Was it right? (part 2)

This is a counterargument to a previous post, in which I argued the case for switching from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Prime Minister Julia Gillard (or rather, why certain objections were unfounded).

Gillard’s rise to power may have restored Labor’s popularity for the time being (and certainly at a very opportune moment), but the party has done very little to actually deserve this electoral reward. I also spoke about Gillard and climate change in my last post, but here I’m going to bring Rudd back into the picture.

Gillard’s position on climate change is essentially the one that Rudd had announced in April – that nothing would happen prior to 2013. This new policy decision is largely thought to have instigated Rudd’s (and Labor’s) precipitous fall in popularity in the first place. To rule out both an ETS and a carbon tax for another three years is an act of utter recklessness, as Rudd himself had passionately argued, and is inexplicable both pragmatically and idealistically. Further, it’s an insult to our intelligence for Labor to change the unpopular leader but not the unpopular policy.

But it’s more than that. The ETS delay was not truly Rudd’s policy in the first place. It was the NSW Right faction that pushed Rudd to delay emissions trading, one of the groups that lent its support to Gillard’s subsequent coup. Rudd was hamstrung by his own party and then scapegoated for the consequences of that very mistake. An anonymous Labor factional leader gave this assessment:

This crypto-fascist made no effort to build a base in the party. Now that his only faction, Newspoll, has deserted him he is gone.

This gives some strong hints as to the extent of Rudd’s unpopularity within his own party, but it’s hard to argue that this in itself justifies the demise of a sitting Prime Minister. Labor’s internal party politics are certainly no substitute for the will of the people, and Rudd’s poor showing in opinion polls is hardly unusual for a first-term PM, nor was it even necessarily of his own making. In his press conference on June 23 (on the eve of his dispatch) he gave a glimpse of his views, and foreshadowed Gillard’s policy positions:

If I am returned as the leader of the party and the government and as Prime Minister, then I will be very clear about one thing. This party and government will not be lurching to the right on the question of asylum seekers, as some have counselled us to do. Also, on the question of climate change, we’ll be moving to a timetable on emissions trading, which is of the government’s decision, contrary to the views of some, in terms of when that best occurs.

Contrast the last sentence against Gillard’s “citizens’ assembly” idea. Rudd seems to be preemptively attacking Gillard’s appeal to populism, and so this meme must have been floating around in the party for a while. (I don’t even see what political advantage a “citizens’ assembly” could really convey. It won’t legitimise anything. It may involve “ordinary Australians”, but most ordinary Australians will be quite distant from it. The Opposition, not being constrained by reason or evidence, can paint it and its outcomes however they like.)

Gillard’s other major policy initiative that clearly distinguishes her from Rudd – offshore refugee processing (also alluded to in the above quote) – was very poorly handled. It was clearly designed to neutralise the Liberals’ xenophobic ramblings over boat people, but it sounds awfully like giving in to them. The other problem is that the policy relies entirely on international co-operation that had scarcely even been sought. It’s not clear that this co-operation will ever be forthcoming (except from Nauru, which would probably be too humiliating to consider, since it would nail John Howard’s colours to Labor’s mast), leaving this policy in limbo and playing right into the “failed-policy” mantra of the Liberals. Rudd, the diplomat, clearly wouldn’t have made such a fool of himself.

From one point of view, Gillard is an important symbol. Hopefully she can inspire future generations of women to fight their way to the top. Her rise to power may also have helped legitimise non-belief. (By contrast, it seems almost inconceivable that a US politician could openly admit to being a non-believer. Look what happens when one shows signs of doubting the complete literal truth of the Bible.) Neither Rudd nor Abbott, through no fault of their own, can be such a symbol.

Like most senior politicians, I’m sure Gillard does ultimately have what it takes to run the country. Even Abbott does, I’ll concede – it’s not as though we’re dealing with an Aussie version of Sarah Palin, after all. However, unlike Rudd, neither seem to have much vision – much sense of how the country could be made better. Gillard and Abbott play politics like chess, where the only objective is victory over the other; victory for its own sake.

Neither do they seem to have quite the expertise that Rudd possesses. Australia needs a delicate approach to foreign affairs; balancing our interests – and humanitarian interests – with the pragmatic realities of international relations. We probably owe much of our prosperity and security to good relations and carefully-negotiated agreements with other countries. I still trust Labor to handle this better than the Liberal party (mostly because a large part of the Coalition’s support these days comes from that section of the community that doesn’t understand why other countries even need to exist). However, Rudd was surely the better choice.

Whoever does win the election will have to work hard to prove retrospectively that they deserved it.

Was it right?

