A stock-take on modern times: Whitlam, expectations, trust and Kevin07

This was my submission to the Spectator’s 2018 Thawley Essay Prize. The theme was ‘the next great hashtag’. I wasn’t successful this time but, perhaps like most, I feel an element of trust needs to be restored to government.

Restoring prestige to government

For all the discussion about distrust in government, or how polarised politics is becoming, it’s worth noting that Australian politics has never been an easy game.

Governing is, regardless of the team you’re on, naturally difficult in our modern Westminster system – a realising experience the more one is exposed to government process, a sea of existing policy commitments, the party machine, legislative requirements, Cabinet submissions, a noisy legislature and a deeply polarised media culture.

But if there’s ‘a spirit of the times’ then ours must surely come close to a politics of retribution. Or, as one US conservative puts it, a world where ‘dogs not only must win but cats must lose’. And it’s not just in politics where the practice of trading blows with a certain venom has seeped into public life. It’s evident in television dramas, award ceremonies, celebrity commentary and through social media. Complex issues, from offshore detention to federal energy subsidies, can be reduced by some to simple hashtag advocacy (#KidsOffNauru #StopAdani).

The extent of public fatigue in politics is understandable. One can appreciate the frost that forms if you’re a politician trying to undertake difficult policy maintenance with thrift, or argue for traditional values in the public square, only to see on our screens sensationalism, or a simple appeal to easy politics win the day. Constant electioneering and condensed election cycles also have the unhelpful effect of muddying government consistency and driving expectations.

But for those that feel public leadership is ultimately a matter of high principle matched with smart politics, or that there should be some place for genuine persuasion through public discussion, it does leave one wondering what it’s all for. We ultimately expect reasonable things from our governments. But too much government and too much promising is like an over-used hashtag – once over-done, it’s hard to resuscitate credibility.

To even look at curbing tribalism and restoring some trust in politics, let alone discovering what the ‘next big hashtag’ might be, it’s worth looking at how we got here.

Many conservatives are right to lament the 1960s and 1970s as a turning point not just in Australian but Western politics – an era of government expansion, tumbling values and moral unravelling. But a more recent and often unacknowledged event has catalysed our contemporary woes – the heightened and then collapsed expectations of the first Rudd prime ministership.

Of course, it is silly to locate all our national problems in one place or throw them onto one man. But if there’s a long shadow cast over Australia’s national politics, that will be there for decades to come, then it is the politics of Kevin07 – big government and small expectations or expansive claims and minimal delivery. Government is not omnipotent and all knowing, despite Rudd’s assertions and the actions of his colleagues.

Like Gough Whitlam of a previous era, Rudd presided over an unprecedented growth in the scope and scale of government that, if not measured solely by dollars spent, failed. Both leaders rode a rapidly evaporating wave of popular support. Both did whatever they could to get in front of a camera. And both made intensely lofty promises that were never fulfilled.

Whitlam promised less union friction. He promised to reduce inflation, stoke employment and reduce the cost of home ownership. Yet as Patrick Tennison’s 1976 The Lucky Country Reborn shows, Whitlam’s equally short stint as prime minister saw “new high peaks of industrial strikes and union militancy”, inflation rising from 14 to 17 per cent, unemployment doubling and the cost of home ownership going beyond the $4,000 to $6,000 increase promised.[1] The long list of unfulfilled promises, of course, goes without mentioning Whitlam lighting the fuse on our biggest political crisis since federation – the 1975 dismissal.

Rudd, following a similarly short and unsuccessful trajectory, also promised the world – school halls, education revolutions, home insulation schemes, a new racial chapter with a national apology to the stolen generations, cash payments to individuals, and the National Broadband Network (NBN). Kevin07 – arguably a hashtag before hashtags – became the symbol for progress, action and government knows best. But soon school halls sat empty, computers lay in boxes, standards declined, home insulation went fatally wrong and, ten years on, identity politics seems to be on an ever-increasing spike. The NBN, a project that Rudd boasted would be delivered by 2016 at a cost of $29.5 billion, still sits undelivered at a cost of $50 billion at the end of 2018.[2] In all probability, experts say, it will never make a profit.

