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Australia: fresh hope in heading off conservative politics

2013-06-26 australia politics.jpg

In with the old: Kevin Rudd has taken back leadership of the ALP Australian Civil-Military Centre and Troy under a Creative Commons Licence

For a year or two I’ve been worrying about the prospect of Australia being led into the conservative austerity-ridden wilderness after the upcoming 2013 Federal election. Now as I write this, I’m glued to the television, watching as the Australian Labor Party (ALP) itself – not the electorate – gets rid of a sitting Prime Minister for the second time in three years.

Ever since former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was unceremoniously dumped by the ALP in 2010, less than three years after he had stormed to power in the 2007 election, the leadership tension between him and his successor Julia Gillard has frequently been the number one political story in the media. From the point of view of political debate it’s been a disaster.

But the night of 26 June has been a game-changer. The leadership tussle is over. Gillard will not contest the coming election so now, finally, we can have an election campaign where the issues are debated instead of more debate on whether or not Rudd will challenge for the leadership again.

Many of us had mixed feelings during Gillard’s time as Prime Minister. It was wonderful to finally have our first female leader. We relished the notion that she is so passionate about education. And she delivered: despite leading a minority government she negotiated hugely significant legislative reform, and together with Treasurer Wayne Swan, continued Rudd’s skilful steering of the economy to avoid the global financial crisis. Unemployment is low, inflation is low and generally the nation is in admirable shape overall, if one ignores the stresses caused by a two-speed economy.

Among the legislative reforms that Gillard pushed through were focused on education, the disability insurance scheme, the progressive restructuring of personal income taxes and putting a price on carbon pollution. But despite all of those successes, Gillard and Swan have simply been unable to convince the Australian people of their achievements. Instead the focus has been on failures and division. Before the last election, Gillard foolishly promised that there would be no carbon tax under her leadership, but was then forced to introduce putting a price on carbon because it was a condition of forming minority government with the Greens and Independents. That ‘broken promise’ has dogged her, even though reasonable people would well know that one has to embrace a changed position when circumstances change.

Sadly Gillard’s deeply-held personal commitment to social justice rarely shone through. Instead she usually stuck to prepared scripts, and delivering them was not her forte. Ironically, her farewell speech tonight was one of the best she has given. She was warm, funny and positive despite the hammering she’d just been through.

So what can we expect if the Rudd leadership Mark 2 should pull the rabbit out of the hat and win this year’s election? For a start, same-sex marriage will be more likely to be seriously debated and hopefully won. Rudd recently came out saying that he had changed his mind on this issue, and that religious-based opposition should not override what the community wants. Many of us were puzzled as to why Gillard continued her personal opposition to same-sex marriage and was not prepared to take a stand on this issue of obvious discrimination. It was particularly puzzling since one of her very senior ministers has a young child in a same-sex relationship, a relationship that is such a brilliant role-model for the cause.

Then there is the carbon tax, which Kevin Rudd championed with so much enthusiasm up till the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations. After two failed attempts to get legislation for an emissions trading scheme through the parliament, he refused to call a double dissolution of parliament to bring it to a head, despite having famously called climate change the greatest moral issue of our time.

But now that Julia Gillard has successfully battled to get the carbon tax in place – and suffered huge criticism when Australia’s fixed carbon price was several times higher than the traded price in Europe – it will be easier for Rudd to argue successfully for the transition to an emissions trading scheme to be brought forward much sooner. The Gillard legislation has the fixed price carbon tax running till 2015 before it transitions to an emissions trading scheme.

And what of the mining super-profits tax that Rudd was attempting to put in place when he was ousted in 2010? At the time, Gillard’s negotiating skills were roundly applauded because she was able to put in place a tax that ended the vitriolic campaign against it from vested interests in the mining industry. Had the anti-campaign not stopped, it might well have led to the Labor Party losing the 2010 election. But even that victory has turned to dust. The billions of dollars that the tax was supposed to raise have ended up only raising hundreds of millions instead, ensuring the government’s balance sheet stayed in the red instead of the promised surplus this year.

Earlier this year Rudd criticised Gillard’s watering down of the mining super-profits tax. He was reported as saying ‘No government should ever take a backwards step in pursuit of the national interest.’ But would he be prepared to take on the mining industry again if he happens to win the forthcoming election?

So should we applaud the dumping of Gillard and the reinstatement of Rudd? Probably yes, particularly if he can give progressive parties a better chance of holding conservatism at bay in the elections which must be held this year. Even if Tony Abbott, the Liberal Party leader, does win the election for the conservatives, Rudd’s performance in the election campaign should at least ensure that the Senate does not also have a conservative majority. We saw the painful results of a conservative clean sweep in the years when former Prime Minister John Howard controlled both houses. If Rudd can at least prevent that, the nation should be grateful.

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