There are always high expectations placed on any new centre-left political leader. After all, the tendency of centre-left political parties to be populist through a greater willingness to be all things to all people, at least when compared to their centre-right opponents, creates a perception at times that they can best solve new and old problems.
Just as many Americans look to Obama to resolve complex issues confronting the US in 2008, so it was that many Australians looked to Rudd at the 2007 federal election after almost 12 years of Coalition government.
Of course, leading the support for Rudd on behalf of the Left were Professors Manne and Brett in The Monthly, although Rudd could not fool a more astute Phillip Adams as he correctly suggested that Rudd had merely out manoeuvred Howard as a “doctor of spin” (The Australian, August 20, 2007).
As Rudd and his front bench announce more policy proposals alien to the Labor tradition one wonders why any astute commentator could have ever fallen for Rudd’s rhetoric. This is in reference to policy suggestions such as punishing parents on welfare who do not send their children to school; or tying education funding to the performance of each school with underperforming schools running the risk of closure or merging as parents vote with their feet.
Rudd’s biggest failure, however, is not his lack of real policy solutions rather, Rudd disappoints on the basis of displaying a level of intellectual dishonesty greater that any Labor or Coalition leader of recent years.
It is not hard to see why Rudd had great appeal to many of the Left with two feature essays in The Monthly (October and November 2006). Any talk of: “a proper balance between the rights of capital and labour”, a necessary debate “between neo-liberals and progressives, concerning whether the balance of our national values lies with the individual or with the community”, and a quest to uphold “social-democratic values” as “a check on rampant individualism”, was always going to send those merely interested in the possibility into an excited frenzy.
While Rudd wrote in The Monthly about his 20th century hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian, pastor and peace activist who defended a minority (the Jewish population), and was executed by the SS for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler, he hardly shares Bonhoeffer’s capacity to speak and defend the truth.
In fact, all Rudd did in his two essays in The Monthly was to discuss the appropriate level of government intervention on many issues, while downplaying the difficult task faced by Western governments today.
Rudd described Howard as “a clever politician who often succeeds in masking the essential self-interest of his political project with a veneer of ‘duty to the nation’”, as suggested by the Coalition’s promotion of AWAs (Australian Workplace Agreements). However, it is Rudd who has been dishonest as Labor has benefited from the Coalition doing much of the dirty work in recent years in response to an increasingly competitive international economy.
So let us examine the reality of Labor’s policy response thus far as measured against Rudd’s rhetoric in 2006.
Does Labor really want to save the trade union movement, or is it happy for that key interest group to experience further decline?
While the trade union movement’s expensive advertising campaign helped Labor win the 2007 federal election, Labor in 2008 has publicly urged trade unions not to push for wage increases above inflation rates. Labor has also allowed unfair dismissal provisions to remain for small businesses with up to 15 employees; has said it will maintain the Australian Building and Construction Commission (established to oppose trade union militancy) until 2010; and legitimised any AWA with a lifespan up to five years as long as it was negotiated before Labor’s anti-AWA legislation was passed in 2008.
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