Moving beyond political soap opera

by David Hetherington

A debate over fair distribution of Australia’s mining income gives Labor a platform to reconnect with ordinary voters on national values

Australia’s Gillard government resembles a half-written political drama, but the most creative scriptwriter would struggle to pack in the twists and turns that have marked its first 18 months in office.

Undoubtedly, there have been policy successes – a carbon price, a national broadband network and a streamlined income tax system. Yet there have also been serious misjudgements on the part of the government and the prime minister herself, which have surprised many since she was so sure-footed as education minister.

These self-inflicted wounds include a botched deal to repatriate asylum seekers to Malaysia, an ugly internal ‘stoush’ over same-sex marriage, and the reversal of proposed reforms to address chronic gambling. Excuses can be mounted for each in isolation, but together they’ve betrayed a worrying pattern.

The most recent twists have centred on a high-profile dramatis persona with former prime minister Kevin Rudd. After months of speculation and a sudden late-night resignation as foreign minister, Rudd formally challenged Gillard for the Labor leadership on 27 February. Despite his dramatic intervention, Rudd was roundly beaten, a loss that puts his ambitions on ice for the foreseeable future. Ultimately this was a contest of personalities rather than policies, with Rudd arguing his popularity with voters gave him the better chance of winning the 2013 election. Evidently, his parliamentary colleagues did not agree.

Barely hours after this challenge, another powerful player, senator Mark Arbib, announced his sudden resignation from the government. This in turn opened the door for Gillard to draft in Bob Carr, a wise elder statesman of the party, as the new foreign minister.

This process was far from smooth, and had all the elements of a play-within-a-play. Gillard, fresh from her resounding leadership victory, jumped at the suggestion of Carr’s appointment, with media reports hailing it a done deal. Then, in a sudden about-turn, the government poured water on the idea: it appeared the prime minister had been outmanoeveured by ambitious members of her team.

Three days later, against all expectations, Gillard called a press conference to unveil Carr as her new foreign minister, and in doing so, asserted her control of the government in no uncertain terms. This belated show of strength was certainly a win for the PM, but the stop-start process dulled much of the afterglow of her leadership ballot victory.

This may have proved compulsive viewing for political watchers, but it has left the ordinary voter with an impression of Labor more absorbed in its internal machinations than in running the country.

In need of a new, positive twist, the government found an unlikely hero, treasurer Wayne Swan. A credible if unflashy finance minister, Swan used a major essay to consider the challenges Australia faces in the fair distribution of its mining income. In particular, he highlighted the role of a handful of mining billionaires in resisting attempts to price carbon emissions and to tax mining super-profits.

These magnates have paid for mass media campaigns against the government. In response, Swan placed the debate in the context of the shared national values of egalitarianism and fairness. His intervention was successful in part because it was so unexpected. It surprised a lot of people who’d forgotten that Australian politicians could talk meaningfully about values as part of the wider public debate.

Labor has found it difficult to articulate its raison d’etre in recent times, struggling to explain how its policy achievements connect into a vision for the country. If Swan is able to drive a mature debate about inequality, wealth distribution and the role of media campaigns in policymaking, he will remind voters that Labor is addressing issues of real importance to Australia’s future - a worthy next chapter in Labor’s story.

A contribution to State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network's Social Democracy Observatory

David Hetherington is executive director at Per Capita, a progressive thinktank based in Sydney