Six months ago it would have been hard to believe that Labor would be going into the federal election polling neck-and-neck with the Coalition. But, at the beginning of August, the two-party-preferred polling was showing exactly that. However, Labor’s revival in the polls should be seen as a rejection of both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, not a welcome embrace of Kevin Rudd.
Since re-taking leadership of the Labor Party and the position of Prime Minister, Rudd has been busy reshaping some of Labor’s most unpopular policies and practices. The purpose of this is clear: Rudd wants to be seen as a ‘new’ leader who is addressing Labor’s failures over the last few years.
The issues he has focused on are those that most dogged Gillard as PM: the carbon tax, refugees, Labor Party infighting and corruption and, to a lesser degree, the elusive budget surplus.
What is clear, though underreported in the mainstream press, is how little these announcements have impacted on voter intention. In the days before Gillard was dethroned, the two-party preferred vote was decisively in favor of the Coalition at 57-43. Within days of Rudd ousting Gillard and taking over the top job, the polls had shifted both immediately and dramatically to 51–49. They remained on par throughout July.
It is this initial reaction to the vanquishing of an unpopular leader in Gillard that Rudd continues to benefit from. The relief of many voters in knowing that they no longer have to vote for Abbott to register their disapproval of the Gillard government’s policies has been the biggest boost to Rudd.
Since becoming PM, Rudd has been on the front foot directing the political debate, but to little effect other than destabilising the sloganeering of Abbott and the Greens.
Rudd’s announcement of his intention to scrap the unpopular ‘carbon tax’ and bring forward the launch of an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) saw little movement in the polls. It only confirmed that Labor’s climate policy since 2010 has been both costly and ineffectual – something most voters already knew.
Rudd’s move to make it more difficult for sitting Labor leaders to be ousted by factional bosses only reiterated his perceived ‘outsider’ status that made him more popular than Gillard. This status will prove fleeting, especially if he wins the election.
The dramatic shift to the Right on the refugee question has had some impact, but nowhere near that which many commentators have claimed. Since John Howard’s ‘Tampa election’ in 2001, it has become mainstream political wisdom that the party with the ‘toughest’, most brutal refugee policy will win the election.
This is simply not true. Labor polling peaked after the sacking of Gillard but before the ‘Papua New Guinea’ announcement. At this time, Rudd was seen to be to the Left of both Gillard and Abbott on refugees. This was largely due to him stating just before being ousted in 2010: “This party and government will not be lurching to the right on the question of asylum seekers, as some have counselled us to do”.
Since ignoring his own advice and announcing the plan to dump all boat arriving asylum seekers on PNG, with no possibility of ever being resettled in Australia, one poll showed that Labor’s primary vote had actually decreased slightly.
That is not to say large swathes of voters do not support Rudd’s refugee policy. Decades of refugee blaming and misinformation coupled with an increased feeling of economic insecurity has taken its toll on the Australian public. For the first time in history, since the announcement, Labor leads the Coalition on the question “Who is better placed to deal with refugees?”
What has been greatly overstated, however, is the idea that this alone is an election winning issue. It seems voters are far more interested in voting to express their disapproval of unpopular policies and politicians, rather than rewarding policies they support.
This flows from the fact that most people perceive the major parties to be practically the same. Far from having any enthusiasm for either major party the bulk of people are looking to express their frustration with the state of politics by punishing those who they consider to be the greater evil.
The reality is that much of Rudd’s moves so far mirror those of Gillard in her early days as PM – moving to the Right on refugees, a weakening of (already weak) climate policy, an attempt to stand above ‘politics’. There is no long term salvation for Labor in leadership change, even if is does give them a temporary electoral boost.
Ultimately, if elected, Rudd’s willingness to implement ruthless austerity will be his downfall. Treasury’s most recent forecasts show government revenue in now expected to be up to $30 billion less than budged just two months ago. With Treasurer Chris Bowen restating Labor’s commitment to returning the budget to surplus, Rudd is signing up to billions of dollars more in cuts.
In fact, he has already begun. In order to cover the revenue shortfall created by scrapping the carbon tax, Rudd has announced $2 billion in cuts. These include a further 800 public sector job losses. This is on top of the 12,000 jobs already cut in recent budgets. Changes to the ability of workers who lease a car as part of their job to claim back some of the running costs will make up much of the $2 billion. For many workers this will effectively amount to a pay cut.
One of Rudd’s first acts after re-taking the position of PM was to reassure industry he will act in their interests “with a new sense of national urgency”. He has promised to make industrial relations reform a priority, with the goal of increasing productivity.
Both the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) responded positively to his announcement. President of the Business Council said Rudd’s comments were “a welcome response to issues the Business Council has been raising for some time.” For many business leaders, Rudd’s “clear-cut policy… driven by a new sense of partnership between government, business and unions” looks more favorable in times of economic uncertainty than Abbott’s hard line approach.
What will become clear to voters soon after the election is that regardless of who wins or who is at the helm of the major parties, all they have to offer is austerity and anti-worker counter-reforms. The only differences are in style, not substance.
As with the major parties, the Greens are also facing somewhat of a crisis in their ranks – mainly due to their association with the Gillard government. On the one hand they want to be seen as an alternative to Labor but on the other hand they propped up the government for most of the last term and voted for all of their most unpopular policies.
Far from needing a new face, or a smaller version of the major parties selling us the same old policies, we need a new party that fights for lasting social change. That is why the Socialist Party is campaigning for the establishment of a new mass party that genuinely represents the interests of the majority. Only by breaking with the parties of capitalism, and the market system itself, can we halt the race to the bottom and reverse the lurch to the Right in Australian politics.