Raking the Ruins of the Rudd–Gillard Legacy

For one disquieting moment on Thursday, March 21, 2013, it appeared as if Julia Gillard’s colleagues might remove her from power. With the blade poised to fall, non-Labor voters around the nation muttered under their breath, “On with her head!” Conservatives and libertarians do not wish Gillard to miss her rendezvous with destiny, which is an unparalleled shellacking on election day, Saturday, September 14. There was, nevertheless, another reason to welcome Kevin Rudd’s no-show that Thursday afternoon—the man’s indisputable record as an election campaigner.

Gillard’s Labor parliamentary team decided ALP unity had been the winner on the day, the subsequent resignations of Simon Crean, Chris Bowen, Richard Marles, Ed Husic, Janelle Saffin and Martin Ferguson notwithstanding. Labor was now in a position to leave behind internal dissension and get on with what it does best, and that—of course—is good governance. The “undercurrent” of uncertainty, claimed Prime Minister Gillard, had been “brought to an end” and any future media speculation about her not enjoying the full confidence of caucus would be met with “gales of laughter”. With a Rudd challenge seen off once and for all (or twice and for all), the Gillard government could look forward to working as a cohesive unit over the next six months and making a good fist of winning in September.

Some media commentators even asserted that Simon Crean’s role in the debacle of March 21 was not a sign of desperation on the part of Labor, but a cleverly devised scheme to “flush out” Kevin Rudd in order to destroy him. But the Left are a fickle lot. If the Pretender had found himself back in the Lodge that evening, the same Labor apologists would have talked up the chances of a Kevin13 victory. To be fair, few in the media broadly sympathetic to Labor maintained the rage in the wake of Rudd’s 2010 dismissal, Phillip Adams and Daily Telegraph journalist Joe Hildebrand being two notable exceptions, and the latter’s Labor bona fides are disputed. Hildebrand’s enmity towards Gillard’s three-year-long incumbency is on the basis that her administration pursued exactly the same policies as Rudd’s—for instance, some kind of scheme to “fix” carbon dioxide emissions and a mining resources excise—except in a far more incompetent manner. Hildebrand, perhaps inadvertently, has nailed it on the head: in ideological terms, at least, the 2007–13 Rudd–Gillard era is very much a continuum.

Hildebrand sees the official alliance Labor formed with the Greens in the aftermath of the 2010 federal election as proof positive of Gillard’s political ineptitude. After all, the Greens’ Adam Bandt, MHR for the seat of Melbourne, was never going to support Tony Abbott’s prime ministerial ambitions. In February this year, after the Greens opportunistically terminated their partnership with federal Labor, Hildebrand could contain himself no longer. During one of his television “rants”, he derided the Greens as “lunatics”, “idiots”, “imbeciles”, and “undergraduates” who refuse to leave “the rest of us normal people alone”.

Hildebrand seems to believe that a radical faction personified by “Red” Julia has hijacked a traditional commonsense Australian Labor Party, one that was in tune with “normal people”. The facts would not appear to corroborate such a view. There is no recent history of Chifley-like characters battling it out with soft-handed, smooth-talking lawyers for the organisation’s political soul. That particular tussle occurred almost a half a century ago, during the early days of the Whitlam era, and the university-educated, lower-middle-class progressives won.

A few Catholic traditionalists and blue-collar stalwarts remain in the fold, but the hybrid or conflicted nature of the ALP leadership has little to do with them, let alone the non-existent ideological differences between the Party’s Left, Right and Centre-Left factions. Instead, Labor’s disunity has everything to do with how the organisation should sell its radical (that is, progressive) agenda to a not-so-radical public. Rudd is as soft-handed and university-educated and progressive as Gillard, but he was always a superior salesperson.

Rudd and Gillard can take equal credit for the rescinding of the Coalition’s border protection policy, the Building the Education Revolution program, Wayne Swan’s neo-Keynesianism, and the roll-out of the National Broadband Network (NBN). The crucial difference between the twenty-sixth and the twenty-seventh prime ministers is that in public, at least, Rudd exudes a winning brand of gormless charm, which Gillard has been unable to match. Kevin Rudd’s colleagues deemed the man insufferable, while Julia Gillard (more often than not) receives praise from those who deal with her in person. For our purposes, at any rate, this is mostly beside the point. As the ship of state speeds towards the icebergs, it matters little to the passengers if the new captain happens to be more personable than her predecessor. 

At the December, 2007, UN Bali Conference on Climate Change, when the new Labor government formally ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, Prime Minister Rudd promised to implement a comprehensive emissions trading scheme by 2010, a reform that would slash anthropogenic carbon dioxide rates within ten years. Rudd, giddy with pride and self-importance, scorned the United States of America for remaining “outside the Kyoto framework”. America needed to follow Australia’s lead and solve “the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation”.

