feature | Bob Ellis

194 coverOVERLAND 194
autumn 2009
ISBN 978-0-9805346-1-0
published 22 March 2009

MUSCULAR TIMIDITY

Bob Ellis on Kevin Rudd

1

Fourteen months in, the Rudd government is not as approved or acclaimed as it would like to be, nor its party workers as glad-hearted in victory as they thought they would be. A distinct odour of busy, prim dullness encloses this Prime Minister as it never did Bob Hawke or Gough Whitlam, and there’s a persistent rumour of control-freakery and a mistrust of colleagues that threatens this most talented of ministries with early eviction from government and a subsequent factional war.

It seems wrong that Bill Shorten, Mike Kelly, Bob Debus, Greg Combet, Duncan Kerr, Maxine McKew and Bob McMullan, all of them potential Prime Ministers, are almost never heard of, and when they are they must submit whatever they write or say to the tense, pernickety scrutiny of Rudd’s young minders. It seems an insult to Debus in particular, who does not make mistakes and has been thus far a cabinet minister for twice as long as Chifley, to be still, in his sixty-sixth year, in the third tier of government.

‘Elections are only ever won by Labor from Opposition,’ the esteemed backroomer Bruce Hawker once said, ‘when the leader seems bigger than the party, a person at some distance from it, an intervening, hypnotic Bonaparte.’

Rudd has proved like this in many, many ways. He belongs to no faction. He has no close caucus friends. The votes he commanded a week before he was first Leader totalled five; another forty were Gillard’s. He belongs to a parliamentary prayer group. He opposes abortion. He opposes euthanasia. He goes to wooden church. He speaks Mandarin. He rarely sleeps, and has lost, in a year, more than half of his bleary, overworked office staff. He convened the 2020 summit and swore to ‘respond’ to its recommendations by year’s end and has not done so. He knows what he thinks and will not change too readily. And what he thinks, it now and then seems, is closer to Hillsong or the Salvation Army than to FD Roosevelt or Hugh Gaitskell. Some say he is not a Labor figure but, like Tony Blair, ‘an ideological cuckoo’, one whose conservatism, piety and pragmatism make him unlike those around him.

This does not mean swinging voters dislike him. His relationship with them is assured and intimate. In those matters that most annoyed his party members − the photos of the young naked girl, the carbon reduction target of 5 per cent − he was at one with the ordinary, bland, small-business and God-fearing voters. In his approval of the pulp mill (with caveats) he lost no electoral ground. When Malcolm Turnbull loomed, Rudd’s calm, smooth, lucid inactivity made Malcolm seem tempestuous, jumpy, an unsafe pair of hands, the kind of man − a merchant banker − who would cause an already teetering economy to stumble.

History will show, I think − or I currently think − that it was the economic meltdown that saved Rudd from defeat in November 2010. For by August 2009 his inactivity amid rising petrol prices, rising grocery prices, rising unemployment and what was being seen by the union movement (whose television advertisements had elected him) as a Gillard sell-out to the bosses, was beginning to look like dim, purposeless atrophy. He appeared to have no vision, no true concern for the ‘working families’ (that dread, paralysing phrase) whose insecurity and vengefulness was growing.

The economic meltdown turned all that around. The calm that looked like laziness a month before seemed like wisdom now; the rapid Christmas handouts not Howardesque improvisations but sound economic strategy; the gulping down of the surplus in socialistic regional projects a reasonable response to a national crisis; and the jumpy, testy commentary of Malcolm Turnbull almost unpatriotic.

Rudd at fifty seemed adult and wise; Turnbull at fifty-four adolescent, scatterbrained, unstable. What loomed as a battle of giants became in a month a buzzing, thwarted fly in a bottle, unable to escape, on the desk of a man getting on with the job. Rudd’s serene I-Thou communication with the public (seen best in his half-hour with an audience on Channel Seven), his ability to seem free of neurosis, and responsive, and thoughtful, and reasonable, and cautious, and caring, and on emergency call, put paid, as it turned out, to the Turnbull Insurgency well before Christmas. And Turnbull is now looking over his shoulder (again) at Costello as he and most of the media never thought he would, mere weeks ago. And Rudd, against expectations, has engaged and prevailed, once again.

2

As always, Rudd’s luck was his defining characteristic. He did not lose his seat in 2001 because Beazley campaigned so well in a time of war. He gained his vital Shadow Ministry because Brereton stormed fretfully out of politics. Rudd did not seek nor win the leadership in 2004 when he, like Latham, would have been comprehensively defeated. And he achieved it an hour before the news of Beazley’s brother’s death came through, because Beazley had already brought on a spill. Had Rudd not done so, there would have been sudden sympathy for Beazley and no party vote, and Beazley may have survived another in February, on the grounds that it was then too late for a change.

