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-talant on someone’s part.
So, it is still possible that Kevin Rudd may survive tomorrow’s spill. But if he does it seems almost certain it will be by no convincing margin. Furthermore, he’ll have to sack Gillard and reshuffle. Rudd may survive, but the Rudd government will be over, limping to likely defeat. 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 artha 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 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 mining tax).
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 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 year,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.
When it succeeds, your enemies on the right look like ideologues, and those on the left look carping and whiny. It was a strategy pioneered by New Labour in the UK, and various grandees from that demolished movement brought it over to Oz, like typhoid.When it fails however, you’re left defenceless. Take as an example the BER. This prioritised the clever-clever idea that it could be used to pump-prime the construction sector, while providing a slightly creepy pretext to create a bunch of plaques thanking the Glorious Rudd Government for their generosity etc etc.
But the BER was hard to defend within a larger narrative – that of building a fairer, better nation through education – because it was so disconnected from the wider (and unplaquable) business of really investing in new teachers, smaller class sizes, and redistributing from elite schools. Indeed, a lot of the money for it had been taken from the public housing budget, hardly a progressive move. So when the right came gunning for it – as they always would – the BER was exposed as a disconnected ad hoc programme which was far from addressing the real defects in Australian education.
Had it been part of a comprehensive approach, a vociferous defence, targeted at the people it would benefit, could have been mounted, over the heads of News Ltd, talkback and the sheep-like commercial news channels. One could repeat that example across a range of policies. But one could also point to fights that should have been avoided but weren’t. The asylum seeker issue was one that should have been fought head on.Short-term processing facilities should have been expanded so that there was no possibility of overflow, and then the principle of asylum-seeking defended and the panic talked back to.
In other cases, a fight should have been avoided on old guerrilla warfare grounds. Why assault the mining industry head on, when -as m’esteemed colleague Bernard Keane pointed out – most of the tax increase could have been done by fiddling with existing provisions so complex that the gen public couldn’t get across them. Then, when the billionaires march, dub them the ‘whining industry’ and turn the public against them. (This after all was the approach used to de-fang the building industry watchdog, without actually abolishing it).
The Rudd government, and Ruddism, is a third flower on the now blooming bush of centre-left failure, taking its place with Obama and Gordon Brown. Yet each has done something well. Rudd could have learnt from Obama’s dogged and single-minded pursuit of a health-care bill – as opposed to the mad, inquiry driven scattershot approach. And he could have learnt from British labour’s (late) return to raising the Thatcherite boogy against the Tories – a strategy that undoubtably staved off a wipeout.
Whatever has happened (this piece is being written prior to Thursday morning’s spill), Rudd Labor limping or Gillard Labor marching with a bit more spring in its step, have only one choice: to take the fight to the Right on wages, conditions and workplace rights, almost exclusively. They have to reverse the current positioning which somehow suggests that Labor is the aberration, the Coalition the natural representatives.
Essentially, Labor has to position itself as the conservative party – in the sense of not changing something that manifestly works for – and the Libs as the party of sinister thinktanks and bold blueprints for radical change in how people live. Labor needs to run a campaign of fear, and re-establish an identification with the Australian people as its true representative.
Mind you, this is an endgame in more ways than one. Within the life of this government, it’s a desperate attempt to salvage a disastrous political encounter. But it is increasingly obvious a crisis in the western world that the mainstream parties – ossified castes of ageing student politicians – are utterly incapable of dealing with the challenges we will face in the years and decades to come.
And should Labor go down to Abbott there will be an upside – a general chuck out of the right-wing rot at the heart of the party, neocon creeps like Craig Emerson and the like.
Nevertheless, that’s a consolation prize. With a bit of hard thinking, Gillard Labor might give itself a few days of sunshine before the storm.