A few weeks into its term of office, it is becoming possible to see the style of Kevin Rudd’s new Labor government in Australia.
It is not, so far, an essay in crazy leftist social engineering like that of Rudd’s disastrous Labor predecessor Gough Whitlam. There is no question of departing from such fundamentals as the US alliance, through details of actual continuing troop commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan are somewhat vague. Rudd is a former diplomat and his foreign policy can be expected to be informed and pragmatic. The new government will continue to support Israel but probably less unwaveringly than did the preceding Liberal (i.e., conservative) Government of John Howard. It has already aroused the Greens to disillusioned fury by proceeding to dredge a deep channel in Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay for horrid capitalist shipping.
However, the new government is also showing a fondness for politics of spin and gesture ahead of substance.
It began by signing the Kyoto Protocol, which Howard refused to do. In the present economic climate, the last thing the country needs is more external constraints put on economic and development policies, and with a population of 21 million, and very strict controls already in place, Australia’s impact on the global environment is negligible anyway.
The government then proceeded to offer, in a vast gesture of abasement, a National apology, on “Sorry Day,” to the so-called “stolen generation” — that is, Aboriginal children taken from their families a generation ago.
Examining the realities of this “stolen generation” is to open a can of worms. Conservative columnist Andrew Bolt has repeatedly called upon advocates of the stolen generation to offer the names of ten children actually stolen, which they seem to have been unable to do. Certainly some children were taken from primitive bush-camps, and in some cases this may have been unjustified — we know all too well that social-workers can make mistakes even when dealing with white children (as a lawyer I have acted for parents in a number of such cases).
However the policy was benignly intended and meant to rescue the children, particularly those of mixed parentage, who were often actively persecuted, from lives of squalor and deprivation. Apparently this had happy outcomes in some cases and not in others.
“SORRY DAY” WAS clever politics to wedge the Opposition, which had previously been against it as meaningless, and which had the choice of going along with it and looking weak and derivative or continuing to oppose it and looking racist and callous.
The left-leaning Australian Broadcasting Commission and the Fairfax press, which publishes the main Sydney and Melbourne papers, naturally pulled out all stops to portray “Sorry Day” as a great, quasi-orgiastic, national event, although the major recent initiative to benefit children in remote Aboriginal communities — massive Federal intervention to prevent sex-abuse and other violence, which the present government is so far maintaining — had been undertaken by the Howard Government.
Howard brought Australia sustained boom times with stability, prosperity and economic growth, partly because of external conditions but also because of very good internal economic management — Australia survived the 1998 Asian economic meltdown and the dotcom crash virtually unscathed. Under the Howard Government average wages grew well ahead of inflation, and unemployment plummeted.
Now with fears of inflation and unemployment resurfacing and interest rates rising and threatening home-mortgages, Rudd has asked Federal Members of Parliament to accept a freeze in their own wages — a morally good thing, no doubt, but we have yet to see it matched by more substantial economic policies, especially regarding the broader area of wage-fixing.
With the Labor Party full of trade unionists at the Parliamentary and Ministerial level, real wage restraint is problematical at best. Policy thrusts are toward a return to the old, and crippling, system of wages being fixed by courts rather than economic conditions (historically, this has been a major reason why Australia has a much smaller economy than Canada).
The greatest commitment to the politics of spin and symbolism over substance, however, is Rudd’s plan to assemble 1,000 Australians (picked by a so-far unnamed committee) to travel to Parliament House in Canberra to dream up new ideas for the nation. The first thing to be said about this (called by some rude punster a mass-debate) is that in a democracy the making of new laws and policies should be the job of elected representatives, not people cherry-picked by the government; second, those so selected will have to pay their own way to Canberra.
This means people from the outlying States such as Western Australia will be disadvantaged and probably excluded unless they are wealthy or have wealthy corporate backers or Unions to pay their substantial travel bills, etc. It is thus also an exercise in the centralism for which many people (including me) criticized the Howard Government. At the least it is a silly and ill-thought-out action, at the worse it smacks of fascism in the literal, Corporate State-style, sense.
The model for all this looks like the government of Britain’s Tony Blair, who made British Labour electable because, like Rudd, he distanced himself in style (if not so much in substance) from the left and socialism, upheld the U.S. alliance (what choice did he really have?) and was big on the gesture politics of the “big tent.”
But eleven years on, Britain does not seem such a good example to follow.