15 Aug. 2006

Coalition ducks and weaves

In one day, we have three sudden jerky movements by the federal government.

Firstly, they dropped their plan to make immigration law yet more draconian. There's no secret about why this happened: they were staring defeat in the senate in the fact, since their own senators could not be relied upon. This is basically a Good Thing, as far as I can see.

Then, Darth Ruddock announces that they may seek to have David Hicks repatriated if the US don't charge him with anything (their previous attempt to charge him with something in a specially-convened kangaroo court having been declared unconstitutional). This is, it seems to me, a really significant u-turn by a government that has tried to completely disown Hicks for the last four+ years. Ruddock also seems to be claiming credit for the American release of Mamdouh Habib, Australia's other Guantanamo detainee now. This move is clearly, like the previous one, not about winning votes. Right-wing populism with its total disdain for the other – migrants, Muslims – is what this government's electoral success is built on. Rather, both moves are about the fact that certain very influential people – Liberal MPs, high-profile lawyers – are vociferously unhappy with the government's disregard for human rights/decency.

Thirdly, something much more transparent: the subsidy to convert cars to Liquefied Petroleum Gas. Kind of a weird one. The obvious placatory measure would be to subsidise petrol. But of course that would mean implicitly admiting that the government can do something about petrol prices, rather than allowing the 'market' to determine the price. Weirdly, it's OK to leverage the market left, right and centre to get alternatives to petrol happening. There's a twisted logic here, and it does make the government look progressive. Not enough to get progressives voting for them, but enough to get their own voters to justify to themselves keeping their heads burried in the sand.

The big issues are untouchable though. The government cannot backtrack on industrial relations, and it cannot influence interest rates. Which is to say, it has the capacity to do these things, but is not about to use it. And these, it seems, are the issues around which the next election will be won or lost. Well those, and the mass-delusional politics of trust, confidence and personalities.