Now that the next Federal election is approaching, the time is ripe to look back at the 2007 election, and its legacy. The previous Australian Federal election meant something and we all had some idea what it meant.
The 2007 election was, above all, a rejection of the neoliberal WorkChoices legislation. The term “Australian Workplace Agreements”, the ACTU advertisement in which a mother lost her job, were pervasive throughout the campaign. Many Australians were afraid that, under this new legislation, they would have lower wages and diminished working conditions. The election represented a call to action on climate change and a shift to government which would invest more heavily in infrastructure - even touting an “education revolution”. There was also general perception that the Howard government was “mean and tricky”; and related to this was the government’s handling of the Tampa crisis and the so-called doctors’ wives phenomenon. On the most abstract, ideological level, the election represented the rejection of Howardism: a combination of 1950s social conservatism and 1990s neoliberalism.
A change in government also means a change in the political culture and in the language of politics. With the departure of the Howard government, the terms “Aussie Battlers” and the short-lived “aspirational nationalism,” were replaced by “working families” and “nation building”. Such brief and apparently similar slogans nonetheless convey different perspectives. The left-v-right culture-wars as a framework for understanding Australian society also went into decline. Kevin Rudd may well have taken a swipe at The Australian for being “a right-wing newspaper”, but this was uncharacteristic; Rudd does not speak of “the right” in the way Howard spoke of “the left”. September 11 is receding into the past; the Age of Terror and the politics of fear are now, if not gone, at least waning.
The Rudd years have so far been a combination of change and stasis. The government’s Fair Work Act abolished some aspects of WorkChoices, such as AWAs, but continued others - such as the constraints on industrial action. The Rudd Government claims that it will take serious action over climate change, but has committed only to lock in the unconditional target of 5 per cent reduction by the end of next year, if a global agreement had not been reached by then.
The government is carrying out a so-called “education revolution”, but has not attempted to make wide-ranging changes to education, for example by trying to close the public-private divide. Indeed the limitedness of the government’s reform to education may be because of a decision Rudd made during the last election period to accept the Howard government’s tax cuts. As George Megalogenis notes, these tax cuts meant that “the education revolution ... could never approach Rudd’s original ambition ... The school buildings program is not the education revolution that Rudd would have had in mind.”
Rudd has made being intelligent and wonkish, cautious and polished, a large part of his public persona. The Rudd government is widely understood to be cautious, conservative but nonetheless Labor and comparatively progressive. Such progressivism was in evidence in the apology to the stolen generations, the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, and the abolition of Temporary Protection Visas and of the Pacific Solution. We know what the Rudd government stands for, and, as Howard said “[l]ove me or loathe me, the Australian people know where I stand on all the major issues”.
What the Liberal Party represent after they entered the political wilderness is less clear. The departure of Howard left a power vacuum, but also a vacuum in terms of ideas and ideology. Brendan Nelson’s leadership did not offer a break with the Howard tradition. When Turnbull became the leader this seemed to break with Howardism. He was apparently a more “liberal,” “moderate” and “socially progressive” member of the Liberal Party. Turnbull nonetheless did not hesitate to try to make political capital out of Tamil refugees.
But Turnbull made a fatal mistake in the “Utegate” affair; plus the right of his party had always been opposed to him; and he faced the surprisingly divisive issue of climate change. Moreover, opposition tends to fracture parties. But the Liberals’ unpopularity was not necessarily the fault of Turnbull, nor something to be surprised by. Unless the current government has been in power for a long time or is incompetent, it is usually regarded as the natural party of government. It is a political truism that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.
With the rise of Tony Abbott we once again know what the Liberal Party stands for: more Howardism. Hence old Howard ministers - Kevin Andrews, Philip Ruddock, Bronwyn Bishop - have been appointed to the front bench. Both Abbott and Bishop argued that employees should be able to negotiate individual contracts, that is, effectively, AWAs. Abbott is arguably also continuing Howard’s climate change denialism or scepticism. Abbott himself claims he is “committed to coming up with a strong and effective climate change policy”, but has promoted climate change denialists, such as Cory Bernardi and Barnaby Joyce; he has appointed Nick Minchin as shadow minister for Resources and Energy. Moreover, the Coalition’s climate change policy, Christine Milne argues, “is a ‘tried and failed’ approach, based on John Howard’s Greenhouse Gas Abatement Program.” As the Scientific American magazine notes, the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Program “was criticized as ineffective in a 2008 government report”. Abbott is arguably effectively continuing two unpopular positions which saw Howard lose office.
Much is also made of Abbott’s anti-abortion stance. But, RU468 notwithstanding, Abbott’s stance on abortion will be legally inconsequential, if only because law relating to abortion is generally a State - as opposed to a Federal - matter.
Abbott’s sincerity contrasts with Rudd’s faux-naturalness and may well make him seem like a “conviction politician”. But this will not be enough. Abbott’s aggressive, pugilistic public persona, his deep social conservatism, and his tacit support of WorkChoices and of climate change denialism, will most likely make him unelectable. The 2010 election won’t be particularly meaningful; there is no viable alternative.
Meanwhile, we know what to expect of Rudd: more cautious, Blairite Third Way. Paradoxically, this ideology and style of government can be dangerous because of its caution, because such governments are unable to commit to the wide-reaching change which is needed in response to an issue like global warming.