Had Kevin Rudd published his Monthly manifesto back in, say, 2004, it would have been a most remarkable document.
Back then, when you couldn’t find a cigarette paper’s worth of difference between the social democrat Tony Blair and the Republican George W. Bush, denouncing neo-liberalism would have been courageous. Had he spoken up in 2004, Rudd would have had to stare down the Murdoch attack machine at its most powerful, an experience Mark Latham knows something about. By sharpening the economic differences between Labor and Liberal in an election year, Rudd could have sounded the alarm about the precipice ahead.
Of course, being Kevin Rudd, he didn’t do that.
Nor did he take his anti-free market fundamentalist ideas to the people in November 2007. On the contrary, back then, as you will recall, he boasted that Labor’s fiscal policy was “a mirror position” of John Howard’s, that Labor’s attitude to budget surpluses was “identical to the Government’s [with] no sliver of light between them”.
In other words, a little over a year ago, Rudd enthusiastically endorsed the “free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed” he now sees as so reprehensible: as the Australian ’s Matt Price said at the time, the general idea was that “Rudd agree[d] with the PM on everything economic.”
Thus, when Rudd asks in his Monthly piece, “How was this [crisis] allowed to happen? What ideology, what policy, what abuses made this possible? Were there any warnings?”, the answer is that, no, there weren’t — or, at least, there weren’t from Kevin Rudd.
Today, everyone’s bolting that particular stable door, but, of course, the horses of economic apocalypse have long since galloped away.
Rudd’s entirely right to say that economic orthodoxy has been overthrown. Indeed, his essay exemplifies the new orthodoxy as entirely as his position in 2007 exemplified the old orthodoxy: like every other world leader, he now says that the financial sector needs greater regulation, that governments should, without resorting to protectionism, oversee the market, yadda yadda yadda.
Mind you, this new consensus has not been reached in any coherent fashion. It’s not just in Australia that we’ve witnessed the unedifiying spectacle of politicians adopting, almost overnight, policies against which they’ve spent their entire careers arguing. It was, after all, George Bush — Mr Neoliberal himself — who presided over the utterly unprecedented bank bailout, a zillion dollar intervention into the sanctum of the market that went ahead not because of any consensus that the bailout would work but simply because no-one knew what else to do.
And still they don’t. Yes, the stimulation plans proceed but to date they’ve proved as effective on the economy as a defibrillator might on a corpse. In any case, now that Obama’s in the White House, Republicans seem to be losing enthusiasm for spending their way out of trouble – though, naturally, they have no better ideas of their own.
Meanwhile, take a look what’s happening in Europe. Surveying the strikes spreading from Athens and Reykjavik, the Guardian concludes: “Europe’s time of troubles is gathering depth and scale. Governments are trembling. Revolt is in the air.”
There’s none of that in Australia – at least, not so far. But one wouldn’t like to entirely rule it out.
Yes, the global crisis represents the failure of neo-liberalism. But, more than that, it represents the bipartisan failure of political leadership, of a political class that didn’t speak out against the free marketeers when it might have mattered, and that now seeks to creep away from that history without any reckoning whatsoever.
The best thing about Mr Rudd’s manifesto is that it might, perhaps, spark a more general conversation about policy alternatives. God knows we need it.