While we lament the inability of the Rudd Government to provide a strong narrative for its economic agenda, it hasn’t been for want of trying.

An important element of the Government’s self-presentation has been its claim to being at the centre of Australian politics — with the logical assumption that other parties, and particularly the Coalition, are not.

Kevin Rudd calls it “the reforming centre“. Peter Hartcher discussed this back in April. Like many terms in the Prime Minister’s phrase book, it is taken from Tony Blair. Julia Gillard calls it the “progressive centre” or, just to cover both bases, the “progressive, reforming centre“.

Wayne Swan, significantly, doesn’t engage in these sorts of positioning statements. Rudd and Gillard are the ones who do the vision thing.

The Prime Minister offered a similar sort of positioning when selling the Government’s Green Paper on emissions trading. In July, he told The 7.30 Report “we’re going to get attacked from the left, and that’s what the Greens are doing. We’re going to get attacked from the right and that’s what Dr Nelson is doing. My job’s to get the balance right for the future.”

Just in case we missed it, he repeated it moments later: “The Greens on the left out there, they may not like what we’re going to do and they will say it’s not as pure as the driven snow. Well I’ll cop that on the chin. And you will have the climate change sceptics on the right corner saying that we shouldn’t be doing anything.”

Part of this positioning is an attempt to marginalise the Greens, by painting them as extremists and economic vandals. The Government has made clear it wants to deal with the Coalition on the emissions trading scheme, not the Greens and independents. That is one of the reasons it kept up so much pressure on the Opposition during its confusion over the issue. The Government actually had a considerable stake in the Opposition ending up back at the Howard position of supporting a scheme unconditionally.

Rudd was doing the variant of this yesterday in Perth on Fuelwatch, in light of the independent senators indicating they were unlikely to back it. His comments were revealing.

“The Liberals are the ones who control this in the Senate and what the Liberals have done federally is decided to side with big oil companies against consumers. It is the Liberals who decide what happens in the Senate…”

And again: “The ball lines are very much in the Liberals court [sic]. The Liberals decide ultimately the passage of these matters through the Senate…”

And again, when directly asked about the concerns of Xenophon and Fielding: “… frankly the decision making power lies with the Liberals.”

Well, Prime Minister, it doesn’t. The Liberals are only one of several parties and independents that call pass your bills in the upper house. But obviously it is the Coalition — and the influence of “Big Oil” over them — that is Rudd’s key political target; Xenophon and Fielding do not pose a threat to his chances of re-election. And Rudd’s intention of appearing firmly in the “reforming centre” and uninterested in the minor parties isn’t incompatible with his Senate leader Chris Evans busily negotiating with any vote he can find — Green, independent, National — to get a bill through.

The Greens, however, are different. They pose a threat to the Government — not an existential threat, but one sufficient for Rudd to engage in an unsubtle and dishonest campaign of marginalisation. Green voters are the types inclined to regard the “reforming centre” of Australian politics as the problem and not the solution — the reason we’re in the environmental mess we are now. They occupy similar ground to the ALP’s left-wing supporters who are likely to become frustrated with the Government’s conservatism. The more the Government emphasises its cautious and incremental approach to key issues such as climate change, the greater the risk of losing votes to the Greens.

The Greens have talked the talk on their electoral performance for a long time, without really walking the walk (or biking the bike). But the 2007 election, and attaining party status in the Senate, was as close to a breakthrough as they’ve yet obtained. And Greens think they have a real show of knocking off Lindsay Tanner in Melbourne. Last November, Tanner suffered a 2% swing against him ended up on 54.7% after preferences, to the Greens’ Adam Bandt on 45.3%. Bandt out-polled Tanner at a number of booths.

The problem with the Prime Minister’s marginalisation of the Greens is that if anything it may exacerbate rather than prevent the drift of left-wing votes to them. By strongly emphasising his Government’s centrist nature, and the importance of dealing with the Coalition in the Senate rather than the Greens and independents, Rudd risks demonstrating the very problem that left-wingers are likely to have with his Government. The Government and Greens might be too far apart for a deal on an issue like emissions trading, but to have appeared to have tried would possibly be more effective for Rudd than flaunting his unwillingness to deal with the Greens.

The additional resources the Greens have obtained with party status, and their embrace of popular positions like an immediate, significant increase in the pension rate, will further strengthen their capacity to reach out to traditional ALP voters. The arrival of young senators Scott Ludlam and Sarah Hanson-Young will — with all due respect to Senators Brown, Milne and Siewert – also lift their mainstream media profile.

The “reforming centre” might be the ideal location to ensure votes do not drift off to the Right — but boasting about it might accelerate the drift of votes to the Left. Lindsay Tanner and other inner-metropolitan seat holders might have reason to think the Government’s positioning statements need to be a little more subtle than they have been.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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