    But the Greens reject gas because it is a fossil fuel…so you and your ilk perpetuate the wind/solar fiction…

  15. Geewizz: I didn’t spend years campaigning against nuclear to capitulate to it now…it was quite clear in the 70s that the north east coast Japanese reactors were directly facing a big nasty fault. Scandalous. They knew all about tsunamis. It’s a japanese word for chrissake..Then they spent 40 years lying about the safe management of the plants. Tepco is despised in Japan.

    The idiocy of some Greens on nuclear (not most) is exemplified by George Monbiot -says he was converted to nuclear in a flash- the Fukushima flash.

    Climate millenarianism has a lot to answer for.

  16. Frank,

    What sort of green are you then? One that doesn’t believe in the science that exposes the climate change problem (nay crisis really) or one that doesn’t believe that the world and particularly Australia need to make any sacrifices now in order to address the problem?

    I agree that despite the Green’s efforts the actions put forward by the government are designed to be completely ineffective and enrich the polluters, not reduce Australia’s emissions. But what is your answer? Do nothing? Is spending money on renewables really going to cost more than the possible (now probably) collapse of civilization within a generation or two. Surely Australia should at least try even if its ally in arms, the US is intent on undermining all efforts to act.

  17. Ian: I’ve argued for three years here and eight years altogether that this kind of climate extremism guarantees the rise of the Right and makes any serious climate policy unlikely. This extremism also vitiates green activism on the environment- all effort goes into prosecuting the cult. The policies generated by this zealotry are self-defeating, premature, cruel, stupid and irrelevant. They are also anti-working class and against the interests of the poor.

    The science is still in its infancy, yet it has been distorted and exaggerated by the Flannerys, Hamiltons and Gores – to the extent that public credibility has been damaged. Observational science supports the CO2 hypothesis, but is based on very short data sets. Far more data is needed before the complex climate interactions can even begin to be clarified. Plateauing of temps in the past decade has generated even more uncertainty. No one has a fracking clue what will happen in the near future, let alone several decades ahead. The Mann/Trenberth/Jones clique is itself paralysed by fear that their claims may be crumbling- hence the invention of defensive hypotheses to explain the temp. plateau. Read the East Bumcrack emails.

    The Left and Greens need to completely rethink their strategy. They must admit their abysmal failings; apologise for the contempt, abuse, ostracism and discrimination directed against all critics in the past few years; realise that mistaking computer models for science traduces science; realise that their own class position shapes their bizarre, self-destructive ideology and policies.

    The last part is the hardest. You have to see yourselves for what you are- a narrow, inner urban, carbon-hypocritical, privileged cohort- united by propinquity and isolation from most of society and the environment. You don’t need a thermometer, you need sociology.

  18. Frank,

    So you are a climate denier, I thought as much.

    Your outcry is full of unsubstantiated and meaningless assertions and is insulting to anyone with just a modicum of intelligence and/or concern for humanity in general. Your excessive use of superlatives to drive home your point fools no-one – it’s bullsht nothing more nothing less.

    And your last paragraph is an insult and again full of crap. You are not worth trying to debate.

  19. Ian: your reply is exactly as expected. It neatly exemplifies the Manichean mind-set of climate millenarianism. If we’re not craven Believers, we must be infidels.

    Anything less than complete capitulation is heresy. Heresy justifies severe punishment, just as the prospect of imminent Armageddon justifies any action, no matter how draconian.

    Progressive politics in this country is in a dire state. Climate extremism is the proximate cause.

    If the simian priest rules for the next decade, what exactly are you going to do? In Victoria we already have cattle in the national parks, expanded logging, state-sponsored burning of the forests – and other redneck barbarisms.