Kevin Rudd's Fast Train To Nowhere


As election day looms, Labor’s grim reality looms ever starker. Despite the odds stacked against it, the Government is still fighting hard. Kevin Rudd maintains his frenetic campaign pace. Labor's other key figures appear to have gone back to their electorates to work the ground game on their home turf.

Fight as it must, there’s not a lot more the Government can do at this stage. There’s a glitzy campaign launch and further promises to roll out, but Labor hasn’t got any obvious rabbits to pull out of its hat. Even if one were produced, it’s not clear that voters would respond.

With the “sugar hit” of Kevin Rudd’s return to the leadership wearing off, Labor’s primary vote is back to its base in the mid-to-high 30s. That’s simply not enough to win government. Labor needs to poll above 40 and do well in marginal seats to have any chance.

Labor’s problems are many and various, but they boil down to a general sense of incompetence in many parts of the electorate. The Government has simply not convinced enough voters of its accomplishments in office. Conversely, the Opposition’s constant refrain of “the worst government in history” has taken hold in the minds of many voters. It is this belief that Labor does not deserve re-election, rather than any great love for Tony Abbott or a new Coalition government, that appears to be propelling Kevin Rudd and the ALP towards defeat.

The ALP’s dilemma is made manifest in its dismal ratings for management of the economy. On any objective measure, the Rudd-Gillard government has been a stellar economic manager, taking a genuinely courageous decision on economic stimulus after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. That decision ensured we experienced one of the mildest downturns in the western world. Since then, economic growth has sustained the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Labor’s fiscal management has also been very responsible, running very tight budgets to make up for vanishing tax revenue, but not cutting so hard that economic growth has been harmed.

It hasn’t mattered. Labor comprehensively lost the stimulus debate. Rudd has failed to convince the electorate that he saved the economy from the GFC. Voters responded to anecdotes of waste and mismanagement instead. That was a crippling early blow to Labor’s economic credentials. What should have been a strength became a weakness.

Labor has also been hurt by the general feel of the economy in recent years, which has been sober and relatively thrifty, in contrast with the free-spending consumerism of the mid-2000s. Ideology always tends to favour the Coalition in matters of economics, despite the profligate nature of the later Howard years. The ordinary small businessperson reliant on retail spending knows that the salad days of 2006 are over, and that the federal budget is in the red. As a result, the Government has been marked down.

Many of Labor's other signature achievements are not very popular either. Pricing carbon is an historic reform, which, if it survives an Abbott government, will in time be seen as one of the most important economic policies of the 21st century. Voter anger over carbon has largely subsided since 2011. Even so, the Government seems reluctant to champion the reform. As for the National Disability Insurance Scheme … well, I can’t recall Kevin Rudd mentioning it during this campaign.

Conservative governments don’t act like this when they’re in trouble. They fight for the high ground of their philosophical beliefs, and don’t abandon it easily. Even in the dog days of 2007, we never heard John Howard walk back from the philosophy of business-friendly industrial relations. After the defeat, the Coalition abandoned WorkChoices quite publicly. Yet it hardly gave up believing in or advocating for industrial relations reform.

In contrast, Labor has back-flipped on carbon three times now: once under Kevin Rudd, once under Julia Gillard, and once again when Rudd returned. Just this week, Rudd mused that Labor didn’t have an electoral mandate for pricing carbon after 2010. Given that both major parties took a carbon price to the 2007 election, that’s an astonishing remark. Labor’s prevarications over carbon and mining taxes were the crucible of Rudd’s implosion in 2010. It’s an implosion from which the party has still yet to recover.

Labor’s biggest problems are obviously to do with its internal machinations. Tony Abbott was at his incisive best during the Liberal campaign launch on the weekend when discussing this. His talking points might have been well honed, but even a Labor stalwart will recognise the truth in his argument.

“The last time Mr Rudd was prime minister, his own party sacked him,” Abbott said. “When a desperate party put him back, one third of the cabinet resigned rather than serve with him.”

Abbott is right when he says Labor won’t run on its record in Government. That leaves it with little on which to campaign. Labor has run a denuded, small-picture campaign, incoherently mixing minor announcements with big-picture thought bubbles. The last six years have barely rated a mention.

Take yesterday’s announcement that Labor will commit $52 million towards a high-speed rail link down the east coast of Australia. On a superficial level, the ALP campaign may well have been quite pleased with the way the announcement played out, with positive mentions in much of the media.

But it’s difficult to believe many voters will take the announcement seriously. High-speed rail has a price tag of $114 billion and a completion date of 2035, at the earliest. Its technical challenges are formidable. And, unlike the NBN, the business case doesn’t really stack up.

A glance at the High Speed Rail study commissioned by Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is not encouraging. The network will require 1748 km of track, plus new trains and rolling stock, and new stations to boot. The study says a 67 km tunnel will need to be bored beneath Sydney’s suburbs – 16 km longer than the Channel Tunnel linking England and France. “It’s certainly a cracker of a tunnel,” Albanese remarked back in April.

Despite the vast construction effort, travel times will be no faster than current jet flights. And the whole thing will never recoup its sunk costs. While the trains will eventually be profitable, the infrastructure will never pay for itself in the way the NBN will.

All up, there are almost certainly better ways to spend taxpayers’ money. Most obviously, Labor could commit to more urban rail and public transport in Australia’s big cities, which is arguably the most pressing need in our transport infrastructure.

This is the irony of Labor’s announcement. $114 billion is enough to finance some genuinely transformative projects for Australia’s future. That much money could go a long way towards making Australia a clean energy superpower, or building up four or five of our universities to top-20 international status. Or perhaps it could be invested in world-class medical research, a field where Australia has real strength in basic science but lacks venture capital and commercialisation opportunities. If the Government really wanted to swing for the fences, there are many better ways to underline Labor’s vision for the future.

That’s the thing about grand visions: they normally take some free time to develop. And free time is one surplus the ALP can look forward to, starting on 8 September. 

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.