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How Labor can make the grade with Rudd

By James McConvill - posted Tuesday, 16 January 2007


In order to win this year’s Federal Election, newly-appointed Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd will need to do a lot of listening. But there is one voice to which Rudd should turn a deaf ear: that of once Liberal leader John Hewson.

Dr Hewson has returned to snatch newspaper headlines with a stinging attack on Prime Minister John Howard in the latest edition of The Bulletin magazine, released last Wednesday.

Among other things, Dr Hewson describes Howard as a dull and boring man, and a political opportunist devoid of genuine policy vision. Everybody, of course, has the right to their opinion about the Prime Minister’s near 11-year term of office. Indeed, there are some points in Dr Hewson’s Bulletin piece which hit pretty close to the mark.

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Dr Hewson totally misses the board, however, with his proposed weapon for a Rudd victory in 2007. According to Dr Hewson, to win over the Australian people, Rudd’s Labor has to present as a Party brimming with policy initiative. In doing so, he argues that Rudd must adopt the high moral ground, with extensive policies covering such things as the environment, the Iraq War and the rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Paul Keating as prime minister once said that being attacked by Dr Hewson in the political arena was like being flogged with a warm lettuce. While Dr Hewson is a respectable economist and businessman, when it comes to politics it seems not much has changed.

Winning the 2007 election for Rudd is close to Mission Impossible as it is. But swallowing a dose of Dr Hewson’s political medicine would result in self-destruction even before the mission commences in earnest.

Federal elections in Australia are lost, not won, on policy initiative. This is a lesson which Dr Hewson should have learnt clearly by losing the “unlosable” election in 1993 after scaring the electorate with his Fightback! policy tome. At no time in post-World War politics in Australia has a Party won a federal election by presenting the public with new policy ideas.

A study I undertook last year shows that since the election of the Menzies Government in 1949 there have been only four changes in government by election at federal level (1972, 1975, 1983 and 1996). The study highlights at the time of each change in federal government, the Australian economy was in a less than favourable economic position - known as “stagflation”. Stagflation is relatively high unemployment accompanied by relatively high inflation.

So when it comes to the reasons why governments at a federal level come, stay and go in Australia, the answer is the economy, stupid.

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Dr Hewson is not the only figure to have come out recently brandishing grandiose policy proposals which could be adopted to return Labor to the Lodge. Indeed, Rudd’s short period as leader has sparked a resurgence in policy debate between Left and Right, and seen a broad policy vision return to the Opposition front and back bench in Canberra. Rudd has even gone as far as critiquing Hayekian free market economics, and suggested a fundamental redesign of federalism.

To political junkies like me, this is good stuff. It was the stuff that I loved about the Federal Labor Party 11-plus years ago before electoral defeat led to a slow drift towards myopia. The vision thing as king makes for interesting daily reading.

But the general public are, for better or worse (probably better), junkies to a different cause. Instead of Left and Right, Hayek and Chomsky, they are focused on the cricket, the mortgage, and the weekend barbeque with the family. It is in this world, what we might call the real world, that Rudd looks in trouble, and Howard looks invincible. In Australia, high-brow policy debate is an indulgence which a political leader must save until they are protected by incumbency.

Rudd would be best served by ignoring the suggestions of the removed elite, putting away the books, and learning a new discipline: communicating with the general Australian public. He has the potential for an A+ grade in this respect, but continuing to cite Hayek may earn him a fail.

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About the Author

James McConvill is a Melbourne lawyer. The opinions expressed are his personal views only, and were written in the
spirit of academic freedom when James was employed as a university lecturer.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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