A Ruddier Shade of Brown


Not since Shane Warne bowled the hapless Mike Gatting around his legs on day two of the first Ashes test at Old Trafford in 1993 has a blonde Australian met with such acclaim on a debut tour of the UK. Kevin Rudd’s inaugural appearance in London as the Prime Minister of Australia has been a triumph, thereby continuing a recent trend of political asymmetry between the two nations.

In the 1980s, the British Labour Party languished, while Hawke and Keating ruled. The 90s saw the start of New Labour’s electoral feast and the ALP’s famine, a period in which Australian progressives tried vainly to get some leverage out of Kim Beazley’s university association with Tony Blair. Now it is the seemingly lugubrious Gordon Brown who must be grateful for his recent association with Kevin Rudd, the new wunderkind.

The left of centre press in the UK has heaped praise on what Guardian journalist Simon Tisdall dubbed "the Rudd stuff". The PM received highly positive responses for a string of speeches and engagements, including major talks to the London School of Economics and at a peak level progressive governance conference convened by the prominent social democratic think tank Policy Network.

According to The Independent, "with his plain speaking, his firm principles as a politician and – a bit of a luxury, this – his fluent Mandarin, Mr Rudd has not only met our expectations, but inspired not a little envy as well." This jealousy was described most plainly by feature writer Andrew Rawnsley who suggested that in the wake of the Rudd tour, British Labour people were heard to mutter "why can’t our guy be more like that?" Although hardly joining in the praise, even conservative columnist Peter Riddell in The Times was prepared to concede that "the global centre left has a new star: Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister".

Not all pundits have been so positive. Balancing those who would like to see Ruddier shades of Brown are those who see the Australian PM as a political reincarnation of Blair – and not in a good way. Some UK progressives who became disillusioned with Blair view Rudd’s ALP as a kind of New Labour downunder and morosely predict that their Australian counterparts are eventually destined to feel a similar disappointment.

Comparisons between Rudd and Blair are built on dubious assumptions. In education, background and life-experience, the two have some commonalities, but numerous differences. Ideologically, the two may share in common more than either has with Neil Kinnock or Gough Whitlam, but that is hardly a prescription for predicting parallel policy trajectories. Above all, Rudd opposed the Iraq war from the Opposition front benches and in any event, once made, that terrible error cannot be made again.

Comparisons of Brown and Rudd are false for other reasons. Apart from anything else, the two men are at radically different stages in both the electoral cycle and their political careers. Then again, in the popularity stakes it is not as though Brown has never been electorally well-liked. Before flirting with the public’s affections in the election that wasn’t in September last year, the UK Prime Minister himself was soaring in the polls.

What is really interesting about the current constellation is that it is the first time there has been a labo(u)r prime minister simultaneously in the UK and Australia since Harold Wilson joined Whitlam in office in February 1974. Both part of the new tradition of progressive modernisers, as they indicated in their joint press conference the two Prime Ministers genuinely share many policy preoccupations, including liberal globalisation, global poverty reduction pursuant to the Millennium Development Goals and most obviously climate change.

How long the tandem lasts will depend on whether Brown can defeat David Cameron in the General Election due in the next 18 months. A conservative win would see the return of the familiar asymmetry. Victory for Labour would give the chance for Rudd and Brown to deliver on the rhetoric of their new partnership. Progressives on both sides of the Ashes must hope for the latter.

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.