April 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Time loop

By Mungo MacCallum
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

By a remarkable coincidence, Australia and India share a national day: both countries have their biggest party of the year on 26 January. But the day means very different things to these two members of the British Commonwealth. Indians celebrate the day they became an independent republic; Australians commemorate the day they became a British colony.

The differences were brought home to me during a recent visit to the subcontinent, which was in a frenzy of political activity in anticipation of the coming election. Numerous parties were jockeying to form alliances that would give them control of the state or even the national government. The streets were festooned with party flags, and political posters and sound trucks blared their message in every village.

Politicians of every persuasion, professional and amateur, fought for the attention of an eager public in a battle of ideas and policies that ranged from the erudite to the insane. In the more remote areas, villagers lined the streets for hours waiting for one of the candidates - any one of the candidates - to drive past. Politics really mattered: it was an exhilarating demonstration of democracy in action.

And then I returned to Australia, where nothing had changed in the month I had been away. The view of the Opposition benches was particularly depressing. Actually, there was a difference: the hapless Julie Bishop, having comprehensively failed Treasury 101, had been dispatched to Foreign Affairs to drink with the diplomatic circuit. Her replacement was Joe Hockey, Howard's big bear, whose ursinity had conspicuously failed to make the bitter pill of WorkChoices any more palatable.

But nothing else was new. The hapless Malcolm Turnbull was still trying to decide what, if anything, he could stand for that would have even a vague hope of uniting his brawling troops. And, of course, looming on the backbench was a cloud no bigger than Peter Costello, still ensconced in a fantasy world in which he emerged before a startled public as prime minister without having to go through the inconvenience of leading the Opposition or even contesting an election.

But if it was Groundhog Day in the Coalition, the government was not looking much different either, still struggling to deal with what started as a problem with American sub-prime mortgages but then apparently morphed into a global economic cyclone, accompanied by a political shitstorm. The terminology alone should be enough to generate a certain amount of excitement, but somehow it hasn't; Australians remain more or less complacent, and while politics appears a little more frenetic than is usual at this point in the election cycle, no one appears to be doing anything especially novel.

Indeed, the government may be more drawn to the past than to the future. The Opposition, at least, believes so: Turnbull and others have accused Kevin Rudd of abandoning his pre-election commitment to economic conservatism in the John Howard mould, and of acting like a profligate Gough Whitlam. Here, they are dead wrong: for starters, Whitlam's spending while in government was relatively small compared with that of John Howard in his last two election years; and as even Howard recognised, it was all directed to a highly publicised program of social reform. You may have disagreed with it, but it made a lot more sense, both politically and economically, than Howard's ad-hoc vote-buying sprees.

But in another, completely different sense the analogy between Rudd and Whitlam holds. Both were caught totally unprepared by an unprecedented economic crisis not of their making, and neither knew how to deal with it. In Whitlam's case it was the oil-price shock of 1973 and the subsequent instability in the price of this basic commodity. The consequences were global: all industrialised countries suffered, with only Japan emerging from the era relatively unscathed. Whitlam was determined to continue implementing his ambitious and expensive program, but in the climate of rapidly rising inflation there were devastating social costs.

Unemployment soared, and although everyone had ideas about what to do, no one had a solution. In one memorable exchange in cabinet, Whitlam snarled at his industrial-relations minister, Clyde Cameron, "What would a fucking ex-shearer know about economics?" Cameron, unfazed, replied: "As much as a classical Greek scholar." But the problem was that neither of them knew much, and even the highly qualified gnomes of Treasury weren't much help: like everyone else, they were flying blind.

It is unlikely that the conversations between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have been quite so robust, but the parallels are instructive: once again the government is in totally new territory, and the situation is changing week by week - indeed, sometimes almost hour by hour. Inevitably, comparisons have been made with the Great Crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression, but the similarities are superficial; both involve a massive loss of investor confidence and a consequent rise in unemployment, but the root causes, and thus the ultimate solutions, are completely different. These will no doubt become clearer, as they did in the 1930s, but it will take time - and meanwhile there is little politicians can do except try and appear decisive and hope for the best.

In this context, Rudd's performance is less reminiscent of Whitlam than of Whitlam's predecessor, the hapless Billy McMahon. McMahon, like the horse Boxer in Animal Farm, believed the solution to every difficulty was simply to work harder. Cartoonists liked to depict him seated at his desk, shuffling and riffling frantically through mountains of paper, certain that somewhere in there was the answer he was so desperately seeking.

Rudd is not quite as manic (nor, pace Tony Abbott, anything like as dull), but he still sometimes gives the impression that he is acting for the sake of action rather than in accordance with some carefully determined plan. We have had stimulus packages, bonus payments, bank guarantees, infrastructure blitzes, an immigration crackdown and much more; and although some of it has undoubtedly helped, the previously recession-proof Australian economy continues to track remorselessly down.

Understandably, the government appears obsessed by the predicament, but this too has had adverse consequences: other matters of at least equal urgency have been pushed aside. Rudd hardly deserves the stricture levelled by Lyndon Johnson at Gerald Ford, whom LBJ said was too dumb to walk and fart at the same time. Rudd can do both, and keep talking, too. But he has, it appears, put what he once called the greatest challenge of our age on the back burner.

The only reason Malcolm Turnbull could get away with his switch on climate change - the Coalition policy now appears to be to oppose the government scheme and delay any action whatsoever indefinitely - is because Rudd has abandoned the high ground on the issue. The public is still listening, but the government has stopped saying anything useful. Instead, it appears Australia is preparing to go to Copenhagen as a mere spear-carrier, content to wait and see what its great and powerful friends decide.

This would never happen in India: as I was leaving, a local boasted that by 2020 his country would overtake China, becoming bigger both in GNP and in population. The latter, in particular, appears a dubious ambition; but it was hard to deny his enthusiasm. Of course, too much political enthusiasm can become a worry: the Indians have shown a tendency to assassinate their leaders, which we would regard as unnecessarily drastic. There is something to be said for Australia's more lackadaisical approach. But it still feels a bit of a letdown.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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