09/01/2007 - 22:00

Rudd takes Howard's way

09/01/2007 - 22:00


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One month after the most recent federal election, held in October 2004, State Scene chose to write a predictive column.

One month after the most recent federal election, held in October 2004, State Scene chose to write a predictive column.

The question considered was who was likely to be leading the Liberal and Labor parties at the 2007 federal election.

In the case of the Liberals it was decided to opt for Tony Abbott so, as things presently stand, that’s an incorrect guess.

However, the prediction for Labor was Kevin Rudd, (State Scene November 25 2004, “What odds Rudd v Abbott in 2007?”) meaning that claim is set to be correct.

A thought that has crossed my mind since Mr Rudd’s pre-Christmas leadership emergence has been why I had opted for him when one could have argued Mark Latham would stay on, or that he’d be replaced by Kim Beazley, or else Stephen Smith, or even Wayne Swan could have emerged.

Even though Julia Gillard is now just a heart beat and confirmatory caucus vote from Labor’s top post, she was never seen as likely.

Quite frankly, the reasons for opting for Mr Rudd haven’t been easy to recall, so there’s an element of guesswork about this correct prediction set out below.

However, the major underlying reason for having gone for him was, I suspect, that already by late 2004 Mr Rudd had shown many of the attributes of being a ‘catch-all’ politician.

Before explaining further, it helps to consider the background to the ‘catch-all’ concept that several political scientists have written about.

The origin of this term, according to one of State Scene’s better-informed contacts, is work undertaken by an Otto Kirchheimer (1905-65), a young refugee to America from the Hitler regime after it emerged in 1933.

During the war, Kirchheimer, because of his expertise, especially on the Reich’s banned left-of-centre parties, worked within the research and analysis branch of the US office of strategic services – precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Like so many other such refugees from Nazism, Kirchheimer never returned to Germany.

However, early in the 1950s, during the Christian Democratic era of chancellor Konrad Adeneaur, Kirchheimer visited his homeland.

While there, he understandably discussed with old friends and new contacts the platforms and policy amendments and shifts of Germany’s various post-war parties, and quickly noted that the socialists in particular had largely dumped their pre-war hard line stances on a range of issues, including centralism and socialisation.

This trend away from once firmly held ideological planks led Kirchheimer to conclude that the trend by modern parties was to downplay or scrap earlier ideological tenets, and move towards a centrist line on a range of issues; all done in the hope of catching as many votes as possible so as to gain government.

Today, this may all seem obvious.

But that wasn’t necessarily so in 1953 or 1954, when the trend away from earlier hard-line ideological stances on certain longstanding issues had only just begun.

Kirchheimer was, therefore, something of a trailblazer, a pioneer, a man of insight on the trend within certain oppositions to move towards standing for nothing in particular and attempting to back everything in general, so as to win power.

Now, back to the Labor Party and to Kevin Rudd.

It’s firstly worth noting that Labor has, since about the mid-1960s, also steadily moved away from a range of policies it had ardently embraced in the 1920s.

And Labor’s done this as part of an ongoing bid to catch or capture votes from those it believed were electorally antagonistic to its programs.

The most obvious example, of course, is socialisation of production, distribution and exchange, its long-time electorally debilitating socialisation plank.

Interestingly, Mr Rudd was quoted soon after becoming leader as saying: “I am not a socialist. I have never been a socialist and I never will be a socialist”.

Keep in mind that we’re listening to a man who leads the same party John Curtin and Ben Chifley – both ardent socialists – once headed.

Most Australians weren’t overly enamored with socialism, so Australian Labor, like its German counterpart, eventually made the understandable catch-all bid for votes.

But the catch-all process can also be seen to be operating at even closer quarters; at the personal level.

And it’s here that the emergence of Mr Rudd can be better understood.

Voters can be forgiven for believing the model for Mr Rudd’s political campaigning style may well be none other than John Howard.

He speaks in a similar, non-committal tone and manner.

On top of that, it’s difficult to perceive any major policy differences between the two on anything, including Iraq, the American alliance, industry policy, the role of religion, his opposition to dumbing down education, migrants integrating fully into Australian society, and others.

Both leaders also promise to be big spenders and to therefore head big taxing administrations. Both see Canberra as the font of all action, so both are ardent centralists.

Mr Rudd appears to be modelling himself on Mr Howard in much the same way Mr Howard modelled himself on Bob Hawke, which, among other things, helps explain his presence at all the big cricket, tennis and football events.

Mr Howard has also followed the Hawke government’s approach to constantly boosting welfare spending, since he sees such spending as helping ensure he catches votes and thus retains power.

Note also that the Howard-led Liberals, allegedly the party of free enterprise, only warmed to the idea of privatising government-owned enterprises after Hawke-led Labor blazed the trail in this area by selling off Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank.

Like Mr Hawke, Mr Howard came to see privatisation as a way to be a catch-all politician.

Countless examples of an opposition moving towards the style, approach and policies of a government can be identified.

And the underlying motive for this is the bid to catch-all votes so as to gain power.

Of course one doesn’t need to actually catch-all votes, only just enough to get over that 50 or so per cent hurdle in a certain number of marginal seats.

It should be added that Mr Latham was also moving in that direction until, and for reasons best known to him, at the last minute, during the 2004 campaign, he decided to break rank on government aid to non-government schools, the Iraq commitment and even the Tasmanian timber harvesting industry.

For those three unpredictable and unexpected moves away from a catch-all approach he paid dearly. He lost the election.

Mr Rudd is keenly aware of this.

He knows Mr Howard has a vast array of pollsters, opinion assessors and other experts testing and calculating what to say and when to say it to help catch as many votes as possible.

And because of that, Mr Rudd seems intent on shadowing the Howard approach rather than breaking out in directions that could leave him electorally stranded, as happened to Mr Latham.

What this means is that, as 2007 unfolds, voters will be subjected to quite similar performances by both leaders.

To better appreciate all this it’s worth seeing them not so much as political figures but rather as adept public performers; men who will attract thousands of column centimetres of press comments, radio chit-chat and television coverage.

And as election day approaches it will be ever harder to discern any marked difference, even though both will doggedly try to convince voters they aren’t the same.

Mr Rudd opted for a catch-all approach to campaigning well before October 2004 and practiced such an approach even then, which may help explain why the erratic Mr Latham so disliked him.

But it was the recognition of his ongoing implementation of such an approach as Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman that convinced State Scene then, and subsequently more than half Labor’s caucus, that he, not Mr Beazley, had the better chance of taking Labor into office.


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