One of the wiser things Bill Gates ever said, if he said it, was something like that the internet affected the world in such a way that nothing appeared to change from moment to moment, but if you looked away for even a brief time, it had completely altered when you looked back.

Maybe it wasn’t Gates, and maybe it’s a commonplace anyway that people close up to the action frequently miss the bigger picture, which is changing more quickly than they could ever tell from watching the detail. Like those of us in the Press Gallery, for example.

Take the basic proposition that the Government doesn’t have the numbers in the Senate, so any bill that the Opposition might care to dispute is automatically in trouble, to the extent that the Greens, Nick Xenophon and that other lunatic may not automatically endorse it as a bloc.

“The federal government’s proposed vehicle for shoring up the commercial property sector faces an uncertain future, with confirmation at least one piece of legislation will be required to establish it,” Laura Tingle and Mathew Dunckley wrote in the AFR today. Absolutely correct, because Malcolm Turnbull has been tearing strips off the idea from the moment the Government began spruiking it last week. You can’t see them voting for it and Bob Brown — correctly — sees it as a scheme to prop up usurers and shonks rather than invest in our infrastructure and social fabric.

However, the broader political reality is that anything that enables the Government to paint the Opposition as failing to cooperate in its efforts to handle the financial crisis is a political gift that will keep on giving.

No one outside Canberra and the commentariat and the affected sectors knows much about Ruddbank. No one especially cares. If the Opposition attempts to block it, the Government will happily explain that its efforts to keep job losses in the property sector to a minimum, and avoid a dangerous set of fire sales for our banks, have been stymied. It will be a powerful message, hammered over and over and over again in Parliament and outside it.

The detail doesn’t matter. The commentariat, the Gallery, the political class, can debate the detail, but all voters will hear is that the Opposition is trying to stop the Government from handling the crisis. Rudd would love nothing more than to paint the Opposition as irresponsible and more interested in political games than addressing the crisis, and he will do so with minimal regard to the actual facts of the matter.

I complained last year about Rudd and Swan incessantly repeating the same keywords in their public comments about the crisis, but noted they weren’t engaged in a dialogue with the Gallery, or commentators, or schmucks like me who count words in their speeches. They were talking through the media, over the media, to voters.

The world has changed. Voters are looking to the Government for leadership, for action. And, really, for the illusion of control. Beneath all this is the terrifying thought that no one can control what’s going on, not Kevin Rudd, or Barack Obama and his team of the best and brightest, that we’re on an express ride to hell and none of the controls work, regardless of who works them. Governments need to provide some sense that they (a) know what’s going on and (b) know what to do about it, because the idea that no one is in control scares people, in a primal way.

And the thought of the Senate blocking the Government from doing what it thinks should be done will worry voters. For the time being you can forget that house of review stuff.

This is different from the Government’s tactics on IR and the ETS. In both cases, its tactics have been to paint itself as moderate, responsible and balanced, and suggest that those to the Right and Left are extremists. The Coalition want to bring back Workchoices, and don’t accept climate change. The Greens want to impose huge burdens on employers. The Government’s tactics for getting both pieces of legislation through the Senate will be a subset of its broader strategy of maintaining its image of moderation. Almost certainly, if the Coalition blocks the ETS, the Government will be delighted to go the next election maintaining it was prepared to do something responsible about climate change, but the greenhouse denialists in the Coalition prevented it.

Ditto on IR, although employers are now getting more traction with their argument that the Government’s new framework will cost jobs. A few more angry protests from trade unions about the bill might not go astray, but the Government will always have Workchoices to fall back on. A failure to get either bill through the Senate would be portrayed as a disaster by us in the Gallery, but Kevin Rudd can simply use it to point out to voters how he, Mr Moderation, is being prevented from doing his job by extremists.

When it comes to the economic crisis, however, your average voter won’t be interested in what the Senate thinks about whether the commercial property sector is worth propping up. This is primal politics, driven by the knowledge that things are seriously bad. At those sort of times, debate rather than action isn’t tolerated. It’ll be different in a year, when voters have had twelve months of job losses and recession and might be starting to wonder whether the Government is up to the job. But for the moment, voters will be inclined to the view that the Government’s opponents should, in Julia Gillard’s words, “get out of the way.” The world has changed.

Which leaves the Coalition, trying to stay relevant, in a difficult position, as it does the Greens, who are admirably committed to the notion of the Senate’s review role as a critical element in Australian democracy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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