Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Australia Votes 2010 - Post Mortem (Part 1)

Well, it took 17 days and one painfully long speech from Rob Oakeshott, but we finally have a verdict: a Labor government with 76 seats. It was undoubtedly one of the closest and most interesting elections in recent years, so let’s take a look at the campaign that was.

To truly begin at the beginning, we must first address the issue of Kevin Rudd. Now, I personally thought Rudd had done quite a commendable job - there were undoubtedly some decisions I did not agree with and some failures of policy that were unacceptable - but the sad reality of politics means that even with these setbacks he was still doing one of the best jobs of an Australian PM in memory. Just on the strength of his economic efforts he deserved to keep the job until the next election, despite the negative polls. But in any case, it seems that the powers that be in the ALP had a different view, staged a coup and replaced Rudd with Gillard. Okay; I don’t particularly like that, most Australians voted for Labor because they wanted Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, myself included - but this is not actually the way our system works, we vote for parties rather than leaders, so I have to concede that they had every right to oust him.

Putting aside the issue of whether it was right to fire him or not, we now turn to the question of: what now? Gillard was in charge but many people were furious - even though, as I said, their impression that they voted for Rudd was an illusion, their anger was real. The Liberals echoed this sentiment, but Gillard did exactly what she should have done - called an election. It softened the blow - made it seem less like she was seizing power for herself and more like she was relieving Rudd of command before he lost them the election - and put it in the hands of the Australian people, in effect negating any of the “we voted for Rudd, not you” arguments. Some commentators have said that she should have waited longer, or done it earlier, usually with vague allusions to a “honeymoon period”, but considering the circumstances of her ascent to power, it was really the only thing she could have done.

Rudd inherited a difficult set of circumstances from external forces: namely, the GFC. As Malcolm Fraser said on Monday 30th August’s episode of Q and A, what was needed was quick, decisive action. Bureaucracies aren’t used to being quick or decisive, they make long-considered decisions; so when they’re forced by circumstance to act quickly, they will tend to make mistakes. This is essentially why the stimulus effort wasn’t perfect; it undoubtedly had its flaws. But the fact that Rudd overcame the bureaucracy to act quickly, decisively, and above all effectively, is a great credit to him and the Labor party. Furthermore, Rudd did all this without plunging us into a heap of debt. Looking at Australia’s debt against that of the G7 nations shows just how well we are doing:

Alternatively, you can compare Australia’s national debt to a person who makes $100 000 per year taking out a loan for $6000. Furthermore, Labor had a plan in place to return us to surplus in three years, exactly the same timetable as the Liberals. And yet people were voting based around the Liberals being the only ones who could stop the spending, could repay the debt - could manage the economy. Admittedly by the time these ads were airing Rudd himself was no longer in charge, but still - his efforts were the crown jewel of Labor’s record, why didn’t they emphasise it? Indeed, why is it that I’m telling you now? You should already know it - that graph should be as recognisable as Julia Gillard’s head. But instead I, a person who pays a lot of attention to politics and knew the exact graph I needed, had to actively search for it. This is an enormous campaign failure on Labor’s part.

Before I move on from Rudd I do have to say one thing. He started out well - instead of the bland, Jack Johnson vs John Jackson politics we saw in this election, he campaigned on a positive vision for Australia. He took real stances and presented a vision that was not only cohesive but turned out to be very popular - turns out people wanted the government to say Sorry to the first people of Australia and to take action with regards to climate change. Most of his policies were at least somewhat controversial - he took risks by standing by them, but those risks paid off.

But after the climate change action stalled, he failed to go to a double-dissolution and really started to seem ineffectual. In reality I don’t think it was the case; he probably would have been better off going to a double-dissolution, but he seemed to step back and say “Okay, I do want to do this, and I know the Australian people want me to, but clearly this isn’t working, so how I get this done?” I can’t fault the man for wanting to think things through (and honestly it would have worked if he had just consulted with the Greens at that point, and actually listened to their advice) but with 20-20 hindsight we can see that he needed to take it back to the people. It would have been a big risk, but one I think would have paid off - it would have framed him as immensely more worried about doing the right thing and getting the job done than his own political future, and people would have responded to it (especially considering how strongly they responded to it in his original campaign).

In any case, he seemed ineffectual…and then came the mining tax. It was around the same time as the new tobacco initiatives - which I think, overall, did him a lot of good - and both were designed to send a message: Kevin Rudd may have had to put some things on the backburner but he is still capable of decisive, sound decisions for the benefit of Australia. The only problem was that his move to regain the support of the people was one that needed a lot of their support; he needed to act boldly, but taking on the great lumbering mining industry was something he could only do when he was already quite popular, and they exploited his weak position to great effect. His popularity dropped even further and it was good night, Mr Rudd.

Part 2: here
Part 3: here

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