When you change the government, you change the country.
Paul Keating’s analysis is certainly as true for Australia as for anywhere else, but the changes are not always obvious. So, after a year of Labor, how is Australia different?
The most obvious improvement is not so much the presence of Kevin Rudd as the absence of John Howard. Anyone doubting this should take a powerful anti-emetic and watch an episode or two of The Howard Years on the ABC.
A quick reminder of that smug, manipulating, deceitful crew that had us in its grip for nearly twelve years should dispel any lingering qualms about the change we made last November. Simply by getting rid of the unctuous bastards we have significantly improved the environment. And then, of course, there are the positives. The big two — ratifying Kyoto and apologising to the stolen generation — have been derided by the opposition as symbolism, and indeed they were symbols, and very powerful ones at that. But they were also something more: an announcement of new priorities and new programs.
In a sense it was just long-overdue catching up with things that should have been done many years ago. But that in itself was a significant change. Australia was finally waking up to reality.
The other major changes have been long term and more gradual. The dismantling of WorkChoices has gone neither as fast nor as far as many would like, but it’s in the system and should be resolved by early next year — not too bad for a piece of core legislation.
The education revolution was always a misnomer; it was designed as a four year plus program, not a radical overnight change. But it is well under way, as are the reform of commonwealth-state arrangements (ending the blame game) and the broadband roll out.
None of these was ever going to be fixed in a single year, which has been frustrating for some. But at least we can report progress. That so much has been achieved in the face of the massive international financial upheaval is in itself a tribute to the tenacity of the new government and the determination of its leader to fulfil, as far as possible, his election promises.
This has been compared unfavourably to manic insistence of the Whitlam government in sticking to its programs even as the oil price shocks of the 1970s made them unachievable; but the comparison is unfair. Rudd is prepared to adapt and temporise — even to make a full about-turn on economic strategy when the conditions demand it. In this sense he is not wavering or inconsistent, as his enemies claim, but a true Keynesian: “When circumstances change I change my views. What do you do, sir?”
Another key difference between Rudd’s government and that of Whitlam is simply the quality of the ministry. Gough Whitlam had some brilliant people in his extended cabinet, but they were entirely inexperienced and seriously undisciplined. Rudd’s team, while also largely lacking experience, has proved to be both dedicated and disciplined. It is not quite up to the standard of Bob Hawke’s first ministry, but it beats any other within living memory.
Extraordinarily, in the first year there has been not one major embarrassment. Some have attributed this to Rudd’s iron control and a lack of serious digging by the Canberra Press Gallery, but if there were any real duds lurking in the ministerial wing it is inconceivable that they could have remained hidden for so long. Of course, some have been less successful than others; Stephen Conroy, Justine Elliot and the hapless Peter Garrett have all been a bit disappointing and will have to lift their game to avoid the risk of being reshuffled.
But on the other side, people like Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Joel Fitzgibbon and Joe Ludwig, who looked a bit like dead wood when the ministry was announced, have performed above expectations. And the standouts — Julia Gillard, Lindsay Tanner, Penny Wong, Chris Evans and Tanya Plibersek — have looked very good indeed.
But most satisfying of all from Labor’s point of view, the tensions that were expected to surface between Rudd and his traditional enemies, both from the left and from the Beazley loyalists, seem to have disappeared altogether. Rudd, Gillard and Wayne Swan now compose as cosy a little ménage a trois as you could ever hope to see.
This is partly due to Rudd’s sensational standing in the opinion polls: the way he is going any challenge to his authority would be not so much disloyalty as suicidal foolishness. But there is no doubt that Labor is, perhaps surprisingly, getting used to the experience of government and liking it.
Seldom has there been such unity and such sense of purpose in the party — and what a contrast with the chaotic state governments, which probably pose more of a threat to Rudd than Malcolm Turnbull ever will.
Two final examples of change: firstly, the citizenship test is to be made real. Instead of being filled trivia questions about sport, it will be about Australia’s laws and system of government. Another paling from Howard’s white picket fence goes on the bonfire.
And David Hicks is finally free, with even the paranoid Federal Police conceding he is no threat. He probably wasn’t last year either, but the new government could not reject the AFP’s demand for a control order. Now, however, the force has apparently realised that Rudd is not disposed to using phoney security scares as an electoral weapon.
The country has changed, and even the cops have had to. Thank you, Kevin Rudd.