Rudd’s reaffirmation of the Third Way?

There’s been quite a bit of buzz in the media over the weekend about a 7700 word essay on the challenges posed by the global financial crisis that the Prime Minister has produced for the next edition of The Monthly magazine. Apart from being quite a uniquely direct intellectual contribution to debate by the sitting leader of a nation, the essay looks set to revive hostilities along traditional ideological lines. In seeking to frame the global financial crisis as a signal that the neoliberal economic doctrine popular in recent years is fundamentally flawed, the Prime Minister is opening the door for Federal Labor to make a return to its social democratic roots. One could almost believe that Tony Blair’s nerdy antipodean brother is alive and well and living at Kirribilli House.

Those lovers of ideology over at The Australian have already produced not one but three opinion-based pieces on Rudd’s essay, together with a video analysis from Dennis Shanahan. Both Paul Kelly and Lenore Taylor see the essay as an opportunity for a new era of distinction between Australia’s major parties to begin, with Rudd’s Federal Labor visibly leaning a little towards socialism, and Turnbull’s Opposition staunchly defending the free market liberal agenda. There is more than a hint of the suggestion in both pieces of an unspoken truth; these guys really want Turnbull back in the game, and Rudd’s Labor tarred with the old-school, old Labor brush. Of course, they don’t really give away whether or not they have actually seen the complete essay.

As someone with a fairly inherent social democratic bent, I don’t really see a problem if the Prime Minister makes an attempt in the essay to use the fallout of the global financial crisis to push for a more balanced economic agenda. In an time when the leader of the free world is engaging in large-scale nationalisation programs and propping up insolvent giants, surely only the most deluded observer could believe that something was not a bit rotten in the state of the global economy’s regulatory regimes. At least for me, the need for greater balance in the nation’s economic affairs has been apparent for some time; it’s just plain common sense given the problems we know the world is facing today – an absurd patchwork of rich and poor, and a subliminal devaluation of the common good. To a large extent, Rudd may be seen as getting on the bus far too late, if he really does believe that it is only the global financial crisis that has engendered a need for significant systemic change. I will however reserve judgement on the essay until it is published in full.

The magazine will be available in newsagents this Wednesday. You can read the first 1500 words of the essay online here.

ELSEWHERE: Mark has more at Larvatus Prodeo, as does Jason Soon at Catallaxy.

Policy narratives and Michael Cooney

I was taken by Per Capita policy director Michael Cooney’s observations on the political narrative of the Rudd Government and Rudd’s recent speech to the Sydney Institute. The reformist centrism that Federal Labor has embraced under Rudd promises to pose a real challenge to the Coalition moving forwards, assuming that the government continues on its present generally upbeat course for a while yet. Cooney summarises the problems facing the Liberal and National parties as follows:

And the challenge for conservatives is enormous. The conservative populist criticism of Rudd is two-fold: that the Government is dealing alternately in symbolism (they say: Kyoto, the apology) and trivia (they say: petrol prices, grocery bills).

This already fails on two grounds. First, the symbolism is positive, and has public support, while the opposition to it is inherently backward looking. Second, what they say is trivia is at the heart of everyday life in middle Australia.

While the symbolism remains positive and unifying rather than dividing, and the government continues to view the so-called “trivia” of people’s everyday lives as an important issue, one would have to think that the Opposition is going to really struggle to make an impact. Much does depend on the Budget, and whether or not the likes of Turnbull and Nelson can manage to make some valid criticisms of what Federal Labor ends up bringing to the table. Realistically speaking, there should be some scope for this, given that the government has made some sizable spending commitments and yet professes to be deeply concerned about inflation. However, whether or not the public adopts any concerns raised by the Opposition as their own remains to be seen.

What is clear is that the Rudd Government has in its short time in office already carved out a policy narrative (as Cooney has summarised so succinctly) for itself. Unfortunately for conservative voters and adherents of the Liberal and National parties, I don’t think at this stage we can say the same for the Nelson Opposition. We still don’t really have a good feeling for what they are all about post-Howard. The reason for this, of course, is that they collectively don’t really know yet either.