In Victoria, where the Education Revolution has skipped straight past the Five Year Plan and settled into the Great Purges (Victoria University, for instance, will sack an unprecedented twenty-five per cent of its staff in the next few weeks), you might expect academics to have something to say about the Rudd government’s first year. Yet, last week, RMIT’s School of Global Studies, Social Sciences and Planning cancelled its scheduled conference on the anniversary due to a lack of enrolments.
How to explain that collective scholarly yawn?
Here’s one theory: recent events have starkly demonstrated the limits of political office, showing all our politicians to be less the shapers of the world than the shaped, and thus rendering analyses of their performance rather less interesting.
Politics today is all about the financial catastrophe, an event that revealed almost overnight the resemblance between our most cherished economic nostrums and the proverbial umbrella full of holes — they work perfectly, except when actually needed. The latest New Yorker documents, for instance, how, with the system falling all around him, Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, discarded the financial orthodoxy to which he’d devoted his professional life and, like, just started making sh-t up.
As the bankers, so the politicians. George Bush’s conversion from free market fundamentalism to a mutant Keynesianism came, at least, as something of a shock, since W (or, more exactly, the people jiggling his strings) had been genuinely committed to neo-conservatism. But Kevin Rudd’s similar transformation (a year ago, he promised to rein in spending; today he wants local governments to make like drunken sailors) seems entirely unremarkable, since from day one he’s carefully avoided any suggestion of believing in anything much at all.
When assessing Rudd’s first year, the more interesting comparison is not with John Howard but with Peter Costello.
Say Costello had prised Howard’s withered claw from the tiller early enough to win the last election. What would have distinguished his government from the one we have now? Leave aside IR for the moment. What else? It’s hard to say, isn’t it? Costello, who famously marched for Reconciliation, might even have managed the Apology, though he almost certainly couldn’t have brought it off with Rudd’s panache.
And that’s the point. Compared to Rudd, a PM Costello would have been hampered by some lingering beliefs, with his hard Right attachment to IR reform most probably necessitating a die-in-the-ditch defence of WorkChoices. Rudd, by contrast, remains unencumbered by any ideological baggage at all, and so can simultaneously denounce Howard’s IR extremism, while allowing building worker Noel Washington to face gaol for not co-operating with the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
After running a campaign almost entirely devoid of specific policies, Rudd has room to reinvent himself according to the circumstances. His continuing popularity stems less from anything in particular that he’s done and more from a vague impression of youth, energy and pragmatism that counterposes nicely to the angry granddad image of John Howard in his final years.
Howard famously boasted that the times would suit him. Rudd might today say the same thing. An era of economic turmoil, in which politicians find themselves buffeted this way and that, suits a leader without any fixed qualities. An inherent willingness to trim to the prevailing winds is, after all, in its own peculiar way evidence of an inner consistency, along lines that Sam Hoffenstein once explained:
The small chameleon has the knack,
Of turning blue or green or black.
And yet, whatever hue he don,
He stays a small chameleon.
Which is nice for the chameleon. But, with the world gripped with intractable problems (climate change, anyone?), it’s not great news for the rest of us.