<i> EDITORIAL: Welcome to a labored version of Howard </i>

21:38, Feb 17 2009

The pundits always say the latest election is the most important in a generation. Probably some clot said it about yesterday's Australian poll as well. But it was obviously nothing of the sort. There were no great issues at stake. Kevin Rudd matched every promise John Howard made, plus or minus a minor bell or whistle. John Howard matched every promise Kevin Rudd made, minus a quibble or a squeak. Their big fights were over mere symbols, such as the Kyoto Accord that is, they were about nothing. The real blood was shed in gaffes and stunts, such as the anti-Islam "Labor" letter put about by the idiot husband of a dimwitted West Sydney Liberal. The 2007 election was not one of the great, glorious turning-points of Ocker history. It was a fight over who should pull the levers.

What sounded like large and genuine disagreements turned out, in time, to be nit-picking over trifles. True, Howard swore to the end he would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and that supposedly showed him up as a lonely old goat who didn't know what was going on. But the real climate change issue was what to do next, not about where to take the rapidly-disappearing accord. And here the disagreements between the Coalition and Labor were not huge. Both agreed that the Third World would have to share some of the carbon cuts, but what form the cuts would take is unclear. So the notion that Rudd offered a bright green future for Australia, while with Howard it was all coal and smoke, is wrong.

All the other "big" issues had a tendency to disappear into the fine print. Rudd opposed Howard's extremist industrial relations law, designed as it was to bury the unions and put the bosses in the box seat. But Howard had also watered it down a bit, and all Rudd's proposed reforms would do was dilute it a bit more. There is no return to the old system, and Rudd has been as hard-faced as any Stalinist in clobbering dissident unions who buck his line. Rudd, married to a multi-millionaire businesswoman, has been a cautious wonk all his life. He has no experience of and no sympathy with the lives of working people. He is a nice middle-class boy who is just slightly on the liberal side of centre. He is Tony Blair from Queensland.

So Rudd did not represent the big policies of the Australian Labor past. He did not offer the liberationist and visionary path of Whitlam. He didn't offer the free-market toughness of Hawke. He offered Liberal Lite, or Howardism with a human face. In the dying days of the campaign he even promised to intercept and turn back boatloads of refugees, to ignore the republic in his first term, and not to sign a "treaty" with the Aboriginal people. Not only the mortgage would be safe with Kevin. Everything else that offered the least challenge to the settled lives of the Aussie middle classes would be quarantined as well.

It will be said that this is what happens when ideology drops out of political argument, that affluence brings policy "convergence", that swinging voters set the tone of elections and that in post-modern, post-Cold War politics the swinging voters are even more pallid, timid and uninterested than before.

No doubt there is some truth in this. But if politicians never even try to inspire their people or reach beyond the focus groups, focus groups will rule forever. Rudd's press conferences were technical marvels: he could recite his pale policies at 200km an hour, impressing all with his quickness and command. But what was he actually selling? The status quo without that fibbing, irritating old geezer. How inspiring.



Sunday Star Times