Kevin Rudd’s ascension to the ALP leadership has ensured a much more interesting political contest over the next 12 months. If Mark Latham’s approach was described as “crash or crash through”, Rudd’s might well be “bulldoze or blow up”.
Rudd is the most philosophical leader of a major party in living memory. His recent essay on Bonhöffer in The Monthly and speech (PDF 487KB) on political philosophy to the Centre for Independent Studies show a man interested in deep thinking and testing the ideological foundation for modern political arguments.
In the essay but especially in the speech, Rudd takes aim at the amorality of the ideological heavyweight of neoliberal economics and teacher to Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek. Rudd exposes Hayek as a man completely uninterested in either morality or human dignity, for whom people are nothing other than commodities at the service of an all-powerful market.
The fact that Rudd chose the Centre for Independent Studies, where Hayek is a demi-God, to give this speech demonstrates Rudd’s mix of confidence and arrogance and points to his willingness and ability to take on Howard on the ideological front.
Rudd points to Howard’s central contradiction - his industrial relations policy is pure Hayek, but his lavish middle-class welfare to nuclear families is classic social conservatism. The problem, says Rudd, is that the market is eating away at family life through extended and irregular working hours, and a loss of job security. Howard’s ideological marriage is becoming strained.
Ironically, this is something that Steven Fielding articulated in his maiden speech to Parliament. Fielding went on to oppose WorkChoices as anti-family, as did every mainstream church in the country.
If Rudd can successfully articulate this contradiction to the whole electorate, and not just people who read The Monthly, he will gain a lot of traction in unlikely places. But he will need to steer clear of dumbing it down too far and succumbing to clichés (“ease the squeeze”, anyone?).
He will also need to hone his alternative vision of a pro-market system with soft edges, which can also be seen as a contradiction but has a strong empirical base (for example, investment in education leads to greater labour productivity, which drives future growth).
Most importantly, if he gets this message right, he will provide Labor with a clear alternative narrative about modern politics for the first time since the Whitlam era. This is critical - think of how often people have complained that they just wished Labor stood for something.
It is a high-risk strategy though: Rudd will be taking on Howard in exactly the area considered by many analysts to be his greatest strength. Howard will certainly be uncomfortable at being attacked in the open so brazenly, and much will depend on his ability to respond in ways which resonate with the electorate.
On another front, Rudd’s focus on reforming federalism could be a disaster, but it could also be a big winner. It’s big and bold and will appeal to readers of the Daily Telegraph who are sick of all the buck-passing. While talking up the gains in efficiency, he cannot possibly be expected to provide exact details before being elected, and thus cannot be attacked on the micro level (remember the chickens and the GST?), or for not having anything finalised to present.
Of course it all falls down if Labor loses the NSW election or if any of the other premiers have it in for him. And if he does win, reform of this kind will be a nightmare to actually implement. But everyone knows it’s a real problem we have to face eventually, and Rudd can point to his background in major reform of the Queensland public service (for which he earned the nickname “Dr Death”) as credentials for the job.
Rudd might not look like as much of a risk as Mark “Biff” Latham. He does not have an angry ex-wife or a history of violence. But like Latham and unlike Beazley, Rudd will offer a very clear positive choice for the electorate.
Whereas Latham tried to go around Howard’s economic ideology by talking about family issues like reading to young children, Rudd is taking on Howard on his own turf. It is a dangerous game, and if Howard defends well, Rudd will be exposed and friendless. If he succeeds, Howard will look like an ideological extremist and will be rolled easily.