13 October 2011

No refuge II: pressure on

In 1930s Washington DC, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was apparently confronted by a group lobbying for a particular outcome. At length he said, "OK, you've convinced me. Now go out and put pressure on me".

I'm tempted to say that the Prime Minister has done something similar with this. There is scant evidence that she has been so wily in the past. Then again, she's learning on the job, in a job where the previous occupants tear up the manual as they go.

It isn't having it both ways to honour the deal with Malaysia. I still think that the regional dialogue I went on about here is important and it would have been impossible had the Malaysians disgraced themselves by agreeing to drop it. Also impossible would have been articles like this without the focus on refugees in Malaysia. This is the start of something big and important in regional engagement, hopefully not limited to refugees. If nothing else, it's a bit more proactive than sitting back and waiting for the next boat to come over the horizon.

So, we're going to have more people coming here. Where should they go?

Where they should not go is to be dumped into high-unemployment areas of capital cities, where they arouse resentment from bogans and apathy from the rest of the community, and have the apathetic come to confuse the voice of the resentful as the voice of Australia.

They should not go to mining areas because almost all of them are already areas of high unemployment, and because it is a myth that mining companies need vast numbers of proletarian workers who will just labour all day without complaint. No part of the economy that used to need workers in vast numbers - not industry, not construction, not retail or even the defence forces - now has such a need.

The best I could think of was to those rural communities which supposedly let foodstuffs rot because the fleeing or apathetic locals, backpackers and grey nomads who happen to be there at harvest time aren't sufficient in numbers or remuneration to get the job done. It also conflicts with Pacific Islander communities who could do such work on a fly-in-fly-out basis.

Dumping people in communities with few options might not be clever, notwithstanding their potential to prop up infrastructure that might otherwise fall into disuse. You also fall into a trap of positing rural communities as The Real Australia, having people learn English by reading Adam Lindsay Gordon or whatever. Maybe they will just flock to the cities when there's nothing stopping them from doing so. Maybe they will have to in order to exploit training opportunities that are unavailable in the mighty Bush.

I'm trying, and it's heartening that the government too is trying to deal with a complex issue with other policy tools than press releases. One guy who's trying way too hard is The Situation, a man who has painted himself into a corner with his own blood. He's frantic, because he knows he has nothing to show for all that ferocity: it's only worth it if the slow and steady achievements of the past week or so never happened, and weren't seen to have happened. Yes, the government was forced into the position it has now taken - but there is nothing so becoming of a government than the ability to make lemonade when handed lemons. That was John Howard's real skill - his fans call it humility, but even his opponents agree it was a contrast from the approaches of his two Labor predecessors, which was more in the vein of "Oi! Who put these fucking lemons here?".

Abbott could get his photo taken squeezing lemons but you know he hates the taste and nobody wants to drink anything prepared by a smarmy git who despises them. The smarm has gone with all this blood-oath, eating-out-a-carcass stuff, and we're beginning to see them as they are. Abbott is redoubling his efforts, which only moves him from ferocious to frantic. Even his most loyal lags in the press gallery must now accept that Abbott is becoming a figure of ridicule, that the can't-do-anything-right tag that applied to the government a month or so ago now rightfully belongs on him.

What Abbott and his chroniclers can't bear to face is what all the great comics knew: that frantic is funny. Think about Harold Lloyd hanging off that clock, Harpo Marx's charades, John Cleese in "the right room for an argument", or Lucille Ball berating people Mirabella-style while being led into a surprise party. The more calm government we get, steering the nation through the storms and past the shoals, the crazier the Opposition we'll get too; it will get to a point where only journos will give a damn about the fraught but comparatively functional Gillard-Rudd relationship. How quickly things turn: but that's politics for ya.

Back to Washington, and it was Roosevelt's predecessor Abraham Lincoln who said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power”. After this week the government realises that it has the power, and that by standing up to Abbott it accrues power rather than losing it. It will be interesting to see how it rises to a challenge that Kevin Rudd has already failed, and which Abbott is watching slip away from him too.


  1. I do think Mr Abbott has reached his macbeth moment "it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." Almost frightening how well it fits his current performance :-)

  2. Another interesting post. I hope you are right and the electorate begins to see that slogans are all Abbott has to offer. My poll of preference is Essential and they consistently show the 2pp as 55% LNP to 45% ALP. Gillard has to claw back about 2 or 3% and Abbott is coming under pressure. If the government lasts and if the morons in the back room don't foment another idiotic coup I reckon (in my positive moments) that this is do-able and that Labor could win in 2013 from there. However (in my more frequent negative moments) I fear that the electorate is already aware on Abbott's shortcomings but are so appalled by what they see as Labor's faults that they would vote for Attila the Hun if the alternative was another Gillard government.

    Hartcher, Bongiorno and ?? on Fran Kelly's political wrap this morning wrote off Labor's chances of re-election. Hartcher feels that the Asylum seeker debacle allied to the perception that Gillard is not a legitimate PM will do them in. He might be right. I hope not. Grattan thinks that in opposition a demoralized Labor under a new leader would roll over and let The LNP repeal the carbon tax - ETS. That thought is deeply depressing but plausible.

