12 December 2011

Policy against type

One of the amazing things about politics is that you'll have a picture in your mind about a former politician, and you'll have to admit something which goes against that image is nonetheless inextricably part of that politician's record. Whether it's John Howard picking up the long-held leftist cause of Timor Leste, or Gough Whitlam selling them out in the first place, politics can be a funny business. People are entitled to reap the benefits of a particular policy regardless of its political provenance.

Each of Abbott and Gillard face policy positions that go against public perceptions of who they are and what they're about. There are dangers for them in pursuing those positions. They illustrate the limits of political tactics, where it's assumed that putting out a press release with a position statement on it is to be taken seriously on that position.

For Gillard, this happens with gay marriage. Whether it's her student activism in favour of "homosexual rights" (doesn't the turgid prose reveal it as authentic?), or the persona of her adult life as a leftist lawyer, it is absolutely in keeping with the image of her that she would support gay marriage. Her protestations to the contrary look like a feint than a deeply-held conviction. There are three positions against gay marriage, and none of them fit Gillard:
  1. Those who are in heterosexual marriages and who do not believe and/or cannot admit that gay/lesbian relationships are as valid as their relationships are;
  2. Those who, for religious reasons, are celibate and have fixed ideas that marriage is for heterosexuals only (in support of 1. above); and
  3. However unwittingly in support of 1 & 2 above, those gay/lesbian people like the eloquent and learned Sue-Ann Post, who believe that rejecting marriage is an essential part of being gay/lesbian.
At the ALP conference earlier this month, the Right claimed they were "protecting" the Prime Minister and the journosphere reported this without examining it. Protecting her from what, from whom? With the conscience vote on gay marriage, Gillard faces two options:
  1. Gay marriage gets up, in which case Gillard can't claim credit for it. Supporters of gay marriage won't give her credit, opponents will resent her, and those who are ambivalent will rightly perceive the lack of leadership ahead of the rights and wrongs of the situation; or
  2. Gay marriage does not get up, in which case we're back to the situation where Abbott looks strong and Gillard looks diffident and shifty. Gillard won't be believed when attempting to dismiss this as a big issue for her.
Neither option is within Labor's control and neither reflects well on Gillard. If you had more respect for Labor's Right than I have, you'd accuse them of setting her up. She's leader of the Labor Party, they feel strongly about this issue, so she should get over herself and lead them. The idea that Gillard looks like a strong leader for standing against gay marriage is beyond wrong, it's absurd.

Abbott's equivalent is a position he does not hold yet, but toward which he is being nudged (towed?) by those who back him: pulling out of Afghanistan. Abbott is no more interested in foreign policy than Gillard was, but he will always default to dance with those who brung him.

The US alliance was a given in Australian Cold War politics, regardless of who was in power in Washington or Canberra. Now it's a political plaything: With Keating and Clinton the US alliance was strong, but less so with Clinton and Howard. Things warmed up again with Howard and Bush II: the latter had the temerity to warn Australians against not re-electing Howard, who similarly disgraced himself by warning Americans against electing Obama. Both Rudd and Gillard enjoy good relations with Obama but it is clear that the bilateral relationship is no longer bipartisan.

People like Greg Sheridan and Tom Switzer are absolutely unconvincing with their hand-wringing pose that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won. Having failed to define victory in the first place they declare their political opponents incapable of achieving it. Such a position enables them to both jeer at them for further deaths and disasters arising from staying while also snarling at them for abandoning the Afghans and being reactive to terror threats should they withdraw. It's a despicable position for the right to take (compounded by their refusal to accept that those fleeing that war are legitimate refugees), and while utterly in line with Abbott's core of principle, it goes against the whole action-man persona.

When Abbott went to Afghanistan he insisted on being photographed in a bomb-disposal suit, denying its use to those who work in them. Before that he insisted on firing weapons and going on missions, despite his complete lack of training and discipline, which would mean the troops would spend all their time defending him rather than achieving the goals set for them. However stupid these were from a perspective of military operations in a dangerous environment, these actions were consistent with Abbott's action-oriented he-man image.

