The election of the Australian Labor Party to government has been presented by some as marking a dramatic change of direction for the country. In fact the Australia election showed that, as in New Zealand, modern parliamentary politics increasingly involves a non-choice between similar parties. Such analysis is to be expected from this blog, but what is interesting is that there are now a large number of other commentators pointing this out. [Read more below]
The best exposition of this came from yesterday’s Sunday Star-Times editorial: Welcome to a labored version of Howard. This excellent summation of the differences between the Labor and Liberal parties argued that instead of presenting the electorate with a debate and choice between different futures for Australia, ‘It was a fight over who should pull the levers’. Most of the fights were over symbolism, and the only ‘real blood was shed in gaffes and stunts’. Furthermore, ‘What sounded like large and genuine disagreements turned out, in time, to be nit-picking over trifles.’
The Sunday Star-Times even disputes that the two parties offered vastly different climate change options, industrial relations policies, or even a different orientation to aborigine issues:
the notion that Rudd offered a bright green future for Australia, while with Howard it was all coal and smoke, is wrong.
All the other "big" issues had a tendency to disappear into the fine print. Rudd opposed Howard's extremist industrial relations law, designed as it was to bury the unions and put the bosses in the box seat. But Howard had also watered it down a bit, and all Rudd's proposed reforms would do was dilute it a bit more. There is no return to the old system, and Rudd has been as hard-faced as any Stalinist in clobbering dissident unions who buck his line. Rudd, married to a multi-millionaire businesswoman, has been a cautious wonk all his life. He has no experience of and no sympathy with the lives of working people. He is a nice middle-class boy who is just slightly on the liberal side of centre. He is Tony Blair from Queensland.
So Rudd did not represent the big policies of the Australian Labor past. He did not offer the liberationist and visionary path of Whitlam. He didn't offer the free-market toughness of Hawke. He offered Liberal Lite, or Howardism with a human face. In the dying days of the campaign he even promised to intercept and turn back boatloads of refugees, to ignore the republic in his first term, and not to sign a "treaty" with the Aboriginal people.
The rest of this excellent editorial can be read here: Welcome to a labored version of Howard There have been a number of other incisive points made about the moderation and vagueness of Rudd and the modern ALP. Below are a few highlights from the articles I’ve read.
Sydney Morning Herald: Taste the difference
Mark Latham, emerged from self-imposed exile to recycle the line that Kohut had used in 2000 - it's "a Seinfeld election, a show about nothing".
"No matter which party wins, Australia will still have a conservative economic policy and a decentralised, productivity-based industrial relations system," Latham wrote in The Australian Financial Review.
"No matter which party wins, Australia will still have a conservative foreign policy dominated by the US and its mismanagement of the so-called 'war on terror'.
"No matter which party wins, Australia will still have conservative social policies: overfunded elite private schools, huge subsidies for private health insurance and bucket loads of middle-class welfare."
And would a re-elected Howard-Costello government really "take Work Choices even further"? It may secretly fantasise about a more laissez faire labour market, but if it survives its disastrous experiment with Work Choices it is simply implausible that the same people, bloodied and tattered, would be so stupid as to risk another near-death experience with a much-reduced majority. And how would it get its aggressive new proposal through the new Senate? No, Labor's scare campaign, like the Coalition's, is just not credible.
By revamping itself behind a fiscal conservative, Australia's Labor Party has overcome big business fears that its election victory could set back the country's economic boom, analysts said. Australian Business Council head Greg Bailey said Sunday, a day after Labor leader Kevin Rudd swept conservative prime minister John Howard from power after 11 years, that he had few concerns about the future government.
'There's an awful lot of alignment between where the business council is coming from and where that government we believe will come from.'
CommSec chief equities economist Craig James:
'In terms of economic policy, nothing really changes too much,' James said. 'I don't foresee any great changes in terms of the currency or the share market over the election.'
The NSW Business Chamber has congratulated Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd and says Labor's national dominance paves the way for economic reform. CEO of the NSW Business Chamber Kevin MacDonald said…
"The absence of any elections and the historic precedent of wall to wall Labor allow the new government to undertake major reforms similar in scale to that undertaken by the Hawke government in 1983."