Tony Abbott wasted no time in conjuring up the “midnight execution” imagery to describe Julia Gillard’s usurpation of power, and a little later trying to explain why this wasn’t precisely the same thing that he himself had done to Malcolm Turnbull six months earlier. (He probably had to go all out, because Gillard out-polls him by quite a distance.)

Abbott can argue that his coup was motivated by policy, unlike Gillard’s, but the policy in question – Abbott’s apparent political raison d’être – hardly serves to exonerate him. That policy was climate change denialism (contrasted against Turnbull’s compromise deal with Labor on emissions trading), which is the product of blatant, willful ignorance and hollow ideology, and is precisely the reason Abbott isn’t fit to govern. I rather like the idea of our government heeding the advice of experts (in any field); indeed, this would be the principal factor upon which my vote would rest, if only I could see into the heads of politicians. Gillard’s coup was at worst motivated by cynical populism, which is still frankly the far lesser of two evils.

Abbott’s gloating over having been the instigator of Rudd’s downfall is juxtaposed against his apparent outrage over how it happened. But if it was going to happen at all, how could it have happened any better way? Leadership tensions often play out over months and even years, as Peter Costello will attest. Such continuing leadership instability in the Labor Party would have been good for Abbott, but not particularly good for the country. Though the position of Opposition Leader doesn’t naturally lend itself to nuanced pontification, it still seems a little silly for Abbott to spend his entire waking life denouncing the Prime Minister only to then bemoan his rapid removal from office. Was a slow political death the only acceptable option, in his professional opinion?

(This seems to be standard practice in politics, though. A deposed leader is no threat, so the other side can suddenly afford to heap on retrospective praise to make it seem as if the change is a step backwards.)

Of course, there is the democratic argument. One side argues that we didn’t elect Gillard (at least, not as PM), so what right has she to assume the Prime Ministership? The other side points out that we don’t actually elect the Prime Minister but the government as a whole; there is certainly no suggestion that anything unconstitutional has occurred. The first side might retort that, although this is the case in theory, it was the “Rudd” label that won the election for Labor in 2007.

Even the last point is a bit academic though. What happened in 2007 was nearly three years ago, and the polls strongly indicate that people have changed their minds in the mean time. Democracy doesn’t just happen every three years – it should be a continuous process. While statistically-sampled polls don’t have the same aura of legitimacy as an election, they are based on legitimate scientific methods and do, after a fashion, reflect the will of the people.

Surely democracy is best served by putting forth the best possible candidates for election, as indicated by the electorate itself. There may have been some sort of academic expectation that Rudd would serve out his full term, but nowhere is it written that this is necessary in a healthy democracy. Replacing a leader with a more popular one is how representative democracy works. (That’s not to say that replacing the leader ought to be done lightly, because government stability is also an important consideration.)

Some might argue that they wouldn’t have voted for Labor if they knew that Gillard would take over, but I wonder. If it was known that Gillard would take over, she would have been more a part of Labor’s 2007 election campaign, and she would have been much more in the public eye. She would have had more of an opportunity to cultivate her image – which is what this is really about after all, Abbott himself having argued that Labor’s policy approach remains the same. This is little different in principle to any other change in government direction . You can’t expect the government to map out precisely what it will do at election time, because events are guaranteed to overtake it (as in the case of the global financial crisis).

In previous elections, the Labor Party itself made much of the idea that John Howard wouldn’t serve out his full term, but would hand over the reins to Peter Costello. I’ve always found this to be a bizarre and unconvincing argument. As politicians are fond of saying, we ought to focus on the policies and not on the people. Unfortunately, this is surprisingly difficult.

From a campus

I found this somewhat random piece of work (sung to the tune of Bette Midler’s From A Distance) while digging through my hard drive. I did have to change “John” to “Rudd” though.

From a distance the campus looks green and orange,
and the concrete buildings grey.
From a distance OASIS meets the screen,
and the grant cash has been paid.

From a distance, there is harmony,
and it echoes through the labs.
It’s advice of hope, it’s advice of peace,
lecture notes in browser tabs.

From a distance we all have enough,
and no one hates the dean.
And there are no scales, no fails, and sound degrees,
no paying customers to please.

From a distance we are researchers
writing worldly documents.
Giving talks on hope, giving talks on peace,
They’re the talks of common sense.
Rudd is watching us. Rudd is watching us.
Rudd is watching us from a distance.

From a distance you look like my friend,
though you’ve plagarised before.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all these meetings are for.

From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the labs.
And it’s the test of hope, it’s the test of love,
it’s the students’ study plan.

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.
They are all basically human.
And Rudd is watching us, Rudd is watching us,
Rudd is watching us from a distance.
Oh, Rudd is watching us, Rudd is watching.
Rudd is watching us from a distance.

