The Honeymoon Is Over

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Every person with even a skerrick of interest in Australian politics remembers where they were the night of the 2007 Federal election. Sure, Kevin Rudd’s declaration of victory was a little on the lacklustre side of Gold Logie acceptance speech, but nobody seemed to care. At least, not anyone who had ever raised their voice in opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the introduction of WorkChoices, the cruel treatment of refugees, the increasingly lopsided tax system, or the strangulation of the public health, education and income support systems.

The election of the Rudd Labor Government was almost universally hailed as the beginning of a new era in public policy, to be marked by a reversal of the more damaging aspects of the Howard years. Combined with State Labor governments from coast-to-coast, suddenly no public infrastructure project seemed too outlandish, no establishment of an intergovernmental taskforce to solve intractable socioeconomic problems merely platitudinous.

Chardonnay socialists everywhere poured themselves another glass.

Six months later, the intoxication with our new Federal Government is still going strong. Assisted in no small part by the disarray into which the Coalition is steadily descending, Kevin Rudd is enjoying the largest opinion poll lead in 30 years.

However, more interesting than the extent to which Rudd continues to be considered the preferred choice for PM, is the extent to which self-identified progressive sections of the Australian community have refrained from openly criticising those aspects of Federal Labor’s policy initiatives that, had they not been pursued by the new Labor Government, would have drawn sustained, public consternation.

This neutralising of soft left criticism is not merely a function of an extended post-orgasmic, honeymoon glow. It has been achieved through the unspoken but nevertheless strongly projected ALP mantra: "Don’t Forget, We’re Much Better than the Other Guys".

The problem with these tacit allusions to the previous government is that the reference point offers a pretty sub-optimal basis for comparison.

But after 11 years of enduring the implementation of a radical neo-liberal economic agenda coupled with social policies that were as embarrassing as they were draconian, who are we to judge? After all, no one who suffered during the Howard years wants to contribute to the Coalition returning to office after only three years in the wilderness.

So why quibble about the fact that hundreds of Australian troops will remain in and around Iraq, providing critical support for the US-led occupation that has cost the lives of almost one million Iraqis in five years? There’s no need to question Australia’s ongoing activities in Iraq, let alone the less than $50 million we will provide to assist in reconstruction efforts next year (compared to the more than $3 billion Australia has spent on the war so far) – and let’s not even mention the equally disastrous war in Afghanistan. All our troops fighting in Iraq will be home by Christmas.

And why split hairs over the damaging effects of the NT Intervention, including land appropriation, the overriding of the Racial Discrimination Act and the failure to implement the key recommendations of the Little Children are Sacred report? The PM has apologised to the stolen generations, complete with homage from Paul Kelly!

Don’t worry that the Government will be quarantining money for State-approved expenditure at specified outlets for families receiving income support – the baby bonus will be means tested! Oh and never mind that $400 million, 800-bed, maximum security immigration detention facility about to be opened Christmas Island, or the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent next year to continue deflecting asylum-seekers from reaching our shores – the Pacific Solution is over.

Best of all, WorkChoices is dead – well the bits that the previous government was being gradually forced to unwind anyway. The laws that limit union entry onto worksites, mandate secret ballots for industrial action, prohibit pattern bargaining, outlaw industrial action outside of specified enterprise bargaining periods, and permit employers to sue construction workers individually for stopping work for health and safety reasons, will remain.

Oh come now, I hear you gasp. It’s only been six months; it’s a bit fanciful to expect a new government – especially one that has been out of office for more than a decade – to right all wrongs in six months.

To a certain extent these sentiments are true. Labor may have wrested control of the ship but it will take time to prise off all the nasty barnacles that burgeoned under the previous administration, let alone to reorient the vessel. But this is not an issue of petulance regarding changes not yet enacted. Rather, it’s a call to question the course that has already begun to be charted.

Me-too-isms aside, the election of the ALP arose predominantly from the distinction the Party was able to establish between itself and the incumbent. In addition to his Fresh Approach for Working Families, Rudd himself was put forward as the anthropomorphic representation of the future: shinier, sprightlier, more culturally sensitive, more compassionate, more intellectually rigorous, and less likely to be swayed by xenophobic populism.

But now in office, the ALP is arguably working hard to subdue those elements of civil society that risk exposing the reality that it will not herald anything close to a social democratic utopia. In days gone by, these tactics were referred to as co-option. Under Rudd they have been shrewdly repackaged as the 2020 Summit.

In addition to offering the chance for delegates to be considered one of the New Labor Government’s 1000 most trusted confidants, the 2020 Summit cemented the elitist idea that hand-picked "experts" should drive public policy. Tripping over egos in the rush to be anointed as among "Australia’s best and brightest", the foundation was neatly laid for the influential class’s support for the "Kevin Again in 2010 (Three Years is not Nearly Enough)" campaign.

Summit delegates were not only conveniently encouraged to ignore the pivotal role of broad-based, grassroots social movements in delivering electoral success for the ALP, but to forget how those movements managed to stave off some of the worst excesses of the Howard government, even when it controlled the Senate.

All this is by no means an effort to downplay the significance of some of the Federal Government’s policy announcements. An apology to our Indigenous people, abolition of temporary protection visas for refugees, repealing (parts of) WorkChoices and a commitment to withdrawing (some) troops from Iraq are important shifts in rhetoric and practice. But for those of us who have grown used to fighting for the crumbs hurled in our direction, it is tempting to mistake ALP initiatives as dramatic steps forward rather than an amelioration of policies that should never have been countenanced in the first place.

It would be a mistake to unquestioningly accept these initiatives as sufficient compensation for failing to actually move public policy in a progressive direction, or as balance for new regressive measures. An apparently greater willingness to talk with advocacy organisations should not be confused with a commitment to meaningful consultation – and action.

Ultimately, the Federal Government must be judged on the strength of its policies, not on how they compare to the policies of the previous administration, or to hypothetical horror scenarios imagining 15 years under Howard.

So while there may still be some reluctance to call an end to our starry-eyed rebound affair with Rudd, it’s time for those of us who are committed to creating a truly just and sustainable Australia to begin pointing out that we’re no longer willing to sleep on the wet patch.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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