Friday, October 03, 2008

Is Rudd in the right party?

Kevin Rudd has proved himself an unwitting disciple of the Prime Minister that he ousted from office.

Shortly after the 1972 US presidential election, Pauline Kael, the New Yorker's film critic, expressed astonishment at Richard Nixon's landslide victory over George McGovern.  "How can that be?" she asked.  "I don't know anybody who voted for him."  A similar state of disbelief gripped Australia's intellectuals during the decade of John Howard's election victories.

The Australian people finally made the right decision to vote their mendacious, conniving leader out of office last November.  As Maxine McKew's biographer Margot Saville acknowledged, she and her friends found "a new respect for democracy".  But the irony is that the same people who take it upon themselves to represent the country's conscience are now embracing a church-going, family-values politician almost as conservative as the former Prime Minister himself.

This is hardly remarkable.  After all, during the course of 2007, Kevin Rudd styled himself as an "economic conservative" and copy-catted Howard on virtually everything from his support for budget surpluses, income tax cuts, anti-terror laws and federal intervention in remote indigenous communities to his opposition to gay marriage, illegal immigration, teacher unions and zealous multiculturalism.  As a result, Rudd managed to convince the many so-called Howard Battlers -- aspirational and socially conservative working-class voters, particularly in the outer suburbs of Brisbane and the provincial Queensland and New South Wales coastal towns -- to come home to Labor without being embarrassed to tell their friends that they had done so.

One could, of course, argue that Howard was a conviction politician, whereas Rudd is a relentless opportunist who merely recognises that the centre of political gravity has swung right in recent years.  (Bear in mind that in 1996, Howard stressed that a future Howard government would not be a "pale imitation" of the Keating government, whereas Rudd spent 2007 signing himself up to Howard's policy agenda.)  Regardless of his motives, the point is that Rudd's policy platform has more in common with John Howard's than with Phillip Adams's.  Far from reflecting the thoughts and instincts of Paul Keating, Gough Whitlam and other darlings of the progressive Left, the Labor PM has made many conservative policies and values harder for the intellectual Left to attack.  For the truth is that, as much as Labor partisans and the liberal intelligentsia may hope otherwise, Australia is a much more conservative nation today than it was during the Keating era.

During the early-to-mid Nineties, there was almost universal consensus in the media about the virtues of Aboriginal welfarism, treaties, separatism, a politicians' republic, zealous multiculturalism, activist judges rewriting our constitution and the black armband of history which preached shame, not pride, about our past and pessimism, not confidence, about our future.  These days, however, things are very different.

On the political battlefields of history, economics, citizenship, national sovereignty and values generally, conservative ideas always compete and often prevail.  Who, for instance, still believes that welfare should be an unconditional right?  Or that the nanny state, weighed down by old-style union militancy, can deliver prosperity and opportunity for the broad cross-section of the electorate?  Or that cultural diversity is enough to sustain a nation?

Credit goes to Rudd for having the gumption to do what his party predecessors never contemplated:  fight Howard on his terrain and in the process modernise the Labor brand.  This remains, to be sure, an uphill battle.  The Left still controls the commanding heights of Australian culture, such as the universities, the arts and much of what passes for the "quality media".  Many conservative thinkers, such as the columnist Gerard Henderson, lament that Howard failed to win the culture wars.

Then again, he was by no means alone in failing to transform the nation's culture entirely.  Recall that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan themselves were unable to change substantially the entrenched attitudes of the Guardian, Oxford and the BBC in one case, or the New York Times, Harvard and Hollywood in the other.

Nonetheless, a strong case could be made that just as the Gipper helped set the scene for Bill Clinton's New Democrats and the Iron Lady paved the way for Tony Blair's New Labour, John Howard has pushed the ALP in a more conservative -- and politically appealing -- direction.  After all, during his nearly 12 years in power he was never afraid to challenge the old assumptions and provoke people into thinking and then arguing about the new attitudes on so many cultural and public policy issues.  And although Rudd expresses himself in different ways, his government's record thus far confirms this conservative trend.

Far from being in cahoots with big unions, Rudd is still adopting some flexible workplace agreements and is hardly reimposing a Byzantine straitjacket of labour regulations on small business.  He recently slapped down a union push for an early curb of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.  And his embracing of Peter Costello's agenda of income tax cuts and budget surpluses is constraining any latent spendthrift inclinations.  The spectre of Jim Cairns has not returned to haunt the economic landscape.

