The beginning of the fall of Kevin Rudd has been confidently assigned to the abandoning of the CPRS. Considerable truth in the proposition, as the rise in the Green vote shows, but it is certainly not the whole truth.
The first failure of Rudd was in the aftermath of the 2020 Summit. Remember it? Seems like another world now. The new prime minister called together a conference of experts and others to come up with ideas across the whole spectrum of society culture and environment. The concept promised a great symbolic and actual break with the Howard years of know-nothingism. And it was the equivalent of Barack Obama’s break with the Bush years “change you can believe in”. There were many photo opportunities at the Summit, impassioned debates, white boards filled with ideas, and new Labor ministers sitting, among equals, in the relevant workshops. And there was Kevin himself. In shirt sleeves, sitting humbly on the floor, leaning against a wall, seriously taking notes. There was, rather like the Copenhagen conference still to come, a time limit to reach consensus, and there were furious discussions among splinter groups, bringing resolutions and summaries back to the main groups, and then the triumphant, just finished in time, presentations by celebrities, and others, of the main conclusions and ideas. Kevin Rudd took them gratefully.
The reason this all seemed like the start of a whole new age of enlightenment in Australian politics is that it was such a contrast with the previous 11 years. John Howard himself had little interest in anything except the creation, by deregulation and Work Choices and a GST, of an environment in which the wealth gap between rich and poor individuals and large and small businesses could widen considerably. Oh, and cricket. Anything else was political correctness, and only the concern of a few basket weavers in Balmain, of no interest to Howard’s battlers. One of Howard’s ministers, a certain T. Abbott, made it explicit that he had no interest in hearing from experts, but all of them behaved in the same way – no need for expertise when your ideology tells you exactly what to do. As a result there was a build up of flawed approaches, and ignored research, in a whole range of issues – health, education, environment, indigenous issues, social issues, culture – a backlog of frustration for the thousands of people who knew the Howard approach to issue X was wrong but had no means of contributing to a different solution.
And then suddenly there was Mr Rudd, here to help, and all of that pent up frustration poured out in a wave of goodwill and hope at the 2020 summit, just as it was to do during the Barack Obama campaign the following year.
The Summit was over, the contributors went home, and waited for the actions that would certainly follow. Expertise was valued again in the brave new world of Kevin07, and things would be put right. Ministers would be phoning them. Draft legislation would appear, boards composed of experts would be established, action would ensue, probably before Christmas. Certainly before New Year 2008.
Only it didn’t. None of that happened. Watched phones never rang, letters from the Prime Minister’s department never appeared in mailboxes. It had all been for nothing. This was the first inkling that Rudd was just another politician, that the Summit had all been for show, a kind of election campaign stunt held after the election. That ideology was still firmly in the saddle, just a different ideology. Labor was, in many cases, simply continuing Howard government non-expert-based policies, and where it wasn’t it was full steam ahead in different directions, also without the help of experts.
And back home the Summiteers began muttering to their circles of friends, and disillusion with the Rudd approach grew and grew. The abandoning of any attempt to deal with climate change was just the most obvious of the consequences of the failure to absorb expertise into the work of government. The 2020 summit was the first, and the start of the downhill ride that was to culminate in a massive Green vote and Bob Katter with the balance of power; and both Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama, who similarly and spectacularly has failed to live up to apparent promise, have suffered similar falls from grace in the opinion polls.
They say you should never, in politics, ask a question you don’t know the answer to. The other side of this is that if you don’t know the answer to something (and politicians never do) then ask an expert.
And Kevin Rudd has shown that you should never ask an expert a question if you are not going to act on their recommendations.
What will the next PM do?