We have it on good authority, that of St Thomas Aquinas, that demons and evil spirits can sometimes speak the truth. Now, I’m not saying that Janet Albrechtsen falls into either of those categories, but for once I was interested to read something she wrote:
It is disappointing if this is now the politics of Rudd’s prime ministership. Despite Rudd’s tendency to conflate issues as moral challenges, he appears to view every political decision through one prism: inflict no pain and it’s all gain for him. … Here, in a nutshell, is Rudd’s political nirvana. He can continue a prime ministership based on rhetorical flourishes and symbolism without inflicting any pain on voters.
Much of Albrechtsen’s analysis is inflected with the spleen one would expect (and the illusion that to introduce WorkChoices is to do good), but I suspect she has something of a point. I’ve been critical myself of Rudd’s ‘big tent’ strategy – the accumulation of political capital for its own sake. As I’ve also commented, the Labor Party, in the face of Abbott’s leadership, is likely to downplay climate change as an issue. In an election year, the theme will move to an accentuation of the argument that Abbott and his frontbench waxworks represent a return to Howardism; but a nastier, more brutish version. And don’t be misled, they’ve hardly even begun to fight on this front. In many respects, the smart political move is to let Abbott prepare his own noose, as his negatives are already very much defined in the public mind.
But any election theme that Abbott represents the past requires painting Rudd as representing a brighter future. I’m not so certain Labor can just run on its record – a la the first term Hawke government, which got a nasty surprise in the 1984 election.
The issue of health might be a straw in the wind, indicating which way it may blow. Health still plays as one of the biggest issues in Queensland at state level, and I’d be surprised if that’s not the case in other states. Whether or not a commonwealth takeover would lead to a more efficient system I’ll leave to the policy wonks to ponder. But there’s no doubt that health, and “the administration of things” generally, is a potential minefield for governments. It’s one area, and some talk back programmes in Queensland more or less specialise in this, where human stories of woe can be endlessly sheeted home to political causes.
Richard Farmer has been arguing for a long time that health is an issue on which the government is vulnerable, and rightly decrying the useless performance of Peter Dutton as shadow minister. But Abbott seems to have finally taken his advice, and raised the temperature of the health debate – seeking to hold Rudd to his promise of a federal takeover if hospitals aren’t fixed. It’s absolutely no coincidence that the Prime Minister’s first public appearance after returning from Copenhagen was the opening of a cancer care facility, duly popping up on the news.
But there’s a seeming gap between “the buck stops here” and a review that reported ages ago, an apparently interminable round of consultations, and a fractured COAG process. Rudd might be doing the bureaucratic tango, and erecting his big tent, but the politics of health reform are problematic, insofar as the opposition can actually begin to politicise this question.
I don’t expect that Tony Abbott and the Coalition will go close to winning the 2011 election, but I do think that there’s some truth in the argument that the government’s dropped the political ball to some degree. In that context, it was interesting to look at the numbers in the latest Essential Research poll on the government’s performance, compared to expectations. It’s not impacting on primaries or the two party preferred, but there’s at least an indication here of some vulnerability.
In short, the Rudd government will need to articulate a positive vision for its second term. It won’t be too hard to argue that the GFC delayed the reform agenda, but it might be difficult to excite people with reviews and administrative caution. I’ve no doubt that the political hardheads in Labor know that, and it will be fascinating to see whether Rudd adopts a somewhat less apolitical political persona, and whether there are some big surprises in store on the policy front. His style, so far, has worked to preserve a big poll lead, but it may need to change to harden part of that lead into a smaller election winning majority.