The bluster over Kevin Rudd’s Monthly assault on neoliberalism shows little sign of abating with debate set to reach fever pitch tonight as John Howard takes to the stage in Melbourne to defend free markets. But it looks like Howard will be firmly out on a limb — the chorus of commentators calling time on laissez-faire economics has now reached a crescendo with even Alan Greenspan emerging yesterday to back bank nationalisation. And when Stephen Mayne claims “riots and revolutions” are about to break out in Eastern Europe you know a serious paradigm shift is afoot. From all sorts of vantage points, it seems History is speeding up.

But trenchant criticism of the status-quo is one thing — the part the public service likes to call “next steps” is quite another. Those searching for alternative policy directions certainly won’t find it within the pages of Rudd’s possibly ghost-written treatise (press secretary Lachlan Harris is said to have been a busy beaver indeed in the first few weeks of January).

In fact, as Crikey has previously documented, the ALP appears to have abandoned ideology in favour of the bland policy prescriptions cooked up by an army of management consultants. Soon to be aided and abetted by the $50 million super think-tank the Grattan Institute, teams of advisers heavily schooled in organisational theory are queuing up to sup from the Rudd gravy train. Yesterday’s scathing Financial Review investigation was right on the money.

But what about elsewhere in that once-great ideas factory, the ALP? Thirty years ago, when the party boasted what looked like a broad-based membership, the rank-and-file ensured a lively climate at branch meetings with guest speakers generating heated debate. Nowadays, the range of speakers is heavily attenuated with most brought in to stave off mindless factional monotony.

State policy committees sometimes jack up over single issues but their ultimate control by the factions renders their output entirely predicable. Over-the-top proposals are likely to be rejected wholesale by the minister concerned and sometimes committees fail to meet as secretaries go missing for months on end.

Outside the party proper, the light on the hill continues to flicker — just.

The Fabian Society battles on, with Evan Thornley’s election as national secretary threatening to inject some much needed extra-parliamentary zeal into their 2009 agenda. The Thornley appointment has met with outrage from some members miffed at his resignation from the Victorian Upper House and meetings this year are expected to be lively. The Fabians’ action plan for 2009 reads like a desperate call for participation — all the right ideas are present and accounted before (including some ahead of the curve thinking on emissions trading). Whether it manages to recreate this impressive line-up of guest speakers remains to be seen.

Another Thornley backed outfit, PerCapita, conceived as a direct competitor to free market think tanks like the IPA and the CIS, has been more active in recent months with ex-Latham staffer Michael Cooney regularly hitting the airwaves to take on its scorched earth rivals. PerCapita is lucky in that many of its Third Way ideas dovetail with the policy wonkery favoured by Rudd, a theme picked up by ex-Kim Beazley speechwriter Dennis Glover in The Oz last week.

Meanwhile, Labor First, Thornley’s “grass roots movement for ALP renewal” made a promising start in 2005 before it was exposed as a front for his Victorian Parliament preselection hopes. Its home page still embarrassingly boasts the 2007 headline “Labor Wins the Election”.

The Chifley Research Centre recently hosted UK Labour dissident John Cruddus, with Cruddus also appearing at events hosted by the CFMEU-funded Catalyst. But for the most part Chifley is situated too close to the ALP to be credible and is likely to echo Rudd’s bland social market line.

Commentators have claimed Rudd’s break with neoliberalism represents an epoch-defining change in the government’s approach to the market. But when his stimulus package and the RBA’s interest rate prescriptions fail to bite, the PM will have been exposed as a policy fraud, leaving the door ajar for new ideas. One can sense the beginnings of an historic opening, not just among the party’s progressive wing but also for politics in general.

Tonight, as Howard takes the podium at Centenary Hall in Melbourne (the event’s address has been mysteriously removed from the web – luckily Google’s cache never lies), a group called Young Labor Left are convening convening a rival forum at Trades Hall to discuss “Labor’s response to the Global Financial Crisis”. Senator Kim Carr and ACTU chief Sharan Burrow will be in attendance in an impressive show of ALP/labour movement solidarity.

But whether a new generation of ALP leftists possess the long-term wherewithal to turn around the intellectual stasis that has beset the party remains to be seen. Right now the signs don’t look promising.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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