Kevin07 was not to know that in 2008 Barack Obama would slow the rise of the oceans and heal our planet by means of awe-inspiring oratory alone. The subsequent refusal of the global atmospheric temperature to match alarmist IPCC predictions must be evidence of Obama’s powers. Certainly his administration never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which in any case quietly lapsed earlier this year without fuss or fanfare.

Prime Minister Gillard, as Hildebrand suggests, could have played the Greens card more deftly during the term of this parliament (2010–13), but nobody can deny what happened in October 2011 when the House of Representatives passed a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. The Labor Party stood united behind its federal parliamentary leader. Photographs of that happy occasion, including a magnanimous Kevin Rudd hugging a jubilant Julia Gillard, tell us what we need to know about modern-day Labor. Where was the sensible or traditional wing of the Party when the ALP members of the Lower House all cheered with delight and sneered at the Opposition benches?

The Rudd government’s determination to “fix” carbon dioxide emissions benefited in his first year from a general consensus amongst the media and the public that the science of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) was “settled” and that something drastic had to be done to avert this unfolding crisis. When Senator Penny Wong, the Minister for Climate Change (2007–10), made the link between Australia’s long-standing drought and the effects of anthropogenic global warming, people tended to assume she was on to something; the same for Peter Garrett, Environment Minister (2007–10). The breaking of the drought shook a lot of people’s confidence in CAGW orthodoxy, even if that did not ipso facto disprove the underlying postulations of the believers. Since then there has been a lot of water under the bridge, not to mention snow in the Australian Alps, and little sense that Rudd, Wong or Garrett ever had the capacity to politely and authoritatively rebut the rising number of sceptics in this country.

The problem for the ALP is not so much that Rudd et al got it wrong about CAGW—that is another debate—but a growing impression that they never understood the subject in the first place. All excellent scholars in their respective fields, intellectuals the lot, and yet every request for them to refute contrarian positions on CAGW was met with nothing more sophisticated than “gales of laughter”. Today Labor leaders react with icy silence or false piety to any inquiry about the real, measurable effect their intrusive tax will have on the global atmospheric temperature.

Mark Latham, former parliamentary leader of the federal ALP (2003–05), gives the game away in Not Dead Yet (Quarterly Essay 49), his paean to the ALP. It is social democracy, asserts Latham, which will save the world, just as it was social democracy that saved the world from the Great Depression. Only in the hands of the Party, brothers and sisters, is our future safe. In her memoirs, I wager, Julia Gillard will characterise the betrayal of her 2010 campaign election pledge not to introduce a carbon dioxide tax as an act of courage. Progressives are always answerable to a higher authority than the truth. 

Everything the ALP does can only be for the best. Education is a good thing—who could deny that?—and so it followed that spending billions of dollars on Rudd–Gillard’s Building the Education Revolution could only be a boon to our young people. Now, in the lead-up to the September 14 election, we have the Gonski Report and the promise of even more billions of taxpayers’ dollars to improve education, and only the privileged and the heartless (the terms are almost interchangeable) could complain about that.

One slight problem with this narrative is a growing alarm that, as with the carbon dioxide tax, neither Prime Minister Gillard nor Education Minister Garrett has any proof or evidence to justify their costly decisions. Research, including the notion of Typical Intellectual Engagement, suggests that students make the greatest progress in their learning when a talented teacher initiates a particular student–subject–teacher dynamic in the classroom, one that influences educational outcome more than gender, region, class or culture.

The Labor government, in other words, should have been spending those billions of dollars on attracting and developing brilliant teachers rather than building absurdly expensive school halls or indiscriminately throwing laptops at everyone. On the eve of the April 19 COAG meeting to discuss the implementation of the Gonski Report, Education Minister Garrett was, when quizzed by a reporter, unable to specify where all these new billions of dollars were headed. He did, nevertheless, appear supremely confident that all was in hand.

The Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese, also in April this year, launched the feasibility study for a high-speed rail service (HSR) connecting Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, at a forty-five-minute press conference. It was meant as proof, I assume, that worsening economic conditions have not robbed the Gillard government of its “vision thing”. The price tag for this fifty-year project is $114 billion or, as John McLean has noted, $1.71 trillion in 2064 dollars. Albanese’s enthusiasm reminded me of Thomas Sowell’s blistering critique of Spain’s HSR system. Sowell agreed that the new rail network could hardly be faulted for its state-of-the-art quality. On the other hand, it continues to make no money from its daily operations, while the $40 billion construction costs remain unpaid and, along with the ever-growing interest on the bill, will remain so indefinitely.

