There are many people who would identify as small “l” liberals (believing in both economic and social freedoms) who despaired at the last six or seven years of the Howard government and essentially felt they had no one for whom to vote. Appalled by the Howard government’s social conservatism, attacks on civil rights and plain dumb support for the Iraq war, they were nevertheless loathe to trust the still union dominated Labor Party with the economy, particularly given State Labor’s performance in several states.
Despite the continuing concerns over Labor’s union influence and general economic competence, this Rudd victory signals a huge win for those who believe in social tolerance and economic freedom.
The right won the economic war long ago, and Labor has not been a socialist party, or even a moderately left wing economic party, for more than a generation. It was of course Hawke and Keating who deregulated the financial markets, and Rudd who has committed to budget surpluses and adopted most of WorkChoices while maintaining the fiction of throwing it out.
If I had a dollar for every time Kevin Rudd called himself a fiscal conservative during 2007, I would be totally unconcerned about the possibility of interest rate rises in 2008. So while concerns over competence may remain, philosophically there is little to fear, as Kevin Rudd knows very well that any lurch to the left (even if he wanted to) would spell electoral doom.
With this election result, the left has won the social policy war after a brief resurgence by the right. The Howard government has copped a whopping at a time when unemployment is at record lows, real wages are at record highs, inflation and interest rates are low and the economy is still growing at 3-4 per cent. This is totally unprecedented, and while there is no doubt that WorkChoices, interest rates and climate change were all significant contributing factors, any sensible spectator must view the result as a repudiation of the social values of John Howard as being inappropriate for Australia circa 2007.
I would argue that Australia never adopted John Howard’s social values, despite his and the conservative commentariat’s chorus that they were speaking for the silent moral majority against the evil cultural elites. It is true that many people were uncomfortable with the political correctness that developed during the Hawke-Keating years, but this was a reflection of the fundamental tolerance of the Australian character.
Most Australians are happy to tell off colour jokes and stereotype minorities, but they don’t hate those people and they don’t feel threatened by them. On social issues, Australians are generally just as p***ed off about being told how to think by the right as they are by the left.
John Howard’s social values were never truly tested at an election until 2007. The 1998 election was all about the GST; the 2001 election was overshadowed by 9-11; and fear of Mark Latham rendered the Labor Party unelectable in 2004: 2007 was the first time that Australia was offered a safe and stable alternative in a safe and stable environment, and they took it in droves.
The conservative commentariat will claim that Rudd in fact won by pretending to be just as socially conservative as Howard. This is plainly rubbish. Not only did Rudd actively court the younger vote on FM radio, Rove and social websites, but how many times did you hear him call himself a social conservative during the campaign? Rudd’s agenda was to nullify the issue by not actively offending anyone whose vote he could possibly win, including those social conservatives who were angered by WorkChoices. Add to that the Rudd team featuring Gillard and Garrett as opposed to Abbott and Andrews and the gulf in attitudes was clear to anyone who wanted to look.
We have now entered the post-ideological phase of Australian politics. The significant majority of Australians sit in the liberal centre, with roughly 10 per cent still hankering for a command economy and thought police and 10 per cent appalled by the way Australia has fundamentally changed around them from a monocultural, socially stratified remnant of Empire to a multicultural (whether politicians want to use that word or not) market driven meritocracy.
The Liberals seem to have recognised in the wake of the defeat that they must move towards the centre on social issues if they are to have any chance of regaining government. The overriding issue of Federal politics will be administrative competence as policy differentiation becomes largely a matter of tactics. This of course gives a huge advantage to incumbency, but it also puts the spotlight on ministerial accountability, and may set up many a vicious battle between the technocrat PM with no factional base and the spoils-distributing factional warlords.
The game is not over for the Liberals, but they must show reserves of common sense, tactical nous, discipline and hard work in Opposition that their state counterparts have comprehensively failed to produce.
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