Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Death of a Narrative: Part 3

A narrative-less election

We heard all about how badly Gillard/Labor mismanaged the election. And, if the Libs are honest, they botched it too.

The Libs would have everyone believe that they were happy just to see Abbott almost topple a first term government, but to follow their argument to a logical conclusion, realistically Abbott should have won easily. Given Gillard's tarnished name, and the problems associated with her trying to take any claim for the goals Rudd had kicked, he should have been a shoe in.
Gillard, for her part, was so bound in her minders' tape she couldn't have sold beer at a pub (or a shandy to Abbott). This was a battle of two opposition leaders without a coherent new policy between them.

Neither side had a cohesive political narrative.

The best Abbott could muster was a bit of "you think Rudd was Howard-lite? Look at these policies!" accompanied with a healthy serve of apolitical "tough man" antics including his aim to not sleep in the last days of the election. Given Rudd was criticised for sleeping less than 4 hours a night and working pretty much consistently, not involving his colleagues in his processes, in hindsight it seems his goal may have been to out-Rudd Gillard.

If you want a clearer picture that this was an election where neither of the major parties had a narrative, look at the swing to the Greens. Whether you agree with their policies or not, the Greens are a narrative party - consistently. While I struggle with people who suggest that never having had power immediately equals policy weakness (hello everyone at The Australian), there' s some truth to this in the fact that the Greens have not had to be pragmatic - their policies are bold, and follow a clear direction because they can. Realistically, prior to the "rainbow coalition" any chance of any of their policies being passed was a pipe dream.

And the result? What happens when you tell a story but there's no actual narrative?

Well it's a mess; no one knows what's going on. An election is not an exercise in experimental prose.

Narrative found

Ironically, it may be Gillard has found her strength, and her narrative, in minority government. She is, to borrow Annabel Crabb's term, a fixer. She is presented now with a magnificent opportunity to play school teacher to a rag-tag bunch of new parliamentarians, or at least parliamentarians who are new to actual power.

If she plays her cards right, she can take the credit for their innovation as she remains the masthead for the activity of the government. In turn, she can also blame the failings of her government on the close numbers.

The knife-edge may provide a comfortable seat to a fence-sitter like Gillard.

The new paradigm, as it's been called, is actually a little bit more like the old paradigm of politics. Policy and its implementation should be at the forefront of political reporting. The personalities are important, as are the tactics, but it's the policies that should make or break a government, not foibles of its leaders - with the exception of actual ministerial culpability.

The media should be reporting when either party "plays the man" rather than the ball, not following suit for an easy story.

There's a new narrative, people, and a new paradigm; they're both more complex. Long live complexity.


Alright... now all that's done. I'm returning to the day to day. I hated that post by the end, but I feel like I had to get it off my chest.

Let's commence.

The Death of the Narrative: Part 2

The death of the narrative

Initially, the wins came hard and fast. Rudd started by pretty much immediately setting the ball rolling to end the Pacific Solution, ratifying the Kyoto Protocol as his first official act as PM and formally apologised to the Stolen Generations in his capacity as the first course of order in the opening of Parliament after the election. Work Choices was virtually completely reversed, with some elements retained. A deadline was set for the removal of operational forces within Iraq (and followed).

But it was maybe a case of too hard and too fast. As time went on, it started to seem like Rudd had run the horse upside down. We got giddy on change.

And the easy change was all upfront, the hard wins were still to come.

The carbon-emissions trading scheme was already promised, and the Garnaut Report (a bed he'd made, or commissioned at least, before even becoming PM) fell in line with it, suggesting targets that would be achievable, but not without some stress.

Rudd had made the mistake of saying that climate change was "the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time" while in opposition. In some respects, unless you don't believe in it (in which case feel free to put your hands back over your ears and scream "not listening") he is right, but in hindsight it was a foolish thing to say. How many times have these words been parroted by the opposition to tar and feather Rudd?

The ETS/CPRS became an essential part of the Rudd narrative. It didn't get through parliament.

The Henry Tax Review fell out of the well-meaning but mostly useless 2020 summit. It was necessary, but it set another issue in the Rudd narrative. The Rudd government sat on the delivered report for almost 6 months before addressing essentially none of the items and delivering the RSPT. I should note, I don't disagree with the RSPT, but for a government that came into power telling a story, they couldn't sell this one to a nation that the polls suggested already agreed with it. It didn't get through parliament.

This was the problem with the mid-term big tickets for Rudd - they needed to get through parliament. When they didn't get through, they needed compromise. The problem with compromise in terms of something like the CPRS, is that if you compromise on the policy, you... well... compromise it. The CPRS was about as paper thin as it could possibly be to start with - it was hardly stringent, and if anything it read like a token gesture, at best a step (baby step) in the right direction (or this was how the pragmatists in the Labor party tried to sell it). To compromise further, unlike with a lot of policies, opened the door to criticism of its token nature.

The Liberal leadership spill happened. Support for the CPRS from Turnbull's Liberals dissolved into pig-headed "it's either too expensive to tackle or it doesn't exist at all so let's call the whole thing off" arguments from Abbott's Liberals.