When you tell most people that Billy McMahon pulled almost all Australian troops out of Vietnam well before the 1972 election, they are puzzled: surely it was Whitlam who brought the troops home? For Abbott, wringing his hands and fretting over war dead goes completely against the whole persona. What's OK for gibberers like Switzer and Sheridan will not wash for would-be Prime Minister Abbott. Gillard can get away with staying or going, but not Abbott.

For the media, the fact that a politician makes a statement is the story. For everyone else, the fact that a politician makes a statement is neither here nor there. A politician who makes a statement out of character will be assumed to be a gibberer unless there is overwhelming proof to the contrary. Political tacticians who think it's smart for Abbott to call for withdrawal from Afghanistan, or for Gillard to stand like a bulwark for heterosexual marriage, measure their success only by press coverage.

There was no public clamour for Hawke and Keating to float the dollar. It was big and they made the case that it was right, so the public went along with it. Similarly, there was no public clamour for Howard to introduce a GST, bit it was big and they made the case that it was right, so the public went along with it. Gay marriage and withdrawal from Afghanistan are big and require leadership to get up; done badly these issues will damage leadership.

We saw this when Abbott proposed paid parental leave. You just knew that he would toss it straight into the maw of Labor's Budget Black Hole, so why vote for it? Just because gibberers in Canberra want to talk about it, and tell us "the policy is pitched at the mums and dads", doesn't mean that said target group have to behave as the strategists would wish. Abbott might call for Afghanistan withdrawal to "soften his image", but his lack of foreign policy knowledge would undermine any attempt at looking genuine and he'd just water down the appearance of toughness that it his one political asset. Gillard would get a lot of kudos for backing gay marriage, and it would expose the SDA (and thus exposed, diminish the ridiculous amount of power they appear to wield, leaving Gillard freer than she is and looking more powerful than she does).

Sometimes taking a contrary position is a sign of personal growth, a sign that you have to look at a politician in a new way (and thus think about the country and its politics in a new way). Mostly, though, it's the politician and their advisers attempting to look more clever than they are. Journalists don't look clever at all for failing to call them on it, or even know the difference between thought leadership and its absence. When policy goes against type it's the policy that suffers, and so does everyone who needs better policy from the politico-journalism complex.


  1. I think you are missing one other significant point that people hold against gay marriage.

    -Gay couples once married will seek to adopt a larger percentage of total children adopted each year. This will lead to increased levels of fruity kids etc etc.

    Personally myself, I'm getting "hearing about the poor gays fatigue" I dont' care one way or another if they are married as its not my business, I just don't want to hear any more about it.

  2. The statement 'for the media, the fact that a politician makes a statement is the story' really does sum up the state of the news media in 2011. I, for one, am quite sick of hearing about politicians saying things and would really like to hear more about what politicians are doing. Perhaps that might short circuit the current media focus on 'how things look', 'how things will play with the voters' etc.

  3. Funksoul123, there's no proof that kids adopted by gay people are more or less likely to become gay themselves. It might be an assumption but the proof isn't there.

    Anon, we all live in hope.

  4. I think the problem for Gillard is that she went to the last election with a policy opposing gay marriage. Given the perception that she lied or broke her promise on the carbon tax I suspect she wants to make sure that she sticks to as many of her election promises as possible.
    Having said that, there is a potential circuit breaker for her. She's due to have dinner with a gay couple early next year (thanks to Getup). That dinner might well give her the political cover to change her position.

  5. Since when is proof needed in a polarizing topic like gay marriage.
    People will allways hide behind sterotypes and feel warm and fuzzy about casting judgement about broad assumptions like "Gay couples gunna turn all the children gay".
    I still think its a powerful emotional hurdle (valid or not) that needs to be overcome before any law will be passed.

  6. Bill, I think you might be right about the imperative for change.

    Funksoul, a government that runs away from difficult problems is a useless government. A government that sticks to the facts in a shitstorm earns its pay. It might be "a powerful emotional hurdle" and yes it needs to be dealt with.

  7. Yeah, gay parents = gay kids. Cos no straight parents have ever raised gay kids, right? Bah.

  8. Mr rabbit has taken the high moral ground and told the party they will oppose a consciense vote because to do otherwise would be to break trust with the electorate.

