Missed chance to map out agenda for change

Dear Mr Rudd

Edited by Robert Manne

Black Inc, $29.95

With Howard finally gone, the time would seem right for a book that lays out how the new government can go about undoing his legacy.

Unfortunately Robert Manne’s collection of essays, Dear Mr Rudd, fails in this task. This is hardly the “progressive left” challenge to the new government that Dennis Shanahan of The Australian has labelled it.

The book contains chapters by different contributors on specific policy areas. Mostly their focus is to put forward technocratic policy proposals that do not challenge the neo-liberal approach which dominates ruling class thinking.

The chapter on industrial relations, for instance, makes no attempt to analyse whether Rudd’s policy package will sufficiently undo WorkChoices, or to dissect his claims to have struck a better “balance” between employers and workers.

The focus is instead on institutional solutions to managing industrial relations.

Hugh White is given the chapter on defence and the war on terror. While some saw his commentary as critical of the Howard government, he is firmly from within the defence establishment, and a supporter of the US Alliance and Australian participation in the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mark Aarons delivers a broadside on the unions for their supposedly undue influence inside the Labor party. He even comes out against the union campaign against the NSW state Labor government’s power privatisation plan. Apparently this is really a ploy to “destroy” the premier, Morris Iemma.

There are a handful of better chapters. Writing on housing affordability, Julian Disney calls for a substantial increase in spending on public housing, pointing out that funding has been slashed by a third over the last decade.

Pat Dodson argues that the Northern Territory intervention will fail to address Aboriginal poverty and abuse because of the refusal to undertake consultation with Aboriginal communities. And Simon Marginson exposes the damage and distortion of the university system as a result of funding cuts.

The problems with the book are a result of Manne’s own politics. Originally a Cold War warrior on the right of Australian politics, he became a staunch critic of the Howard government’s racism, militarism and neo-liberalism.

He had two basic criticisms of Howard. Firstly his government had no “morals”, and was prepared to cynically deploy racism, fear or whatever tools would advance its electoral position. Secondly it subscribed to a radical neo-liberal and neo-conservative program.

But with Howard gone Manne has lost his political focus. He has few criticisms of the new government and describes himself as “a convinced Ruddite” who voted for Labor with enthusiasm.

Similarly most of the contributors to the book propose ideas that are very close to those the Rudd government is already implementing. Andrew Charlton, who writes on economics, has even taken up a job as an adviser in the prime minister’s office since writing his chapter.

Overall the book is a disappointment. Manne identifies the hope invested in the new government for a change of direction. But the ideas in this book will not bring that about.

James Supple


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