Sydney Morning Herald: Labor win will not impact market: expert
The election of a Labor government posed no immediate risk to Australia's economy and is expected to have little impact on local stock and currency markets, when trading resumes this week.
….But CommSec chief equities economist Craig James said…
"The new government has indicated that it would basically follow the same sort of line in a big-picture sense.
The Times in the UK: Australia's mystery landslide
The Labor party’s general secretary in the dominant state of NSW, Mark Arbib, freely admits that Rudd is unashamedly “new Labour”.
Just as Tony Blair had once come to Australia to study the former Labor prime minister Paul Keating’s electoral successes in the early 90s, the last time the party was in power, Rudd’s team was taking its cue from the 1997 election in Britain.
Labor in Australia has undergone a transition from a union-dominated membership base to a party of free thinking market reformers – or so Arbib would have us believe.
Proof of this, he says, was evident in the strength of cheering to the theme of fiscal conservatism at the party’s campaign launch. Old fashioned Labor supporters wondered whether they had turned up to the wrong launch.
Australian Labor even used Blair’s education theme to string its campaign together, promising an education revolution and plans to modernise. On the economy, Labor managed to neutralise the argument that it posed a danger by being the fortunate recipient of another unprecedented event – an interest rate rise in the middle of the campaign.
It then simply declared its support for the independence of the Reserve Bank – yet another 1997 Blair moment – and that was that. Rudd had made it safe to vote Labor again as did Blair and Gordon Brown in 1997.
Sydney Morning Herald: The slow creep of conservatism
- Gerard Henderson
The public stance of leading ALP figures indicates how Labor has changed in order to get ready for government and make itself attractive to voters.
During an interview with The Australian Financial Review on February 7, 2003, Rudd described himself as "an old-fashioned Christian socialist". Today, the Opposition Leader still proclaims his Christianity but he has junked the "s" word. Now Rudd declares that he is an "economic conservative".
But there is more. The Labor leader's political heroes now include, wait for it, the Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies - who just happens to be one of Howard's heroes.
Certainly Rudd has shown signs of economic and moral conservatism in the past. However, his deputy, Julia Gillard, appears to be a relatively recent convert to the cause of economic reform.
Now Gillard describes herself as "certainly a conservative person when it comes to government finances and accounting". Certainly Gillard was always a pragmatist but it was not until recently that she has presented herself as a conservative.
Then there is the case of the Opposition spokesman for the environment and the arts, Peter Garrett. In his 1987 book Political Blues, the then rock star and continuing conservationist railed against "the devouring jaws of capitalism", dismissed the quest for sustained economic growth as "one of the holy writs of society" and opposed the Australian-American alliance.
If Labor is elected on November 24, Garrett will be a member of a government led by confessed economic conservatives who believe in economic growth and support the Australian-American alliance.
In Political Blues, Garrett was dismissive of the contribution made by the Australian Defence Force in international conflicts. But as a member of a Rudd government, he would support Labor's policy to continue the ADF's commitment in Afghanistan and to withdraw only a third of the ADF's current members in Iraq.
In recent times, Garrett has acknowledged his embrace of pragmatism. It seems we're all conservatives now.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.
Herald Sun: Leader will introduce his managerial style to office
Mr Rudd believes emphatically in top down control. It was how he ran Queensland when he was in charge of the cabinet office in the Goss Labor government in the late 1980s -- the only performance Australians have to judge him on in office. And the early signs are that is how he will run the country as Prime Minister.
In an era of policy convergence, Mr Rudd represents the ascension of the managerial class in politics. He will be guided by the head and not the heart. At least until he is confronted by something like the Bali bombings, events that inevitably mould Prime Ministers.
But he forswears any return to the social policy leftism of the Keating years. This matches the character of the man -- a self-declared social and economic conservative.
As Prime Minister, he will take a tough line on border security, turning boats back just as John Howard did. He will use the threat of detention to deter illegal asylum seekers.
Mr Rudd has also made it plain that a referendum on Aboriginal reconciliation, a separate Aboriginal treaty and a republican referendum will not be held in the first term of any government he leads. And there will be no rush towards a Bill of Rights.
Reuters: Australia set for gradual change under Rudd
By James Grubel
Australia's new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, will cause no harm to the nation's strong ties with the United States despite his decision to pull troops out of Iraq and to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, analysts said on Sunday.
