May 2015


Broken faith in politics

By Robert Manne
Broken faith in politics
Australia has cheerfully grown complacent, self-absorbed and selfish

For Malcolm Fraser, who saw what was happening

In October 2006, two months before he became leader of the Opposition, a little over a year before he became prime minister, Kevin Rudd published his essay ‘Faith in Politics’ in the Monthly. For a magazine that had been launched only 18 months before, this was a kind of coup. ‘Faith in Politics’ not only celebrated the German theologian and anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It also argued that in contemporary Australia a progressive, socially inflected Christianity had a vital political role to play. It is easy to forget how timid and fearful the Labor Party had become under Kim Beazley. Because of this, Rudd’s essay was, for many, a sign of hope.

Rudd chose three themes – all connected to Australia’s relation to the world – to illustrate how his kind of Christianity might inform Australian public life. In the contemporary world there were 1.4 billion people living in abject poverty, on less than US$1 a day. In John Howard’s Australia, the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which had urged OECD nations to raise their foreign aid to at least 0.7% of their national income, were largely ignored. This “ethical failure” represented nothing less than “the great immorality of our age”. In Howard’s Australia, too, asylum seekers had been treated appallingly. The biblical “parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst”. Rudd reminded his readers that it was “the horror of the Holocaust” that had inspired an earlier generation to create the “UN convention on the protection of refugees”. Finally, in Howard’s Australia, international action on climate change had been deliberately sabotaged. “It is the fundamental ethical challenge of our age to protect the planet – in the language of the Bible, to be the proper stewards of creation.”

So, after Rudd came to power in 2007, what occurred? The fate of his foreign-aid ambition is most easily analysed. When Rudd became prime minister, Australia contributed 0.35% of its national income to foreign aid. As a simple means of comparison, at that time Norway and Sweden gave almost 1.0%. Immediately, Rudd pledged that Australia would increase its foreign aid to 0.5% by 2015. The Coalition supported this pledge. By 2013, Australia’s foreign aid had reached its highest ever level in dollar terms, $5.7 billion, and risen modestly to 0.38% of national income.

It now began to be scaled back. While under both Rudd and Gillard the 0.5% ambition was never abandoned, as the problem of the federal budget deficit pressed, its 2015 arrival date was twice postponed. Shortly after Rudd’s second government was formed in June 2013, his treasurer, Chris Bowen, announced a foreign-aid cut of almost $900 million. No developed country had been less affected by the global financial crisis than Australia, yet its cuts in foreign aid were moving against the international trend. In 2013, across the developed world, foreign aid increased by 6%. Despite the considerably more parlous fiscal situation of the United Kingdom, by this time David Cameron’s government had reached the goal of foreign aid at 0.7% of national income. Had Rudd forgotten that he had not so long ago described Australia’s parsimonious contribution to the fight against global poverty as “the great immorality of our age”?

All this was nothing compared to what was about to come. Tony Abbott became prime minister in September 2013, and in the 2014 budget his treasurer, Joe Hockey, announced a $7.6 billion cut in foreign aid over the next four years. This was overwhelmingly popular. In an Essential poll, 13% disapproved of the cuts to foreign aid; 64% approved. Perhaps encouraged, in December 2014, Hockey announced an additional cut of $3.7 billion. As a percentage of national income, foreign aid was now projected to reach 0.22% of national income in 2016–17, the lowest percentage in Australia’s postwar history. There were moments at the height of the mining boom when, on a per capita basis, Australia was the wealthiest country in the world. And yet by now we thought it entirely reasonable to give a more meagre percentage in foreign aid than recession-ravaged countries like Ireland, Iceland and Portugal.

What then came of Kevin Rudd’s Good Samaritan biblical injunction about asylum seekers? Since the arrival of a small number of asylum seekers on boats between 1989 and 1992, mainly from Cambodia, and a larger but still small number from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran between 1999 and 2001, both Labor and the Coalition had introduced a series of deterrent measures: first indefinite mandatory detention (Keating, 1992), then temporary protection visas (Howard, 1999), and finally offshore processing and tow-back (Howard, 2001). The first two measures failed to deter the boats; the last two succeeded. Between 2002 and 2008, virtually no asylum-seeker boats reached Australia.

