“Labor people,” explained Dennis Shanahan yesterday, “who voted for Rudd thinking he would be different to what he said were dreaming.”

That’s funny. Didn’t a certain newspaper warn us (per Steve Price) that, if the dread Rudd snuck in, he’d “change it all”?

Perhaps that was a dream, too. But even Shanahan, who bangs out the stupid as regularly as a metronome, occasionally stumbles on the truth.

With the indigenous apology so dramatic – and such a contrast with Howard’s ocker nationalism – it’s tempting to see Rudd as a new Whitlam, poised for a sweeping reform program. That’s presumably the sentiment behind whatever popular enthusiasm exists for the 2020 forum.

But the relevant comparison is not Whitlam but Blair. It’s easy to forget the Rudd-like euphoria that surrounded the newly elected Tony Blair.

Remember Cool Britannia? Blair, in those days, presented as both the moderniser and the man of principle, sufficiently different from the Howardesque John Major that he could comfortably hang with Oasis and the Spice Girls.

Like Rudd, Blair gave good ceremony, with a star turn after Diana’s death. His “ethical foreign policy” now lies buried in the sands of Iraq, but at one point people actually took it seriously: Blair, so that narrative went, offered a new start after decades of Tory sleaze.

In recent days, Crikey writers have correctly described the Rudd intervention on binge drinking as a moral panic.

Well, moral panics were the Alpha and the Omega of the Blair government. They were all that Tony Blair delivered in place of traditional social democratic reforms. Alcohol, sure – but also kids in hoodies, dangerous dogs, yardie gangs, alienated Muslims, porn on the internet and so, tediously, on.

The Blairite formula involves the assimilation of genuine social issues into tabloid format. The trick is, if you channel the discussion into an orgy of collective outrage, you can frogmarch your liberal critics into accepting whatever conservative nostrums you seek to implement (generally, harsher laws and more governmental power). Anyone who demurs, you tearily berate for not caring. After all, Something Must Be Done!

Howard flirted with the Blair approach over the NT intervention. But where Mr Mean-and-Tricky lacked the oily sincerity necessary to really make the business work, Kevin Rudd has moral panic written all over him.

2020 forums will come and go. But one would be unwise to expect any real debates on land rights or asylum seekers or trade unionism. As Shanahan says, Rudd didn’t campaign over such issues, and has built no constituency for the kind of fight genuine reforms would entail.

It’s far more likely that we’ll see a steady stream of initiatives around kids drinking and Corey Delaney throwing parties and horses not wearing trousers and whatever else causes sufficient umbrage to dissolve genuine policy discussion into an outraged unity.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.

Peter Fray

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