February 2008

Comment

Changing of the guard

By Robert Manne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

There are two distinct questions concerning the political events of late last year which it is important not to confuse. Why did the Howard government lose office? What does the Rudd victory mean?

Attempting to find an answer to the first is the far easier task. The Howard government lost office because its leader was old and tired; because the nation in general, and younger voters in particular, had stopped listening to the prime minister's attempts to excite baseless fears about minorities and foreigners; because a sufficient number of electors had finally realised that the prime minister's word could not be relied upon; because the government's credibility as a superior economic manager had been compromised by its incapacity to control interest rates, as it had rashly promised it could do in 2004; because on two of the great international issues of the day - global warming and the War on Terror - Howard's unseemly embrace of the worst president in the history of the United States had fatally undone his claims to statesmanship and wisdom; and because, above all, the control his government had gained in the Senate in July 2005 had tempted the prime minister to introduce one neo-liberal economic reform too many, the one for which he had spent his entire political career preparing, the grotesquely unbalanced and therefore very widely resented new workplace-relations law.

Well before the election, as the Howard government drifted to its inevitable defeat, the Right in Australia embarked upon a curious campaign, involving an attempt to provide an answer to the second question - the meaning of the coming Rudd victory - through the mounting of what is best described as an interpretative pre-emptive strike. To reveal the character of this campaign, one example, in which this magazine was involved, must suffice. It comes from the overwhelmingly most influential voice of the mainstream, neo-liberal and neo-conservative Right in this country, the Australian, a newspaper that manages to combine the ambition of an ideologically engaged small magazine; the reckless, take-no-prisoners, smart-aleck tone of an undergraduate publication; and the financial resources of an American-based global media empire.

In the September 2007 Monthly I wrote a commentary which made certain predictions about the likely outcome of a Labor victory. The purpose was to respond to the increasing frustration about Kevin Rudd that was being voiced on the Left at that time. As Rudd had committed to immediate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, I argued that when Labor took power Australia would finally join the world on global warming. As Rudd spoke about the Iraq invasion as the worst US foreign-policy blunder since Vietnam and had pledged to withdraw Australian troops from this particular quagmire, I argued that with a Rudd victory the painful and embarrassing mini-era when Australia followed America with lamb-like loyalty would end. Rudd had been consistently critical of both the taming of the parliament's inquisitorial function and the politicisation of the public service under Howard. I argued for cautious optimism on both fronts. Because he had made education the centrepiece of his campaign, and because he was so self-evidently a true believer in the virtue of science, scholarship and learning, I argued that the appalling neglect of universities under Howard would most likely be reversed. Of all the members of the Labor front bench since the demise of Latham, only Kevin Rudd had responded to Howard's increasingly triumphalist claims to victory in the Culture War - for example, to Howard's speech on the occasion of Quadrant's fiftieth anniversary. For this reason, I argued that it was likely, in particular, that under his government the most egregious appointees to the key boards of cultural institutions would be gradually replaced; and, in general, that the sterile era when a prime minister treated the nation's critical intelligentsia as un-Australian traitors and showed conspicuous indifference to the work of the country's creative artists would also, most likely, now draw to an end. As Rudd had pledged to repeal the most draconian and unjust aspects of WorkChoices, I argued that under Labor, industrial relations would be softened and humanised. These predictions were neither heroic nor romantic. The evidence for each proposition was clear. If they could be criticised for anything, it was for stating the bleeding obvious.

This is not how the Australian saw things. On 27 October it published an editorial called "Daydreaming Left is in for a Big Surprise". According to this editorial, in Australia two elections were taking place. In the real world, "a centre-left challenger" was fighting for the middle ground against a "centre-right pragmatist". In the fantasy parallel universe of "the daydreaming Left", Rudd was "fighting to end 11 dark years of despotic rule by a scheming far-right cultural warrior". To prove the existence of this parallel universe, the only evidence cited, in some ways the only evidence available (for in the real world the Left was already muttering darkly about Kevin Rudd's ‘me-too' caution and conservatism) were the modest predictions I had made in the Monthly about the likely meaning of a Rudd victory.

