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Glorious Progress of Dragon Emperor Kevin In Storming Heaven!: Guy Rundle

Kevin Rudd had a transformative vision of how Australians should live. So why did Labor fail so badly?

Week three of the federal election, and during an interminable tour of a medical research facility in Queensland, I took a look at Kevin Rudd, clad in white coat, among hundreds of other white coats amid an enormous hitech lab, glass and glass and steel. He was leaning over a petri dish being told how this lab might one day be able to grow a kidney, and I wondered what he was thinking. Would it be possible to seed it himself and grow whole new Kevins? An entire new party? The stop was meant to be a brief walkaround and then a press conference, before getting to somewhere with a few more swinging voters. But it had gone on for an hour, and there was no sign it would finish soon. Energetic when the cameras were on him, when they moved to the next stand-up shot, Rudd relaxed into himself, heavy, tired. The election was lost, had been lost in the first week—if it ever could have been won, or fought to a draw—when Labor’s campaign was revealed to be directionless and content-free. Since then Tony Abbott hadn’t put a foot wrong and hadn’t let Labor in. Now it was just a question of saving some seats, and another two weeks of pretending they were still in the game. It’s more than most of us could manage and there were signs here that Rudd himself might not be able to hold it together. He was lingering too long, not in some leagues club—as Hawkie might have done—or a community centre—as Gillard might have done—but in this gleaming embassy of the future. Science applied not merely to human suffering, but to the whole manner of being human. Not a private lab, copyrighting DNA, but a public facility running on grants. It was a scene from a utopia that was not merely socialist, but communist—free life activity, radical liberation. No wonder he wanted to linger a while and skip another fucking sausage sizzle at some outer suburban school, the sort of place where Tony Abbott would strip to the waist, tongue kiss the headmistress, run the assault course, and win the marginal seat.

And that was the election that was. Kevin Rudd had stormed back into the premiership after the entire party apparatus had all but collapsed before him, and in two ‘master’ strokes—‘abolishing’ the carbon tax and the PNG solution—put Labor back in the game. And then … that was it. There were no more shots in the locker, and for the first week of the campaign his entourage wandered the deserts, making up policy and ‘announceables’—funding grants etc. etc.—along the way. Desperately unwilling to campaign on the substantial policy record of the Gillard government, his campaign had a missing middle. Gillard herself disappeared. Or disappeared herself, to give Rudd a free rein. Would no one have a good word for the last three years of Australian government?

Well, yes, one. Tony Abbott, as it turned out, who was so determined not to fail that he was willing to sign up to a raft of Gillard’s program—not merely the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but much of the Gonski education reforms, Fairwork as opposed to Workchoices, a version of the NBN they were hitherto going to dump entirely, demand-driven university funding levels, and existing spending levels on a range of programs. It was a full concession to the current social democratic/social market program in place. In essence Abbott was making a compact with the Australian people—or with the 20 per cent or so pool of swinging voters—that if elected as a response to Labor’s instability he would continue to steward their internal pro – grams. In their stead he would provide stable leadership—and would also reverse their ‘external’ programs, on refugee boat arrivals and the carbon tax (an external, in that its main purpose is as a ‘symbolic’ contribution to building a collective response to a global program). Simultaneously, if contra -dictorily, he would deal with the rising federal deficit and public debt. The promises Abbott made didn’t add up, but neither did the demands, so there was a perfect fit.

The fact that Abbott made such a strategic decision was unquestionably a political victory for the Left. That Abbott and the Coalition would try and wriggle out if it seemed quite possible, but that is not the point. Contrary to mythical ancestor figures such as Thatcher, Reagan, Churchill and even milksop contemporaries such as David Cameron, he had not sought a mandate for austerity, nor for an understanding of the relationship between state and society contrary to the secular social democratic one that Labor had imposed. Any attempt to reverse that in power would have to be done without legitimacy. The effect of Abbott’s decision was to drag the whole Australian political spectrum leftwards—even as Australian government was travelling rightwards.

Though Abbott’s co-option of Gillard’s program was noted some way into the campaign, the crucial political shift was not. The mainstream press—that section who had ever read a book—had settled on the argument that Abbott was a cuckoo in the nest, someone from the Catholic Right tradition who had grafted himself into the Liberal Party, and was far more oriented to statist action than the neoliberals he was ostensibly leading. Sections of the Left saw, and still see, a neoconservative culture warrior, even a Cold War warrior, still on the game, ready to unleash the hounds of hell, despite the fact that Abbott, leaving nothing to chance, had renounced further action against such hot button topics as RU486 and Indigenous recognition in the Constitution (to which he agreed). Such concessions left little evidence for Abbott’s old self, forcing people to rely on his galumphing exuberance about the sex appeal of some of his female candidates. Indeed, to a degree, people looking for the old Abbott were following exactly the personal, even physical image he had worked on projecting—the iron-bodied man of action, up against the flabby pseudo-visionary leading a rabble government.

