The Rudd to nowhere

What the victory of Kevin Rudd's Labor Party in Australia reveals about John Howard, the Culture Wars and the state of contemporary electoral politics.

Guy Rundle

Topics Politics

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Eleven years after Australians comprehensively voted in John Howard, said by some to be the most conservative prime minister in our history, they have booted him out again, selecting Australian Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd with the sort of swing – six per cent – that passes for a landslide in contemporary electoral politics.

Paul Keating, the Labor prime minister deposed by Howard in 1996, summed up the mood for many when he said that his dominant emotion following Howard’s departure was not so much happiness, but rather a sense of relief. ‘Relief’ is a curious emotion to nominate as your first reaction to the success of your own party, denoting the absence of the negative – the worst hasn’t happened – rather than enthusiasm for any positive, transformative programme. But Keating is spot-on in his assessment of where the Australian people are at: both the Ruddslide itself and the reaction to it tell us much the country, and also about the predicament of Western electoral politics in general.

Australia, 9/11 and immigration

John Howard, and the Liberal/National Party coalition he led (the Liberal Party party is effectively a Conservative party; the National Party is exclusively a rural-based party) has dominated federal Australian politics for a decade, especially in the past five years. First elected in 1996, Howard had run overwhelmingly on a campaign against ‘political correctness’, targeting Labor prime minister Paul Keating’s growing obsession with addressing some dominant issues in Australian life – the country’s relationship to Britain, aboriginal/non-aboriginal relations, etc – because they had alienated a socially conservative section of the working class on which Labor’s vote had been based. Yet his support remained shaky, and he effectively lost the 1998 election, winning by the fluke of seat distribution.

What confirmed Howard in power was the almost simultaneous occurrence of the Tampa crisis, in August 2001, and the attack on the Twin Towers the following month. The Tampa was a Norwegian container ship that had taken on a large group of refugees from a sinking ship in the Indian Ocean. The captain was refused permission to dock in Australia, but when he attempted to dock anyway, the vessel was occupied by the Australian military. The bizarre events brought to a head the sharply polarised views on the government’s ‘mandatory detention’ policy – indefinitely imprisoning asylum seekers in desert prison camps – with a solid 70 per cent of Australians supporting the policy.

The era of the ‘war on terror’ confirmed Howard as the ‘natural’ leader of the country in dangerous times, a view reinforced by an adulatory conservative-dominated press. Yet the principal effect of these years was not hegemony but hubris; gaining control of the Senate (the upper house) in 2004, Howard introduced a series of laws – ‘Workchoices’ – designed to dissolve most of the remnants of Australia’s centralised wage-fixing system, and sharply restrict the ability of trade union organisers to enter workplaces. The result was an immediate, instant and decisive shift of support back to Labor, which had chosen a leader, Rudd, who was the first to be seen as dependable after a few Labor duds.

Simultaneously, the Iraq war – never popular with the electorate, aside from a few weeks at the time of the 2003 invasion – became immired. Howard’s slavish devotion to the American alliance (he had once said that Australia could play the role of ‘deputy’ to the US sheriff in the Pacific region) became a liability as the war on terror’s image changed to that of duplicitous farce. No longer serving as a national unifier, Iraq became a source of discredit, and it attached itself to other policy positions running contrary to the mass of Australian public opinion, such as the decision not to sign up to the Kyoto accord.

By the early part of 2007, Howard simply couldn’t take a trick, and his politics became desperately opportunistic – sending the military in to occupy Australian aboriginal communities one month (to ‘restore law and order’), promising a referendum on racial reconciliation the next – and so on. It was an attempt to find any front for a new social division, in which the primary social conflict between the ‘battlers’ and the ‘elites’ (cultural not financial) could be opened up.

The collapse of political difference

Howard’s instincts were right – his problem was that he was faced with a Labor leader who did not put forward a dramatically alternative programme, but instead offered, embarrassingly, to endorse many of Howard’s attitudes, leaving very little space between them on a range of issues.

The result was effectively a political vacuum for six months, during which time it became clear that the public had made up its mind, and little would change it either way. In this vacuum – a fully post-political space in a country more socially atomised than most – the findings of opinion polls came to occupy the centre of political commentary and reflection in the media. Yet this was not because the polls were moving; in fact they weren’t – they hovered around a 55-45 preference for Labor, with occasional fluctuations for most of the year.

The Labor party that fairly effortlessly replaced Howard in the subsequent campaign is thus a cautious centre-right administration, which has hedged its bets magnificently. Though it will, or claims it will, withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq, it will remain in Afghanistan. Though it will remove much of the ‘Workchoices’ legislation, it will try to leave key restrictions on union organisation, wildcat strikes and so on in place. Its plans for education and healthcare reform (which it must conduct in line with the state governments, under Australia’s federal system) will be modest, and are unlikely to address the growing inequality in access in what was once a substantially fairer system. Much of its programme – and the base of its support – has simply been around undoing what the Howard government has done on many issues.

This is in part because, on the surface, Australia is doing well economically, with low unemployment, high incomes and increasing assets in increasingly many hands. Yet that has served not only to hide the shaky base of economic prosperity, but also to naturalise the remaining areas of urban and rural poverty and lack of opportunity as simply being beyond remedy.

