There’s a narrative going around — my esteemed colleague Bernard Keane being perhaps its most cogent advocate — according to which Kevin Rudd paid the price for attempting some measure of economic reform, and his early demise is a grave setback to the reformist cause within Labor. Before it really takes hold, I think it’s worthwhile pointing out some problems with this story.

The first part — that Rudd was a reformer — has a funny sense of deja vu about it. It’s reminiscent of the thousand and one articles that told us John Howard was a “conviction politician”, when the only firm conviction he ever seems to have had was the conviction that he should be in power. But even Howard’s reformist credentials, laughable though they are, look robust by comparison to Rudd’s.

Rudd’s biggest problem was the size of the gap between what he promised and what he delivered. An electorate that was disillusioned with Howard’s poll-driven policies was assured that Rudd would be different: principled, evidence-driven and reform-minded. He turned out to be none of these things.

The ETS is the most notorious example, but the Henry review, which in a roundabout way gave birth to the mining tax, makes the point just as well. A leader who was committed to reform would have released the report as soon as it was available, and used it to build up public support, if only by treating some of the recommendations as ambit claims that could then be backed away from.

A leader who wasn’t interested in reform would keep it under wraps until he’d worked out a way to deal with it, by picking an apparently innocuous recommendation to plug a fiscal hole and ignore most of the rest. Guess which one Rudd did? ran an interesting analysis of Rudd’s record from an American perspective; while some bits don’t quite ring true, it captures the basic problem, even with the title: “The Virtues of Standing Fast”. Rudd’s failure had nothing to do with being a reformer; it was all about failing to deliver on reform.

The second part of the Keane narrative is more plausible, based on the undeniable fact that the power brokers of the NSW right who elevated Gillard are as little attached to principle as Rudd was. And certainly her performance so far suggests a degree of policy timidity that is the equal of Rudd’s or Howard’s.

But that’s hardly unusual or unexpected from a prime minister who has, as yet, no mandate of her own. It doesn’t really give us much guide to how Gillard will act with an election win under her belt. On that score, there are some reasons for hope.

First because the example of Rudd is there right in front of her eyes. Principles at least might work; unbounded opportunism has been tried and failed. Secondly because Gillard seems by nature more of a consensus politician. Despite the popular myth that great reformers have to be autocrats, if anything the opposite seems to be true: Rudd’s autocratic tendencies and addiction to backflips fed off each other, and the most consensus-driven of our recent prime ministers, Bob Hawke, was also our most successful reformer.

And thirdly, because Gillard’s solidly Labour background, so unlike Rudd’s, gives her an internal credibility that he lacked. It is no coincidence that the previous leader to seriously take on the unions — Simon Crean — was also the one with the strongest union connections (and Gillard, of course, was a Crean loyalist at the time). If Gillard does try to get things done, she will have more elbow room than Rudd did.

It’s no certainty; Labor could end up just following Abbott further down the anti-reformist track. But I wouldn’t count on it just yet. Reform isn’t easy, but it’s neither as hard nor as unpopular as some would have us believe.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey