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Rescue package proves Rudd is no Howard-lite

20 February 2009 1,064 views No Comment

Some influential but fundamentally misguided Liberal party politicians and conservative commentators maintain that during the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd sold himself to the Australian public as John Howard-lite and therefore won the approval of the so-called ‘Howard battlers’.

The argument goes that Kevin Rudd morphed into John Howard and, for that reason, the Liberals should now move to the right of the political spectrum in order to differentiate themselves from the Labor federal government. It is a simplistic argument that is not supported by the evidence.

Kevin Rudd made no attempt to mirror John Howard’s policies in critical areas that were pivotal to the Coalition’s defeat, particularly in relation to WorkChoices and climate change. Importantly, Rudd carved out his own political identity from the moment he was elected Labor leader in December 2006. In contrast, it remains the great failure of the Liberal party’s last term in office that it did not listen to the Australian community and take steps to regenerate the party’s leadership.

Furthermore, with the continuation of the global economic crisis, the Prime Minister has come out of the closet as being about as far from an economic conservative as can be imagined.

Rudd spent his summer writing an essay which redefined his economic identity. In it he mounted an attack smearing the Liberals, and Malcolm Turnbull in particular, as being responsible for the current economic and fiscal crisis. In essence, Rudd positioned the Labor party as the only political force that can save Australia from the greedy claws of the Liberals, dominated by their demonic former merchant banker leader.

Rudd’s argument has been substantially blunted by Malcolm Turnbull’s clear, principled economic and fiscal stand in federal Parliament against what he argued was the extravagence of Rudd’s $42 billion ‘rescue package’. Indeed the PM’s plan was only ratified after the seven cross-bench senators had twice subjected it to close scrutiny. Even though Family First’s Steve Fielding seemed uncertain as to what to do, Bob Brown and the Greens, and South Australian Independent Nick Xenophon, stayed firm and managed to extract some important concessions for environmental causes, including water buybacks and, in particular, protection of the Murray Darling Basin.

With the federal Labor government’s new stimulus package heralding unprecedented cash payouts and giveaways to millions of Australians, Liberal strategists must have initially been horrified at the size of the spend, and uncertain as to how to stay relevant while opposing a government dishing out such massive ‘incentives’. And this was before the huge amounts of money now required to deal with the utter devastation caused to multiple communities by the recent bushfires.

Despite a predictable short-term dip in the polls, Turnbull has been absolutely correct in insisting that the government’s economic rescue package be kept quite separate from the massive, uncapped, fiscal response to the victims of the Victorian bushfires.

In rejecting key parts of Rudd’s economic stimulus proposal, calling for joint consultation and a more modest spend, and actually voting against the $42 billion package, Turnbull’s stance is likely soon to resonate with a debt-conscious Australian public. As far as the federal Liberals are concerned, it was indeed a shame that as shadow treasurer, Julie Bishop hardly put a glove on Wayne Swan.

At the same time, Prime Minister Rudd should remember some key lessons from his not-too-distant past. During the 2007 election campaign, he won applause for undercutting the Liberals’ spending promises, famously declaring that ‘I have no intention today of repeating Mr Howard’s irresponsible spending spree.’ It is Rudd who now appears to be reckless, at least in some key elements of his economic and fiscal policy.

While the conservatives voted against the government’s ‘rescue package’, there does seem to be bi-partisan support for some substantial expenditure on public works to curb the rise of unemployment and to keep Australia out of recession, especially in the areas of education and transport, although strangely not in health.

However, there is a growing perception that the PM is handing out chunks of money for nothing. At the very least, this gives young Australians the very misleading message that in 2009 a select few can be in receipt of cash without any sense of reciprocity and responsibility.

Hence it is not surprising that a significant number of thoughtful citizens are wondering out loud whether it is really such a good idea to distribute such large financial handouts without any corresponding effort on the recipients’ part.

At the same time, the Australian public has been made more aware of Malcolm Turnbull’s political, social and economic message and of what he actually stands for. This is significant whether or not one agrees with the Liberal leader.

Furthermore, despite a brief blip in the polls, Turnbull has gained some serious momentum, and he should not take a backwards step. People are starting to pay attention, and the next few weeks will be an ideal time to set out a firm future direction for the Liberal party, beyond the short-term issue of the more modest stimulus package Turnbull had proposed.

As the talented federal MP Christopher Pyne maintains, the Liberal party was conceived by its founder as a force for change.

Not taking action on climate change was a prime example of an issue on which the Liberal party was seen as falling short during the last federal election, and it is an area where Turnbull has already staked out some impressive new ground. But the parliamentary and public performance of others on the Coalition’s front bench needs improving if the Liberals (and some of the Nats) are going to be taken seriously on this crucial issue.

Although acceptance of climate change is a near-consensus view among reputable scientists, some representatives of the right wing of the Liberal party continue to consider that it is a fallacy: a conspiracy devised by left-wing academics intent on causing economic mayhem. This is a view that is supported neither by science nor the public. It is a view that ignores political reality.

The Liberal party lost credibility on the environment in the run-up to the 2007 election, and it was a major factor in its defeat. However, there is no reason why the Liberals cannot be both the party of sensible economic management and a dynamic force for environmental change. Malcolm Turnbull is in an ideal position to present it in such a manner. Now he must find a replacement for Julie Bishop.

Spectator Australia 20 February 2009

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