Rudd said on Sunday he had spoken to Bush, and had stressed his determination to keep the Australia-U.S. military alliance at the centre of his foreign and strategic policy.
Respected political analyst Paul Kelly, from the Australian newspaper, compared Rudd to British former leader Tony Blair, who modernised his Labour party and shifted it to the centre.
"This is a new era. This is the Kevin Rudd era," Kelly told Australian television on Sunday.
"He sees himself as a modernist, he sees himself as a consensus leader. He wants to unite the country.
"And finally he'll govern from the centre. He'll be like Tony Blair. In this sense he will be particularly formidable."
That will force Rudd to introduce his reforms slowly and will ensure no major changes as he shifts Australia back towards a centrist government from the previous administration that had moved to the right, Economou said.
"It's evolutionary rather than revolutionary. That's the bureaucratic way," Economou said. "He's not the sort of guy who will wade in and start making big dramatic changes.
"I think we've moved to the centre, but there may be a small incremental move to the left."
The UK Independent: Another skittle of the old order falls
This time, it is the end for John Howard. It is all over for another
leader identified with the invasion of Iraq. Jose Maria Aznar of Spain
was voted out in 2004; Silvio Berlusconi of Italy fell last year; Tony
Blair was forced out by his own party earlier this year; Jaroslaw
Kaczynski of Poland lost last month; only George Bush, the prime mover,
is left, and as he sets records for unpopularity he is a much reduced
figure, limping to his expiry date in 2009.
WSWS: Rudd and Murdoch: the fashioning of a Blair-style “Labor moderniser”
By Patrick O’Connor
The mutual courtship of the Labor Party and big business has reached a new level as the Australian federal election campaign enters its final two weeks. Significant sections of the ruling elite have clearly concluded that Prime Minister John Howard and his government have passed their “use-by” date and are incapable of meeting the new demands of international capital. For this reason they are swinging ever more openly behind a Kevin Rudd led Labor victory.
Each day another stage in the now familiar ritual unfolds. Rudd makes some new right-wing pronouncement and the media, led by the Murdoch press, welcomes it while at the same time pressuring him to go further. The opposition leader then responds, emphasising his ambition to head a “new leadership” and embrace “change”. The next day he announces yet another pro-business “free market” initiative.
Before our very eyes, an extreme right-wing administration, of the kind backed by Murdoch in the United States and around the world, is being fashioned, which will take the Howard government’s assault on the social position of the working class to a qualitatively higher level.
The Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s national broadsheet, published a major editorial last Wednesday, titled “Labor must do more than coast”, which all but endorsed a Rudd victory. “The Australian finds it hard to conjure up a constructive policy-based reason to re-elect the government,” the editorial declared. “The best we can say is the Howard-Costello team, while lacking vision for several years, has not been a disaster by any means.”
Having damned the government with this faint praise, the editorial went on to state that “there is no doubt Mr Rudd has been a steady hand who has performed brilliantly,” but then “encouraged” him to go further: “It is not too late to commit to a Tony Blair-like reform to modernise the ALP and build a centre left party that reflects Australia’s mainstream ideals and values.”
On Thursday, the day after this editorial was published, Rudd scheduled a meeting with editors and executives of News Limited, publisher of the Australian and a number of frothing right-wing tabloids around the country. The Labor leader refused to reveal what had been discussed or what kind of reception he had received. Instead, he attempted to play down the extraordinary gathering as nothing more than an effort to “get our message out”. This was clearly absurd. Rudd would not have taken time off the campaign trail, with only 16 days remaining, unless serious matters were up for discussion. The Labor leader no doubt eagerly sought feedback from the Murdoch chiefs on his performance so far, and advice as to how he could win their open endorsement as he concludes the campaign.
Later that day, Rudd was clearly “on message” when he was interviewed by the ABC’s “Lateline” television programme.
The Labor leader was asked if he would “shy away from” comparisons between him and former British prime minister Tony Blair. Rudd made clear he was perfectly happy with the association. “I’m a Labor moderniser,” he declared. “Always have been, always will be, and what that’s on about is good evidence-based policy in terms of producing the best outcomes for this nation, carving out its future in a pretty uncertain century where things fundamentally are changing.”
