John Howard, the wiliest street-fighter in Australian politics for the past two decades, is down but not yet out. The Newspoll analysis this week forecasting a landslide Labor victory will make sobering reading for Coalition backbenchers. But I have always thought or feared that Howard might be saved by one powerful factor.
People may believe that Howard is a liar, a tool of big business, too close to George W Bush, even too old for the job (all but the last point are true), but they also know that Howard stands for a set of principles and has done so for most of his career. This is his ultimate strength.
Last week he advised the NSW Coalition, dejected after its fourth consecutive defeat, to develop its own political narrative. ‘The failure of State Liberals over the last little while,’ he reflected, ‘is that they haven’t really built a case for change They’ve got to start work immediately on developing an alternative story, so that when the next State election comes around, if people are still unhappy with Labor, then they’ll say, œWell, not only are we unhappy with Labor but we think the other crowd have got an idea of how to run the place better. ’
The smart new NSW Liberal leader, Barry O’Farrell, was almost certainly listening. So too, I hope, was Kevin Rudd.
As I have written before, for three decades Australians knew that Howard stood for five things. They were all bad but at least he developed an enduring myth, if not truth, about himself. He believed in destrroying the rights of Australians at work by legislating as much as possible against unions; undermining Medicare; broadening the tax base to reward the wealthy and ‘incentivise’ the poor to work harder; privatising the people’s assets; and reducing non-European immigration. His hard-core supporters can tick off the first four as achievements and comfort themselves that his volte-face on the fifth principle has allowed Asia’s thrusting mercantile culture to pervade the economy.
You may have despised his ideology but you could never doubt the direction in which he wanted to take Australia. Before the 1987 Federal election, the first Howard contested as Opposition Leader, the brilliant Australian writer Craig McGregor sensed Howard’s vision:
What sort of Prime Minister would John Howard be? He would be an activist: if Howard had his way he will radically change the face of government in Australia and push the political ground so far to the Right that it would take years, maybe a decade, to bring it back.
Howard may have fudged the details of his policies at the 1996 election to the extent that current Left-wing avatars Robert Manne and Julian Burnside actually voted for him but most of us knew his agenda: knobble unions, privatise Telstra, introduce ‘welfare for work,’ harass the ABC. At the 1998 election his proposal for a goods and services tax received a mandate, grudging as it was.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
But what does Kevin Rudd stand for? Where is the consistent thread to his thinking? Where is Rudd’s idealism?
Howard has boasted of being ‘the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had.’ I’m wracking my brain trying to recall the last time I heard a Labor leader declare himself ‘the most progressive leader the ALP has ever had.’
In two weeks, Rudd heads into the Labor Party National Conference where he will, I’m told, unveil a formidable slate of candidates, among them former SAS Major Peter Tinley in the marginal West Australian seat of Stirling and Maxine McKew in Howard’s own NSW seat of Bennelong. (I’m still hoping the formidable Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, will be among them.) It will be tremendous, a great parade of talent.
But what story will they tell? Rudd’s team needs more than platitudes about ‘education for the 21st century,’ ‘rights in the workplace’ and ‘quality health for all.’
So far Rudd has jettisoned Labor’s schools policy from the last election, which made the perfectly reasonable case that private academies with rifle ranges, Olympic swimming pools and polo fields, should not receive public money when State schools are plagued with sweltering classrooms and stinking toilets. (There is, by the way, slim evidence that Labor’s schools policy will cost it many or any votes, except those of the elite commentators with children in category one private schools. If it did how does one explain the easy re-election of Labor’s John Murphy in the seat of Lowe in inner Sydney, a seat with one of the highest concentrations of private school attendees in the country?)
Rudd now promises to preserve the white elephant that is the private health insurance rebate, even though premiums are rising above the rate of inflation and the rebate benefits the top 40 per cent of Australians.
He has even dropped Labor’s opposition to the sale of Telstra and is reportedly set to embrace the casualisation of the workforce, with all the instability this will bring to families during times of inevitable economic downturn.
Rudd needs to believe in something to the exclusion of something else because nothing else is believable. Walking both sides of the street can only work if you are Bob Hawke, something the technocratic Rudd isn’t.
Paul Keating used to say that Labor politicians should ‘stand in the middle of the road and dare the bastards to run you down.’ Surely, Kevin Rudd doesn’t need to be reminded that Keating was flattened.
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