Sowell’s contention is that those of a progressive mindset, be they politicians, party apparatchiks, academics or public servants, too often arrive at their “vision thing” with no recourse to what others might call “reality”. Their colourful imaginings are not reality-based because they are disinclined to factor in the actuality of the marketplace or rational boundaries for government spending. There is a utopianism or delusional aspect about their casual insistence that trade-offs do not accompany every innovation in government spending. At Albanese’s press conference, the AAP journalist Lisa Martin made the following query to Julia Gillard’s far-sighted Minister for Transport: “Mr Albanese, by 2050, is it more likely Australia will have high-speed rail or flying cars?” Martin asked the kind of question our normally acquiescent journalists should have been putting to the Labor ministers when they first proposed their National Broadband Network (NBN). 

Kevin Rudd, a proponent of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s “Third Way”, is a policy wonk or, if you prefer, an ideas man. Fuel Watch, Groceries Watch, Cash Splash, Building the Education Revolution, the Insulation Scheme, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), a Bill of Rights, the Resource Super Profits Tax—ideas occur to Rudd the way pop melodies came to Lennon and McCartney in the halcyon days of the Beatles. Our man Kevin loves ideas so much that in 2008 he instigated the Australia 2020 Summit in Canberra so that a specially selected contingent of lefties could produce even more ideas. I am tempted to think that, apart from the CPRS, his favourite idea was the NBN.

What first inspired him to come up with this plan? Nobody knows for sure, but a widespread view is that no more than a day elapsed between his first reading about the idea and his recommendation for it to become policy. Any reader of the current Wikipedia entry on the NBN will be comforted by the knowledge that the government’s original costing for the rollout of $43 billion has been reduced to $37.4 billion, and that everything will be in place by 2021 as planned. Moreover, the government will receive 7.1 per cent back on its investment after that date and by 2034 the network will be a money-spinner for the government. The ALP has delivered on all of its other promises, and so it is only right and proper we regard the Opposition’s claim of a blow-out to the tune of $71 billion as scuttlebutt. Albanese dismissed Lisa Martin’s crack about flying cars as disrespectful, and refused to give her an answer. Propriety requires we reject as “disrespectful” the latest independent cost evaluation of the NBN of a cool $90 billion.

The Rudd–Gillard continuum has, during the past six years, engaged in one flight of fancy after another, including the delusion that the $42 billion fiscal stimulus package (2008–09) saved Australia from economic ruin at the time of the global financial crisis. It was immaterial that at the time mining exports to China grew to an unprecedented percentage of the GDP. Only social democrats, opined Rudd in his 2009 essay for the Monthly, can save capitalism from itself. John Howard’s “neoliberalism” and “free market fundamentalism” had been a recipe for disaster. Labor in power has consistently spent billions of dollars more than its stream of revenue warranted and has amassed onerous debts that our children will be paying off. After five Labor deficits in a row, Prime Minister Gillard promised that from 2013 onwards there would be no more deficits under any government she led. But then Senator Wong, former Minister for Climate Change and now Minister for Finance, blithely informed us that her department had over-estimated revenue by $20 billion.

This is the same crew that has been planning to foist the $15 billion a year National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) on our nation without first devising a scheme to fund it. Gillard, in December 2012, made this assurance to the Australian people: “I have in the past ruled out a levy and I will do it again now.” How then to pay for it? Senator Wong, in March 2013, admitted that although the government still had no long-term strategy to fund NDIS, her Finance Department had come up with a spare billion dollars “for a launch”. The government, by early May, had begun talking about the need for a—sigh—levy to fund NDIS. Not to worry—it would be a levy on “the rich”. 

Whilst in Opposition, Labor’s best two parliamentary performers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, pounded away at the inhumanity of John Howard’s mandatory detention system, not to mention his Pacific Solution. The Rudd–Gillard team promised that once in power they would get “the balance right” between the requirements of border security and a commitment to human rights. We now have reason to believe, given the influx of boat people to this country, that neither Rudd nor Gillard knew what they were talking about. As the number of arrivals began to mount, Labor’s spruikers spoke of “push factors” being the problem, and then it was Abbott’s fault for not supporting another failed Labor initiative to stem the tide.

Over a thousand people have now drowned on the high seas because Howard’s policy was foolishly abandoned. Reminded of this, leftists invariably adopt a look of muted rage. They can do nothing—if they will not face the truth—other than seek solace in the high-mindedness of their ideology, even if it is that very high-mindedness which brought about the deaths in the first place. The ALP, along with its trendy twin, the Greens, is always on the side of the angels, and there is an end to the matter.