But it was the other delusion about Abbott that was more interesting—the idea that his Catholic Right politics were consonant with Labor’s secular social democratic program. This was wrong by oversimplification. The Catholic Right tradition posited a ‘gap-filling’ type of program, the ‘social market’ as developed by the German Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, as part of the ‘grand compromise’. It prized subsidiarity and local community-based solutions integrated with traditional authority, rather than all encompassing state programs. Abbott’s willingness to accede to such large programs, to grant their legitimacy, was a measure of his willingness to surrender many of the cultural principles that underpinned his politics. Bob Santamaria’s last disciple had completed a long trek to power—including an ultra-close 2010 bid which had deeply demoralised him—only to give away every scrap of a mandate on the things that had got him into politics as a firebreathing Catholic student forty years ago.

Australian politics having thus narrowed down to a substantially shared program, the campaign became for many people unendurable. On the one side the Coalition argued an impossibly contradictory position, using the old Micawber notion that a national budget is like a family budget and nothing could be worse than a deficit. Yet on the other side, Labor would not make the argument essential to its program—that deficits were essential to future development, that they were an investment. Under Rudd, Labor contorted itself, trying to deny ownership of the deficit and much of its past program, while at the same time warning peoplethat the Coalition would destroy the very program it didn’t want to talk about! Having ceded virtually the entire political spectrum of the present to Abbott, Labor would not or could not spruik the notion of a transformed future that was implicit in their policies over the last six years.

This was an extraordinary decision on the face of it, because the Rudd–Gillard years saw the advancement of a dual-level program that had been organised around the idea of a journey to a different future, a resumption of the nation-building that had been downplayed in the Howard–Costello years. Rudd, launched the NBN, the Building Education Revolution, and the bizarre 20/20 conference, but by two, three years in, the haphazard implementation of much of this program, together with the political killing of the mining tax designed to pay for it, had made Rudd’s position untenable in regard to a group of (sub-)factional leaders he had ticked off. The Gillard government modified Labor’s reforms on education (to a classroom-based improvement, rather than Rudd’s building program), continued the NBN, added the NDIS, and imposed a carbon price/tax. This essentially filled out much of Rudd’s projective plans with a more modest and present program to make life better for people (including future generations). Had there been greater application and push-through with the NBN, had it by now been rolled out to two million homes, then the lineaments of a complete program might have been more visible. Whether Labor could or would have spoken to it is unknowable.

Throughout the Gillard years and into the Rudd return, Labor appeared paralysed and lacking the will to project the vision of a new Australia—the vision it had already begun to put in place—and allowed itself to be constructed by its opposition and a perniciously antagonistic Murdoch empire. Drained by internecine factional wars, guilt and its own peculiar narcissistic self-absorption, it could not hit back. Such paralysis was in part because so much of the vision had come from outside of the modern ALP, that is it had come from Kevin Rudd. Trained as a sinologist at the elite ANU, with a diplomatic career taking him to social democratic Sweden and then China, Rudd had a breadth of vision and imagination lacking in the contemporary ALP, now composed of political professionals who had spent little time out of Australia for fear of losing networked power. Rudd’s life journey, and his relation to the party, perhaps matched Whitlam’s, the one-time perpetual student turned bomber navigator in Second World War. In neither case was it all their own work, but they brought a breadth to the process that it would not otherwise have had. Yet it had other, less fortunate continuities with Whitlamism—an inability to communicate its vision derived from a certain elitism, of which the 20/20 convention was a supreme expression.

Examples abound of this failure of projection—the Building Education Revolution putting too much money into bricks and mortar, some of them superfluous, or emphasising the lack of teaching resources and the use of the opaque term ‘Gonski’ to sell an improvement once the issue was addressed. Above all there was the failure to explain what the NBN was, and what it meant. What Rudd and others had intended was an early and decisive intervention in the provision of the information flows that would transform not merely the economy, but materiality in the twenty-first century. The NBN with its escalating speeds, beyond most current requirements was designed to make action-at-a-distance the rule rather than the exception. Surgery in remote areas, supervised and performed by surgeons a thousand kilometres away would save lives; standardised real time flawless teleconferencing would change business travel; cities could be respatialised as any amount of information could flow instantaneously, and so on. This was the vision at the heart of Ruddism—one that harked back in its way not merely to Harold Wilson’s praise for the ‘white heat of technology’ that would create socialism, but to Lenin’s obsession with electrification as the progenitor of full

communism. ‘Communism is soviet power plus electrification’, expressed the same faith in the most abstract, dematerialised and quasi-magical technology of the day, as did Rudd’s fascination with the NBN. Though the political traditions are utterly different in all sorts of ways, the common element, lost to most of the ALP, was a sustained connection with the transformative and materially liberatory urge at the heart of the Left, and predating its split into explicitly reformist and revolutionary factions. It seemed to me that Rudd, the old sinologist, had been touched with the spirit of Mao, in both his brute sense of transforming given reality—and also in his determination to ‘go to the mountains [of the backbenches] and start a war against the Party, by mobilising the people’.

