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Feb 15, 2013

Keane's week in review: damnation, despair in Labor's ranks

Labor has begun the parliamentary year poorly, and many backbenchers are in despair at their chances later this year.


A mood of despair seemed to settle over Labor’s parliamentary ranks this week. It could be sensed last week, but it got worse and worse as this week went on. The government is back to where it was before its, and Julia Gillard’s, mild recovery late last year.

That recovery was well-earned. There were no tactical ploys, like luring Peter Slipper into the Speakership at the end of 2011. It was obtained from the smooth introduction of the carbon price, from fewer mistakes by Labor, from a more authentic performance from Julia Gillard and from effective targeting of Tony Abbott.

That’s where the good news ended. The media consensus on the Prime Minister’s decision to reveal the election date was that it was an unmitigated disaster — a view entirely at odds with subsequent polling which revealed voters were relatively pleased to know well out from the event. Nonetheless, that and the subsequent, and entirely confected “government in crisis” coverage when the long-planned resignations of Chris Evans and Nicola Roxon were revealed, seemed to rattle the government. And the first two weeks of the parliamentary year have been marked by a listless performance from its frontline troops, including the PM herself. She needs someone to throw some grenades at her again so she can angry up.

Meantime, Kevin Rudd has continued his “look at me, look at me” performance. His act of dumping responsibility for the MRRT in the laps of Wayne Swan and the PM was particularly galling. Yes, Gillard and Swan bent over backwards to appease some of the world’s biggest tax dodgers when they allowed BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata to dictate the MRRT. They wear the blame for the current iteration of the tax.

But Rudd’s line that he was the innocent victim of Swan’s incompetence over the original iteration is nonsense. Rudd was the one who kept the Henry Review under lock and key for months after it was finalised, then launched it several months out from an election. Rudd was the one who failed to do any preparatory work in explaining to voters the need for a super profits-based resources tax. And Rudd was the one who’d already crippled his own authority a few weeks earlier when he’d “deferred” the CPRS, the decision that more than anything else, including the backstabbing by his colleagues, destroyed his Prime Ministership.

Spare us the martyred innocent routine, Kev.

But the worst aspect of the government’s performance over the last two weeks has been that, once it finally got the political agenda to where it wanted it to be — onto policy — it struggled. The Coalition dutifully confined its Question Time focus to policy matters, albeit of a rather limited kind, around superannuation and the budget. In response, Labor lacked focus. Its core message from here to the election is Gonski, NDIS and managing the economy for working people. And while Gonski and NDIS featured on the parliamentary agenda, there was no narrative (yeah, that word) from Labor, no strategic purpose to its message, particularly once it became mired in the MRRT mess, from which Wayne Swan has yet to extract himself.

As a result, the Opposition didn’t have to work particularly hard to look like a confident alternative government, even if Tony Abbott looked ill at ease in keeping himself statesmanlike and policy-focused.

It’s not as if the Opposition really is a confident alternative government. $30 billion on dams? What is this, 1963? Barnaby Joyce angrily rejected the suggestion this was a “thought bubble”. Certainly not, he insisted, it was a “key policy.” Abbott himself suggested that there were dozens of dam proponents out there waiting to build these things with their own money, if only the government would remove whatever shackles existed – shackles like environmental laws, or community opposition.

Which is the reason why Liberal MP Bob Baldwin immediately announced that there was one bloody dam that wouldn’t be being built — the much-hated proposal for one at Tillegra.

Australia’s infrastructure priorities do not revolve around building dams in the outback. They are — surprise surprise — instead where most Australians live, in our major cities and regional centres. Moreover, infrastructure policy is difficult. Governments don’t have a lazy $30 billion to throw away on dams designed to fulfil some “Asian foodbowl” cliché that won’t generate any substantial return and can’t be sold. Leveraging private sector investment into infrastructure is one challenge (on which Andrew Robb has done some good work for the Coalition). The other is for politicians to have the courage to charge voters for infrastructure, particularly in major cities where a congestion charge is urgently needed.

It’s no wonder Abbott prefers talking about dams and sending public servants to Karratha rather than genuine infrastructure policy challenges.

A half-decent government would be all over this sort of rubbish, making it into a cross on which to nail their opponents. The fact that Labor appears unable to makes the despair of backbenchers all the greater. It’s a despair that, barring an unlikely reversal of Labor’s recent polling momentum, is unlikely to disappear.

Oh well. There’s always Kevin.


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23 thoughts on “Keane’s week in review: damnation, despair in Labor’s ranks

  1. Gavin Moodie

    It is now evident that just replacing Gillard with Rudd wont do, since Swan is mediocre and key to Labor’s performance. Yes, Rudd has criticised Swan, but it was Rudd who appointed Swan Treasurer while claiming that he would choose his own Cabinet without direction from the factions.

    So Rudd will have to organise a team – difficult for someone who clearly isn’t a ‘team player’ – including at least a replacement Treasurer and possibly also a replacement Deputy.

  2. klewso

    Modern Labor seems to have no narrative beyong “What would Rupert say?”

  3. John Bennetts

    “…a cross on which to nail their opponents.”

    Yes, Easter is close, but we could do without this particular cliche’d reminder.

  4. Steve777

    I see Malcomn Turnbull is talking up a Rudd comeback. He obviously doesn’t think that restoring Kevin Rudd to the Prime Ministership will help Government, so it is amazing that anyone on the Goverment benches still thinks it would.

  5. David Allen

    Steve, perhaps if KR was resurrected (Sorry John) Turnbull might anticipate he’d instantly become odds on favourite to beat Abbott. The Libs would then panic, reinstall Malcolm, and we’d get our dream match.

