Labor’s End: Out With The Old, In With The Renewed

Let’s say Rudd returns to the prime ministership – which seems possible – and then goes on to win the next election – a big ask, but not entirely far-fetched.

What would a reconstituted and re-elected Rudd Labor government look like?

Once the horserace is over there will need to be a government, and it will need to have some policies. Better: an agenda. Even better: values.

Labor won’t be able to run on its record. Leadership changes have a funny way of repudiating all that came before.

Yet this government seems to be coming to a natural end. All the big ticket items over the past few years have been implemented (in some fashion) or abandoned.

It’s instructive to revisit Rudd’s 2007 policy speech, delivered 10 days before the election. This was the last time Labor was thinking coherently about the story it wanted to tell; the agenda it wanted to describe and the values it wanted to project.

That speech pivoted on three things. Rudd was going to repeal WorkChoices. This was done quite quickly. Labor’s campaign managers would love Tony Abbott to dash head first back into the workplace relations quicksand, but that’s not going to happen.

Rudd was going to govern the economy as an “economic conservative”, and would end John Howard’s reckless spending. This went out the window when the Global Financial Crisis hit.
Then he was going to tackle the skills shortage through education reform.

Remember the skills shortage? 2007 was so long ago. Still, an education package is being bedded down. The Gillard Government in its usual hapless way has neutered any political benefit it might get from the issue. Rather than explaining and defending their education policy, the Government seems to assume everybody knows what “a Gonski” is and why we ought to give one.

Other flagship policies of the 2007 election are old news. The carbon tax is up and running. We’ve heard enough about that to last a lifetime. The National Broadband Network is plodding along. It’s way behind schedule, of course, but who’s counting? Now that the Coalition has its own costly broadband scheme, the edge has gone off that debate.

Finally, one of Rudd’s great themes of 2007 was Australia would be a country that “makes things”. Given that he specifically meant those “things” to be “cars”, that theme is unlikely to be revisited.

So what now? It’s an item of faith among Labor partisans that Tony Abbott hasn’t released any policies. But in truth we know much more about the Coalition’s plans for the next term than Labor’s.

Last year I argued it’s more important to hear what Tony Abbott would do on his second day than what he plans to do on his first. A shopping list of policies does not make an agenda.
If Rudd returns to the leadership, this is exactly the challenge he will face too.

Dennis Glover argued in a very good essay published by the Chifley Research Centre last month that Labor has gotten its policy-making process backwards.

Rather than starting with philosophy and deriving policy detail from that philosophy, Glover says Labor has been devising policies on technocratic and managerial grounds, and then using philosophy to provide their post-hoc justification.

There’s a lot to this. Too many politicians think of political philosophy – or its marketing friendly cousin, “values” – as mere adornments on their otherwise technocratic agenda.

Kevin Rudd was a notable offender. Rudd lurched from being an economic conservative in November 2007 to the scourge of neo-liberalism in February 2009.

How could the Labor Party harbour both philosophies under the same roof, let alone in the same Prime Minister? Of course he never really believed either one. Rudd was an ideological chameleon – a technocrat who professed different philosophies as expediency demanded.

First, Rudd wanted to talk about interest rates and inflation and Howard-era fiscal recklessness, so he said he was a conservative. Then he wanted to spend money to avoid a recession, so he said he was a Keynesian warrior.

He only increased the confusion when, having slayed the dragon of neoliberalism, he passionately advocated a “market mechanism” to resolve climate change.

This chameleon approach left him weak when things stopped going his way, after the collapse of the Copenhagen climate change talks. After all, what did Kevin Rudd stand for without his overly energetic policy announcements and his air of invincibility?

Rudd’s supporters say he’s learned a lot about management style and handling his colleagues in his years in the wilderness.

That’s lovely. But at the next election, we’re not voting for who works best with others. We’re voting for a government. Once all the leadership argy-bargy is over, we’ll need to know what a second Rudd government might be like.