In mid 2008, the Rudd government, while retaining the mandatory detention legislation, abandoned temporary visas, offshore processing and tow-back. Rudd believed that his humanitarianism would come at no political cost. He was mistaken. Predictably, the asylum-seeker boats returned. In 2007–08, only 25 asylum seekers had arrived by boat; in 2008–09, there were 1000 and in 2009–10, 5600.

As a Good Samaritan, Rudd called for generosity to the asylum seekers. As an embattled politician, confronting a new Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, who promised a sympathetic public that only he could “stop the boats”, Rudd looked to Indonesia to stem the flow, and characterised the people smugglers who brought the asylum seekers to Australia as the “scum of the earth”. On 21 June 2010, Julia Gillard emailed Kevin Rudd: “Loss of control of the borders is feeding into a narrative of a government that is incompetent and out of control.” Two days later, citing a variety of reasons, including the failure of his asylum-seeker policies, the caucus removed the prime minister in a coup. Shortly before his removal, Rudd deplored the Labor Party’s “race to the bottom” over the question of asylum seekers.

Under Julia Gillard, asylum-seeker policy became increasingly fraught. Gillard hoped to open an offshore processing centre in East Timor. Dili refused. She then convinced Malaysia to accept 800 asylum seekers in return for the settlement of 4000 from there. The High Court regarded this scheme as unlawful. The numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat continued to rise; in 2011–12, there were 8000. Even more damaging for her government, many hundreds of asylum seekers drowned on their journey to Australia. In desperation, in August 2012, Gillard reintroduced offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island. However, because only a small number were despatched offshore, there was zero deterrent effect. In 2012–13, more than 25,000 boat asylum seekers arrived, as many as in the entire previous history of Australia. It was Gillard, not Rudd, who had truly lost control of the borders. Despite the self-certainty of both the left and the right, there was now no easily discoverable solution to the asylum-seeker problem confronting the government.

Julia Gillard could never muster the ruthlessness once shown by John Howard. On his return to the prime ministership in mid 2013, Kevin Rudd proved that he could. Indeed, Rudd promised something Howard never had: that no asylum seeker sent to Nauru or Manus Island would ever be settled in Australia. This promise was the source of immense future suffering. His foreign minister, Bob Carr, however, thought it a “masterstroke”. Rudd’s invocation of the parable of the Good Samaritan had become a distant memory. When Tony Abbott was elected, only one further turn of the screw was needed: the decision to have the navy, after intercepting asylum-seeker boats, return all passengers either to Indonesia or Sri Lanka. The boats now stopped, although the government did not rest until it inflicted discretionary misery on the tens of thousands of still-unprocessed refugees on Australian soil by reinstating temporary visas, an act of vindictive and purposeless cruelty.

During the past quarter century Australia has earnt the reputation of the least asylum seeker–friendly nation in the developed world. Even more troubling, as the nation has become accustomed to the often long-term arbitrary imprisonment and then the military repulsion of more than 50,000 innocent and vulnerable men, women and children, its moral arteries have hardened.

What then came of Rudd’s pledge to take Australia to the centre of the international struggle to combat climate change, which he famously and rightly proclaimed to be overwhelmingly the most important moral challenge of our era? In mid 2009 Rudd introduced legislation for his planned Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Rudd realised that the major reforms of recent history – the abandonment of the White Australia policy, the opening of the economy – succeeded because of bipartisan support. By November 2009, a deal had been struck with Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the Opposition. For more than a year, the climate-change denialists within the Coalition, the right-wing think tanks and the mining lobbies had been planning an anti-Turnbull coup. Their time had come. In what can now be seen as a turning point in Australian history, Tony Abbott, a man who in his fatuous manifesto Battlelines had described climate change as possibly “benign” and who would shortly dismiss climate science as “crap”, became the leader of the Liberal Party. Despite the courageous decision of two Liberal senators, Sue Boyce and Judith Troeth, to cross the floor, Rudd’s climate-change legislation, which the Greens rejected as hopelessly inadequate, was voted down.

