Monday, 9 February 2009
When Australian politicians start talking about philosophy and (relatively) ancient political history, you know they are avoiding the issue.
The Liberals tagging of Rudd’s stimulus package as ‘Whitlamesque’ may not mean much to anyone under 50, but is a rallying call to tribe from someone who needs to convince that he is part of it. And an important rallying call it is. It is the one the Liberals have used since the last time we had such a radical shake-up in the global political and economic agenda.
The 1970s marked the end of the post-cold war political and economic arrangements that had been underpinned by the US’s overwhelming dominance at the end of the Second World War. The collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971 and the oil crisis of 1974-5 were the global signs that the old economic arrangements were no longer working. Governments found the domestic levers at home were unable to prevent the onset of the worst downturn since the war.
Since it was largely the left that was identified with the post-war arrangements, the welfare state, the social contract with the unions, their dismantling generally meant a shift to the right. With the right not really able to come back under its own steam, it was usually done by discrediting the left often by pin-pointing a time of ‘national shame’ during the 1970s that was never to be allowed to be repeated. In the US the Reaganite right preferred Carter and the humiliation of the Tehran hostages (over Watergate and Vietnam) and in the UK Thatcher used Callaghan and the Winter of Discontent. In Australia, the Liberals used Whitlam.
Of course, even then the right in Australia still couldn’t get their act together. Their one serious attempt by the big tough guy of the right with his ineffective ‘razor gangs’ was so unsuccessful that it is no surprise he later decided to re-invent himself as Australia’s answer to Mother Teresa. It was left to Labor to do the business, but again if there is one thing that Hawke’s government knew when it began, it was not to be like Whitlam’s.
One feature of this Labor government is that the defensiveness over Whitlam has largely gone. It is not just a case of time dulling the memory. In fact there has also been a sort of a conscious rehabilitation of Whitlam by a Labor Prime Minster some would say is least like him.
The relationship between arguably one of Labor’s most radical Prime Minsters and arguably one of Labor’s most conservative is interesting. There are some similarities. Whitlam came to power when Labor ties with the unions had been weakened as part of Whitlam’s modernising drive, but not reformulated into the business-union model it became under Hawke and of which we are only seeing the death throes today. It meant when the downturn came, Whitlam didn’t really have anything to call on as Hawke did a decade later to deal with it. Under the current Labor government those union ties have pretty well disappeared. It is also why Whitlam made a big deal of education to fill the gap, which again has obvious similarities to today.
Yet although drawing similarities to Whitlam shows up the vulnerabilities of this government, Rudd can be fairly relaxed about it because the basis of the right’s demonising of Whitlam has also gone. This is what Rudd is getting at in his essay on the neo-liberals of the last thirty years. Christian Kerr in The Australian may be right that Rudd is attacking a straw man. But who set it up? Who has been touring the world’s neo-con lunch circuit making the outrageous claim that a True Conservative once ruled in Australia? It was someone who clearly fooled a few in the Liberal party to think it was a free market party. That pretence was exposed at the end of last year and the Liberals have been desperately trying to get it back.
However deliberate it was, Rudd has set up a delicious trap. It is not as though Rudd is really a social democrat. Anyone who can justify spending cuts from an inflation ‘crisis’ of 3.5% or tell a party that “this reckless spending must stop” is no more social democrat than the party that sat there and clapped while he said it. If there is one thing we have seen over the last two years since Rudd came to power is how unbound by any political principles Labor has become. However, it faces a party that has not made such a transition and is being forced to cling to the pretence of a political agenda to justify its existence. The goading from Rudd would have been too much for a party that was itching to go back to the debates of the past as an alternative to a future it cannot see.
Some in the media may think that a clear divide has now been drawn between the two parties over the economy but there hasn’t really. Neither party has a counter-crisis strategy. There is not even a real difference between how much money they are prepared to throw at the economy to avoid having to think of one.
There is only one real difference, between a technocratic party that can at least be flexible to what ever comes up, and Australia’s last political party that can’t resist dredging up dead political arguments in order to carry on. It means the Liberals have been left looking to be more against a fiscal stimulus than they really are. And as Bishop clumsily showed last Sunday, and Hockey not much less so the other night, to justify such a position, they have had to raise doubts that the downturn will be as bad as Rudd claims. The Liberals are lying on the track of an on-coming train, as everyone says. But it’s not voters heading for the money but what looks like the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 9 February 2009.Filed under Key posts, Tactics