Ruddism and refugees: a debate

Over the last few days, Guy Rundle and I have had something of a debate in Crikey over how Kevin Rudd’s attitude to refugees might develop (Guy’s first piece is here, my reply is here and Guy’s response here). Yesterday, Guy politely suggested that we take it outside, as they say, with  some back and forth on the Overland blog.

In that spirit, here’s two cents from me, to be followed shortly by Guy’s rejoinder.

In essence, it seems to me that Guy’s too optimistic about Ruddism, largely because he treats it as a coherent political philosophy and seeks to predict its evolution from its internal logic.

The problem with that, I reckon, is that Laborism has always been more about pragmatism than consistency. Yes, ALP leaders have ideas, all kinds of ideas, particularly in opposition – but they’re fragile things and they rarely withstand their initial contact with reality. Most fundamentally, the management of a modern capitalist economy imposes its own priorities: your aspiring Labor leader calls for pay rises as a union bureaucrat; as Minister for Industrial Relations, not so much. Inversely, it’s no coincidence that the Labor administrations now remembered for their reforming zeal (Whitlam, Curtin) came to office in the context of mass social movements, with their achievements stemming as much from that pressure than from the fruits of philosophy.

Indeed, the most distinctive Laborite ideas have arisen directly from the contradictions between a commitment to responsible economic management and the pressure of the social democratic base. For instance, the peculiar genius of Bob Hawke’s peculiar genius lay in the realisation that he could deliver neo-liberal reform via the union movement rather than in opposition to it. Hence the Accord; hence Hawke’s emphasis on conciliation.

In that respect, the Hawke example provides a good illustration of the difficulties of taking Laborism on its own terms. Even as he sold the Accord in elite circles as a guarantor of wage restraint, it was being touted (by Laurie Carmichael and others) in key trade unions as a ‘transition to socialism’.

What’s any of this got to do with Rudd and refugees? Well, Guy suggests that Rudd’s Monthly essays established ethical standards that are now asserting themselves in the discussions of asylum seekers. I don’t see that at all. To be honest, I think future generations will look back on the Bonhoeffer stuff with the same incredulity with which we read Carmichael’s gloss on the Accord.

That is, during the election, had Rudd actively campaigned for framework he outlined in his Monthly essays, he might have built a constituency for his ideas that would then have placed him under some pressure to deliver upon them. But, actually, in the mass media, where it really mattered, Rudd consistently sold himself not as a Christian radical but as a social and economic conservative. And, with the possible exception of reconciliation, almost every time there’s been a hot-button issue pitting right-wing populists against the liberal Left, Rudd’s joined the former to give the latter a good kicking.

Why? I’d suggest that, while Rudd quite likes adulation from the liberal intelligentsia (and he Monthly essays were a calculated and cynical attempt to win then over), he’s also conscious that they represent nothing as a political force. What’s more, there’s almost no downside to dissing them. Consider the 2020 forum. When that ridiculous escapade delivered absolutely zilch, did any of the liberals who so talked it up utter the mildest peep of protest?

I guess that’s the heart of my disagreement with Guy. It’s not that I think Rudd will necessarily take the hardest line on refugees. It’s more that, should he decide to do, there’s very little, just at the moment, to stop him.

In the Oz today, Peter van Onselen writes: ‘The number of boats making their way to Australia is on the rise, and Kevin Rudd wants to appear tough by rebuking them without alienating his left-wing base.’

In the bizzarro world of the Australian, Rudd rose to power on the back of a fearsome alliance of trade unions, Islamists and Robert Manne. Back in reality, however, this left-wing base is not so easy to locate. Yes, to his credit Paul Howes from the Australian Workers Union has called on Rudd to show compassion. But the unions are in a pretty sad state. If they’re not capable of fighting around, say, the outrageous laws in the building industry, it’s difficult to imagine them launching a real fight over refugees.

In his original piece, Guy suggested that Labor for Refugees would hold Rudd’s feet to the fire. Well, one would like to think so, but the internal structures of the ALP are so sclerotic and dysfunctional that it’s hard to see real opposition inside the party.

Guy argues that there’s been a general shift on public attitudes to asylum seekers. Perhaps so but politically it doesn’t amount to much until it develops some kind of organisational form. After all, throughout the Howard years, the social attitudes data showed a surprising shift to the Left on all sorts of issues, without this impinging an iota on the rightward drift of public policy. Ideas need organisation to come a material force – and the Left has never been more disorganised than at the moment.

The grass roots refugee campaign, while it has done sterling work, never broke through into a mass movement during the Howard years. Is it currently capable of putting genuine pressure on Rudd? To ask the question is to answer it.

By contrast, I would suggest that Rudd remains acutely conscious of the possibility for populist anti-immigration sentiment. Australia is, after all, something of an anomaly in that it doesn’t yet have a prominent nativist party like those in existence across Europe and the UK, and the amazing public support for the ‘Hey Hey’ blackface performance strongly indicates that there’s scope for such a formation here.

Sure, that anti-immgration sentiment isn’t organised yet either. But there are reasons why it could become a more serious political force than the amorphous ethical sentiment in favour of refugees that Guy cites. After all, where the small-L liberals have the Monthly as their organ, a populist anti-immigrant campaign could count on support from most of the shock jocks and tabloid columnists in the country.

That, it seems to me, the context for Rudd’s current balancing act. On the one hand, the Pacific Solution, the kids in the camps and the rest of it has connotations of Howardism that he’d prefer to avoid if he could. On the other, he will not be outflanked by populist anti-immigrant sentiment, and so he’s saying, over and over again, that he doesn’t apologise for taking a hard line, he’s describing asylum seekers as ‘illegal immigrants’, and he’s blustering about people-smugglers as the ‘scum of the earth’. None of this is accidental.

Because we’re only talking about such a tiny number of refugees, the juggling act is still feasible. Stephen Smiths’ comments don’t seem as significant to me as they do for Guy since, at this stage, when we’re only talking about a couple of boats, there’s still room for individual politicians to express unease about barbed wire and camps. But the real question relates to what will happen if significantly more boatloads of desperate people arrive. In that context, I think it’s far more likely than not that Rudd will adopt, almost at once, the hardest line possible.

I hope Guy’s right on this and that I’m wrong. But I don’t think I am.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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