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In search of a moral compass

By Natasha Cica - posted Tuesday, 28 August 2007

As John Howard's 11 years in power opened, a critical mass of Australians was prepared to get publicly exercised over questions such as reconciliation, refugees and our place in the region and beyond.

Especially since the Tampa election of 2001, those concerns have been effectively sidelined.

Today our focus is dangerously "sub-prime" - that's not a reference to real estate in Arkansas, but the trends are connected. We seem to find it increasingly difficult to raise our eyes from screens with heads in suits droning mortgage-market predictions. The buzzwords on everyone's lips are mortgage stress. Not affordable housing, community housing or social housing, never mind homelessness. As for civil liberties, rule of law and open society - these too have been caricatured as elite minority concerns, the self-serving turf of left-liberal lawyers, academics and doctors' wives.


Kevin Rudd could and should have disrupted this nasty norm by distinguishing himself clearly from Howard on matters such as the ham-fisted detention of Dr Mohamed Haneef and the legislative rush job of intervention in Northern Territory Indigenous communities.

Labor's official stances on both were bitter pills to swallow for many of those who want Howard out, especially those who want to believe in the best that Rudd's overtly faithful brand of politics may have to offer. That hope was summed up in this soundbite from him shortly before his elevation to shadow PM: "I think what (Dietrich) Bonhoeffer does for people who are Christians in politics in every age and in every culture, is to say this: that Christian ethics are a dead letter unless they are translated into real, concrete social action in pursuit of social justice."

By all means criticise Rudd for his me-tooism on these and other issues. But don't lose sight of the difference between the first hurdle and the longer haul. The challenge facing Labor in persuading the punters should never be underestimated. Promising polling and Centrebet odds won't count for anything if the Opposition doesn't convince enough voters, in the right places, that it can be trusted to manage their money.

Having said that, Rudd apparently does want to lead the nation as well as manage it. And more Australians than anyone gives us credit for might welcome the chance to be considered as more than a debt dealer, potential superannuant or card-carrying member of a "working Australian family".

The key question is: when and how might Rudd translate his angel face - the one that suggests there is life and value beyond the economy - into concrete action? Rhetorically speaking, Rudd stepped back strongly into that larger space in his recent address to the Australian Christian Lobby. There he articulated a vision for Australia as a place that intrinsically has fairness engraved into its soul, that recognises that compassion is not a weakness but among the greatest of human strengths, and that understands that without a vision, people perish.

Real action might not happen on this front until Rudd sits safely in the PM's chair. And it might not happen for real at all, even if Labor wins. Nonetheless, Rudd's lurking Christian warrior persona is a very big bazooka, particularly in terms of potential to punch huge holes in Howard's agenda. Which partly explains why every nanosecond of Rudd's personal historical record has been scrutinised for un-Christian activity.


Filth finders thought they'd nailed him on his recollections of his childhood, then his matey dates with Brian Burke, then his wife's business practices, but none of that stuck. Now we're told in coincidental (yeah, right) Sunday tabloid chorus that he was drunk and disorderly at a "gentleman's club" in 2003.

It remains to be seen if this or any subsequent stone thrown will dent Rudd's ascent as a more moral leader than the incumbent. But the final result surely will be down to our good judgment as much as his.

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First published in The Age on August 23, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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