The Next Big Idea


Labor is in need of something special to overcome John Howard’s habit of always having the Next Big Idea: foreigners, immigrants, aliens, them, Muslims, terrorists

There is a danger that with Kevin Rudd as its principled new leader, Labor is above stooping so low as to reach up for an abstraction that moves the electorate. But it must do so if it is to win office. Labor needs its own Next Big Idea (NBI).

The idea must be robust, outwit a sound byte, and find its way into everyday practise: otherwise it’ll come across as the hybridised random aggregate of a latte-fuelled focus group, high on new-new-Labor optimism. Best to go for something ordinary, folksy. Something that is not even a word perhaps, but a gesture. The next big idea may not even be an idea, but the conveyor of an idea.

It is true that NBIs tend to be dumb but only in retrospect. The End of History, Clash of Civilizations, Bankruptcy For Winners, War on Terror, The Third Way You have to admire how easily the phrase-crazemongers dominate public and academic discourse, despite their banality. Those writing NBIs are writing for an audience whose entire adulthood reading experience is based on reading executive summaries. To work on the NBI is to accept a withering of the mind for the ease of manufactured public deliberation. If it can’t be summarised, don’t write it.

The life-cycle of the common NBI is shorter than that of a Labor opposition leader, and it is just as hollow. Only exceptional NBIs meaningful ones last beyond a few years. Ordinary NBIs serve limited purposes. In this case, it’s about winning an election.

What matters is that people put the NBI into the shopping trolley, that presidents and husbands talk about it, and that Tony Blair carries it for instance Wise Ways Wanting: How to be the Medium of Other People’s Desires next to the Koran, with a look of such ridiculous sincerity that his deserting ministers read it. The NBI is a club, and the author offers readers the key to its entry by mastery of jargon. If they succeed, they will have ‘squared the circle’ by ‘thinking outside’ the ‘reengineered box’.

For the management guru working up the next NBI the rewards and the markets are endless. There can never be enough NBIs waiting in the wings. The business shelves of bookshops are so full of wisdom one can randomly pull out any book and be struck by its insight. Of course one must be prepared to ditch one’s prejudice that a book must be a logical and systematic exposition of its chosen theme.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

I did such an experiment and pulled out a random book. I was motivated by the need to get Kevin Rudd to dumb down a bit, to work at not being so smart. He needs to wipe from his face that barely visible sneer of knowing-it-all that attends his public speaking. Cameras can do close-ups, Mr Rudd. Your sneer, Mr Rudd, may prove to be not so much your Achilles heel, as your Latham’s handshake. Faced with this problem, I think I have found the next NBI. While not its author, I would like to claim some credit in locating an answer to Labor’s woes.

Party faithful, go to any bookshop and you will find a priceless store of conceptual mud awaiting Rudd in JH Carver’s book, Smile with your faith: the beginning is not the end (Cockeyed Press, Ohio, 2001).

Carver’s strength is not precision he tends to offer ponderous qualifications. However, he does develop a memorable, for five-year-olds, three-fold conceptual schema of such profound dimness that all those who want to make good from bad beginnings will see it as bright lights.

Carver’s NBI is to ‘SMILE WITH YOUR FAITH, NOT YOUR FACE’. (The shrieking font is as per the original.) His book seeks to provide leaders whom take part in prayer circles with the means to move on from the troublesome beginnings that accompany any rise in politics. His triangular route through the guilt of bad beginnings is as follows:

  1. Smile with your faith, not your face. Because you believe in something bigger than the man you see in the mirror every morning. When you smile, imagine God smiling.
  2. Guilt is for losers. No one else is feeling guilty, just pissed off that you won.
  3. The past is not the present. So you were a two-faced liar, but what would Jesus do now?

Readers’ testimonies include those from governors of various American states. One reads:

The rosy optimism that comes from following the three step formula of Smile with your faith will spread good will among those around you. And a smile that is bigger than you is a vote winner. Offer the people something, but first read Carver.

Party faithful, put away your elitist obsession with big thinkers, and purchase Carver with pragmatic pride; consider too, the practical wisdom of smiling with your faith. Kevin Rudd is an intelligent man. He can do nothing other than smile.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.