In December, Rudd went to the vital Copenhagen international climate change conference empty-handed. Despite his frenzied efforts there, the conference was a near-complete failure, and he returned an exhausted and broken man. The April 2010 announcement that his government had decided to postpone climate-change action for several years both destroyed his reputation and provided his enemies in caucus, whom he had frequently treated with undisguised contempt, with the opportunity to remove him.

In her negotiations to form a minority government following the August 2010 election, Julia Gillard agreed with the Greens to form an inter-party committee to negotiate new climate-change legislation. The legislation the committee proposed in July 2011 – a three-year carbon tax followed by an emissions trading scheme, which the parliament accepted in December – was greeted by one of the loudest, most vicious, mendacious and relentless campaigns in Australian political history. It was led by the Coalition and supported by the two most powerful forces in the country – the mining interest and the Murdoch press. Abbott described his mission to destroy the Gillard carbon-pricing legislation as “a pledge in blood”.

When he was elected, Abbott proved true to his word. Tim Flannery’s Climate Commission was instantly dismantled. Without the necessary numbers in the Senate, the Climate Change Authority was marginalised. Protracted attacks were launched on the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Several denialists were appointed to key advisory posts. Maurice Newman, who had called for the “perpetrators” of the climate-change “madness” to be punished, and who thought we might be facing a new Ice Age, became the government’s chief business adviser. Dick Warburton, who had recently led an anti–carbon pricing business front and who described the conclusions of climate science as “unsettled”, was given the task of reviewing the Renewable Energy Target.

Almost unbelievably, the Abbott government now fought a bitter fight, on behalf of the coal-fired electricity corporations, to reduce the amount of renewable energy Australians would use in the future. It openly sabotaged the solar power industry. Abbott sang the praises of coal, as “good for humanity”. He was appalled by its “demonisation”. When he opened a new coalmine in Queensland, with his characteristically defiant, jovial, anti–political correctness verbal swagger, he called it a “great day for the world”. Most importantly, as soon as the government managed to corral a majority of votes in the new, rather feral, Senate, which convened in July 2014, Gillard’s carbon-pricing legislation was repealed.

The government’s anti–climate change action wrecking ball was not restricted to Australia. In Canada, Abbott advocated a fossil-fuel alliance. He refused to send a minister to Warsaw for a major United Nations climate-change conference. He personally declined an invitation to attend a major New York meeting on climate change convened by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. The Abbott government lobbied the OECD Export Credit Group, against the United States and the United Kingdom, in favour of financing new coal-fired power stations in the developing world. It sought to keep climate change off the G20 agenda in Brisbane. Abbott’s ministers and their cheerleaders in the Murdoch press were outraged when US president Barack Obama spoke to students at the University of Queensland about the dangers facing the Great Barrier Reef. Even British Conservatives now regarded Tony Abbott’s climate change views as “flat Earther”, “baffling” and “eccentric”. Australia was now not merely the developed world’s leading per capita carbon polluter. It was almost universally acknowledged to be the world’s most recklessly and brazenly irresponsible nation with regard to action on climate change. How many times must it be said? On this question the future wellbeing of humankind depends.

In October 2006 in the Monthly, Kevin Rudd outlined three international ambitions for his country – foreign-aid generosity, asylum-seeker humanity, climate-change responsibility. Rudd was not a hypocrite, or at least not in the ordinary meaning of the word. His government began by taking actions or making promises on all three fronts. All Rudd’s hopes, however, collapsed; beginning during his time in office, and afterwards spectacularly so. Why this has happened and whether the trajectory can be reversed are matters for reflection and debate. But the melancholy fact that the lucky country has in the past few years steadily and cheerfully forged its present character, and embraced without shame its present reputation, as the developed world’s most comfortable, complacent, privileged, self-absorbed and selfish nation, seems, to me at least, beyond serious dispute.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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