The editorial was based on a series of falsifications which, even judged by the standards one has come to expect from the Australian, took me by surprise. By sleight-of-hand the editorial turned support for the Rudd decision to ratify Kyoto into an ambition to "transform the nation into a wind-powered, mung-bean-eating Arcadia", and the desire for a more independent Australian foreign policy within the frame of the American alliance into the hope to have Australia "withdraw from ANZUS". Those who regretted the Howard government's prosecution of the Culture War, as I did, became the kind of people who wanted to make "gay marriage compulsory", whatever that was supposed to mean. And those many people, like me, who hoped that a Rudd victory might help "restore morality to public life" were ridiculed as erstwhile communists who mistook Kevin Rudd for "Che Guevara" and who had not yet realised "that the use-by date on Das Kapital is well and truly passed." (I have been accused of many things in my life but never before of being a closet sympathiser of communism.) The Australian helpfully felt the need to point out that Rudd was a Christian conservative, simply ignoring the morally radical interpretation of the relevance of faith in politics Rudd had famously advanced in his Bonhoeffer essay in the October 2006 Monthly. It pointed out that his wife was a global businesswoman, somehow implying that this positioned not only her but also her husband at a great distance from anything that could be associated with the contemporary Left. Not only did the editorial argue that the major parties under Rudd had grown closer than at any time in Australian history, something that was at least arguably true; more deeply, it suggested that Rudd offered no substantial alternative to Howard of any kind. If anything, it argued at one point, Rudd was now outflanking Howard on the Right. Four weeks before the election, the Australian would make no prediction about the result. Yet there was one prediction it would confidently make. "The agenda of a Rudd government is likely to be much closer to the position advocated in the editorial columns of this newspaper than the outdated, soft-left manifesto supported by our broadsheet rivals."

The editorial was both revealing and characteristic of much right-wing response to the impending victory of Labor in the last months of 2007. On the surface it mocked, with its usual indifference to nuance and truth, all those foolish enough to believe Australia would be a substantially different and kinder country if Rudd Labor was elected. Just beneath the surface it revealed that a certain kind of panic was gripping the hearts of those members of the right-wing commentariat - those people whom Guy Rundle has christened the Power Intellectuals of the Howard Era - who now sensed that, in the absence of a friendly government with interests they could help promote and enemies of that government they could help target and destroy, their cultural power would gradually ebb away. Even if a Rudd government was indeed elected, through mounting what I have called a pre-emptive interpretative strike of the kind seen in the Australian's pre-election editorial line, the mainstream Right could at least console itself with the thought that even after Howard's removal nothing of significance would change.

Whether the Rudd government will change Australia substantially and whether that change will be unambiguously for the better is a more complicated matter than it might at first appear. In part it is complicated because all new governments are to some extent unknown quantities, even to themselves. In part it is complicated because, even without conscious dissembling, in the effort to take power, particularly in a conservative-populist era like our own, particularly when the government is led by a politician whose most outstanding capacity was conjuring fear, prudence requires that Oppositions do or say nothing that might unduly frighten the horses. And in part it is complicated because it is becoming increasingly likely that - unlike the Hawke government, which came to power near the end of a recession, but like the earlier Labor administrations of Whitlam, which was governing when the stagflation crisis hit, and even more so of Scullin, which took power on the eve of the Great Depression - the Rudd government will find itself governing in testing economic times. Nevertheless, there are good reasons not only to believe that with Rudd changes of substance will occur but also that they will make Australia a substantially better country.

The most important reason lies not in the policy arena but in the more fundamental field of core values. Even though it is true that John Howard had an almost carnal desire to take and hold on to power at almost any cost - the fatal flaw that led to the farcical events at the time of APEC, amusingly outlined by Paul Kelly in the Weekend Australian of 15 December, when Howard refused to honour his solemn pledge and resign when his party no longer wanted him, simply because he was frightened of appearing like a coward - it is a major misunderstanding to think of him as a mere pragmatist or opportunist. For John Howard was one of the most ideological prime ministers this country has ever seen, whose thought was basically shaped by the two great currents of the contemporary, and especially the English-speaking, Right: neo-liberalism, the powerful and coherent market-based faith, and its fellow-travelling twin, neo-conservatism, that remarkably influential but philosophically incoherent set of beliefs first formulated in the 1970s in anti-leftist intellectual circles of New York, which centred on the beneficence of American power, the ambition to spread democracy across the globe through the use of that power and on the dangers posed to the true and decent values of ordinary people in the West by politically correct, morally relativistic, self-hating elites. The place of ideology in Howard's thought has recently been acknowledged by the most powerful right-wing think-tank in the US, the American Enterprise Institute, which has decided to offer him its prestigious Irving Kristol Award.