On education, instead of endorsing the class warfare waged by those who control the teachers' unions, Rudd is keeping faith with the Howard agenda of choice, performance pay and accountability of our schools.  He has announced that federal schools' funding to the states will depend on their providing information on how individual schools rate.  And his recent pilot programme means that parents whose children don't attend school will face being stripped of welfare payments.  That's a page right out of Howard's mutual obligation playbook.

Rudd has no time for indoctrinating students in politically correct fads and outcomes-based gobbledygook.  Instead, and again following the Howard precedent, he wants to give students a solid grounding in the factual and narrative history of their nation.  Not so long ago, Captain James Cook's landing in 1770 was regarded as the beginning of a long and shameful story of invasion and dispossession.  But Rudd, like Howard, has little time for such trendy, post-modern nonsense.  This is a man, remember, who sought to outflank Howard on the question of Anzac patriotism when he staged the infamous dawn service at Long Tan for the Seven Network's Sunrise programme last year.

Whereas during the Keating era, when white guilt morally and culturally disarmed the nation, in the Howard-Rudd era Australians have unapologetically championed the values of hard work, enterprise, faith and the "fair go" and allowed the greatness of Western civilisation to speak for itself.

When it comes to Aboriginal affairs, the Rudd government has kept faith with the Howard government's national emergency in remote indigenous communities of Northern Territory.  This way of thinking is a far cry from the mindset of the Whitlam-Fraser-Hawke-Keating years.  Back then, the conventional wisdom held that Aborigines should be allowed to live as they always had -- including wholly separate living arrangements and Aboriginal law.  The result was a crippling cycle of economic dependency on welfare handouts.

For more than a year, however, both Labor and the Coalition parties have championed the end of the decades-long experiment in Aboriginal separatism with its welfare handout mentality, substance and child abuse.  The right-based policies are a thing of the past.

Now, it is certainly true that Rudd gives the occasional wink and nod to the Labor party's true believers.  It is equally true that he recognises that the next election won't be won in the senior common rooms of all our great learned institutions, but in the sun-belt seats of Queensland and the outer reaches of Sydney.

Thus, he invites Cate Blanchett to chair a session at the gabfest of the nation's 1,000 smartest people, but he expresses a profound distaste for transgressional modern art.  He apologises to the Stolen Generation, but he ignores Sir Ronald Wilson's inflammatory claims of a calculated genocide against the Aboriginal people.  He pulls out our combat forces from Iraq, but he is an unashamed advocate of the US alliance.  He ratifies the Kyoto protocol on climate change, but he is in the process of watering down substantially his emissions trading scheme in order to assuage our energy-intensive industries.  And so his governing agenda goes in a conservative Howard-esque direction.

Which makes it very strange that many Liberal MPs and media commentators believe the federal Coalition should now move the opposite way.  In the post-Howard era, the argument goes, Liberals should become more "progressive" (read:  a bill of rights, soft border protection, lax drug laws, same-sex marriage).  But far from marking a return to the Treasury benches, such a strategy could guarantee a generation in the political wilderness for the Coalition.  That does not mean there is no room for adjustments and fine-tuning of policy.  It does mean recognising that the centre of political gravity is, and will in all likelihood remain, profoundly conservative.

Herein lies the challenge for the new Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull.  A social progressive who hails from a posh, inner-city Sydney electorate, the multi-millionaire former merchant banker needs to make sure that he is not outflanked from the right by a Labor prime minister.  This may be hard for a man who appears to have more in common with the sophisticates in his Wentworth seat than with the conservative heartland of Middle Australia.  Turnbull's "progressive" bona fides were most recently on display when he defended Bill Henson's "art" of photographing naked teenage girls.  Again, such views may reflect metropolitan fashion that dominates the universities and some media outlets, but they are not in touch with the feelings of the great mass of voters.

Socially conservative blue-collar workers formed John Howard's core electoral support.  It was these people to whom Kevin Rudd appealed as an economic conservative.  And it is these people to whom today's Liberals need to appeal in coming years.  As Peter Costello argues in his recent memoirs:  "The Liberal party should remember it is the guardian of the centre-right tradition in Australia."  He's right.  Turnbull and today's Liberals should remember that they will never defeat Labor by embracing the modern-day Pauline Kaels.


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