If Kim Beazley is allowed to have 4332 regrets about his past as he conceded last week let me admit to one.
I should not have been so hard on the bloke.
Now, I am very glad that Kevin Rudd is the new Federal Leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party and I maintain that Beazley always set out to be a statesman when what Labor needed was a committed partisan in the role. And my faith in Federal Labor is almost renewed (NSW is another story altogether) when I hear Rudd declare that his Opposition will be ‘an alternative, not an echo.’
But Beazley did provide a clear contrast to Prime Minister on one point: he was entirely without John Howard’s petty bourgeois, chip-on-the-shoulder malice and small-mindedness. I could not imagine ‘Prime Minister Beazley’ purging the universities, the ABC, the Australia Council, the museum boards, even the list of graduate trainees in the Department of Foreign Affairs of people with Liberal or National Party affiliations, as Howard has done with Labor and union sympathisers.
In his quest for bipartisanship, Beazley showed that he would have been a unifying prime minister, in the tradition of Bob Hawke, and unlike Howard, who has prospered by exploiting tension in the community.
Even though Beazley frustrated me for seven years, not distinguishing Labor enough from the Coalition Government on the policy front, I should not have been so dismissive of his estimable personal qualities. Nor should I have revelled so much in the outbursts about him from Mark Latham. Contrast Beazley’s grace in defeat with Latham’s lack of gratitude to the Party that indulged him with a series of well-paid jobs, a seat in Parliament, the leadership and the chance to score a fully indexed, tax-free pension for life.
Thanks to Sean Leahy
The Latham Diaries was a sometimes useful critique of machine politics but its author was, in many ways, a lout who tried to rationalise his behaviour as a reflection of the mean streets he represented. (More an insult to his constituents, I think.)
Now, though, a new day has dawned for Labor.
It has been delicious this past week watching Rudd throw Howard’s claim to leading a Party of ‘family values’ back in his face. Rudd, a sincere Christian who turns up to his local Anglican Church in Brisbane even when there is no TV camera to record the event (recall Howard’s made-for-broadcast worship the morning after the 2004 election), will undermine the Coalition’s moral piety. Rudd kept hammering away at the damage Howard’s free-market fundamentalism, his encouragement of debt-fuelled materialism and his corporate-friendly employment laws are doing to family life.
Rudd is positioning Labor as a conservative Party in the best sense of the word a defender of those institutions that have served society well, such as an impartial umpire to mediate disputes and enforce fairness in the workplace. His recent essay in The Monthly, ‘Howard’s Brutopia,’ skilfully appropriates two conservative icons: the 18th century political theorist Edmund Burke, who warned that society was based on reciprocal rights and obligations, not self-interest; and 19 th century Conservative UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who warned against the development of ‘two nations’ in one and legislated to expand the voting franchise and legalise unions and the right to strike.
Rudd is setting up Howard’s market fundamentalism in which he reduces employees to the status of just another tradeable commodity as the antithesis of family-values conservatism. The new workplace laws will, for example, create another generation of neglected latch-key children, whose parents are on demand from their employers more than ever.
The economic neo-liberalism that Howard has embraced often unleashes forces and products that conservatives abhor. If you’re an education traditionalist, you should know that universities run courses in drag-queen make-up artistry, surfboard-making and golf course management for one reason: enough people are willing to pay for them in this deregulated, market-driven system.
If you’re against pornography and licentiousness on TV, you should know why the networks screen crap such as Big Brother: because it’s cheap to produce and rates strongly.
If you lament the end of the familial Sunday lunch, it’s because mum is staffing a counter at K-Mart and dad is on call for IT maintenance on the insurance company mainframe.
Rudd’s message is simple: neo-liberal economics is incompatible with Australia’s way of life. His pitch will, I suspect, cleave many of the older socially conservative voters who yearn for a bygone age, and parents who tell pollsters repeatedly that they are willing to trade money for more family time, away from the Coalition. Labor will have wedged Howard at last.
Rudd’s own active faith also has the potential to end the near-monopoly the Coalition has enjoyed on the growing evangelical Christian vote. Rather than condescending to, or even dismissing, people of faith, as many on the Left have done, Rudd evinces a genuine respect for the moral dilemmas people face.
And in his commitment to an industry policy which ensures that Australia is more than ‘China’s quarry and Japan’s beach,’ Rudd also stakes a claim to the economic nationalism, as opposed to rationalism, that fuelled the rise of One Nation, and ultimately allowed it to become the bridge on which ‘Old Labor’ voters crossed to the Coalition.
A Labor Party committed to protecting Australian jobs, and actually supporting a local manufacturing industry, can win back some of the ALP’s lost heartland without having to compromise a humanitarian position on immigration and refugees. Given the choice between voting to protect your job or squandering your vote to protest against the arrival of someone you’re unlikely to ever meet, I suspect I know which way the cards will fall.
Labor’s last Prime Minister, Paul Keating, pursued fashionable agendas for a republic and economic enmeshment with the sweatshops of Asia. Labor’s next Prime Minister has determined that he will forswear such trendiness, preferring more intrinsic social democratic values of community and justice.
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