The Rudd Government has been in power for one year. To some degree all these sorts of anniversaries are somewhat artificial, as you can easily see in the United States with the fetish of the “first hundred days”. Governments will eventually be judged by the electorate in due season, as Kevin Rudd would say, and as almost all politicians intone (particularly those who are dissatisfied with their contemporary popularity), in the end they will be judged by history - whose verdict is perhaps as mythical as the Judgment of Paris, but never mind that.
But if politics and public discussion is cruelled by the vagaries and obsessions of an ever shorter media cycle, a year really is a long time in government, and it is worth taking stock.
It can also be interesting to compare first term governments at this stage of the electoral cycle, and here the obvious contrast - despite all the media beatups - is the absence of major scandal and ministerial resignations compared to both the Hawke and Howard governments. That doesn’t, of course, imply that all the Labor ministers are fabulous, but it is worth observing.
One of the things that’s interested me in the discussions on my blog and in conversations with some friends is the sentiment that simply avoiding hearing a daily litany of horrors from the Howard crew is Rudd’s greatest achievement. It might, and no doubt will, be objected that “lefties would say that, wouldn’t they?” But I think there are a couple of points here.
First, there is no doubt that a government with a more humanitarian tinge and an appreciation of propriety and ethics is to be welcomed, and that sentiment - along with the promise keeping - will be a contributor to Labor’s continuing lead in the polls. Second, I think The Howard Years has been interestingly timed to stimulate some comparison and to reinforce the whole sense of relief that we don’t have that turgid mob to kick around any more.
But, again, one thing that wore out the Coalition’s welcome with the electorate was the constant “rabbits out of the hat” and the whole bag of divisive tricks, along with the internal ructions and the cockiness of ministers. The Liberals are still playing at the same game in many ways. John Howard was elected in 1996 as a safe pair of hands and the Libs were “the party of order”, if you like. By the end of their fourth term, they looked like the risky and unsafe proposition and Kevin Rudd’s calm demeanour undoubtedly contributed much to Labor’s victory. WorkChoices was also probably the biggest single mistake the Coalition made, and the related apprehension that worse would follow and more leadership instability also condemned the Howard government to defeat.
But what of policy, and that shibboleth beloved of the punditariat, “the narrative”? First, there’s the irony that Paul Keating - through one artifice or another - succeeded in setting the critical tone for assessment of the next Labor government after his fall from power. So it probably wasn’t surprising to see Rudd - in an interview with the Australian Financial Review last Saturday - insist that the government does have a narrative. In fact, I don’t think that’s ever been in doubt. The three themes Labor laid out last year - broadly speaking - human capital and infrastructure, modernisation and social inclusion have continued to be a leitmotif of the government’s program. Rudd himself encapsulated the major tones somewhat differently, including security and defence for instance, but in practice that hasn’t been a domain that’s been at the forefront of public debate.
One could spend a lot of time assessing all manner of policy initiatives and announcements - and the symbolism which actually unifies those three themes (think of Quentin Bryce’s elevation or the Closing the Gap initiative associated with the Apology). But, when forming an overall view, probably the most significant single political factor has been that people really have - on the whole - got what they thought they would get, and that even though the ship of state now has to be steered through some rather more stormy waters, the promises have been kept.
It’s almost impossible to underestimate the political importance of this one fact. That’s why, or the biggest reason why, Labor and Rudd have continued to enjoy - monotonously for the punditariat - a level of support somewhat in excess of the election winning vote.
Forget about almost everything that’s been written about politics this year - politics has in effect been on hold. Labor ministers really have been able to play the requisite game in their sleep, and Malcolm Turnbull’s elevation hasn’t changed much. It’s also been accompanied by a maturing of the government’s communications and strategy and sense that a tighter outfit is emerging less obsessed with winning the daily media cycle.
It really would be a waste of effort to examine which groups and demographics have shifted slightly or whatever - at least from the perspective of the bigger picture. The reality is that it’s highly likely that a substantial majority of electors are happy with the decision made last year and despite all the counterfactuals and scenarios the media love to play with, the truth is that it would likely take a lot to reverse that satisfaction and comfort level.
It may be, of course, reasonable to borrow one of the punditariat’s favourite notions and remark that the hard decisions lie ahead - two of the most important being the final shape of the emissions trading scheme (and the stance adopted in international negotiations) and the industrial relations changes (with Julia Gillard introducing the legislation tomorrow). As well as the obvious questions about economic policy, service delivery and improvement will be another key yardstick for judgment. But we need to recognise that Rudd plays a long game, and that if the planets align, all the criticism of government by review and so on will appear very ephemeral and fleeting.
My punt is still that Labor are dug in for a long innings. But the continued salience of the “not Howard” factor suggests to me that we do have to wait somewhat longer to discern the true shape of the government elected one year ago.