Kevin Rudd’s ascension to the ALP leadership has ensured a much more interesting political contest over the next 12 months. Beneath the clichÃ©s about a ‘new style of leadership’ and ‘forks in the road’ lies a commitment to taking on Howard on the very issues that are meant to be the Prime Minister’s strength.
Rudd is the most philosophical leader of a major Australian political Party in living memory. His recent essays in The Monthly on the German anti-fascist theologian Dietrich BonhÃ¶ffer and Howard’s ideological agenda and his speech on political philosophy to the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) show a man interested in deep thinking and in testing the ideological foundation for modern political arguments.
In the essay but especially in the speech, Rudd takes aim at the amorality of Friedrich von Hayek the ideological heavyweight of neoliberal economics and teacher of the recently deceased Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman. Rudd exposes Hayek as a man completely uninterested in either morality or human dignity for whom people are nothing other than commodities at the service of an all-powerful market.
The fact that he chose the CIS, where Hayek is a demi-God, to give this speech demonstrates Rudd’s mix of confidence and arrogance and points to his willingness and ability to take on Howard on the ideological front. In the speech, Rudd points to Howard’s central contradiction his industrial relations policy is pure Hayek, but his lavish middle-class welfare to nuclear families is classic social conservatism. The problem, says Rudd, is that the market is eating away at family life through extended and irregular working hours, and a loss of job security Howard’s ideological marriage, therefore, is becoming strained.
(Ironically, this is something that Family First’s Steven Fielding articulated in his maiden speech to Parliament. Fielding went on to oppose WorkChoices as anti-family, as did every mainstream Church in the country.)
If Rudd can successfully articulate this contradiction to the whole electorate, and not just people who read The Monthly, he will gain a lot of traction in unlikely places. But he will need to steer clear of dumbing it down too far and succumbing to clichÃ©s (‘ease the squeeze’ anyone?).
He will also need to hone his alternative vision of a ‘pro-market system with soft edges,’ which can also be seen as contradictory but has a strong empirical base for example, investment in education leads to greater labour productivity, which drives future growth.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
Most importantly, if he gets this message right, he will provide Labor with a clear alternative narrative about modern politics for the first time since the Whitlam era. This is critical how often have people complained that they just wished Labor stood for something?
It is a high-risk strategy, however, because Rudd will be taking on Howard precisely in the area considered by many analysts to be his greatest strength: values and the economy. Howard will certainly be uncomfortable at being attacked in the open so brazenly, and much will depend on his ability to respond.
On another front, Rudd’s focus on reforming federalism could go either way: disaster or a huge win. It’s big and bold and will appeal to readers of the Courier-Mail, Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun who are sick of all the buck-passing. While talking up the gains in efficiency, he cannot possibly be expected to provide exact details before being elected, and thus cannot be attacked on the micro level (remember the cooked versus un-cooked chicken wings and the GST?), or for not having anything finalised to present.
Of course, the entire strategy falls down if Labor loses the March 2007 NSW election or if any of the other State Premiers have it in for Rudd. And if he does win, reform of this kind will be a nightmare to actually implement. But everyone knows that Commonwealth-State arrangements are a real problem we have to face eventually, and Rudd can point to his background in major reform of the Queensland public service (for which he earned the nickname ‘Dr Death’) as sterling credentials for the job.
Kevin Rudd might not look like as much of a risk as Mark ‘Bring Back the Biff’ Latham he doesn’t have an angry ex-wife or a history of violence but like Latham and unlike Beazley, Rudd will offer a very clear, positive choice for the electorate. Whereas Latham tried to go around Howard’s economic ideology by talking about family issues like reading to young children, Rudd is taking on Howard on his own turf. It is a dangerous game, and if Howard defends well, Rudd will be exposed and friendless.
If Rudd succeeds, however, Howard will look like an ideological extremist and be rolled easily.
First published in On Line Opinion on 11 December, 2006
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