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Standstill Australia

Nick Bryant | 04:32 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010

Australian politics has entered a kind of off-season, which feels rather like the lull you get in football after a scrappy World Cup tournament that was decided ultimately by a nerve-jangling penalty shoot-out. Everyone seems a little weary, a few players are nursing injuries, and some of the supposed stars have seen their reputations badly battered. It is as if everyone is in desperate need of a break before the new season begins, and limbering up for it without any great enthusiasm, energy or motivation.

At the tail end of last week, ABC's AM programme broadcast as its lead a slightly bizarre report from one of its political reporters essentially saying that Canberra was so eerily quiet that it seemed almost ghostly. Briefly turning the idea of news on its head, the report effectively relayed there was nothing to report. But even in its weirdness, the piece was rather useful, because it captured some of the emptiness and listlessness that has temporarily crept into national life.

This week, Julia Gillard was officially sworn in as prime minister, as was her new ministerial team. But again, other than the re-emergence of Kevin Rudd as foreign affairs minister, it did not create much of a stir.

New Australian cabinet with PM Julia Gillard, Canberra, 14 September 2010

Perhaps everyone is still recovering from Rob Oakeshott's "And then there was one" speech - a 15 minutes of fame affair that seemed interminably longer. Perhaps it is just the inevitable consequence of an election that dragged on much longer than everyone thought?

But might it be part of wider malaise?

Even before the election, as they remarked upon the lack of vision from either Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, some commentators asked whether Australia's great reforming age had drawn to an end. Starting with the opening up of the Australia economy under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and continuing with the economic reforms of the Howard era, such as the introduction of a goods and services tax, Australia has gone through a period of fairly rapid and major reform. But is that now petering out?

Other than its proposals for a national broadband network, which it seized upon during the campaign as its big idea for want of any others, the new-look government could hardly be said to have campaigned on a thrusting reform agenda. Julia Gillard is not regarded within Canberra as a particularly innovative policy-maker, and nor is the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott.

Julia Gillard will not commit to a timetable on any new emissions trading scheme, she has said that Republicanism will not be on her agenda until there is a change of monarch in Britain, and has no plans for a major shake-up of federal-state relations, which some regard as an impediment to national development.

What is also striking about this enervated interregnum is that its most energetic performers are Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd, two former leaders who were effectively sidelined by their parties and have now been handed front-line roles (Turnbull is heading up the opposition to the government's broadband plans). Both of them have always been highly ambitious and motivated. But another thing they have in common is that they are both regarded as creative policy innovators and reformists.

After the rigours of the campaign, it is only natural that Julia Gillard should pause to draw breath and regain some energy. But she has emerged from the campaign a diminished figure within her party and within the country, and the fragility of the parliamentary situation may well exacerbate her cautious political instincts and underscore her reputation as a numbers politician rather than an ideas politician. Other than her oft-stated belief in the transformative power of education, she does not convey the impression of being particularly riveted by policies or "programmatic specificity," as her predecessor memorably put it.

Her first few months in office, you suspect, will be more about consolidation than change. But what then? Could there be stasis? Indeed, has Australia already have entered a phase of national standstillism?


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