It was a near-run thing. And Rudd gained the leadership when Labor was on 55 per cent two-party preferred in the opinion polls, and the game was up for Howard, and neither Turnbull nor Costello had the ticker to challenge and roll him. It’s likely a Howard-Costello baton-change as late as September could have saved the Coalition ten seats − and government − but no baton-change occurred. It’s therefore very likely Janette elected Kevin. And how lucky is that? She determined to stay in Kirribilli and lost her party its future.

Rudd was lucky, too, in having at his side his tireless old schoolmate, flatmate and sometime rancid foe Wayne Swan, whose wait-and-see Budget and subsequent prudent profligacy in time of Crash ensured Australia’s economic survival when other countries went in a barrel over Niagara. Though oft-times indifferent and unexciting as a parliamentary performer, though always as sleepless as Rudd himself, though distracted for a few years by prostate cancer, though haggard with exhaustion on many a difficult morning, he was able to get enough of his fingers on enough of the levers to save Australia, as it turns out, from catastrophe.

3

The picture, however, is not as clear as that. Labor’s previous dalliances with the free market, its privatisations of Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank, its selling out of Cottee’s and Arnott’s and BHP to overseas corporations, its abandonment of our entire clothing industry, and its unmurmuring collaboration in the Howard years with much of this economic betrayal, means we don’t, as Rudd complains, ‘make things any more’. And it’s hard to know if his government has the courage to start that painful reconstruction of our national economic variety and stamina.

For ‘making things again’ means more than the odd Green car in South Australia, or the odd cotton farm bought up and sucked of its water in Queensland. It is more than giving every kid its pet computer. It is more than the worshipful invocation of solar energy and ‘replenishing the Murray’. It’s as big an about-face as bringing tariffs back, and in some things, in some industries and experimental pursuits, opting out of the global free market altogether.

In this, as in many things, President Barack Obama will lead the way. He will not only subsidise the building of American cars, he will tax the import of foreign cars. Of course he will. He will not only give tax breaks to companies that keep jobs on shore, he will tax the imported goods of their foreign competitors. Of course he will. He will, in effect, print money. And dare other countries to do the same. And in doing this, he will politically prevail, and economically prevail. Of course he will.

He will bring back protection, big time. And we will either do likewise, and begin to rebuild our manufacturing industries, or miss the bus altogether, and become, as has been long prophesied, South East Asia’s Mexico.

It will take a lot of courage. It will mean admitting that most of the reforms after 1987 − the tariff reductions, the privatisations, the corporatisations, the public-private partnerships, the tollways, the Murdoch studios in the Sydney Showground, the selling off of national treasures like Arnott’s and Qantas, the licensing of foreign companies to gouge the wilderness and take the money home to Texas, the feverish lowering of corporate tax − were wrong, and Keating was wrong, and fundamentally wrong, and stupidly, smugly wrong; and the tedious old fumbling humanist socialism of Tony Crosland and Ben Chifley and Clem Attlee and Lord Keynes and Nugget Coombs was fundamentally right, both then and now; and government investment in most things, and borrowing to fund it, is the way the world will go now; and it’s a train we’d better be on if we are not to be left behind.

It will mean a lot of nifty footwork − banning the goods of corporations that use child labour, or underpay foreign factory workers, or devastate environments, and so on − but it will have to be done. It will mean reasserting the primacy of the nation state, and an end to globalist fantasising, and the Flat Earth theories of the free-market buccaneers, but it will have to be done.

Does Rudd have the courage not only to see such a big shift as this but also to enact it? I doubt it. I doubt he has the ticker.

4

It is, of course, also to be doubted that any Australian politician so placed would have the ticker and would bite the bullet − not this bullet − and thus airbrush from his party’s legend the sustaining fables of the past twenty years, the beautiful sets of numbers, the recession we had to have, the banana republic we did not become. But someone will have to do it, and Rudd, though wily and variable and highly intelligent, seems unlikely to be the one.

He is so addicted to process and procedure and enquiry and orderly delay that the great leap-froggings that leadership requires are, or seem, beyond him. He will not, I think, be able to look serenely at the crumbling of world capitalism, nor plan sensibly for Australia’s role in whatever replaces it − a true World Bank of government bureaucrats policing the big commercial banks that have been (as they were in the early 1930s) the root of the trouble. There are ministers beneath him who could do this − Tanner, for instance; Combet, for instance; Debus, for instance; Shorten, for instance; McKew, for instance − but he himself won’t have the ticker.