In October 2012 Prime Minister Gillard made her infamous misogynist jibe against the Leader of the Opposition: “If [Tony Abbott] wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror. That’s what he needs.” Abbott, just before this assault, was questioning the aptness of the Gillard government maintaining Peter Slipper—his appalling text messages about female sexual organs having just come to light—in the post of Speaker of the House. Ignoring the ironic context of the attack on Abbott, purveyors of political correctness jumped to the Prime Minister’s defence, while Gillard herself boasted of receiving global support for demonising a community-minded family man of genuine integrity whose only crime was holding a different political perspective from her own.

Our Prime Minister’s “misogynist” slur shows that she is not so much “feisty” as an ideologue, prepared to exploit a PC canard in order to vilify an opponent. Polling over the ensuing six months indicated a decline in the support for Gillard amongst not only men but also women. Perhaps Australians have become weary of ad hominem attacks dressed up in the guise of PC soft totalitarianism. If only ALP apologists could begin to constrain themselves. Mark Latham, sounding no less unhinged than Gillard, writes about “far-right denialists” in his Quarterly Essay: “The Abbott right is like a rat-snake, eating itself from the tail up.”

The ALP’s attempt to delegitimise Tony Abbott, who is the Leader of the Opposition in a democratically elected parliament, has a Pravda-like quality. After all, if you are a “misogynist” and “denier”, supported by the “hate media” and intent on “environmental genocide”, are you not, to borrow from the political lexicon of the Bolsheviks, a “former person”? Labor is the same party, we need to remember, that in 2012 was touting its Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill—legislation that would have made it against the law to state a political view someone else found insulting. Yes, the same party that in March 2013 pushed for new laws to limit the freedom of the press in Australia, which included the establishment of a government-appointed Public Interest Media Advocate to ensure “fairness in reporting”. 

There might be, if we are fortunate, an unexpected legacy to the overreach of the Rudd–Gillard administrations. The Howard government (1996–2007), in the early years at least, saw its primary task as winding back the $96 billion national debt bequeathed to the nation by the Keating government (1991–96). A newly elected Abbott government, like its Tory counterpart in the United Kingdom, will have to work overtime in order to walk our economy back from the financial abyss, and yet we have reason to hope that Tony Abbott will do more than tighten the purse strings and balance the budget à la David Cameron. The rise and rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) should be proof enough to Abbott—if proof were required—that most Australians want something more than a business-as-usual approach from the Liberal Party and its National Party ally.     

The ALP’s ambition has not been to nationalise the large swathes of the economy in the tradition of old-style Fabianism, but something more ambitious and invasive. Australia, from the point of view of a Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard, is a fallen bourgeois world, populated—for the most part—by the greedy and petty-minded on the one hand, and society’s victims on the other. The ALP seeks to socialise the lot of us. We can call their ideology “leftism” or “progressivism” or American-style liberalism, but a more accurate title for modern-day Labor would be the Party of Political Correctness. 

The political genius of Kevin Rudd was that he convinced the Australian public in 2007 that the difference between the Coalition and the ALP was a matter of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. He chastised John Howard for being a big spender—“This sort of reckless spending must stop!”—and proclaimed his affinity for the day-to-day working lives of men and women and the families they support. He was John Howard Lite, but with a little more compassion in his heart. This was the man, as Andrew Bolt once wrote, who would hold press conferences outside his church to impress conservatives, but visit a strip club to impress his editor. Julia Gillard does not even begin to have the acumen of Kevin Rudd, and for this conservatives and libertarians should be deeply grateful.  

Almost certainly there will be another Kevin Rudd in the years ahead. Once the Coalition has balanced the books, in six or nine years’ time, he or she will be ready to convince responsible and moderate Australians that the ALP should be given another chance. Tony Abbott’s goal must be to put daylight between the Coalition and the Party of Political Correctness as quickly and dramatically as possible. Abbott made a good start last year when he undertook to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, no easy thing to promise when progressives control our social institutions.

The PC brigade are going to hate Tony Abbott whatever he does, and so he might as well make a difference before the next Kevin Rudd appears on the scene. Why retain the ABC and SBS in their current form? Unless they are stripped of all their partisanship—which is to say, made genuinely independent—all they will do is quietly and insidiously prepare the ground for the return of the ALP. Recently Abbott criticised the Islamists’ segregation of an audience at the publicly funded Melbourne University as a “leap back to the dark ages”. What did the person who called Abbott a misogynist, and who proclaimed on the world stage, “Sexism should always be unacceptable”, have to say? Trapped in the contradictions of her grandiloquent ideology, our “feisty” prime minister remained silent.    

There is only one possible consolation for the Rudd–Gillard excesses. Instead of buckling under the forces of political correctness, which currently control (and debase) most of our cultural and educational institutions, maybe the politicians we are about to elect into power will exceed our usual low expectations. Perhaps we shall one day speak of Tony Abbott’s team as the Party of Freedom. 

Daryl McCann, a regular contributor, also has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au.


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