Good God, I’m in the most complex country in the world, during the biggest sporting event in the world, and Australia is more interesting.

That takes anti-talent on someone’s part.

There have been any number of pundits willing to recount the multiple strategic and tactical blunders of the Rudd government and I don’t propose to dwell on them here. But hell, let’s recap before going onto deeper matters:

Briefly playing Arthur and Martha on asylum seekers, neither standing up to the xenophobia, nor alternatively (as Latham had had a mind to do) continue Howard’s policy with a few bells and whistles, staging a silly and pointless 2020 summit that no-one asked for and which achieved nothing, star-fucking Cate Blanchett and others so obviously that it became a negative rather than a positive, teasing News Ltd without attacking them head on, being tactically outplayed on the ETS and left holding a dead parrot legislation post-Copenhagen, putting an ornament (Peter Garrett) in charge of a complex ministry, pushing an unworkable and repressive internet filter that mobilised a vocal and active sector in protest, being evasive and piecemeal where he should have been bold (parental leave), and making suicidal direct attacks where a guerrilla approach seems obvious (the RSPT).

Quite a list, with no dominant character. It is not that Rudd has been too left or too right overall — it is that he’s been both, and usually the wrong one in every situation. There are good compromises and bad compromises, as the man has said, and Rudd appears to have plumped largely for the latter. But that does not get to the core of Ruddism, and the political and philosophical contradictions that generated its strategic failures.

That came from the same thing that is killing Obama’s presidency — an attempt to make things appear so procedural and technical that all the politics has been taken out of them. Thus, the Rudd government had a clearly progressive agenda at its core — to address the growing inequality — of both outcome and opportunity — that has been a feature of the past 25 years, from the first Hawke/Keating government onwards.

But it never really told the story that would put its reforms in context. That story was an easy one to tell — the Howard government had bought itself an easy ride by ducking the difficult task of building a better country. It had let government schools, non-elite universities, and public hospitals fall behind, because it was unconcerned about making people’s lives better. It had shown its true colours by attacking the centrepiece of Australian fairness — wages, conditions, arbitration — as soon as it had control of the Senate.

In its place, the story would have gone, the Rudd government was going to defend and extend the Australian way of life, against the attempt to introduce a US-style capitalism red in tooth and claw. In addition to that, it was going to restart the push to make the country fairer, better in terms of the education people would get to get them along in life. Fairness at work, tackling the health system, education. Enough, as a core programme, for two terms, let alone one. So long as it managed to tell a story.

For reasons best known to itself, the Rudd government never told that story. Though some of its grandees had picked up on Judith Brett’s argument — first aired in Arena Magazine in the 90s — that the Howard government had made itself look ‘natural’ by appropriating the Australian myth of ‘mateship and the fair go’, they never really ran with it.

True, it’s tough to paint a government that’s presided over — shallow and easily-bought — prosperity as the enemy. But with Work Choices, the Howard government served it up to ’em on a plate. And more recently, Tony Abbott re-heated, and re-presented it, as the daily special. Nor did it learn from the other major aspect of Howard’s continued political success, his three great techniques: repetition, repetition, repetition. Howard’s great skill was that he was never afraid to be boring, to repeat a simple line so often — interest rates against Latham was an example –- until blood was pouring from the ears of the press gallery.

So what? Howard knew who he was talking to. So should have Rudd Labor — to marginal suburban voters, union members or not, whose attention to structural politics (as opposed to culture war chimeras like asylum seekers) was engaged by Workchoices. He should have simply banged on about it, and built up the (true) myth — that Labor had saved Australia from going down a disastrous path. Within that narrative, more proactive policies on education and health could have been slotted in, as an extension of an existing way of life, rather than wobbly new initiatives.

None of this was ever done of course for one simple reason — though Rudd and some of his clique are, by policy (if not faction) centre-leftish, their over-riding concern at all times has been to douse any push from the left, on a whole range of issues, from IR to real change in education or foreign policy. The approach was what you might call the ‘scandanavianisation’ of politics — try and reduce reform to a mere series of technical questions, and simply assume the values that underpin them.

Comment on this article over at The Stump

Peter Fray

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