Not only was the thought of John Howard shaped by an Australianised and banalised version of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. As with his spiritual soul mate, President George W Bush, Howard's commitment to this pattern of thinking must play a part in any explanation of his government's end. As Sir Nicholas Stern put it so well, global warming represents the greatest example of market failure in the history of humankind. At least in part because he was a true believer in neo-liberalism, Howard was notoriously incapable of rising to the challenge of global warming, which was made real to the Australian electorate with the arrival in the settled areas of the south-east of perhaps the most severe drought in the nation's history. And in very large part because he was a true believer in neo-conservatism, Howard committed Australia to the greatest folly of that cause, the invasion of Iraq, whose meaning was made evident to the voters through the daily television pictures of the terrorist bombings in Baghdad. As a consequence of his ideological commitment to neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, then, Howard's reputation was in the end fatally undermined.

I must admit I would have voted for Labor in 2007 if it had been led by the drover's dog (or even by Bill Hayden). But in fact I voted Labor with enthusiasm and as a convinced Ruddite because of the two articles he published in the Monthly in October and November 2006. What these articles revealed was that, almost alone among the members of the Beazley front bench, Rudd saw the need to distinguish social-democratic Labor from the twin neo-liberal and neo-conservative philosophies of the Howard government.

Rudd put his finger on the central contradiction of the contemporary Western Right: simultaneous support for the revolutionary dynamic of an unbridled capitalist economy, and the ambition for the restoration, through the preaching of a doctrine of a moral conservatism, of an earlier social order based on religion, family and community. Rudd saw in Howard's new workplace-relations legislation a concretisation of this contradiction, in which a government committed to family values and family stability was simultaneously encouraging its members to see themselves as factors of production who would discover, through individual contracts made with their employers, the best terms and conditions they could achieve after bargaining in a free market for the sale of their labour. Under contemporary conditions, Rudd argued, the neo-liberal Right had only three foundational values: liberty, security and prosperity. Rudd proposed the need to add to them three additional values derived from the Christian socialist and social-democratic traditions: equity, community and sustainability. Rudd spoke about asylum seekers, the challenge of global poverty and of our generation's moral obligation to ensuring the wellbeing of the planet with a moral directness that we had not heard from a senior Labor figure since the fall of Keating. In answer to the market fundamentalism of the Right and their Hayekian suspicion about the place of altruism in the public sphere, he proposed a return to the wisdom of an earlier insight derived from politically engaged Christianity, as exemplified in the life and thought of his hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, namely the urgency of the insertion, in the centre of our political values, of the needs of the vulnerable, the marginal and the weak. No one prominent in Australian public life had spoken in this timbre since the time of Sir William Deane. When I first read Rudd's Bonhoeffer essay I could scarcely believe my eyes. I thought the ministers of the Howard government and the right-wing commentariat would proceed to tear him apart. Thankfully I was wrong.

There was a time when the visions about the future of this country of the then prime minister of Australia, Paul Keating, and the then editor-in-chief of the Australian, Paul Kelly, were so close that I mischievously described them as the most influential Irish-Australian double act in the history of the country. During the Howard years their visions drifted farther and farther apart. On the eve of the 2007 election, Kelly claimed that the Howard government had been extraordinarily successful in delivering unprecedented prosperity without undue inequality while, in the foreign-policy field, maintaining close relations with both the United States and Asia. His central claim was, in essence, that the Howard government had continued the work of its predecessors, under Hawke and Keating, in creating what Kelly labelled the new Australian settlement. The public intellectuals who could not understand this were fools. Keating's analysis could not have been more different. For him, in the mendacity that had pervaded the public sphere, even over questions as serious as the commitment to war; in the cruelty that had been witnessed in the treatment of the asylum seekers; and in the squandering of the opportunities to advance the great causes of multiculturalism, reconciliation and the republic, the Howard government had reversed the cultural trajectory of all Australian governments since the time of Whitlam and had undermined what he called "the moral basis to our public life". Readers will not be surprised to hear that it is Keating, not Kelly, whose summary I believe is right. In the short term, historians will provide answers to this question. In the long term, History will be the judge.

A generous moral vision does not make a government good. But without one, it cannot but be bad. For me, that has been the most important lesson of the Howard years. Although he is obviously a canny, cautious and highly ambitious politician, nothing that has happened in the past 18 months has led me to doubt that the basic Christian social-democratic convictions Kevin Rudd expressed in his articles of 2006 are not sincere. The vision Rudd expressed there was measured but generous. That is why I anticipate the next three years of Australian politics with some trepidation but also with rediscovered hope.

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.

Cover: February 2008

February 2008

From the front page

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