Saturday, August 09, 2008

Rudd reveals core beliefs

The quality of self-awareness is usually visited on politicians only upon their retirement.  It is with the publication of memoirs and diaries after politicians have quit elected office that the public learns for the first time what politicians really believe in and what they think of themselves and their colleagues.

The Latham Diaries told us what Mark Latham thought of the ALP.  Whether Peter Costello will reveal in his memoirs what he really thinks of John Howard is a matter of some conjecture.

Kevin Rudd might be an exception to the rule about politicians and selfawareness.  In the lead-up to the election and afterwards, he famously described himself as either a socialist and/or an economic conservative.  Exactly what he was depended on the day of the week and whom he was talking to.  What could be said with some certainty was that it's unlikely that the Prime Minister is either of the two things he said he was.  There's no way someone who genuinely believes they are a socialist could say they were also an economic conservative, and vice versa.

The Rudd government is obviously not socialist, while the introduction of an emissions trading scheme in advance of our major trading partners is hardly the handiwork of an economically conservative administration.

So if the Prime Minister is neither a socialist nor an economic conservative, what is he?  And what is his government?  The answer to these questions came last Sunday when, at his third attempt to describe his political philosophy, the Prime Minister may finally have come close to the truth.  Addressing the Centre for Independent Studies, he said he regarded his government "as being at the reforming centre of Australian politics".  He also took the opportunity to attack the philosophy of one of the world's greatest free-market economists, Friedrich Hayek.  The Prime Minister's interpretation of Hayek is wrong.  Unfortunately his description of himself as being firmly "centrist" is accurate.

Kevin Rudd has used his "reforming centre" formulation before, but what was significant about his remarks at the weekend was the virulence with which he committed himself to the notion.  According to him, the "solutions to today's challenges -- on productivity growth, on welfare reform, on indigenous policy, on workforce participation and on climate change --  won't come out of conventional right or left paradigms".  This is grand rhetoric -- but it's wrong.  There has only ever been one paradigm that has provided long-term solutions to Australia's economic challenges.  That paradigm is certainly not of the left.  There's no reason to think that this situation is going to change any time soon.  The origins of the reforms of the 1980s were unashamedly of the right.  Reducing tariff barriers, removing capital controls and gradually deregulating the labour market were the ideas of the right, that the left only grudgingly accepted.  It is difficult to imagine a single policy prescription of the left that would make any positive contribution to the country's current challenges.  The way to improve workforce participation, for example, is to increase the skills of the workforce by increasing workers' skills through the education system.  Schools and universities will be improved by increasing competition between providers, not reducing it.

It is almost as though Rudd has made it a point of principle to avoid doing anything that would allow him to be tagged as either "left" or "right".  Maybe he's betraying his upbringing as a diplomat.  Diplomats are, after all, trained to say nothing and do nothing until given instructions by their political masters.

The problem with being in the "centre" is that not too much has ever been achieved by occupying the middle ground.  The effort to occupy the middle ground is an excuse to do nothing.  State governments around the nation have been at pains to present themselves as centrist -- and we've all seen the results.

In the 1950s, the British coined a word for the kind of politics that Rudd talks about.

"Butskellism" described the consensus, status-quo politics of Britain in the 1950s.  Rab Butler was the Tory chancellor of the exchequer and Hugh Gaitskell the Labour opposition leader.  Butler did little to alter the country's economic settings he inherited from the previous Labour government.  Occasionally he would add a slight Conservative Party slant to policy measures, but that would be the full extent of his intervention.  Who knows?  In the future historians may refer to the years of the "Howrudd" government and "Swantello" budgets.


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