October 2008


A bureaucrat's briefing

By Judith Brett
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Last October we were all fixed on the election due by the end of the year. John Howard didn't set the date till mid month, and then he went for the maximum six-week campaign. It was hard to think past 24 November, and hard to imagine what sort of prime minister Kevin Rudd would be. He wouldn't be John Howard, and that was enough for many. And he had provided a thrilling year of political drama as he stalked Howard with a calm and relentless smile, refusing to respond to the government's attacks or be drawn into Howard's definition of the contest. All year the polls went Labor's way and the election was Rudd's to lose. As Howard strung the campaign out people held their breath, waiting for a fatal mistake that seemed inevitable. But it didn't happen. Labor won and Kevin Rudd is now Australia's prime minister.

What sort of prime minister is he? In many ways we are still waiting to find out. At the nine-month point of his government, Rudd addressed the National Press Club. Christian Kerr said the speech lacked "lifeblood" and James Curran, author of The Power of Speech, a study of the way Australian prime ministers have defined the national image, said it was more like a bureaucrat's briefing paper than an address to the nation. Such comments are becoming standard as Rudd is criticised for lacking a narrative to hold the various policy initiatives in place, or for failing to articulate the Big Ideas that will give the commentariat something to get their pens into. His style seems bland, affectless even, and his verbal mannerisms - "Hey, you know what?" - already grate. Disillusion has set in, as it always does when the hopes and dreams released by a change of prime minister are followed by the realisation that the new leader is only a man after all.

Such criticisms interpret the transition from Howard to Rudd in terms of the transition from Keating to Howard. As prime minister, Keating had a clear and strongly articulated agenda of cultural modernisation: the republic, reconciliation and engagement with Asia. Perhaps not surprisingly, he is a major source of the Rudd-lacks-narrative line of argument. Howard, for his part, had a clear and strongly articulated opposition to Keating's cultural modernisation, nurtured by his attachment to more traditional narratives of Australian identity and progress. In his first term, Howard was preoccupied with reacting to the overhang of Keating's agenda: managing the promise to hold a referendum on the republic, stalling the movement for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, carving out his own style of regional engagement. In a series of speeches he challenged what he saw as the orthodox, left-liberal version of Australian history, giving prime-ministerial sanction to the so-called culture wars.

With Howard's demise, these wars are essentially over - neither won nor lost but irrelevant. After all the political energy Howard put into refusing to apologise to the Stolen Generation, Rudd apologised, graciously and with intelligence and sensitivity. It is inevitable that we will become a republic once the Queen dies, if not before. And under Howard, foreign policy continued to be responsive to the region; it could not afford to be otherwise. Howard was able to slow the momentum of cultural change in the name of traditional Australian values, but that was all. He could not fundamentally change its direction.

In other respects, Howard could not even slow the momentum of change. He gave prominent support to the traditional family with a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home mum, the sort of family who fronted Future Directions, his manifesto of the late 1980s. He opposed changes to the definition of marriage to recognise gay and lesbian unions. He flirted with support for evangelical Christianity. But despite all this, Australians kept moving away from traditional family values. Whereas in 1980 nearly two-thirds of Australians agreed that it was better if the man is the breadwinner and the woman takes care of the home and family, by 2003 only one-third agreed. Support for traditional gender roles has fallen precipitously, with more than half of Australians under 50 agreeing in 2005 that a same-sex couple with children is a family. Much larger economic and cultural forces are at work here, ones which the Howard government was powerless to affect.

The Coalition notoriously manipulated anxiety about immigration at the 2001 election, with the Tampa and children-overboard incidents. And it tried the same tactic again in 2007, with the Haneef case and Kevin Andrews' ill-judged remarks about African migrants. However, under Howard, immigration to Australia increased dramatically: in 2003-04, total settler arrivals were 60% higher than a decade before. At the same time, support for immigration increased among Australians, with beliefs becoming more positive about migrants' effects on the economy, jobs, and law and order.

This research can be found in Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report (2005), based on an ambitious project run by the Centre for Social Research at the Australian National University. The second volume, Australian Social Attitudes 2: Citizenship, Work and Aspirations (2007), contains surprising findings about Australians' attitudes to trust and citizenship. We are used to hearing that Australians are cynical about politics, and most of them are, but they also display some of the highest levels of trust in government. Among the 41 member nations of the International Social Survey Programme, Australia comes in after Denmark, Finland, Switzerland and Cyprus, with 40% of respondents agreeing that "Most of the time we can trust people in government to do what is right." In the US, it is 31%; the UK, 29%; and Japan is at the bottom, on 9%.

