As already documented on LP, Kevin Rudd occupied himself this week by performing perhaps the most spectacular policy backflip imaginable, the sidelining of the CPRS. Or perhaps unimaginable, because I suspect very few people saw this coming.
Rudd’s climate change reversal was the embodiment of a cynicism of truly monumental proportions; the culmination of a sustained failure to hold a policy conversation with the public, and born of fear of an Abbott fear campaign.
So as May Day dawns, it’s worth posing the question: what has happened to Australian Labor?
I can’t remember who first described Kevin Rudd as ‘Australia’s inaugural Federal premier’, but there’s real truth in that phrase. The risk averse nature of state politics, the obsession with controlling the media cycle, the concentration on bite sized focus grouped ‘announceables’, and the failure to lead public opinion; it’s all there with Rudd.
It’s the triumph of the political pragmatists – a vacuous politics driven by the minutiae of electoral calculus which Paul Keating warned against in the midst of the 2007 Rudd ascendancy. Sure, it might make sense to ‘clear the decks’ and pitch solely to the outer suburban and regional voters Abbott is also appealling to with his unprincipled populism. ‘Keep the conversation on health’, one can imagine Ruddistas intoning with the frequency of a constantly repeated soundbite.
But something more profound is at work here; a failure of political imagination and courage.
Much has been made over the past few days of Kevin Rudd’s lack of a reform agenda. I’m often suspicious of that word. Too often, it means a narrow economism, focused solely on enabling business to compete in a globalised world. Few point to the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984 by the Hawke Government as a great reform, preferring to laud the deregulation of markets and the floating of the dollar. Yet the former represented a real shift in the possibilities of equality in this nation, and a reconfiguration of social relations for the better. The Rudd government’s record is equally barren on both scores, and a chance has been missed to lead on an issue the PM himself quite correctly identified as the great challenge of our times.
It may be that Paul Norton is right and that the Labor party, reflecting the class and workplace cleavages of another century, finds it difficult to factor sustainability into its political equation. Indeed, that failure, whose consequences are now writ large, opens the political space for The Greens, as opposed to the soft environmentalism and middle class civil liberties agenda of the now departed Democrats. But the intransigence of some Ministers, unions and a recrudescent party culture is no excuse for a Prime Minister whose power within the government has constantly been celebrated.
What’s left for Labor? There are still reasons to re-elect the Rudd Government, and reasons which transcend the horror of the Abbott alternative. There’s something in having Ministers with the right instincts, and with a desire to put right the wreckage John Howard inflicted on all of us. The irony is that some of those Ministers who are most attuned to the demands of the second decade of the new century are now at risk from Rudd’s obsession with a risk-free politics. Labor should have another term, but some time in that term, and the sooner the better, Kevin Rudd should go.