Rudd was then asked what Australia would be like under his leadership. “Competitive, internationally competitive, in a very different and changing world, but never, ever throwing the fair go out the back door,” he replied. “That’s the ethos of Labor. That’s what I stand for as a Labor moderniser as well.”
Rudd’s commitment to “international competitiveness” means establishing the most profitable environment possible for corporate and international investors. It entails the endless driving down of workers’ wages and conditions, the abolition of business regulation, the further lowering of taxation levels on big business and the ultra-wealthy, and the running down and privatisation of public infrastructure and social services. The Labor leader’s reference to the “fair go” is a cynical ruse; his agenda is irreconcilably opposed to any measure of social equality and fairness.
Rudd’s references to Tony Blair’s “modernising” record are telling. Murdoch backed the former British prime minister precisely because his aim was the transformation of the Labour Party from one with a purportedly social reformist program into the preferred instrument of the London-based financial oligarchy. Britain is now one of the most socially polarised countries in the world. The country’s richest 1,000 individuals more than tripled their wealth during Blair’s term in office, while layers of ordinary people saw their wages stagnate and personal debt skyrocket. Blair’s legacy was the extension and entrenchment of the right-wing offensive against the British working class launched by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. At the same time, Blair and “New Labour” became the most willing of the “coalition” partners backing the international crimes of the Bush administration.
As well as praising Blair, Rudd utilised the “Lateline” interview to openly solidarise himself with the legacy of the Hawke-Keating era—one also supported to the hilt by Murdoch.
From 1983 to 1996, the Labor Party integrated the Australian economy into the global capitalist market through the abolition of tariff barriers, the floating of the Australian dollar, the privatising of major public companies and the deregulation of the financial system. These measures were accompanied by a series of vicious attacks on the working class carried out with the decisive collaboration of the trade unions. The government-union Accords deliberately drove down average real wages while workers who resisted were witchhunted and sacked. By 1996, 300,000 manufacturing jobs had been destroyed and the gap between rich and poor doubled, creating enormous bitterness and anger—which Howard exploited to win government amid unprecedented anti-Labor swings in working class areas.
Rudd told “Lateline”: “You draw inspiration from the great reforms of the Hawke and Keating government, when it came to internationalising the Australian economy and paying a political price for it. But that’s reformist, modernising Labor leadership ... I see no such parallel reform effort by Mr Howard or Mr Costello who frankly on the reform agenda, micro-economic reform in particular, has gone asleep at the wheel.”
In other words, Labor is a far safer bet to carry through pro-business economic “reforms” than the Coalition. This has been Rudd’s most consistent message since he became Labor leader last December.
And securing Rupert Murdoch has been a key goal. In February, Rudd announced the setting up of a “Council of Business Advisors” with representation in a future Labor cabinet. The council is headed by Rod Eddington, a board member of News Corporation, reportedly close to the billionaire media magnate. In April, Rudd travelled to the US and held a private discussion with Murdoch. Asked afterwards if the Labor leader would make a good prime minister, Murdoch replied, “Oh I’m sure.”
Whether the News Corporation comes out definitively in favour of a Labor victory remains to be seen. It is highly likely, but may still depend on the extent to which Rudd continues to obey the dictates of Murdoch’s editorial writers.
In any event, Rudd’s election campaign underscores the historically unprecedented policy agreement between Labor and the Coalition.
Former Labor leader Mark Latham, who led Labor to defeat in 2004, yesterday wrote a column in the Australian Financial Review, noting that Rudd and Howard’s policies were essentially identical on all the major issues, including industrial relations, the war in Iraq and the “war on terror” and the privatisation of health and education. Much of Latham’s self-serving analysis sought to explain his 2004 election loss to Howard in terms of the average Australian voter’s alleged greed and stupidity. When dealing with the 2007 election, however, his column struck a rare note of honesty.
“If people vote for a change in government on November 24 they will be replacing one conservative administration with another,” he wrote. “Nothing of any note is going to change. We have reached the zenith of policy convergence in Australian public life. Everything else is just play-acting, a bit of media melodrama to keep the public entertained. Australia is having a Seinfeld election, a show about nothing.”
Something, however, will change. A Rudd Labor government is shaping up to be the most right wing in post World War II history.