Maritime borders are another standout and tragic let down, with Rudd’s relaxed regime grimly opening the possibility to larger loss of life at sea. In 2008, a slow trickle of boats and people – buoyed by the Kevin07 victory – grew into 20,000 by 2013. Eventually, there would be 50,000 illegal arrivals on over 800 boats, creating the need and cost for 17 new detention centres.[3]

Repayments are another calamity of Rudd’s legacy. Gross debt is hovering at around $578 billion, while budget surpluses have been pushed back by Treasurers on both sides for years as repayments and interest on the Kevin07 spending spree has proved harder to manage than anticipated.[4]

By contrast, all of Rudd’s actions are a complete reverse to what Australia had experienced under nearly twelve years of John Howard, who possessed an operating model so alien to public life today – one based on trust. As Paul Kelly wrote in The March of Patriots, “Howard knew he was not loved by the people and he didn’t expect to be loved. He sought, instead, their respect and, to use a famous word – trust. Howard had a precise grasp of what trust meant – winning the votes of people who disliked him or disliked many of his policies. That was trust, and it was measured by results.”[5]

For politicians like Rudd and Whitlam, the chief lesson is that the trust architecture – years in the making – can dissolve in a short space of time. In playing this game, political expediency outwits discipline. And ironically, in perhaps the most deft political hospital pass of recent times, it was Julia Gillard who suffered directly from the damage of the Rudd leadership. Paired with a hung parliament, Gillard – who even many conservatives thought could have made a decent prime minister – fought to resurrect a legacy of collapsing expectations with an added element of difficulty – limited authority and the need to placate an angry rival.

How has our disillusionment with Rudd polarised our politics? Rudd-politics has weakened governments, elevated ‘noise’ over static, let people down, forced Australians to locate their political expectations in institutions not equipped to handle political change effectively (for example through sporting stars), and driven the appeal of populism and simplicity to complex national issues on economics, social cohesion and growth. A hashtag, after all, will not balance a budget or deliver sovereign borders.

Despite such damage, there are short attention spans and narrow memories in politics. Rudd has just written two extensive books on his journey in public life and its culmination in the prime ministership, and has spent several semesters shaping the next generation of young global minds in public policy at Harvard University.

And for at least one vocal journalist, it is not Rudd but Howard who is responsible for today’s regrettable politics by failing to acknowledge frontier wars, turning the Tampa away, delivering the Pacific Solution, and breaking apart unions as part of the 1997-98 waterfront dispute.[6]

Ultimately, however, Australia’s national character is not one of sinking into melancholy. And once again, with a certain irony, the most visible element of Rudd’s damage to national politics is actually a process of ‘inversion’ – an aide memoir for future leaders on how not to run a country, pass the cost to future generations and, in a reverse of Howard’s maxim, ‘over promise and under-deliver’.

For a future Australian government this means not so much replicating the policy prescriptions of the Howard era but doing all of the things Rudd did not do – being serious about what is solvable and what isn’t, stimulating cultural confidence, focusing on the signal and not the static, and finding at least some humility while garnering authority.

If there’s an element of the Howard legacy that endures, or I would argue brushstrokes of the Abbott prime ministership, it is a government actually leading on economic, international and security problems rather than the other way around.

Indeed, the Howard era provides an example of governing where expectations align with getting things done. So, if there must be a ‘next great hashtag’ – setting aside a strong preference for none at all – then it might be about returning some sense of modest expectations and (apologies in advance) ‘#trust’ to Australian politics.

Picture source: Australian Beers

[1] See respective pages 17 (union militancy); 24 (inflation at 17 per cent); 23 (unemployment at 5.3 percent by October 1975); 31 (home ownership) in Patrick Tennison, The Lucky Country Reborn, Hill of Content, Melbourne, 1976.

[2] Jess Dorsett, ‘NBN Co is a ‘calamitous train wreck’ that may never make a profit, Malcolm Turnbull says, laying blame with Labor,’ ABC, 23 October 2017 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-23/nbn-malcolm-turnbull-labor-to-blame-for-calamitous-train-wreck/9076324.

[3] Peter Dutton, ‘Opinion Piece: From Europe to Exmouth – border breaches remain,’ Courier Mail, 25 April 2018, Available at https://minister.homeaffairs.gov.au/peterdutton/Pages/Opinion-Piece-Courier-Mail-.aspx.

[4] Matthew Lesh, ‘Budget 2018: What Have You Achieved?,’ Institute of Public Affairs, 9 May 2018, https://ipa.org.au/publications-ipa/budget-2018-what-have-you-achieved.

[5] Paul Kelly, The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2009, 294.

[6] Tony Wright, ‘John Howard and the politics of division: Kerry O’Brien looks back,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 8 November 2018, https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/john-howard-and-the-politics-of-division-kerry-o-brien-looks-back-20181107-p50emt.html.

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