Listening to ABC Radio National presenter Geraldine Doogue talking to a couple of pundits about electoral matters this morning set me once again to thinking about the role of strategy in the conduct of politics. There was talk about how the ALP didn’t explain its achievements well enough, and questions about what it stood for – is there any position that Kevin Rudd wouldn’t change in order to cling to power?
Good questions, but the fact that they arise is inextricably linked to the lack of a strategy and to the lack of a basis for formulating a strategy.
First, it is important to get clear the distinction between “strategy” and “tactics”. The Concise Oxford Dictionary informs us that these are military terms. Strategy is “the art of war” and refers in particular to imposing upon the enemy “the place and time and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself”. Tactics relates to the “skilful devices” used by those forces that are in actual contact with the enemy.
The Battle of the Atlantic was deeply strategic because on the one hand Britain aimed to enhance its capacity to wage war by accessing the industrial might and food production capacity of the United States; Germany aimed to make it impossible for Britain to continue to wage war, by cutting off the necessary trans-Atlantic supply lines. How submarines attacked convoys to maximise the Allied losses whilst minimising the losses to themselves is a tactical level issue, and so is the way in which the convoy escort vessels responded to a submarine attack.
To cast the matter in non-military terms, tactics is the art of responding as effectively as possible to the world as you find it; strategy is the art of reshaping or influencing to your advantage the environment in which you are working.
And so to the link between political parties “standing for something”, explaining their policies and their achievements effectively, and political strategy. I would argue that standing for something is the central issue here, because it both enables and forces a political party to think at a strategic level, and it enables the party, having done so, to explain the value of what it has done and what it is setting out to do, because it sets the party on the road to changing in its favour the way people think about the issues. It can give meaning to its achievements, it can put them in a larger context, and it can make them part of a larger whole.
Paul Keating was able to win the 1993 election, which was supposed to be unwinnable for him, because he was operating on the basis of beliefs he brought into politics and which he refined his views about over the course of the preceding twenty years in Parliament. Love him or hate him, Keating stood for something – for many things, for a view about Australian society and Australia’s place in the world – and I would guess that even his detractors would allow that there were things that Keating would never contemplate doing in order to win or retain office.
Accordingly, Keating was able to campaign not only passionately but with devastating effectiveness because he was campaigning on his chosen ground, on matters he believed in, which gave him the advantage that he not only sounded as though he meant it, he had all the detail internalised and could muster the necessary lines of argument without faltering. Keating always sounded authentic.
In the election campaign just drawing to its dreary conclusion, Kevin Rudd has been attempting to market to us policies that have been dreamt up on the campaign trail, policies which were injected into the political market place not because he believed in them, but because he thought we might buy them. Accordingly, the quality of the policies and the quality of the arguments adduced to support them has been laughable.
It will probably be apparent that closely aligned to the issue of “standing for something” is the issue of “trust”. If people believe a politician stands for something and he/she campaigns on the basis of policies that align with that world view, people will take their policy proposals seriously and will make their decisions on the basis that what is being proposed is what you will get if they are voted into office. Once trust is lost, people stop listening because what is being said is not conveying information that can be used as a basis for decision making – it doesn’t matter what this person says, how would you know what they will actually do?
This was a particular problem for Kevin Rudd because he had made so many 180 degree turns. After characterising climate change as the greatest moral challenge of our generation he effectively abandoned it as soon as the going got rough; similarly with the Henry Tax Review and mineral resource rent taxation, and his policy shift in relation to asylums seekers – from relative humanity to outright brutality – was extraordinary. The contrast in his attitudes to Iraq and Syria is striking too. In opposition in 2003 he (quite properly) argued that we should wait until the weapons inspectors had finished their work, and that we should not be taking military action against Iraq in the absence of UN authorisation. Now, on the eve of our becoming President of the UN Security Council and having a particular responsibility to uphold and protect the UN system, he and his Foreign Minister are insisting that we don’t need to wait until the inspectors make their report, and that if the Security Council fails to back a United States attack on Syria then the US should act without UN support because Syria need to be taught a lesson.
I said earlier that “standing for something” forces a political party to think strategically. This is because, having decided that it embodies certain values and stands for a particular view of the world and Australia’s place in it (”the vision thing”), the party is obliged to try to persuade as many as people to see the world their way. In this way it is reshaping the battlefield to its own advantage, and making it much easier to convince people of the virtues of its individual policies. Margaret Thatcher understood that – I heard at the time that she, on a visit to Canberra while the Coalition was flopping about in Opposition, gave them stern counsel: “You should stop reading the opinion polls, decide what you stand for, and convince people to vote for that”.
Against this background it is easy to see why Tony Abbott and the Coalition have had such an immense advantage in this election campaign. They have been operating strategically; Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have been operating tactically. Tony Abbott has been framing the debate (see Lenore Taylor on that subject in today’s edition of The Guardian here) while Rudd and Gillard have meekly agreed, over most of the six years of Labor’s missed opportunities in office, to fight on Tony Abbott’s chosen ground.
Thus, although Labor handled the GFC response with great effectiveness, it is so apologetic about running budget deficits that it allowed itself to be manoeuvred into making returning the budget to surplus an overarching objective of policy. Acceptance of this one premise eliminated at a stroke any possibility of the ALP campaigning on the basis that it would offer the start of a major overhaul of the nation’s urban public transport systems, and allowed Tony Abbott to get away with his extraordinary claim that urban public transport was not the Commonwealth’s business (I worked on the Whitlam Government’s urban public transport programs during my time in the Commonwealth Treasury in 1973-74).
Similarly, Labor has allowed the Coalition to frame the debate about asylum seekers in terms of the sole measure of performance being the number of people who arrive here by boat. Labor’s strictly tactical response has been to try find ways to reduce the number of arrivals, an approach which has taken it down the path of trying to outbid the Coalition in a contest to see who could adopt the most brutal policies.
An alternative approach for a party affecting to have progressive values would have been to explain to the Australian public that Australia stands for a more civilised world order, and that as a middle power we need a rules based international system; that we are proud to have been one of the countries that negotiated the Refugee Convention and of being one of the foundation signatories; that people with a well-founded fear of persecution have rights under the Convention and that we respect and uphold those rights; that we are a nation of laws and of due process that will ensure that asylum seekers have proper opportunity to have their claims heard; and that we are a confident, affluent society that is easily able to address this issue.
Neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard was the architect of this particular manifestation of the Labor malaise. Immigration Minister Gerry Hand steered mandatory detention through Cabinet during the Keating era, and Kim Beazley signed up to John Howard’s approach to the Tampa (a special forces assault on a civilian vessel carrying rescuees!) in 2001. I ranted about this to my rusted on Labor-supporting friends at the time; they patiently explained to me that he had to do that to minimise Labor’s losses in the election campaign. It profited them nothing, and he sold the party’s soul.
This is all part of a general malaise which has afflicted left of centre parties over several decades now. They have allowed themselves to be bullied into accepting without question the weltanschauung of the centre right: “there is no such thing as society” (as Margaret Thatcher famously said); the economy is everything, the rest is just froth and bubble; small government is better than big government; the government shouldn’t build anything or own anything; the market always knows best (“market failure” is just a weak excuse crypto-socialists use to justify intervention on behalf of rent-seekers) and free trade and free investment flows will always deliver the best outcome. And you must never allow anyone to accuse you of being soft on national security.
If they accept that as the terrain on which all political battles must be fought, it is pretty hard to for left of centre parties to present themselves as a better alternative to parties that actually believe all that stuff and are prepared to fight for it.