  6. JMNO

    You are right, Bernard. what I don’t understand is why Labor doesn’t seem to have any staff who can write a decent narrative for them. There would be plenty of takers for the job(s). The Libs have been much more savvy media performers.

    And this is asking for comment from Gavin Moodie: why do you think Swan is mediocre? I know he is a poor media performer and talks in technocratese which is a turn-off. But do you think he has not been a good treasurer?

  7. klewso

    At the moment Priority 1 amongst Coal-ition and fallow travellers is “Divide and conquor”. When he was PM and leader they hated him and did everything they could to drag him down – now, they can use him, he’s “poor wounded Kev”?
    Labor doesn’t help it’s cause at all being rudderless – and Rudd is only two thirds of one of those.

  8. The Pav

    I really struggle with the concept that press gallery has any capacity for menaingful comment given an inability to understand the electorate.

    The Mysogonu Speech’ was totally underated and sent all the oundits scrambling to justify their mistake and now they say the early poll call was a disaster which is again at odds with the polling.

    Could the media just report the facts and not confect stories of crisis/leadership challenges etc.

    It seems the media wants to make the news and be the news instead of doing its job. If you wantto be the news quit reporting and stand for parliament but i=until then just report

  9. Gavin Moodie

    I think Swan’s performance as Treasurer has been very mixed. A+ for the response to the global financial crisis. I don’t know his responsibility for the mining tax marks 1 and 2, so I set that aside. But his handling of the budget surplus has been poor over several months.

  10. CML

    I think if they reinstalled Kevin Rudd, he should put a front-end loader through the existing ministry, only saving those who are good performers in lesser roles.
    How about Anthony Albanese, Chris Bowen, Jason Clare, David Bradbury, Tanya Plibersek, Mike Kelly, Greg Combet and possibly, Bill Shorten? That’s just a quick wish-list. I’m sure there must be others on the backbench who would make a better fist of things than the likes of Wayne Swan et al!

  11. zut alors

    It’s times like this that Lindsay Tanner’s absence is apparent.

  12. AR

    Is there any authoritative consensus of just why Krudd withdrew from the greatest moral challenge of the CPRS?
    That & his failure to go for DD early.

  13. drmick

    I agree with the Pav.
    We might get the government we deserve, but what did we do to get the press gallery.
    Blinkered, fawning, drunken, absent, floridly delusional, ludicrously out of touch and, for the scavenging parasites they have become, blind to everything other than the last carcass that they have tripped over, and the next one tossed to them by the LNP muck machine.
    Cheer up. She might just win; and you will have another 3 years to become older and more bitter. Its impossible to be more jealous or sexist pig ignorant.

  14. Damien

    Rudd’s Cabinet:

    Wong to Treasurer; Swan to back bench; Combet to Finance; Macklin to Immigration, Shorten to Resources, O’Connor to FaCS, Crean to IR, Ferguson to Climate Change – just for a laugh.

  15. klewso

    Couldn’t agree more Zut, Tanner’s trouble was that he was smarter than the Cabbage Patch dolls running “their patch”.

  16. klewso

    Damien, are there one-horse towns outback called Immigration and Resources? Or are they war-torn Third World capitals?

  17. CML

    @ Damien – I also suggested a new ministry for Rudd, but for somew strange reason, I am in moderation. Go figure!!

  18. Mike Flanagan

    I agree with some of the above contributions. Rudd, with all his antics and slavish media tarting has got some value at more senior tables than he currently experiences.
    We’re paying him. Get some value out of his knowledge, gathered from 20 years of upper echelon political and government experience.
    To my mind, giving him a ministry would help to focus both him and his observers on portfolio issues, rather than leadership.
    The current and continuing media fascination with leadership is really a variant of the old media mantra of “labour splits”.

  19. Mike Flanagan

    I think a lot of public servants maybe horrified by the above proposition. But nevertheless, he does need a narrower focus for most of his day.

  20. JMNO

    Thanks for your reply, Gavin.

  21. The Pav

    Re Damien’s post @ 14

    It just goes to show how many decent memebrs & how much talent the ALP has in comparison to the LNP.

    I mean compare that lot to Bishop (Bronwyn)Berbardi,Pyne et al

    No Contest

  22. Shaka

    I feel like a lone ranger Kevin Rudd for all his faults had one thing that this lot lack and that is vision.Vision to change things, unfortunately some of the people that he selected looked out for their own self interests. In my view being a professional polictician all through life from uninversity breeds this self centred interest group into ensuring their survival rather than work to lead the country to better things. Swan and Gillard have let us down by resting on the laurels driven by Kevin Rudd, the reasons why we missed the GFC, by relying on China and not acting early enough on infrastructure and the bizarre insistence on the budget surplus to ensure a political stance.The carbon tax that Kevin Rudd should have been fought in the double disolution. I wonder who the people were that white anted that possibility on the ALP side, you will find Ms Gillard and Mr Swan.The thing that worries me is we have a second rate bully boy politician as the alternative, with schoolboy proposals to fix the country.The press must get with the policy not the ponces, otherwise this great country will suffer.

  23. klewso

    Shaka, any politician who hangs out with op-ed hacks (like when George Bush calls) thinking they like them for being them – when they’re really there for a feed (like scrub ticks), should get their eyes and values checked. That seems to have sunk in, after so many years, so what’s next? It might be all right on R-U-D2, but how long should we indulge those trainer wheels on a PM?
    Let their actions speak for them – not the asses of self-interest.

    What worries me, is that Labor has been too sanguine for too long, happy playing “internecine skirmish”, their pride seems to be blocking their vision and in their way – allowing Abbott to steal a march.
    As for that press? Who owns and runs the biggest, dominant lump of that – and which way are they bent? Why would they change the egocentric habits of a life-time, with their all-consuming priorities of self-interest before altruism?


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