What does this have to do with the transition from Howard to Rudd? In short, it is cause for optimism. While Howard wasted time and political capital on the largely futile culture wars, policy problems piled up: inadequate health funding; infrastructure failures; a dysfunctional federal-state system; tax and income-support systems needing overhaul; underfunded universities and stagnant school-retention rates; the looming disaster of the Murray-Darling river system; and the need to significantly reduce carbon emissions. One of the reasons Rudd was elected was that he made these problems central to his election campaign - and forced Howard to play catch-up.

The transition from Howard to Rudd is not about new national narratives, nor Big Ideas. It is about the hard work of solving complex policy problems which are linked by little else than that they have been neglected for too long. Each is extraordinarily complex, and has a myriad of stakeholders and potential losers. Public-policy analysts call them Wicked Problems. Wicked Problems lack both definitive formulation and definitive solutions. It is impossible to disentangle causes from symptoms, and the search for the root of the problem is futile. What, for example, are the causes of some children's poor performance at school? Poor schools and inadequate teaching, poor parenting, low levels of cultural capital, socio-economic disadvantage - and if the latter, what are the causes of this? Parents' poor schooling, parents' unemployment, or growing up in a disadvantaged neighbourhood? Perhaps some people are not suited to sitting at a desk through their teenage years and would rather be out in the world using their bodies rather than their minds? But there aren't many physical jobs any more, so we try to keep them in school. Or perhaps it is all of the above - so which problem should governments tackle first? The Rudd government has chosen to tackle schools and teachers, but it will need the co-operation of the states, and it is not at all certain that this will be forthcoming.

All a government can do is do its best, on the basis of the best information available and its judgement about the likely consequences. So Rudd has set up a series of committees and inquiries to advise the government on a host of policy problems. It means we are not quite sure what the solutions will be, and this frustrates journalists and an Opposition keen to scrutinise the government and hold it to account. But at this early stage in the government's life, a little patience seems warranted.

Returning to the comparatively high levels of trust Australians have in their government: in my view this bodes well for Rudd's focus on policy. The research which uncovered Australians' trust in government found that it was associated with low levels of perceived corruption among public officials. Australians' greatest cynicism was reserved for the political parties, which were seen as failing to give voters sufficient choice. In so far as a politician is identified as a party warrior, he is likely to be less trusted, and more likely to evoke the partisan sentiments of his party's traditional opponents. Rudd has consciously distanced himself from Labor traditions and rhetoric, instead identifying with the symbols and prerogatives of prime-ministerial office. It makes him seem blander than both Keating and Howard, who both wore their partisan identities blazoned across their chests, but it may also give him more room to move.

There is another cause for optimism in the ANU findings, though it is not one that the researchers noticed. The countries with the highest levels of trust are all small. As the editor of Meanjin, I published in 1985 an essay by Alan Davies, then a professor of politics at the University of Melbourne, called ‘Small Country Blues'. "Small countries may, in the nature of things, have a better chance of solving their problems," he wrote. The scale of problems and cost of solutions are lower, but perhaps more importantly, "the contriving of the consensus for innovative turns of policy should come more easily with the manageable small sets of authoritative actors in play." Australia's elites are small and interconnected compared with those of the larger countries, where trust in government is lower. As with the 2020 Summit, Rudd is giving these elites a shake-up, finding new sources of ideas and opinions for his government, and there is a real chance of developing shared understandings of problems and some agreed solutions. It is much easier to imagine a national conversation among 21 million people than 210 million.

Yet there is still for me a niggling problem with Rudd's first ten months. It is his kitchen-table politics. Davies quoted the sociologist Daniel Bell's observation that the problem with contemporary politics is one of scale. "The average nation-state has become too small for the big problems of life and too big for the small problems of life." During the election campaign, seeking a quick and sure-fire connection with the electorate, Rudd sat himself down at the kitchen tables of the nation to help people with their weekly budgets. Fuel prices, interest rates, grocery bills: he promised that under his government these would be lower, and he accused the Howard government of indifference to the weekly struggle to make ends meet. This was a foolish and short-sighted strategy, born of political inexperience and his need to develop a national profile in record time. It may have convinced people he cared and helped him to victory, but it was politics of the wrong scale for tackling national problems. It has trapped him in fiddly policies like FuelWatch and GroceryWatch, which will only make marginal differences to most people, even if they do make it through the hostile Senate, but which have cost him a good deal of political capital and time. It has led Rudd to make promises on which he is unlikely to be able to deliver, and which are at odds with his pledge drastically to reduce the nation's carbon footprint. He has tied his government's policy success to the weekly family budget, yet has said that Australia will lead the world in carbon reduction. The one problem is too small and the other too large to be the focus of a national government's efforts.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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