Alternative Universes And The PNG Solution

Alternative universes abounded last night.

But sometimes the media worlds available via a remote control are more alike than they are willing to pretend.

There was the ABC. Within an hour of Kevin Rudd’s announcement of the PNG solution, its screen was filled with refugee advocates castigating the decision. They were joined by frothing right-wingers in an unholy unity ticket of condemnation.

Online, in the ever-so-slightly-nutty world of Twitter, there was talk of White Australia, racism and Labor’s shame. Dire warnings of malaria and rape coalesced with suddenly-expert analyses of the state of civil society in PNG.

Some lamented the shape-shifting Rudd and yearned for The Great Gillard.

There was Sky News, sadly these days a paradise for ever-more vacuous right-wing talk show hosts and those cable-friendly Laborites who make you worry that you might be on the same side.

As on the ABC, the resident Liberals and standalone right-wingers were especially lathered and frenzied. Last night they were born-again campaigners for the down-trodden. They accepted the solution but despaired of its implementation.

I felt somewhat alone. In my foolishness, I thought I might just have witnessed a political masterstroke. Commentators online suggested otherwise. I should be more ashamed, they seemed to say.

What would I know? The weight of moral certainty and self-righteous indignation was overwhelming.

But through these unreliable representations of the world outside, it was possible to discern something else, and it was a remarkable sight indeed.

When Tony Abbott appeared for his brief press conference, flanked by Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison, you could close your eyes and hear the trepidation in their voices.

Political fear hung in the air.

Fresh from the carbon tax announcement earlier in the week, another of the supporting struts in the Coalition campaign collapsed last night.

Rudd had implicitly dared Abbott to oppose him on PNG. Abbott blinked first. “I welcome it but it won’t work under Mr. Rudd,” he spluttered lamely.

In a moment, a new consensus was born. A potent electoral issue was smudged and blurred and neutralised.

Abbott knew an important moment in the election campaign had just occurred and you could tell that he knew it. Hours later, you could watch it in Morrison’s frenetic responses on Lateline.

Remarkable and delicious.

Rudd struck another blow against Gillard and pushed Abbott just a bit more to the edge of the electoral canvas.

He did it in the face of a coalition that sees its best laid plans going awry.

And he did it in the face of his internal enemies and his media detractors who still ridicule and caricature him.

In three short weeks, Rudd has justified the case for dumping Gillard, so much so that some dare to dream of a famous victory. The Labor Party was a basket case last month. Today it pulses with relief and a touch of excitement.

Embittered supporters of Gillard no doubt still harbour a profound hurt. They may at last sense something of what drove Rudd to stay, endure and finally savour his vindication.

Some Labor supporters may wince at the PNG solution. In times past they winced over state aid, uranium mines, foreign banks, lowered tariffs and a host of other issues. Once, before they loved them, they winced over Whitlam and Hawke. That’s what Labor supporters do from time to time.

Each occasion involves a choice between, as Gillard would say, moving forward or staying trapped in a destructive past.

This time it involves some unpleasant moral choices. It involves a bold political calculation.

But, however you view it, the flow of asylum seeker boats is an unsustainable situation that has to be shaken up and reframed. No responsible party of government could pretend otherwise for any longer.

And of course electoral imperatives matter. That irks the moral guardians. But everything about the return to Rudd has been the story of a party belatedly but finally refusing to lie down and die.

You sense that Rudd sees it as more than that. Monday’s Caucus meeting, symbolically in the Balmain Town Hall, shouts a message about reconstruction and renovation.

We’ll soon see where it ends. A friend of mine, a one-time Labor MP, is convinced Rudd can win. I’m not. I can’t find the seats.

But a month ago, we were in total agreement. An Abbott victory was assured. Labor annihilation loomed. Now that’s all changed.

Last night, however those alternative universes saw it, the contest took another decisive turn.

Malcolm Farnsworth


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