Rudd’s agenda

Tuesday, 10 June 2008 

Given the media’s current dislocation from the political process, summed up by the bizarre panel discussion on Sunday’s Insiders, which painted the government as stumbling from crisis to crisis after a fortnight when it either held onto its massive polling lead (Newspoll) or increased it (Morgan), it seems as good a time as any to do a quick round up of Rudd’s agenda that is causing such media confusion.

Let’s start by what the media thinks has been Rudd’s agenda so far, but hasn’t really, the ‘symbols’ by which he started his term. Here Rudd was less setting his own agenda, than winding up Howard’s. Organising a homecoming parade for soldiers back from joining in a military campaign that Rudd was claiming only a few months ago to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, getting rid of Workchoices while bringing in the most anti-union agenda by any Labor government, or apologising for taking children from their indigenous parents while backing an intervention based on exactly the same premise, that they are incapable of looking after their kids; none of these ‘symbols’ make much sense in their own terms. What they do, however, is neutralise them as political issues. This is only possible because Howard’s stance on Iraq, the apology or IR had already been drained of any political meaning, so exposing a bankruptcy that was behind his defeat. Rudd has simply tidied up what was finished by the electorate in November.

While the media searched in vain in the Budget for an economic policy to point to an agenda to replace Howard’s, we must look elsewhere. So far, there are three clear components:

1) discrediting the old political process

No doubt there will come a time when some of the 1,000 best and brightest who flocked to Canberra in April will claim that the Summit had been a waste of time. They will be frustrated by its inability to influence government policy, lacking the political nous to know that the very premise of their participation, as hand-picked guests of Rudd and his Melbourne University mate, robbed the Summit of any political weight.

But the Summit was never about those who participated, rather it was about those who didn’t, namely the rank-and-file of the political parties, especially the ALP, who may have been under the delusion that it was their role to decide government policy. Irrespective how much Summit recommendations may have aped the ALP platform, Rudd’s declaration at the opening that the current political process could not set Australia’s long term direction helped to confirm the bankruptcy of the political process.

This was also the content of the ‘inflation crisis’ that targeted the spending plans (and hence the programs) of both sides of the fence as ‘reckless’. While the Liberals are still having trouble catching up with reality, the quiescence of the ALP, especially the way it was willing to sacrifice its programs to keep Howard’s tax cuts, shows that it already has come to terms with it.

2) the New Sensitivity

While the Budget showed that it wasn’t really possible to have an economic policy these days, it did show how the government intends to accommodate that fact. Rudd’s admission that there was little a government can do than fiddle around the edges may have sent the Liberals and the media into paroxysms, but to the electorate he was only stating the obvious. Those, like Gary Morgan, who think the downturn in economic confidence is bad news for the government, fail to realise how little it is held responsible for it. Government economic policy, as it exists, is not just about showing empathy with token gestures, but flattering the electorate by exaggerating the economic pressures in the first place.

3) opening up to the world

Australia’s foreign policy is fairly simple. It attaches itself firmly to the underbelly of which ever country is the global power of the day. The complications of Australia’s foreign policy are really the complications of the foreign policy of which ever power it has attached itself to.

Australia’s subservience in the global order, and the reliance of domestic politics on it, is not usually the topic of polite conversation in political circles in this country, especially since Vietnam. That’s why at times when great power politics is in a state of flux, it is usual to try to present Australia’s as an independent foreign policy. Despite Rudd’s talk of middle power diplomacy, Australia’s foreign policy remains firmly targeted on the great power (US) interests; the shift from Iraq to Afghanistan, the integration of China etc. As Keating has admitted, even the success of any significant regional initiatives by Australia is firmly in the hands of the US.

However, what is unusual with Rudd’s government is the degree to which foreign policy is being openly brought back home to bear on domestic politics. This has usually only been done in times of great power stability (Empire days, the Cold War). Rudd is now doing it at a time when US power is in a state of flux. Howard tried to create a domestic consensus with the War on Terror but with only moderate success. The clearest element of Rudd’s foreign policy with direct implications on domestic policy is, of course, climate change. Given the strong consensus for the terms of the climate change debate in the country, it probably will have much more success than Howard’s attempt.

Once the main planks of Rudd’s agenda have been set out, it is pretty clear to see the government’s weaknesses, which will be looked at in the next post.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 10 June 2008.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

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