    I'm so bloody sick of the bullshit that now parades before us as political discourse, and the utterly disingenuous crap that the media encourage from rabbit. He would change every policy in a heartbeat to get his bum into the lodge and jettison every liberal principle on the way if he thought it would help. I'll be bloody glad to see the end of this year, a low point in politics if ever I (old sheila) saw one.

  9. Of course he had no compunction in breaking the trust of the electorate when he withdrew support for the ETS in the previous parliament.

  10. hmmm...This lesbian was raised by straight catholic parents..

  11. "Well, Laurie, when I made that statement, in the election campaign, I had not the slightest inkling that there would ever be any intention to change this. But obviously when circumstances change, governments do change their opinions, and that is actually the responsible course of action."

    Guess who?

  12. Alphabajangodelta15/12/11 12:04 am

    I can't help wonder if Gillard is a conservative who made a strategic choice to run with the Left because it would be more likely to support her as a woman, but now she has some power she's reverting to form. An alternative explanation is that the right is trying to play some kind of reverse culture war around gay rights as if to prove itself able to out-right or neutralise Abbott on this. It's silly stuff and just makes Labor look like knuckleheads opposing one of the last progressive 'reforms of recognition'. But it's also foolish as it has meant it has allowed the issue to split its own ranks and suck oxygen from other more powerful debates about the economy and opportunity. Howard would've never done something so incompetent. He'd have pushed a controversial social reform through over the heads of his own team in order to split the opposition, but then again he had a better undertanding of political strategy than Labor currently does.
    In any case the gay marriage issue for Labor stems from a misreading of the so-called marginal electorates which this fantastic piece by Mark Peel demonstrates http://goo.gl/wwX1l are not especially concerned about 'teh gays' and more about how they construct a community from multiple subjective identities while also improving their economic prospects. This more interesting story about the role of identity in politics has of course been entirely ignored by the media in favour of 'the game'.
    If the PM wanted to re-set the issue the best way would be to have a group of prominent Australians with gay children approach her with a heartfelt plea that would turn old curmudgeonly Gillard's flinty resolve in a moment of redemption, with tissues aplenty as the credits start to roll.

  13. Am currently reading Philip Roth's 'The Plot Against America'. The similarities between Abbott and Roth's fictional Lindbergh character are frightening. Both flit about the country playing dress ups and looking tough, all the while gibbering simplistic slogans that appeal to the bassest of instincts. The damage that results when such populists are allowed to carry on unchallenged by a biased media are revealed page by page.

    It is a work of fiction, of course, and I don't expect Abbott to form an alliance with a fascist government anytime soon, but the message is clear enough.

  14. I just wish the polls would turn and we would see the back of Abbott, I am completely fed up with his rubbish.

    Heard Turnbull on National Interest yesterday discussing the future of the press. Why can't we have more of that, politicians actually articulating a thought out position instead of the crap we have had to put up with from both sides.

    Turnbull made the point that opinion is cheap; result; as the money available for the press room shrinks the column inches containing news shrinks and the column inches devoted to opinion expends; a valid point I thought. Trouble is we all value our own opinion the most, who wants to pay to read the opinions of a bunch of clapped out hacks.

    There has to be more to it than that. The papers still pay for a Canberra press gallery, the whole dam lot of them don't seem to be able to produce anything but fluff, on the other hand, while he was doing it, Grog's Gamut, a one man show, produced an interesting summary of the days parliamentary activities, a summary I would have been happy to pay a dollar nightly to read.

    Turnbull also made the point that while advertising revenue made the paper profitable, papers had to at least pay lip service to balance, advertisers wanted as large a audience as possible. Another valid point I thought.

    The Australian as an example is basically being funded by News, he who funds it gets a say. If Murdock is a right wing crook (that seems to be the story coming out of England), then those are the views reflected. As an aside to this aside, News is not going to keep funding forever (Murdock isn't going to live forever). I wonder how long before the mining industry owns and funds an Australian paper; and I wonder what is going to happen to the rest.

    As to gay marriage (I got side tracked sorry) I think Gillard (rightly) has concluded it isn't worth burning any political capital over. I think your basically arguing; there is political capital to be banked, if she actually took a stand.

    I absolutely agree with your premise on her position, we have an unmarried, atheist, prime minister who wishes to defend the dictionary definition of marriage. Pull the other one, it plays a nice Christmas tune.