Yet, because such imaginings were so marooned from ALP standard practice he could never speak to its specificities, never spread the wonder, never take people with him. What was the result? Since most people used broadband to download games and movies for their kids, and occasionally themselves, and check their bank statements on the internet, they couldn’t see what the fuss was about, or what it was for. Labor’s technocratic excitement at the transformative power of the NBN stirred in many people the deep unquiet that John Howard had tapped into in 1996 when he had offered an Australia in which people would feel more ‘comfortable and relaxed’. Rudd lacked the ability to overcome that disquiet, and Julia Gillard was, by temperament, closer to the Howard vision of life than to the Rudd one.

Furthermore, the ALP was by now presenting itself to a broad working middle class which had been extensively recomposed over two decades. The Hawke–Keating governments had inherited a more composed class—and they had used that political capital to set in train the superannuation revolution, and a massive shift in house price value. The effect was not only to change many people’s self-understanding from members of collective groupings to that of self-managing individuals—it was to change their real material interests and bind them up with the health of global markets. This was scarcely unplanned—Keating’s introduction of such instruments (together with his encouragement of Murdoch’s takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times newspapers) was designed to shift Australian society rightwards, and decisively isolate the ALP Left. The party would then have to move Right to win support. But Keating’s thinking was more bound by the old collective, industrial world from which he had come than he knew. Perhaps he could not imagine the sheer degree of atomisation society would be subject to, or how recrudescently reactionary the Murdoch press would become. The end result is a broad working middle class, separated from the poor/benefits class at one end, and the traditional bourgeoisie/upper professional strata at the other, who read the national accounts the way they read their super statements. This massive shift in Australian society has been underestimated and misunderstood by both Left and Centre-Left in Australia who share, whatever their differences, a static and ultimately romantic idea of class.

That was the public that Labor needed to win over, having lost it over the last three years of government. Having landed themselves with a deficit and debt—one entirely reasonable in terms of investment—they could not conform to the essentially conservative idea of government (in fiscal terms, at least) to which many Australians were now accustomed. Talking to people across the country while covering the poll, it became clear that they were not separately assessing Labor’s leadership chaos, and the debt/deficit. They were seeing each as an expression of the other. Because of its leadership chaos Labor had lost control of the economy, the story went, and the purported economic deterioration fed back into the general malaise. Rudd, seeking to spark off some sort of expansive vision against that, was incapable of speaking to it, and instead started throwing add-ons—anorthern development zone, a high-speed train, and moving the navy from Sydney to Brisbane on a morning’s announcement. These moves struck everyone as odd at the time, they seem stark staring mad in retrospect.

Thus there were all sorts of particular and technical reasons why Labor could not roll out a vision of a better society. But beneath that there was a deeper reason for a lack of access to an inspiring vision, such as would have changed the political settings, and been able to hack through the Murdoch phalanx—and that was that the heart of the vision was not emancipatory or humanist. Instead it was yoked into an unspoken model, subordinating life to relentless
and unargued economic growth. Whatever humanist features of Labor’s institutional forms could be argued, they soon cut through to an impersonal and alienating vision. Gonski was oriented to human flourishing, but also to integrating education into productivity. The NDIS was designed to alleviate the horror of many disabled people’s lives, but also to provide passages back to work. The NBN, it was hoped, would open huge new possibilities for difference and new ideas, but would also yoke Australia more tightly into an online world dominated by capital, and, as we now know, monitored by the NSA. Thus, at its heart, there was much that was contradictory with the ALP’s originating social vision. Though many of the mooks who run the ALP message would be barely conscious of that impasse, it nevertheless had a real effect on the ALP’s message, on its fatal incompleteness. As these fraught post-election weeks have shown, the Coalition’s vision is far from complete either. But it has suited the times better than Labor’s, and Labor’s worry would be that, without reconnecting with the core of emancipation at its heart, it will remain a secondrate version of the Coalition’s limited social vision. And why go with the copy? Even if you can grow it in a petri dish, and give it life? You can’t blame Kevin Rudd for not wanting to leave that lab, the future assembled around him, where his progressive vision of life, partial though it may be, is taken as nothing other than plain common sense.