  3. The easiest solution for the "where do they go" question is to allow space for communities (probably rural communities as you identify) to volunteer. That should help identify those places that are genuinely hurting for lack of population and those that are not.

    This week has been a stunning reversal of fortunes for the Gillard government. All of these developments are far enough from the next election that Abbott's dire predictions of ruin and misery will be shown to be untrue (on the carbon tax) and otherwise the government will be spared the political flak of a potentially unpopular decision (on asylum seekers) on the basis that they were forced into it.

    Have these two developments behind them, the government can focus on measures which improve its popularity while simultaneously pointing to its ability to make tough decisions when needed.

  4. Brilliant post, well done.

    I am still giggling about lemons and lemonade. Time will tell if the PM and her crew can sell the lemonade for a profit.

  5. Sorry
    As usual got off topic. W. r. t. where they go I meant to comment that there have been quite a lot of successful re-settlements in rural food growing centres like Shepparton (however I spell it it looks wrong) in Victoria. I think these were people with a rural background and perhaps that is a factor to be considered.

  6. I could be wrong. I could be actually be barking mad, but I feel this is the result Gillard wanted. It was a deliberate failure that lead to a humane policy. Hartcher and Gratten's remarks are relayed by Doug Evans are just pathetic. I think a lot of Labor are happy with the result.

    Wilkie seems to be softening his stance on pokies. The Mining tax (imperfect as it is) will go through. 2013 will see Abott having gained nothing with his negative nabovity. Labor will have the electorate pretty much over all the issues.

    A stretch but if you consider Gillard as Ali, Abbott as Foreman and the Australian political press as Mai 20 Stadium then that is how Labor could get over the line.

  7. Thanks for this perspective. What's interesting (if unsurprising) looking at the papers today is that no one seems to think there's a remote possibility of this decision being a good thing or a sensible strategy. Everyone is just pushing the line that Abbott won by being stubborn, Gillard lost, her leadership is still in crisis, the carbon price has been totally overshadowed ('the shortest victory of all' in the SMH's words), bla bla bla... with a dose of Ruddstoration talk thrown in for good measure in some editorials. Good ol' groupthink.

  8. DaveM, I have been predicting it for a while now but keep being accused of banging on with no result to show for it ;)

    Doug, Hartcher was Rudd's no. 1 conduit to the media and is suffering relevance deprivation syndrome, while Grattan should know better than to parrot some half-baked line. I still say the polls are more fluid than pollsters may represent.

    Dan, you may be right but part of the rerasons why communities wane is lack of employment opportunities. Nothing breeds resentment like unemployment.

    Thank you Mick.

    Shaunc, you may be right about the result Gillard wanted, and the rope-a-dope strategy.

    Shane, and they wonder why nobody will stand by journos calling for the "media inquiry"to be shut down.

  9. Putting people into the bush is one of Australia's most enduring motifs, our bureaucrats, schemers and dreamers have been chasing this since the invasion. The net result turning out to be one the most urbanised countries in the world. I live in a town of a hundred thousand people, short by nine hundred thousand of the 1970's plan to decentralise from the capital cities.
    You point out some of the problems with setting up people in the regions. Transport costs alone make it non-viable for most. Episodic work and lousy accommodation are additional.

  10. @ Shaunc
    @ Andrew
    Gillard definitely is not looking as though she's had a quiet victory. If anything she looks and sounds shell-shocked, as does Chris Bowen. Unless the Government is sneaky beyond belief this morning's cabinet leaks show that there is no rope-a-dope going on here. Gillard faced down her opponents in Caucus, got her way and it blew up in her face, effectively wiping out any benefit that might have accrued from Thursday's victory with the passing of the Clean Energy bills in the Rep's.

    I think if Gillard had secretly wanted to revert to onshore processing she had the perfect opportunity to bring it on after the High Court decision. It would have been so easy – blame it on the judges. No I'm afraid what we see is what there is with this one.

    I have little knowledge of Hartcher he is not so visible in Melbourne. I'm sure you are right and he is Rudd's chief Fairfax mouthpiece but after the cabinet leak I now think he is right on this. The perception that Gillard is somehow illegitimate and her dreadful handling of the Asylum Seeker issue will finish her off if anyone can be found to take over.

    I guess the journalists are right and Rudd is waiting in the wings but personally I wonder why he would want the job back with the polls the way they are. Take the job and shortly afterwards lead them to defeat probably a substantial one. Then be confronted with either several years as Opposition leader in an Opposition team that doesn't trust you or be turfed out again shortly after losing the election, because everyone has remembered that they got rid of you last time because they hate you.

    On the other hand perhaps he believes he can win and become a Labor hero and/or perhaps he relishes the possibility of a bit of payback too much. Shorten and that fool Arbib might get some tough love if Rudd was back in the chair and/or perhaps it is not so easy to refuse when the deputation comes knocking on the door if you want an ongoing relationship with the ALP.

    I just hope they last long enough to pass all the bills coming out of the MPCCC process (including the crucial but still absent renewable energy bills). We live in interesting times.