I have considerable regard for the analytical skills of Peter van Onselen as a political commentator, but do sometimes feel he misses the bigger picture. His Op-Ed in today’s Oz is a classic example.
Blind Freddy can see that Kevin Rudd is a populist PM. As a bureaucrat it comes naturally to him because he doesn’t have the political nous, or factional backing, as van Onselen states, to be otherwise. Rudd does, however, have a killer instinct with regard to the political winds. He can spot an opportunity well before his colleagues, seemingly, and doesn’t hesitate to grasp it. Equally, he won’t allow air to those issues which his opponents would like to breath life into. Evidence Abbott of late banging on about what the government should or shouldn’t do in regard to the troubled ETS legislation. Not a murmur, nary a whisper from government ranks in response. No response means no debate. No debate, no oxygen and the issue flounders.
It may well be that Rudd is in the position he occupies courtesy of a pragmatic caucus and twelve years in the wilderness, however, I believe van Onselen sells that caucus support short. He paints a picture where Rudd and the factions exist as uneasy bedmates, content for now to roll in the political hay, but unlikely to want a long-term relationship. In short, van Onselen believes that Labor & it’s factional historical past does not change its spots. Well, clearly, it does if the federal parliamentary party leader does not claim left, right or center factional allegiances. Labor will always have it’s factions because of the roots of the ideology. The working classes, social conscience, community awareness. An opposition to the one-eyed drive of business and a determination to strive for egalitarianism in all elements of policy. Equally, the conservative parties will always have their factions. The ‘wets’ and the ‘drys’. Conservatives and Liberals. That’s politics at play. A complex amalgam of all things desperately trying to appear to be for all people, while rarely meeting more than 50% of the majority’s ideals.
Rudd isn’t the only populist PM in recent times, but he is the first since Whitlam. Even Whitlam I would classify as an idealist, not a populist, merely that his ideals and the greater Australian society’s ideals melded in 1972. When it became evident that Whitlam’s ideals and Australia’s capacity to deliver in those times simply didn’t match, instead of adopting a more pragmatic, politically astute stance, Whitlam’s government continued to dig the hole they’d begun in 1973. Howard is Rudd’s most recent contemporary, and while ideologies may differ a little (not as much as some may believe), Howard too was a populist. A populist with a well tuned ear to public opinion. Rudd’s ear is yet to become properly attuned, but it will during this coming inevitable second term.
I believe van Onselen is being naive, or at worst unfair to the Rudd government in claiming that nothing of genuine substance has been injected into the Australian society by way of necessary social or economic policy. Labor came to power federally in November 2007. Since July 2008 the government has had to be in fiscal control mode through the potential for economic disaster via the GFC. It can be safely accredited to the government, that spending to deficit has secured Australia’s economy on the world stage as the pre-eminent national economy. Wisely, we managed to keep pace with India and China as both rode the decline, emerging 18 months later in excellent shape for a productive and I’d wager, under-estimated economic picture for 2010. We’re better off than the US, Britain, the EU and Japan, our major trading partners. Some will claim this is the result of 12 years of conservatism providing a solid budgetary bulwark for Labor to spend, and yet we know for a fact that conservatism would have done nothing different to that which Labor has done thus far. If credit belongs to anyone, on any level, it belongs to John Maynard Keynes. His theories have yet again been proven sound practice for economic management.
So, Rudds government hasn’t achieved anything of real note. With valid rational, I warrant! One cannot be changing the face of the country’s social, political or capital structure while furiously baling to keep the ship of state afloat. With a soundly managed first term safely in the political capital bank, I’d suggest we’ll start seeing more and doubtless some unpopular changes being mooted to the social fabric once Election 2010 is out of the way. Look for year one, second term for these changes.