The Mandarin’s anti-politics jamboree

Friday, 18 April 2008 

I will also be taking a proposal along to the Summit for discussion.

K Rudd at the Sydney Institute 16 April

It is entirely appropriate for Rudd to use the Sydney Institute as a forum for setting out the purpose of the 2020 Summit. It was where Gillard two years ago set out her call for the end of ALP factions. With Gillard having argued for the end of politics inside the ALP, the new leader of it now wants to extend it to the national stage.

Rudd’s speech on Wednesday night was mainly noted for his proposal for creating universal child care centres by 2020. But the importance of the speech was not the proposal itself, but the way it was presented.

Rudd put forward two key propositions in the speech. The first was to proclaim the end of difference between ‘left and right’. This is not new, it has been proclaimed endlessly since the end of the Cold War. What Rudd has done is to draw out the consequences of it.

It is interesting that despite everyone agreeing that the difference between left and right has gone (and certainly in most policy areas it is true) it is still possible to tag some ideas, or people, as left or right-wing. Those labels are still used in the media (when talking about the right-wing of the NSW Liberals, for example) and everyone knows what they are talking about. Indeed despite Gerard Henderson occasionally getting huffy about it, he and his Sydney Institute are generally tagged as right-wing, and, again, everyone knows what they are talking about.

In fact, most revealing was the embarrassed reaction all round when Nick Johnson from the Sydney Institute board stood up after Rudd’s speech and said so far his government had done things “that many socialist governments should be pretty proud of”. The key point is not that recognisably left and right-wing political debate still does not go on, but that because key segments of society such as organised labour and business no longer have an interest in it, it lacks legitimacy. If this is true, then it means that the political class carrying on the old left-right debates also lack legitimacy. This was the basis of the anti-politics attack that Rudd launched so effectively last year against Howard and those on his own side, and it is the basis on which he is realigning Australian politics now.

Rudd’s second point in the speech was to set out his response to this end of politics, something that is being widely mis-interpreted. There seems to be a view that Rudd has moved into the centre of the political spectrum. However, it is more accurate to say that he has left it all together. His job is now less like a politician than that of a technocrat, organising and disseminating the ideas of others and that is the purpose of the 2020 Summit.

The problem in the current discussion of the Summit is that the attention is entirely focussed on the event itself. However, its real importance lies in what it displaces, namely that policy-making body called the Australian Labor Party that may have been under the impression on the 24th of November last year that it had been given its chance to implement its own program. The Summit legitimises the idea that the ALP has no more right to impose its agenda than the Liberals or anyone else who is attending the Summit. Even when Rudd has his own proposal, such as the child care centres, he is happy to bring it to be considered at the Summit just like any other participant.

It is striking just how widely this premise of the Summit is being accepted, even by those who would have been thought to be concerned that the ALP is being displaced by a Summit that has Miranda Devine coming along. Maybe it is not too surprising that in the generally Labor-supporting blogosphere there appears widespread support for a route that bypasses the old political process that they had no influence over. But even an old Laborite like Phillip Adams seems unconcerned. In a rather coy piece he worries that in accepting his invitation it might be a bit elitist (and if any of the little people feel left out and want him to speak on their behalf, he helpfully provides an e-mail for them to send ideas) but nowhere in the article is there a sense of what it will mean for that other elite group he supports, the ALP.

Nor is there a sense in Adams’s article that this side-line in policy-making might possibly compromise his day-job of commentating on current affairs and this government. At least there seems to be some awareness by some of the nation’s media chiefs that there could be dangers in getting associated so closely with the government’s agenda, which may not be that of setting policy, but setting up a new way for choosing who can and who can not.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 18 April 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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