There has been a lot of analysis and blood-letting in the Liberal Party these last couple of weeks, Kevin Rudd having beaten down John Howard’s attempts to spook the electorate with dark images of life under Labor. Descriptions of the Howard Government’s last year in office and the Liberals’ recent election campaign are now generally characterised by a sense of drift and a loss of direction.
How times have changed. Was it so long ago that Labor was similarly described? The Labor Party is feeling pretty upbeat these days, but has one successful Saturday erased entirely the prevailing wisdom before the election that the ALP has no idea what it stands for and simply mimicked John Howard for the better part of the year?
As the Labor faithful watched Kevin Rudd’s victory speech across the country - on their TV sets, at town halls, RSLs and backyard barbeques - many related mixed emotions. They had waited so long for a Labor leader to regain the reins of the country, yet many of those who have been in the trenches with Beazley, Latham and now Rudd, no longer know what their party and their new leader stand for. The very success of the campaign slogan “New Leadership” lay in its indefinable quality. Ties to the labour movement have been all but severed, traditional left principles have been diluted to naught, and a self-declared economic and ostensible social conservative holds court.
Few doubt that Mr Rudd’s path to the Lodge was cleared by WorkChoices, a concerted ACTU campaign and a united union movement. But WorkChoices will not be there next time and union loyalty will undoubtedly fragment. The ALP has proved itself to be a disciplined and effective election winning machine, but it now needs to find the essential ingredient that unites it for the long term: a philosophy, a big idea that unifies its proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of disparate policies and quick fixes into a vision for Australian society.
In government, Mr Rudd and the party he represents has to identify the kind of nation and peoples we are to be, and he should begin by reconnecting with some of labour’s forgotten principles.
Tired of simply being an economically productive but directionless community, with a healthy GDP and year-on-year budget surplus, what the Australian people expressed, by removing the managers that delivered such prosperity, was a craving for something more. This is what the labour movement wants, what the True Believers expect, and what the voters of all stripes have asked for. Without a vision for our country, a point of distinction, Mr Rudd is no different from Mr Howard and it would matter little to the Australian electorate to reverse Labor’s fortunes at the next election.
The hope is that Mr Rudd has not been convinced by his pollsters to believe that a grand vision for our nation equals electoral defeat and that he has all but given up on attempting the big ideas. An opening exists for him to become a visionary, but to seize the moment he and his colleagues must think differently to the way they have in over a decade of opposition.
They need to stop focusing on their grab bag of small target proposals that seek not to offend the electorate. They need to look at the history of the Labor Party, built around the philosophical notion that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and to work for a greater good. This, historically, is the moral foundation of the Labor Party - not just principles of social justice, or workplace equality, or cultural diversity, or even economic prosperity and opportunity.
Labor governance is about asking citizens to balance self-interest with the common interest. It is the idea that for a community to thrive, its leaders must create and nurture a civic sphere in which its people are encouraged to contemplate what will sustain the values and way of life they hope for future generations and the sacrifices necessary to achieve common goals. This is where John Howard’s legacy will be eroded. For sure, by any measure, he achieved a great many practical initiatives, but he never proffered a unifying vision for the society that Australia could be, other than to be a prosperous one.
Kevin Rudd has shown himself to be an effective bureaucrat under the premiership of Wayne Goss and a competent diplomat under Bill Hayden and Gareth Evans. He has demonstrated that he knows how to actuate the machinery of government. The task before him today is no longer just to have others chart the course, but to inspire the nation with a vision of the society Australia can be.
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