Increasingly Australia has taken its self-image from outside – from the rapturous appreciation by British and Americans of a country where detached housing, good schools, stable work and good affordable basic medical care contrasts with a perceived torpor of the former and the substantial inequality of the latter in Britain and America themselves. Yet this hides what could be taken from this newfound prosperity, if the will was there. The cost of home ownership in a society which used to see owning your home as a right has gone from two-and-a-half times one’s income to an average of seven times, a process sold as inevitable by asking the (shrinking) band of homeowners to focus on the fabulous appreciating value of their bricks-and-mortar.

Consequently, the other side of the Australian boom has been underplayed until now – that it has been based on substantial underinvestment in infrastructure, high-end manufacturing and, above all, education and research, the government running heavy budget surpluses to return tax cuts. The result is an economy overly dependent on mining, and demand for its products in the Chinese economy, with a severe trade deficit.

Labor, currently in control of all state governments as well as the federal government in Canberra, now has an opportunity few administrations have had: to push forward substantial change without the fear of policies being derailed by state-level opposition, as has happened in the past. Unfortunately, it is an oppporunity that Rudd’s government looks very unlikely to seize.

The Liberals under Howard

For the Liberal/National opposition, prospects are dire. The National Party is disappearing, many of its former rural seats becoming regional suburban centres. Hitherto based on unabashed rural socialism and urban capitalism – subsidies for uneconomic farmers, master-and-servant law for workers, etc – it has no principled base from which to speak.

The same is true for the Liberal Party. This is a new development and one that owes much to John Howard’s determination that his politics would come not from an assertion of a positive set of values, as such, but as correctives or responses to the supposed dominance of Australian life by inner-city left-liberal ‘elites’. This move – on issues as broad as indigenous relations, migration policy and school curricula – exploited the fact that what had been a progressive alliance between such ‘minority’ groups and the broader working class in the Seventies had collapsed into mutual distrust in the Nineties, as Paul Keating’s harsh economic reconstruction hit manufacturing jobs, while he became increasingly elitist in his celebration of high art, promoting colonial history as guilt, and occasionally berating Australians for not being, well, Europeans.

The Liberals thus represented themselves as the party standing up for those victimised by anti-patriotic cosmopolitans. The ‘elites’ had imposed a ‘black armband’ view of history; they had made it impossible to talk openly about the ‘Muslim threat’; they had alienated our history and identity from us by turning the curriculum into a deconstructive mish-mash. The Liberals would stand up for Australian values – ‘mateship’, the ‘fair go’ – against these alien imports.

There was some truth to the Liberals’ charges. Much cultural-left politics was self-defeating and unreflectively elitist. Indigenous politics had become trapped in a politics of symbolism, in which notions of ‘reconciliation’ and a government apology for past eugenics policies meant making indigenous people, once again, subject to the will of whites – waiting to be granted their own subjectivity by white acts. Howard’s canny refusal to apologise, offering instead a statement of regret, endeared him to people tired of being blamed for massacres they didn’t commit. And Liberals were right that school curricula had been transformed by educationists keen on post-structuralist ideas – despite concerted opposition from a materialist left – in ways that delivered a less-than-rigorous education.

The corrosive effect of opposition

Yet by focusing on these relatively minor features of most people’s lives, well beyond the point at which they had seemed to be urgent issues, the Liberal party set itself up for an internal collapse. By the end of its decade in power, it was wholly defined by what it was not, and once Labor had begun to shadow it, there was no political player on the stage to define itself against. The Liberal party simply failed to understand where that distinctive Australian self-conception, or the mateship thing, came from: that is, from a solidaristic trade-union tradition. Thus it attempted to sell its changes to employment law in an American-style language of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’, only realising when it was too late that the party would founder on that very notion of Australian solidarity that it had being playing to.

Since Federation in 1901, right-wing parties in Australia have always defined themselves against Labor. Until the 1980s, they could call on a sense of British national identity and loyalty to do this. Once this appeal collapsed, as large-scale immigration changed the composition of the country, they were forced into an explicit theft of Labor’s dominant traditions. Had they prudently avoided tinkering with the wage-arbitration system – a core of Australian life since 1907 – they might have gained an extra term. But sooner or later they would have faced the problem that they had not committed themselves to any positive statement of something to stand for. Howard’s 1996 comment that he wanted Australians to feel ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about themselves lacked, in the long term, any notion of a sense of collective aspiration and mission that might animate politics.

The Liberals now face the problem that all parties going into opposition face across the advanced world: there is no clear programme amongst the established mainstream parties that they might define themselves in opposition to. In Australia, the conservative collapse has already begun. With Howard likely to lose his seat, and retiring in any case, the heir apparent Peter Costello stunned many by announcing that he would not seek the leadership of the party, and instead would leave politics. He was followed by the leader of the National Party, Mark Vaile. Others will follow, an exodus beyond the usual changing of the guard. It is a response to the fact that official political opposition is now the very negation of life, a ghastly charade that no-one wants to be trapped in. Those who survive will be the party’s hard right – fundamentalist Christians on an explicitly US neoconservative model, so far outside of the Australian political tradition that they would render the party a permanent rump.

Meanwhile, many people who cheered – as I did – at Rudd’s victory, will soon find out what even a couple of years of New Labour in the UK taught Britons: that the coercive soft and hard power deployed by one-time social democratic parties, their shaping of a culture which invites people to consent to unfreedom in the name of community and safety, will have to be contested and challenged on an entirely different basis.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor, and author of The Opportunist: John Howard and the Triumph of Political Reaction, (Melbourne, Black Inc, 2001).

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