A time for new beginnings – the week in review

Aug 31st, 2008 | By David Harper | Category: Opinion

David Harper: This week was a time for new beginnings. In the United States, Barack Obama officially accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to be its candidate for President of the United States, the first African-American to be nominated by a minor party. Meanwhile, Republican John McCain chose a dark horse – little-known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin – as his running mate, the first woman to earn a spot on the Republican Party’s presidential ticket. In Australia, the ongoing Liberal leadership speculation entered a new, even more confusing stage, as Peter Costello endorsed Brendan Nelson. And Kevin Rudd outlined a number of initiatives that will begin to take the Labor Party beyond merely fulfilling its “me-too” election promises.

Obama nominated by acclaim

In a carefully choreographed drama on the floor of the Democratic National Convention, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called for the nomination by acclaim of her former rival, Senator Barack Obama. Mrs. Clinton’s move to end the vote counting process, and her husband, Bill Clinton’s, strong speech in support of Mr. Obama the following day, will hopefully begin to heal the damaging rifts between the two campaigns’ supporters, many of whom were very vocal in their opposition to Mr. Obama’s nomination.

On the final day of the convention, Mr. Obama officially accepted the Democratic Party nomination in front of 84,000 people at the Invesco Field football stadium. The speech came exactly 45 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous civil rights speech in Washington D.C. The official nomination of Mr. Obama marks the first time that a major American political party has chosen an African-American to be its candidate for a presidential election. This is a major step forward for the United States, a country that is still troubled by racism in some quarters, especially in the South. Even Senator John McCain, his Republican rival, could not ignore the significance of Mr. Obama’s achievement, and released a television advertisement warmly congratulating his adversary on his nomination.

However, Mr. Obama has a long road to travel before he reaches the White House. Polls show that he is running in a dead heat with Mr. McCain, and with over two months to go before election day, anything is possible. Aside from the issues at hand, of which there are many, Mr. Obama may still be denied the presidency because of the ugly racism that still stalks parts of the country. He must also deflect criticisms that he is light on policy specifics, a task that he began to address during his acceptance speech.

McCain announces Palin as VP pick

Immediately after the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention, Senator Obama’s Republican rival, veteran Senator John McCain, announced his selection of a running mate. His choice of the little-known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has surprised many commentators, who were expecting a more conventional choice, although it has played well among evangelical Christians, a constituency that has remained lukewarm about Mr. McCain’s candidacy.

The choice of Ms. Palin is at the same time fraught with potential risks and ripe with possible rewards. In terms of risk, Ms. Palin is incredibly inexperienced for the office that she might potentially hold; before she was elected as governor of Alaska – a state with a total population that is less than most mid-sized American cities – in 2006, she was the mayor of Wasilla, a small town with perhaps 9000 people. She has no foreign policy or even national political experience, and compares poorly to even Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, who has been in the United States Senate for just four years. Should Mr. McCain become incapacitated, something that is possible given his age – he would be the oldest first-term president in American history if elected – the U.S. would be governed by someone whose primary political experience has been in a minuscule city hall. Mr. McCain’s choice of Ms. Palin effectively neutralises his campaign’s pointed attacks on Mr. Obama’s lack of experience, an issue that has weighed heavily on some voters’ minds.

On the more positive side, Ms. Palin is staunchly conservative and will appeal to the evangelical Republican base, particularly in light of the fact that she is pro-life (against abortion) and personally refused to abort one of her babies when she was told the child would have Down’s Syndrome. She is also just the second female vice-presidential candidate for a major party, and may appeal to some of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s more ardent supporters – 27% of whom were already considering switching their allegiance to Mr. McCain, according to a recent poll. Lastly, Ms. Palin has been known during her career as an ardent anti-corruption campaigner, to the point where she was prepared to turn against members of her own Republican Party. The McCain campaign is no doubt hoping that Ms. Palin’s maverick reputation will dovetail nicely with Mr. McCain’s own attempts to portray himself as a change agent and distance himself from the unpopular Bush administration.

Costello endorses Nelson – what now?

Former treasurer Peter Costello muddied the waters surrounding his long-awaited announcement regarding his future, due next month, this week, making an appearance at the opening of the Senate with current Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson, and then endorsing Mr. Nelson’s leadership. Mr. Costello, whose continuing silence on his future is causing endless rounds of damaging speculation regarding the Liberal Party leadership, appeared to be relaxed and friendly during the Senate opening, even joking with Dr. Nelson at some points. Later on during the week, Mr. Costello explicitly and publicly endorsed Dr. Nelson’s leadership of the Liberal Party. “I absolutely and totally support Brendan Nelson,” the Member for Higgins told reporters. “He has been elected as the leader of the Liberal Party to take the Liberal Party to the next election and to win the next election, and he will have my total and utter support in doing that.”