Evidence lies in Penny Wong: a mesmerising, Orwellian figure of comprehensive secrecy. No word she utters is completely false, and no paragraph means other than ‘more of the same’. She is spin incarnate. Though a South Australian senator, she shows no concern for the Coorong, and though Environment Minister, no anxious concern for the melting ice, the rising seas, the dying species. The Canberra joke that Penny Wong is ‘the lesbian Chinese bureaucrat Rudd wishes he was’ has a certain kick to it lately. It is hard to know what she is for; she is the acceptable face of Rudd’s warm inner glow.

And she is the public face of the Rudd stance, which I would characterise as ‘muscular timidity’. We will enact the necessary, tepid, vague half-measures with an air of courage. We will upset no corporate polluter. We will undermine Gunn’s pulp mill with flamboyant nitpicking, but never publicly curse or oppose it. We will bewail the slaughter of Gazans, but never, never blame the slaughterers. We will treat it as a natural disaster and murmur ‘what a pity’. We will continue to explore privatisation as a measure, as a future tactic, when it has clearly wrecked the world.

5

That having been said, it is worthwhile, I suppose, to imagine where we might be if Rudd had not prevailed and Howard had survived. Still at war in Iraq. Still tormenting David Hicks. Still traumatising infants in Nauru. Still asserting Aboriginal children were not stolen but ‘rescued’. Still imputing guilt to Dr Haneef, and satanic purpose to the union movement. Still hailing Sol Trujillo as cheap at the price. Still proclaiming global warming a question of smaller import than our coal trade with China. Still scorned and sneered at by the civilised world.

We would still be listening to John Howard’s curdled-vegemite voice at significant funerals. We would still be hearing his mendacious phrases (and he never drew a truthful breath) for twenty-five minutes each weekday, saying Aussies never cut and run, we’re relaxed and comfortable, we decide who comes here, we’re alert not alarmed, we’re aspirational nationalists, we’re a nation of shareholders, we’re loyal to the Queen, and so on. We would still be ashamed, when travelling overseas, to admit we were Australians.

The damage done to us by the Howard years cannot be overstated. There is a culture of youth suicide in country towns that will not soon abate. There is a culture in the cities of workplace thwartedness and recreational drug use that threatens the mental health of everyone under forty. There are house prices and rents so high that children will seem unaffordable, or initially unaffordable, to everyone not brought up Muslim or fundamentalist Christian. There are children whose parents were the 1960s counterculture and will have no children of their own.

Feeding all this is the now unstoppable anorexia of the universities. Night classes are few; the humanities in retreat; the best tutors drunk in early retirement in Queensland; the bars and buffets shut after eight; and the students who in other times would be filling the drama groups and the debating societies are employed at night as waiters to pay the enormous rents of their grubby digs. The Pickhavers, Dentons, Doug Anthony All-Stars and Chasers of the present student generation will have no time to meet, collaborate, work up shows. This, over time, adds up to a voiceless cultural paralysis as great as, say, the closing down of the Cambridge Footlights Club or the Drama Department of the BBC. At a time when our culture most needs to reassert its voice, American values and habits are overwhelming it, and stifling even the universities. To restore the compulsory university union fees would cost Rudd nothing; it requires no more than a vote in the House and a minister’s signature in biro on some paper. It is costless legislation, for the user pays for it. And he will not do it. And it is hard to see why.

Worst of all for the universities were the bean-counter administrators who cut the humanities courses and emphasised the economics-and-business-administration side of things, the very courses whose graduates have now wrecked the world. Is there a school of economic thought less than sixty years old that is now regarded with anything other than contempt? Is there an economist other than Keynes who has any currency now? Is there a School of Business Administration that has any currency, and enjoys any credibility, among those Chinese, Indians, Irish and Saudi Arabians who guide the planet’s commerce? Is there a course in this field in Australia worth taking? It’s hard to see where, or which.

6

This brings us to the most difficult question which Rudd must (and won’t) address: how do we conduct ourselves as a nation, an economy and a people in the coming years?

Are we to prop up the tottering puppetry of the free-market ethic that is killing a child every three seconds in the Third World and giving Sol Trujillo $90 million reward for sacking 30,000 qualified Australians from their honest jobs? Or are we to tear it down? Are we to walk on the leash of American stupidity through more anti-Muslim adventures in the Middle East and the Subcontinent? Or are we to break free? Are we to keep nodding happily at the war crimes of Indonesia in Aceh and West Irian? Or are we to raise a mild, dissenting voice? Are we to keep trading affably with China, a regime that executes accountants and sells their body parts to needy millionaires? Or are we to speak, sometimes, of their abominable record on human rights? Are we to keep trading with India whose child slaves work in Dickensian conditions (see Slumdog Millionaire) to make the goods we buy so cheaply, and say the source of them doesn’t matter? Are we to imagine we can sustain forever an economy based on serving each other in ethnic restaurants and taking Japanese tourists on harbour cruises past the Opera House and robbing high-rollers blind in gambling casinos in an era when nobody much will be able to travel any more, and spare cash will be scarce? Do we let the brute greed of our corporate classes guide what we do as a nation, or is there a better way?

