Rudd’s new political class – an update

Thursday, 28 February 2008 

There seems to be a very confused reaction developing to Rudd’s 2020 Summit in Canberra.

On one hand it is being constantly described as nothing more than a ‘talkfest’ (despite Rudd’s insistence that it isn’t), on the other hand some people are getting awfully worried who will be in it. NSW Liberal MP Pru Goward is doing both at the same time saying it is nothing more than a stunt, yet then making a big deal about the lack of women on its selection panel.

The confusion partly comes from grasping the significance of this event. It is not so much from the event itself, but what it is intended to replace. As seen by the touching faith of Labor activists looking to overturn Iemma’s privatisation proposals in this year’s state conference, if there are those who think that well-known grassroots organisation, the NSW ALP, will listen to conference, there are probably those who think ALP National Conference is influential too. How the recommendations from the 2020 Summit will sit with the ‘long-term principles’ in the National Platform adopted at Conference is something that nobody seems to want to discuss. It is as though both are happening in parallel universes.

Former Hawke Minister Barry Cohen in an article in The Australian displays a similar obliviousness to the implications of what Rudd is proposing. He sees the 2020 Summit like Barry Jones’s ‘Commission for the Future’ which dragged on for over a decade. It is not. Such think tanks were explicitly for the experts to generate ideas. The message of Rudd’s Summit is subtle but very different. He is opening it up to the public as a means of encouraging broader participation in policy-making. That is why he is aiming for 1,000 to attend, something that may be unworkable in practical terms but gives a clear political message – the political parties that would have performed this role, no longer can. Jones’s Commission was to inform the political class, Rudd’s Summit is to replace it.

Cohen also can’t seem to get the link between Rudd’s Summit and what is happening in Parliament. According to him, backbench MPs are still being clamped down like they were in Howard’s day and have little influence on front bench policy on both sides. What front bench policy? Howard may have given the illusion the Liberals stood for something but now that he has gone, the policy vacuum in the leadership of both parties is there for all to see. When Nelson says that he is going on a listening tour he is trying to turn the Liberals’ difficulties from a political problem to a technical one of merely gathering ideas. The problem is that there is no reason why the Liberals will be any better at gathering ideas than Labor and in fact, without the apparatus of government to organise events like the 2020 Summit, there are good reasons why the Opposition will be worse.

This policy vacuum on the front bench is the real reason why the Liberals are getting so upset about the Friday sittings. It is not that there are less Question Times (there are not) the issue is really that the government has rearranged the sitting week to highlight one day for the backbench to raise issues that would have normally been buried within the week. The encouragement for the front benches of both sides to go off and do other things and leave it to backbenchers to raise whatever issue they feel like, only encourages the fragmentation of the party line of both parties that the Liberals, especially, are so desperate to prevent.

The corrosive effect of this policy vacuum works on both sides. However, Rudd is not worried about it as he is in power and is consolidating it by exposing the policy bankruptcy of both sides of the political class. That is the reality behind the Summit and it is why those who have made their careers in the old order are trying to discredit it by either dismissing it or already complaining that it is not ‘representative’. They mean of them.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 28 February 2008.

Filed under Media analysis

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