What does all of this mean for Dr. Nelson’s leadership? As with the last time Mr. Costello’s ambitions were in the headlines, his future intentions remain unclear. Should Dr. Nelson, whose approval ratings remain dismal, step aside voluntarily – or with a little push from certain Liberal frontbenchers – Mr. Costello would be relieved of his public oath. And, much to the delight of Melbourne University Press, who hope to cash in in a manner not seen since the release of former Labor leader Mark Latham’s diaries, Mr. Costello has remained silent on whether he will in fact remain in politics. So the fact is, Dr. Nelson will remain leader until Mr. Costello announces his decision, at which point there will be one of two beginnings: either Mr. Costello will begin his new job as Opposition Leader, or the Liberal Party will face up to the future without him. Only time will tell!

The revolution at last

Before the federal election last year, then-Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd essentially promised voters that he would fulfil all of then-Prime Minister John Howard’s extravagant election promises, be a safe pair of hands at the tiller of the Australian economy, and rid the country of Mr. Howard’s discredited WorkChoices reforms. Since then, Mr. Rudd has tried his best to fulfill all of these promises, although he has also initiated some minor policy changes in the areas of immigration and taxation. However, this week Mr. Rudd and his deputy, super-minister and Deputy P.M. Julia Gillard, outlined a number of important policy initiatives in the areas of welfare reform, education and workplace relations.

Interestingly and importantly, none of the initiatives are the left-wing fare that Labor’s detractors might have suspected. Indeed, they are all policies that the Howard Government would have approved of and thus, rather unsurprisingly, policies that have caused some disquiet amongst Labor’s rank and file. Firstly, Ms. Gillard and Families Minister Jenny Macklin announced on Monday that the Government would introduce legislation to quarantine welfare payments destined for parents whose children play truant from school. Secondly, Mr. Rudd told the National Press Club on Tuesday that he would force schools to release performance indicators and allow parents to compare the information with data from similar schools. And thirdly, throughout the week the Prime Minister continued to insist that despite a renewed campaign from the militant Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union against the powerful Australian Building and Construction Commission, the construction regulator would be retained until 2010, as promised before the election, and then be merged into the new industrial umpire, rather than scrapped completely.

All three of these announcements sound startlingly like initiatives that might have been put out by the former Howard Government. The concept of mutual obligation for welfare payments was introduced by Mr. Howard shortly after his first election victory in 1996, when the newly elected Government started the Work for the Dole program, and then expanded last year during the intervention in the Northern Territory. In the case of the school performance indexing, Mr. Rudd’s announcement sounds eerily like the policy championed by former Howard Government Education Minister Julie Bishop. And lastly, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which was created by the Howard Government after it gained control of the Senate, would have already been scrapped had the silent majority of Labor back-benchers been listened to. The back-benchers and the trade union movement argue, with some justification, that the ABCC’s extraordinary powers, which include the ability to imprison union members who refuse to talk to its investigators, are far in excess of what is required to police the admittedly unruly building industry. However, Mr. Rudd has instead chosen to listen to the silent majority of the voting public, who rightly distrust the CFMEU and remember the disgraceful conduct of its members before the ABCC was established.

There are two reasons why Mr. Rudd has embarked on a path that resembles one that might have been taken by the Liberal Party had it been re-elected in November. Firstly, as I have already suggested, Mr. Rudd realised long ago that although voters elected Labor resoundingly at the last election, critical elements of his new constituency disapproved of either WorkChoices or Mr. Howard (or both) specifically and not the Coalition Government’s overall policy or direction. In fact, this realisation was made well before the election and was the key reason for the “me-too” strategy that brought Labor to power. Secondly, it appears that Mr. Rudd is either naturally just shy of centre-right or at least reasonably comfortable in this area of the political spectrum. Both of these reasons might well combine to lengthen Mr. Rudd’s political life considerably, particularly if the Liberal Party fails to recapture the attention of the electorate. Meanwhile, although the grumbling Labor back-benchers may complain about the abandonment of a number of their sacred cows, you can be guaranteed that they will willingly leave their old beliefs behind – at least for a time – as they become more used to the benefits of power. And that makes Mr. Rudd, who was willing to make the necessary hard choices to achieve power and, quite possibly, to retain it, a very smart politician indeed.

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