Last night I saw one of the most impressive efforts I’ve ever seen from an Australian politician. Way up there for thinking – but, unfortunately, politically, abysmal.

Kevin Rudd delivered an excellent paper to the Centre for Independent Studies, an attack on the disciples of Friedrich Hayek bravely titled “What’s Wrong with the Right”.

You can read it on his website, get the general gist from the Sydney Morning Herald or see the foreign policy comments on the tensions between neoliberals and neoconservatives in The Australian today.

The chair, veteran foreign policy guru Owen Harries, praised Rudd’s recent essays in The Monthly. Fair enough, too. They’ve been excellent – particularly his effort on religion and politics.

But Rudd’s practical politics were right off the mark last night.

He talked about a “clear and irreconcilable dividing line” splitting the political right. On one side, he said, there are traditional conservatives, concerned to protect families and communities “from the ruthless, impersonal logic of an unconstrained market.” On the other, he claimed, there are “Hayekian market fundamentalists,” among whom he included the Prime Minister.

He called John Howard a “paradigmatic” politician, keen to find dividing lines in his policy positions that clearly separate his position. That’s right – but there’s precious little ideology in his ideas.

“The task of politics is to craft constituencies through policy leadership capable of delivering long-term market-friendly reform,” Rudd said, “reform tempered by social responsibility.” John Howard’s crafted constituencies – but he’s crafted lowest common denominator constituencies. Ideology has played a minimal role.

As a questioner observed, the Prime Minister is an opportunist, not an ideologue. After four election defeats, senior Labor figures must recognise this – even if it doesn’t suit their rhetorical purpose.

Crikey recently recorded how Rudd falls back on cliché in hand to hand politics – talk of “hairy chested” behaviour and all that.

Rudd is a Sinologist. He understands more than most about what is actually meant when we talk about “Mandarins” and “Manchu courts” in our politics. He is clearly a very capable man. No wonder Wayne Goss had him as chief of staff. He is the perfect political adviser. That doesn’t make him a logical Labor leader.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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