Rudd Attacks Neoliberalism With Nail Clippers

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For many social democrats and the liberal Left — whose primary focus is on politics — Kevin Rudd’s recent article in The Monthly contains a great deal that is significant. Writing on newmatilda.com last week, David McKnight pointed out that the piece marks a pretty clear break with prevailing policy orthodoxy, noting also the significance of its being written by a sitting PM (or his staffers, at least.)

However for people whose primary focus is on economics — people who have read countless earlier repetitions of this "Third Way" argument in trade/development/policy journals over the past 20 years — the typical response is, "so what’s new?"

Not much, perhaps. Rudd and his government have gained a reputation (whether deserved or not) for rhetorical politics without necessarily backing the rhetoric up with policy delivery.

One way of interpreting Rudd’s Monthly article is that it is his own personal thoughts about economic policy, cut away from the day-to-day argy-bargy of political practice and its inevitable process of compromise. If this is true, then "his own" thoughts are also the thoughts of countless other social democrats with a penchant for the study of political economy. But how many of us really expect that Rudd — bureaucrat, ambassador and politician — has poured out his heart?

A more realistic interpretation, in my view, is that the article itself is a kind of media release (albeit one that’s been dressed up in intellectual clothes), constructed by committee and checked and re-checked by advisors, etc. That would better explain its technocratic nature — in my reading the primary focus of the article seems to be upon economic policy, rather than upon the citizens in whose name such policy should be implemented.

The cynical Paul Kelly et al. response — the one which sees the article primarily as a ploy to further marginalise the pathetic Liberals — clearly assumes the "media release" interpretation is correct. Either way, we can expect the Government’s actual policy packages to look quite a bit different in practice to the rather "pure" social-democratic Third Way policy Rudd outlines in his article, as factional bickering among the ALP makes its mark, Ministers compete for resources, and Government attempts to keep various interest groups content, compromising along the way with either the Opposition or the Greens and independents in the Senate.

I think the Monthly piece needs to be read in the context of the $42 billion economic stimulus package the Rudd Government announced at around the same time this edition of the Monthly hit the newsstands. Staggeringly, almost every major interest group lined up in support of the package. This, I believe, reveals the real thrust of the Rudd Government’s efforts to date: it is working extremely hard behind the scenes to occupy the middle ground among all the groups.

Confirmation of this seems to be evident in the fact that the only major groups who are expressing real unhappiness with the Government, apart from the Opposition, are neoliberal ideologues and large parts of the green movement.

So Rudd’s own brand of liberal "consensus" politics — the game every Australian government knows it must play if it doesn’t want to go the way of the visionaries — continues to position the demands of ecological sustainability on the margins. The unhappy result is the 5 per cent emissions reduction target. Among the many conclusions to be drawn from a policy of this kind is that the alleged "scientific bias" in our society is nowhere near as profound as it is generally thought to be, especially when you consider just how willing public servants and the Canberra press gallery are to defend the 5 per cent target.

Personally I think this is a shame. Wouldn’t it have been incredibly significant to see Rudd write in The Monthly that the two overarching policy dilemmas facing any government today are peak oil and climate change? As Peter Newman at Curtin University has argued recently (in his brilliant Resilient Cities), while the immediate triggers of the current economic crisis may have been subprime lending and financial speculation, the underlying long-term causes are very likely related to resource depletion and carbon emissions.

Newman argues that the real way out of the present malaise lies in equipping cities for the next era in urban and social development — an era during which fossil fuel-powered transport, heating and cooling will become increasingly and oppressively expensive, particularly for the poor.

Yet instead of progress in this direction we’re still seeing movement the other way, with the prospect of an even more (neoliberal) national building code, which not only perpetuates the marginalisation of ecology, but (in light of recent tragedy) contributes to the mortal risk we’re exposing ourselves to through climate change. On this argument the $42 billion package needed to do more than provide a rebate for anyone earning under $100,000 who wants to install Pink Batts.

Third Way-style social democracy is certainly a breath of fresh air for those of us who have been blistered so often by the harsh sting of neoliberal rhetoric. But I fear that a mere breath is not enough.

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