Abbott’s nightmare world

Tony Abbott – Mr People Skills himself – is on-message, describing the Rudd government’s use of the phrase “temporary deficit” as “Orwellian”, on Insiders this morning and elsewhere. One may surmise that Abbott, being entirely honest and reasonable, fears the rise of absolute tyranny and the end of all forms of freedom, with human dignity forever trampled beneath the jackboots of Rudd’s front bench. This all begins with the bone-chilling use of political spin by the government, something Abbott would never have contemplated in his entire political career. Nineteen Eighty-Four is indeed right around the corner. And you thought it was just a budget deficit brought on by a recession!

The impending annihilation of liberty aside, Abbott has an intensely irritating manner of speech. He artificially pauses for a split-second every couple of words, as if he’s trying to give the impression that he’s actually thinking about what he’s saying. It’s irritating because it completely fails to cover up the sheer inanity of his rhetoric, and in doing so makes it even more inane. That said, I muted the TV after a few seconds, so I suppose it’s not that much of a problem.

Quality news

How’s this for a misleading headline from the ABC: “China may have to bail us out: Rudd“. The user comments below the article howl in derision at the injustice of selling out the country to those funny Mandarin-speakers. No, people, Rudd wants China to bail out the International Monetary Fund, not Australia. The ABC’s article is essentially just a snippet of Rudd’s rhetoric, and fails to explain up front what the actual proposal is: China is to get greater voting rights at IMF in return for more money. See – it’s not that hard. (The idea is that the current arrangement reflects an outdated post-WW2 world, and also that the IMF needs more money to address the global financial crisis.)

I do love the ABC, but sloppiness like this doesn’t inspire confidence in the overall quality of its news reporting.

The “S” word

The circus surrounding the word “sorry” in Australia is, I think, part of the fine legacy of John Howard’s very special brand of politics. By adamantly refusing to say it he only helped to entrench it as a symbol of what was missing from his worldview. The argument of course was that “we” weren’t responsible because it was previous generations who took Aboriginal kids away from their parents, creating the Stolen Generation. The argument appeals to conservatives here because (one gets the impression) they’d rather wash their hands of the whole thing, and attribute the current socioeconomic status of many Aborigines to some unspoken racial inferiority.

So Howard took a lot of time and energy explaining precisely why he didn’t have to say sorry. He expressed regret, of course, but you can’t interpret that to mean “sorry” if the person explicitly says it isn’t. He even managed to say that he apologised, while still arguing that this technically wasn’t the same thing as being “sorry”. At that point most people realised that the game was up, but Howard’s stubbornness had created momentum in the reconciliation movement. Now, in the first term of the Rudd government, the “S” word simply has to be said. There’s no way around it. I’m not one for symbols, generally speaking, and there are lots of practical things to be done to help achieve equality, but in Howard’s reign this one symbol has become so important in so many people’s eyes that it could easily drive a wedge into attempts at reconciliation.

Rudd, I assume, knows this. You’ll notice he hasn’t come out and just said “sorry”. No, he had to pick a date for it to be said (February 13, in case you missed it), as though it were an occult incantation that only works when certain astronomical bodies are properly aligned. He wants people to Know that the Word has been Said. It has to be stage managed. And he probably wouldn’t mind if his audience was mentally prepared to give him a standing ovation for it, which might not happen if it just popped out in a press conference.

At least by saying it the word itself should cease to be an issue, and we can perhaps endeavour to do something to improve Aboriginal health and education, for instance.

What matters in this election?

There’s an online poll on the ABC’s 4 Corners website regarding the election. The first question asks “In the last two weeks of the campaign what do you see as the SINGLE most important issue?” You are given a choice between “Economy/Interest rates”, “Climate change”, “Industrial relations”, “Education” and “Health”.

Important for whom? Us or the politicians?

But what’s really missing from this picture? After the intervention in the Northern Territory to impose the Libs’ ideals of capitalism and individualism by force on the Aboriginal people, after the ongoing mandatory detention of people whose only “crime” is trying to escape their wartorn homelands for a better life in Australia, after the “Pacific solution” in which these people suddenly became so unimaginably dangerous that they were not even allowed to set foot on Australian soil, after our continuing support for the catastrophic war in Iraq, after the two-faced bribery of Saddam Hussein to the tune of $300 million, after the detention and even deportation of Australian citizens for being unable to produce a passport, after the introduction of terrorism legislation that bulldozes some of our most basic legal rights, after witnessing the opacity and unaccountability of ASIO and the AFP in their roles under that legislation, after the introduction of “control orders” to bypass the legal system and impose sanctions on people for whom there is no evidence of guilt…

Can we not, just once, put aside the ridiculous charade of deciding who can manage the economy better and focus on the real world?