Kevin Rudd had every reason to feel chuffed as he departed last week to add his five cents worth to solving the world financial crisis.
After what has generally been a depressing and frustrating first quarter, he pulled off two big wins: the Fair Work legislation got through the Senate substantially intact, and Labor had an easy win in his home state of Queensland.

With the commentators predicting great difficulty, if not outright defeat, in both cases, the Prime Minister might feel that even if the economic cycle is still clearly running against him, the political climate at least has changed for the better.

But at the risk of being seen as just another turd in the sh-tstorm, this column has reservations. While not in any way denying that the government has won a couple of important victories, there are some unpleasant portents for the long war ahead.

Even the most blasé Labor supporter must admit that Anna Bligh’s triumph was not the result of an overwhelming love for her personally or for her administration, still less a manifestation of Queenslanders’ long-suppressed desire to elect a female premier. It had more to do with the absence of any real alternative.

While voters have occasionally returned to previously rejected conservative leaders (Bob Menzies and John Howard spring to mind) there are limits and in the end Lawrence Springborg was seen as just another boring Tory hack, well past his use-by date, with nothing to offer but negativity.

Looking across the chamber of the House of Representatives, Rudd might feel much the same about his own opposition, whether it is led by the man who never was, Peter Costello, or the man who usually isn’t, Malcolm Turnbull. But it must be said neither potential federal leader is quite as lugubrious as the Borg and either would present a more formidable challenge.

As living standards continue to fall and those who swung to Labor in 2007 become disillusioned and desperate, more than a few of them may be overcome by a feeling that things couldn’t get much worse and a nostalgia for the boom days when they were undeniably better. So far, Rudd has managed to convince the doubters that even if the world is being overwhelmed by the forces of financial devastation, he is the best one to hold what is left of the line in Australia. But there is a long way to fall before we hit bottom and no guarantee of a swift bounce back up.

The other warning from the north is although many people thought the bad times would polarise the voters, they didn’t: far from being sidelined the Greens did rather well, although, as always, not nearly as well as they had predicted after studying the herbal tea leaves. If that happens federally, Rudd will have to do some difficult and probably distasteful horse-trading, at which he is not very willing and not very good.

This of course is the lesson of the long and bumpy ride which led to the Fair Work Bill finally becoming law. It is now clear that the Senate has become totally uncontrollable. It is a long time since it made any real pretence of fulfilling its original purpose as a states house, but there have been periods when it has functioned quite usefully as a house of review. Legislation proposed by the government has been modified and often improved, which is as it should be. But the current Senate is rejecting legislation out of hand.

The Coalition senators apparently see themselves as some sort of government in exile, with a mandate to cling to policies rejected by the electorate a year and a half ago. They are acting, in Paul Keating’s words, like unrepresentative swill. The Liberals, split between the Costeleological ideologues and the Turnbullsh-tter pragmatists, are at least occasionally coherent in their various positions, but the Nationals, increasingly under the manic influence of Barnaby Joyce, are beyond the reach of reason.

Which leaves the cranky crossbenchers as the government’s only real hope of getting its program implemented. It must be said that Greens are emerging as the most rational group of all of them; they are prepared to deal and to confine themselves (so far at least) to the broad outlines of the legislation at hand. What is more, they want a result, not a stalemate, and are prepared to negotiate until one emerges.

But the terrible two, Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding, are both political outlaws in the worst tradition of Brian Harradine. Each has an obsessive agenda of his own and each is prepared to make absurd demands, often utterly unrelated to the bill being debated, as a condition of his support. Each, at different times, has shown an unwillingness to compromise that goes beyond mere pig-headedness; in Fielding’s case at least it seems positively psychotic.

Neither can claim any kind of popular mandate; 99.9% of the population had never heard of them before they emerged, fully armed, in the Senate last year as a result of preference deals, most of which were made in the mistaken belief that they would not lead to either being elected. Between them, they represent three-fifths of five-eighths of very little indeed, yet they see themselves as dictators of national policy.
It is true that they only gain power with the support of the coalition, but given the increasingly obstructive stance of Costbull and Turnyellow, they will have plenty of opportunities before the next election. Rudd’s choices: give in to blackmail and bad policy, abandon the government’s program, or call a costly, disruptive and unpopular early election.

Have a nice trip, Prime Minister. You mightn’t get much of a welcome home.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey