Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 16:48 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 16:48 | SYDNEY

For Labor, the moment is now


Graeme Dobell

6 December 2010 14:02

First-term governments are too busy learning the basics to alter the macro settings of international policy. It's in the second term that politicians know enough to shift the structure as well as the steering of defence and foreign policy.

The trajectories of the Fraser, Hawke and Howard governments prove the rule. The Whitlam Government smashed the rule, but then Whitlam smashed a lot of things. The Gillard Government shows some hints of a second-term willingness to act, based on the lessons of the Rudd experience. Gillard needs to, anyway. Labor might not be around for a long time, so they might as well have a good time. The moment to give the wheel a spin is now. 

The year limping to an end in Canberra was an extravaganza of amazing riches; a political bonanza verging on bonfire, but a policy famine. Let's hope we don't see its like again for a while.

The personal costs of this roller coaster were evident walking around Parliament House as the final sitting expired. The normal biorhythm of federal politics is that, after an election, everyone collapses, December arrives and the players get to recover in the sun. Not in 2010. Holding a winter election was a bizarre play. And it certainly played havoc with those biorhythms. Thankfully, most of the silly moves and dumb choices brought on by fatigue as the Parliament flapped to a finish didn't turn into major stuff ups. Time now to rest and regroup.

Part of that second-term agenda will be to shift the macro settings bequeathed to foreign and defence policy by the 11-year Howard reign.

The Rudd Government left most of those big settings in place through what proved to be its sole term. The top bureaucrats inherited from Howard were retained and delivered competent continuity as they were gradually replaced.

As much as it ever will, Labor now understands how key departments work and has made its own selections for most of the top people. In defence, foreign affairs, aid and national security, the second term opportunities now beckon. The inquiry into aid is under way and changes will follow. The national security complex has had an amazing decade of growth and will shortly undergo its own review. The macro settings in both areas are due for a second term shake.

While national security and defence gorged, the Howard setting for Foreign Affairs was for anorexia tending towards starvation. In arguing for more cash and resources for DFAT, Kevin Rudd is confronting a Howard worldview that did not value the diplomats as much as other players. By continuing to keep DFAT on a diet, Labor is persisting with a Howard view of how the world works. The diplomats will never reclaim aristocrat status, but they are more useful than mere artisans.

Defence is always the behemoth. Tinkering rather than big turns are the natural order. And in defence, the Rudd Government actually locked in the inherited macro settings — Rudd produced a Defence White Paper that ran on the rails laid by Howard. The second term struggle for Labor on Defence is whether it really wants to pay for the promises it made in the White Paper. The defence budget will head towards some interesting crunch point in Labor's third term or the fresh consideration of an incoming Coalition.

As the third Defence Minister of the Rudd-Gillard era, Stephen Smith will be able to play to his personal strengths – calm competence and a safe pair of hands. The Smith signature is mature administration, not adventure. Smith's ability to reach into Defence will be enhanced by the retirement in coming months of Angus Houston. As Chief of Air Force and then Chief of Defence, Houston has been a dominant intellect within Russell for much of the past decade.

The departure of such a big player always opens up the chance for  changes. Afghanistan, though, imposes continuity. Gillard has embraced the Afghanistan setting inherited from Howard and enhanced by Rudd. One result of the great debate is that Afghanistan is now Gillard's war. Fighting that war is the task before Defence for the next four years. That setting seems stuck.

Photo by Flickr user Rantz.