Rudd rose up on the death of difference

Kevin Rudd's singular ability to cheat political mortality cannot be separated from a lack of distinction between the major parties' platforms.

Kevin Rudd’s achievement is absolutely, outstandingly, magnificently unique. No-one else, at least no-one in public life, surely could have done what Rudd has done. He is truly the man who would not die.

He has lived through the most excruciating public humiliations at the hands of his colleagues. He was dumped by them as prime minister, denigrated by them publicly, accused of being not just incompetent, but untrustworthy, self-obsessed, a Labor rat, a coward, an abuser of staff, a man who talked big but when it came to it, squibbed every major political challenge.

And yet here he is, prime minister again, the man who would not die, the man who waged a three year campaign of revenge, the man who played a key role in destroying Gillard’s chances of winning majority government in 2010 and has played no small part in Labor’s parlous state in the lead up to the coming election.

Prime minister again!

For all her supposed resilience and toughness, the affection and respect she elicited from her colleagues, the fact that she has managed to hold the government together for three years in a hung parliament, Gillard has proved herself to be a mere mortal. And a mortal woman into the bargain.

And Kevin Rudd, well Kevin Rudd has proved himself to be something else again. The man who wouldn’t die, publicly loathed by most of those who knew him and publicly loved by many who didn’t.

No wonder journalists have had a wonderful time these past three years, for truly, when comes such another as Rudd? And the time of Rudd of course has not yet past. There are at least a few months of that time to go and who knows, the man who wouldn’t die might well politically outlive all his frail mere mortal colleagues.

He has already seen off Julia Gillard and he has seen off seven senior ministers  – some of whom, like Gillard, are quitting politics altogether – all of whom had made it clear that were Rudd to be returned to the top, they would choose political suicide rather than serve in any Rudd government.

Surely nothing like this has happened before in Australian politics.

But here’s the thing: in terms of the future of the country, none of what has happened with Rudd and Gillard, nor the looming gladiatorial fight between Rudd and Abbott, matters very much at all.

As someone once said about university politics, the fewer matters of substance and consequence that are at stake, the more personal and vicious and uncompromising the political battles.

The attempt, first by Rudd when he was prime minister and then by Gillard for the past three years, to paint Tony Abbott as the most dangerous conservative politician in Australian political history, has failed utterly, basically because the proposition was absurd.

Just as absurd was Abbott’s claim that the Rudd and Gillard governments were the most incompetent that Australia had ever seen and in Gillard’s case, a government that was not just incompetent but fundamentally illegitimate, propped up by a couple of conservative independents who betrayed their conservative constituents.

This total focus on the character and personality of Rudd and Gillard and Abbott by the political class and by the vast majority of political journalists during the past six years has a number of causes. The one most mentioned is the digital revolution, which has fundamentally changed the nature of journalism and the way politics is conducted. This may be true, but only to a certain extent. 

For virtually the whole period of Labor governments from 2007 – Rudd’s and Gillard’s – most of the world’s developed economies have been through a deep and enduring recession. In some places like Spain it has been, by any definition, a depression.

And in most of these economies, in Europe and Britain in particular, but also in the United States, the economic crisis is far from over.  In the main, politics has been about competing remedies for the crisis that has befallen these countries.

In the United States for instance, the political debate has been fundamentally between deficit hawks – small government conservatives – and their opponents who argue that austerity measures like those adopted by European countries and by Britain, have deepened the economic crisis they face and have caused misery for the millions of people who remain unemployed.

There has been no such debate in Australia. There has been no need for such a debate. Australia, through luck and perhaps through some of the action taken by Rudd and his treasurer Wayne Swan – and supported in the main by the opposition led by Malcolm Turnbull – suffered no recession at all, not even a shallow one.

In reality, there has been no fundamental disagreement between Labor and the coalition on economic policy, despite all the heated rhetoric about deficits and the need for reining them in and the shame and dire consequences of not doing so. That’s because Australia has not been through the sort of crisis that has plagued much of the developed world.

And anyway, in the modern Liberal Party, who are the ideological warriors for small government  and the Australian version of the American Tea Party activists? Surely not Tony Abbott or Joe Hockey.

If not the economy what are the issues that fundamentally will decide the coming election? Well not the NDIS, the Gillard government’s major reform that is likely to be her legacy, because Tony Abbott is an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme.

Nor will it be the NBN basically because Malcolm Turnbull has convinced Abbott that it’s important to spend big on a new broadband network for Australia and his plan is much like Labor’s NBN but not quite as good and therefore a bit cheaper. Big deal.

There is of course the carbon tax, but chances are Kevin Rudd will quickly move to some sort of ETS, a move that would be secretly supported by half the Liberal Party and might be difficult for Abbott to repeal. It wouldn’t be a tax so he wouldn’t have to break his promise to let get rid of the carbon tax.

Then there’s the boat arrivals, the increasing numbers of them, and while this might be a major negative for Rudd going into the election, in fact there is very little difference in substance between Labor and the coalition on this issue. Abbott won’t be able to turn back the boats and Labor is moving, if Foreign Minister Bob Carr is to be believed, to change the definition of what constitutes a refugee. 

Carr argues that many people on those boats are really economic migrants, wrongly judged to be refugees by Australia’s tribunals and courts. If this area has been ugly politically, it seems that it is about to get uglier, but not because of any major policy differences.

And so it is that in the coming weeks and months, it won’t be policy issues that will dominate politics. It will be scare campaigns from Labor and the Coalition about Abbott and Rudd respectively, about their fitness to be prime minister. It is likely to be vicious and unedifying, but good fun for some. Some journalists in particular.

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