By the time the Labor caucus moved to knife him, Rudd’s public support had evaporated. This was a major turnaround. Rudd was elected in a thumping landslide, securing the biggest swing to Labor since the Second World War. John Howard’s loss of his seat symbolised the huge Labor victory.
Many commentators argued that Rudd won because he portrayed himself as a younger version of Howard and a self-proclaimed “economic conservative”. In reality, a deep-seated desire for change explained the scale of Howard’s defeat. Far from reshaping Australian society in his own image, Howard caused people to become less conservative and more pro-union.
When Howard took power, 17 per cent preferred increased social spending to tax cuts. Nine years later it was 47 per cent, according to the country’s largest survey of social attitudes. Support for privatisation plummeted: from 30 per cent support for privatising Telstra to 9 per cent. Those who thought big business had too much power rose to 62 per cent.
This shift to the left was expressed in the revulsion against WorkChoices. This was a policy that summed up Howard’s neo-liberal ideology—and voters overwhelmingly rejected it. Over climate change and the Iraq war, Howard’s policies were rejected too.
In his early days as prime minister, Rudd’s approval rating soared to record levels as he emphasised his break with Howard’s policies. He ratified Kyoto and apologised to the Stolen Generations.
But there was a glaring contradiction between the hopes for change and what Rudd planned to deliver. Rudd’s pro-business approach meant he would be unable to deliver significant change over IR and climate change or to take the side of ordinary working class people.
As soon as he became Labor leader Rudd moved to reassure business he would work for them. He set up a special business advisory council, chaired by Rod Eddington, a board member of corporations including Murdoch’s News Corp, Rio Tinto and JP Morgan. Rudd’s close relationship with Australian Industry group chief Heather Ridout led to her being described as a de facto member of Cabinet.
Although Rudd talked about scrapping WorkChoices, big business was by and large happy to live with his IR laws—because they kept the bulk of WorkChoices intact. While he sucked up to big business, Rudd thumbed his nose at the unions. Labor refused to get rid of the ABCC, Howard’s anti-union commission set up to harass the building unions.
For all his talk about “working families” Rudd delivered little for ordinary people. Talk of action to halt the rising cost of living came to nothing—even the stunt of his GroceryWatch scheme was abandoned.
When the global economic crisis hit, Rudd stepped up his rhetoric against “extreme capitalism” but delivered only quick cash injections into the economy, designed to maintain business profits. The school buildings and insulation scheme fiascos saw people begin to question whether his government was capable of delivering on its promises.
Despite the apology, he continued and entrenched Howard’s “Intervention” in Aboriginal communities in the NT, a return to assimilationist policy.
When Rudd decided to shelve his CPRS climate plan it destroyed his credibility, and saw him lose a million voters in a fortnight, according to Newspoll.
Rudd had spent over a year and a half promoting his emissions trading scheme, then seemingly dropped it overnight. But it was his deference to business that destroyed his enthusiasm to seriously tackle climate change. He was unprepared to push anything that would damage business profits—and so gave them endless concessions in designing his useless emissions trading scheme.
He followed this up with another backflip on refugees, abandoning his promise to run a more humane refugee policy by freezing refugee visas for Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers, and tearing up Labor’s promises to make detention a last resort.
By the time he tried to change the subject by announcing his mining super profits tax, most people were no longer listening. And as always his plan was compromised.
While he tried a populist attack on the huge profits the mining bosses were making, most of the proceeds of the tax were set to be handed back to big business. Again there was little for the working class people who had swung towards Rudd in droves at the 2007 election.
With his public support tanking, the Labor caucus began to move against him in the hope of saving the election.
Julia Gillard’s honeymoon has probably saved Labor from election defeat. But she has stored up all the same problems as Rudd by continuing most of his policies.
Unless Labor delivers something for its working class supporters, it won’t be long before disillusionment grows again.
By James Supple