There is, of course, but the muscular timidity of the Rudd government will not hear of it however many 2020s are glamorously convened with star-studded seminars meekly propounding sensible breakthrough ideas.

It’s a return to what might be called the Hawke-Kelty Settlement of the mid-1980s. Some tariffs were off, but not all. Some had come down, but not too far. Houses were affordable, rents within a student’s reach, university courses abundantly available day and night. Wages were stable, and kept a family. Workplaces were safe, and work-hours reasonable. There was a government-subsidised theatre scene that did original Australian work, a tax-break-funded cinema that was prospering, clothes were still manufactured in country towns, jam factories still making jam, biscuit factories still making biscuits.

The foreign-owned car industry was still employing tens of thousands of Australians. Wine was grown and was selling here and overseas. Parking stations did not charge the annual wage of a Nicaraguan for a day’s parking. There were foreign banks, but a counter-balancing Commonwealth Bank too. There was a countercultural press, a National Times, a Sydney Morning Herald, an Age with a variety of opinion in it, not just Neocon Lite. You could rent a theatre like the Stables for $400 a week. You could sing in a pub that had no poker machines. You could cut a disc that would not be pirated. Unions had a say in how they worked, and how safely, and when. There was a thing called the Social Wage, and it had meaning. You could buy a house in Coogee for $120,000.

It was a time when things were in balance, with no side winning too much, no CEO gorging on the wealth gouged from the pockets of sacked workers. Kerry Packer bought out Clyde Packer’s interest in Australian Consolidated Press for $3 million. It was as long ago as that.

It was before the New Gilded Age kicked in, and the ethic of Gordon Gekko began to pillage and rape the civility of the western world. It was humanist and ramshackle and variable but merciful in its heart.

It was known as ‘fair go’. It was a time when a song like ‘Hey, True Blue’ had meaning. It was the Land of the Day Before Yesterday, and it was good to be there. We felt we had a future then, as we do not now.

It was a time too when Kevin Rudd completed his Whitlam-funded university degree and found work in a bureaucracy not yet harried and bullied into craven subservience, and in a Labor Party not yet embedded with the Big End of Town and their subsequent financial crashes (in their own small way so like the big one happening now), a Labor Party that had not yet entirely dismayed its True Believers nor driven half of them into the Greens.

It was, in fact, the Hawke era, not the disastrous Keating era which followed it, when everything went too far (and Qantas, amazingly, was sold to a corporate entity that endangered life), nor the Howard era when mortgages and rents became so high that civilised life − a one-job marriage, family holidays, a weekend at home, occasional foreign travel − became impossible on the money most people were fearfully making, not knowing when they would be retrenched. It was good as things were going to get and seemed, till last September, gone forever.

7

For last September and the weeks of economic avalanche that followed meant a chance to start again. To build new banking institutions and bring house payments permanently down. To fund with government borrowings new solar and wind industries, new transport methods, and new sources of clean water, which would help delay the new hot climate that would do such harm. There was time and permission to look at the whole Big Picture − as the 2020 was meant to do − and come to some useful decisions. To abandon the fantasy of global market capitalism (soon there will be 180 countries competing equally on a level playing field and all winning), which has done such harm, and our consequent unfettered alliances with tyrannies, and our habit of hiring fools like Trujillo to smash up our amiable civilities, our country towns, our union-argued protections, our calm of mind, and paying him big bucks to do it.

To realise why we don’t buy new cars any more, and why we lack, at this year’s turning, the audacity of hope.

All of the above may be wrong, of course, and this government may be on a steady trajectory to an achievable end, but it is hard to see what that end might be.

It will certainly, now, survive the next election. It will certainly put a lot of computers in schools. It will certainly give pensioners a few more dollars a week. It will certainly preside over a tumble in house prices that will better things for a while.

But the big things Obama will be tackling? No, I don’t think so.

In its muscular timidity it will find no option but believing, after committees of enquiry, that the coming bad news is inevitable, and we’re coping as well as we can.

Bob Ellis is a freelance writer of books, screenplays, television scripts, plays, essays and articles. He has also been a speech and slogan writer for a number of prominent Australian politicians. See www.bobellis.com.au

© Bob Ellis

Overland 194-autumn 2009, p. 7

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