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Timidity aside, what can you expect in nine months?

Peter Brent

The Canberra Times

25 August 2008

A quarter of a century ago, a new ALP national government was elected in a landslide. Led by Bob Hawke, it was popular in the electorate, but not with many Labor loyalists, who judged it not Labor enough. Real Labor governments were like Gough Whitlam's (1972-1975): giving the country a good shake-up, redistributing income, giving the finger to big business, buying back the farm and adopting an independent foreign policy. Hawke Labor was too timid, too middle-of-the-road, a pale imitation of the Liberals - a great disappointment. 

In 2008, the new-government blues are back, but the voices are different. This time the complainants are in the main sharp-suited young men who reckon real Labor governments are economic reformers - you know, the way Hawke and Paul Keating were. The timorous Kevin Rudd should take a leaf out of their book.

Leaving aside (as much as possible) subjective policy considerations, there are of course many legitimate criticisms that can be made of Rudd. Rudd does seem overly fond of inserting himself into the news cycle via quickly thought-through announcements: the June Asian EU fiasco in particular seemed to debase serious policy machinery. But behaviour like that was also characteristic of his immediate predecessor as PM. 

And perhaps Rudd is squandering his goodwill in the electorate, failing to invest political capital in the future. The electorate will certainly tire of him one day, and he may have little to show for these sunny times. He still behaves like an opposition leader in some ways, and seems unaware that being prime minister automatically bestows authority.

So, yes, he is politically timid but, then again, so was Howard. Neither of them could be accused of looking the electorate in the eye and explaining the challenges our country faces. Perhaps the problem is in the example Rudd is following. 

Maybe the first budget was not brave enough. But commentators who over the past several years expressed constant delight at the previous government's fiscal behaviour, but now castigate the new one for not sufficiently reining in its predecessor's excesses, are difficult to take seriously. 

Maybe there is a rule that says the first budget should be the toughest. 

But what do people expect from a government after nine months? What had Hawke done by December 1983? Determined not to emulate Whitlam, he was treading softly. True, his government had just floated the dollar (against the advice of Treasury head John Stone and, so it is said, Treasurer Keating), but the heady economic reform days were largely in front of them. Peter Walsh, an emblematic figure for many who yearn for the good old days, was still a year away from becoming finance minister. 

This leads us to a popular current lament among the political class: that this Government desperately needs a narrative, a concept that tells us what it is about. For example, Hawke-Keating's narrative was - you guessed it - economic reform. 

This complaint is not without merit, but its problem is that it is based on retrospective judgments. For example, if there was a narrative in 1983 it was consensus: the government was healing the damaging divisions of the Fraser years. Sometimes it was about compassion, multiculturalism, fairness and reasonableness as contrasted with the (alleged) mean- spiritedness of those opposite. 

At other times it was about hard-headed economic reform, but at others again it was, as with most long-term governments, simply about being good politicians, being in power and occupying the middle ground. There were many narratives. 

As well, governments are formed by their reactions to the circumstances they face. While the early Hawke years included some politically unpopular decisions, the economic reform mantle was largely foisted on them by international events, in particular the terms-of- trade crisis and depreciating dollar that climaxed in 1986. It was after this that the slaying of sacred Labor cows really began. 

Economic reform as shorthand for the Hawke-Keating years was settled on only subsequently. Similarly, the later narrative of the Howard government largely came about through its reactions to circumstances beyond its control: a booming China-fuelled international economy and the ''war on terror''. 

And there is at the moment a struggle over the final, settled narrative: was it strong, decisive leadership, or 11 1/2 years wasted playing politics? 

One thing is for sure: over the coming years, the world will change, and it will do things to Australia that we cannot begin to imagine. How the Rudd Government responds, and how many elections it wins, will determine the eventual narrative. 

But, right now, the last thing our PM needs is encouragement to play the spin game. 


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