The stimulus package was almost universally declared by economists as the reason Australia staved off a recession during the GFC. But Rudd was unable to sell the benefits of the short-term debt because the Australian public are averse to debt; for many it reconfirmed their concept of the Coalition saving money and the ALP spending it - and the opposition cynically pursued this angle for the politics, rather than taking a bipartisan approach when the economics stood up.

The Rudd narrative died a slow, prolonged death. The polls turned, dramatically in the context of a narrative where we had the longest honeymoon period for a PM ever, scoring into the 70s in approval records, but not so dramatically if we compared it to more realistic numbers experienced by governments in, say, any period of modern politics. Ever.

We can talk about what happened on the night of June 23rd, and the reasons for the spill, etc etc. But the thing that killed Rudd, in the end, was the fact that a narrative had been built that couldn't ever be followed to its happy conclusion in a parliamentary democracy, or, realistically, had no planned end. The tide was always going to turn; it was only a matter of when.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Death of the Narrative: Part 1

Given that I've been away for pretty much the entire period from the Labor leadership spill through the election, the hung parliament and independent deciding of minority government, I feel like I've got a bit of space to wax lyrical about what I think happened in the past 6 months.

Though I don't know if my point of view will be entirely different to everyone else's. I have a slightly different take on what happened, and why, though, so allow me a little break from form to waffle a bit.

A narrative

Kevin Rudd's ascension in the Kevin '07 campaign was largely the product of a narrative of change and hope. I'm talking "Change" and "Hope" in that sense that Obama would later run with in his own campaign in the following year, the words capitalised, the personality of Rudd embiggened (sic) to an almost revolutionary size.

Rudd's image (and slogan "KEVIN 07") on everything was as important to the campaign as the words he spoke. Here was a leader who spoke Chinese, who had a diplomatic background, who was a Christian, but who spoke broadly to the electorate and went on Rove (man, was it really only that long ago that Rove McManus was a TV personality?). Shit the man used Twitter as a platform, before it was even de rigueur for public discourse.

It's hard to remember now, because once in the job for more than a year, Rudd started to revert to Ruddbot mode, but he was an affable, approachable, generally unflappable guy.


Sure, but in many respects he signified to people a significant break from the years of "same shit, different day" politicking that Howard played. The ETS, Murray-Darling basin, ratifying the Kyoto protocol, formal indigenous reconciliation, tax reform, overturning of Work Choices, means-testing the Private Health rebate, the end of the Pacific Solution - all of these things were big differences between the parties at the time of the election.

It was a cult of personality, in the traditional sense, and just like the communist leaders we associate with this term, there wasn't really a personality there, as such, so much as a construct that appealed in a narrative sense to every possible basis. The man was a prism of qualities designed to appeal to voters.

Realistically, it's a voter's fault if they believe that the personality of the leader really matters. The best you can hope for is someone who looks like they are actually the personality of the party at the time, thus giving an accurate indication of what you're in for. As Gillard's ascension reminded us, we don't vote for a PM in Australia, we vote for a rep who is part of a party, and we trust them in their vote for a leader that best represents their interests; which in turn should, ideally, represent our interests. Whether it's the "faceless men of the ALP" or Nick Minchin's "broad church" skull crushers, this is what you're really voting for.

Perhaps it's our fault, perhaps it's the media, perhaps it's the cynical nature or modern politics, but for better or worse, a modern political party needs a narrative. As I said, earlier, you need look no further than Obama (and his own imminent demise in the mid-terms) to see another narrative that won a leadership. We talk about pragmatism, but we want a story. We want a hero.

Howard was not a hero. I have never liked him, and I think I would have wept had he won another election, but he, and the Liberal party's "broad church", are about a pragmatic and ruthless surge for leadership.

"Stay the course", "battlers and bludgers" (this still means nothing, and either term can be applied to anyone) etc etc etc... hell, look to the fact that a supposedly "small government" party spent 11 years handing out middle-class welfare to stay in power and you'll see shameless pragmatic vote grubbing at work. Howard's narrative was "little Australia" and "I'm alright, Jack!" - you've earned the right to have a little more, as long as you're making money and don't need any infrastructure. As an example - we'll subsidise you having Private Health if you don't expect a working Medicare system, propping up a system that should be a luxury, not the standard, while simultaneously driving up medical costs across the board.

Sure, Howard was a "conviction politician". His conviction? Stay the fuck in power.

Rudd's narrative was change. Quiet, concerted, hard working change. We'll do the reports (like good public servants) and then we'll action them.

You want an ETS? You want a review of the tax system? You want means-testing on the PHI rebate? You want reconciliation? You want Work Choices gone? You want Kyoto? You want the Pacific Solution done away with?

Leave it to us.

Let the wild frenzy recommence...

Well hello, Dickheads.

Long time no see. I've missed updating here, and I've tried to find a way to get enough time to keep updating.

The format of Dickhead Frenzy will change a little bit. I will still try and post comics as often as I can, but I will also post text comments a couple of times a week.

It will allow me to keep posting, and make the comments I've been wanting to make without having to guarantee a comic every time. It will also mean I can post comics that are complimentary to the text post, or a post in their own right.

You may also notice I have a new header, in keeping with the change of climate!

Sooo... let's get this show on the road. First stop? A summary of the last 6 months, in three parts.