QUARTERLY ESSAY 36 Australian Story



Greg Melleuish

Mungo MacCallum takes a meandering walk through a highly impressionistic story of Australia to answer what for many of us, including, I think, Mungo, is the great puzzle of contemporary Australian politics: what exactly is it that makes Kevin Rudd so popular? By the end of his excursion he manages to convince himself that he has discovered “Kevin’s secret.” This is that Kevin has given Australians “back their Lucky Country … he took them back to the bedrock of their legends, their values and their dreams.” They believe that he has “integrity” and they can “trust” what he is doing.

Now Mungo, after working himself up into a bit of a lather, after quoting an amount of bush poetry in an effort to demonstrate that Kevin is an heir to THE Australian tradition, may believe this to be the case. But I, for one, remain unconvinced. The puzzle of Rudd remains. The puzzle remains, I think, because the method is all wrong. I do not think that there is much to be gained by linking Rudd to a highly romantic and mythological account of the Australian story. Rudd is not like a figure out of Banjo Paterson; he is not Dad Rudd MP (and I wonder why no one has shown this movie in the last couple of years). Rudd is a highly skilled professional politician with a lot of experience as an administrator. He is a man who earned the nickname “Dr Death” when he worked for Wayne Goss.

If anything, the key to understanding Rudd lies in the direction that Australian politics has taken over the past twenty years in relation to the longue durée of Australian historical development. Rudd is not the first politician of his type to emerge in Australia: both Bob Carr and John Howard may be considered to be antecedents. Neither of them conformed to the “Australian legend” and yet they were both supremely successful politicians. The point is that the days of Henry Bolte and Robert Askin, larger-than-life figures who perhaps did owe something to the Australian legend, are gone, never to return, even in Queensland.

The central issue is the task of the leader in a democratic society at a time when the role of government has become increasingly complex, and the demands placed on government ever greater. It is, of course, one of the great myths surrounding “neo-liberalism” that governments have done less and less over the past twenty-five years. Even as they attempted to privatise and reduce their activity, they found themselves legislating more, regulating more and doing more. The real issue is the extent to which they can actually do all that is desired of them, as opposed merely to appearing to have everything under control.

Australia, we are constantly reminded, is one of the oldest democracies in the world. Its political leaders have to operate as the leaders of a democracy. They must act in accord with the general wishes of the majority or face the consequences. The settlement that came into being after Federation expressed the desires of Australian democracy. Its primary desire was to protect the interests of that small number of Australians of largely British descent then living here. Hence it had a desire to exclude those who were different, and to create mechanisms that would ensure a “modest comfort” for most people living in Australia. 

Mungo is correct: it was concerned with “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Its policies of racial exclusion, tariff protection and arbitration were extremely popular. But they can hardly be described as idealistic. They were selfish policies that worked by passing the costs of Australian egalitarianism onto other groups. These included producers in other countries and Australian farmers. Peter Spencer is not the first rural victim of egalitarian urban Australia.

More importantly, as W.K. Hancock demonstrated in his classic Australia, these policies were not particularly effective and were only able to be sustained because Australia was rich in resources in relation to its small population. They became unsustainable as the Australian population increased over the next fifty years. The crunch came in the 1980s when a Labor government instituted “neo-liberal” policies, not out of ideology but necessity. These liberal policies were not popular with the wider electorate; they were something to be endured rather than loved (as White Australia had once been).

The message from the government in the years since 1983 has been that we should all do more for ourselves. The desire of the democratic electorate has been that government should interest itself even more in voters’ welfare; it should protect them from the many evils that are out there in the world. However, the capacity of the government to do this is limited, especially as it finds itself committed to cutting taxes in the name of encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their lives.

The consequence is, I believe, a new type of democratic politician who must appear to be doing a lot, even as they find themselves limited in what they can do. They employ media consultants and spin doctors to ensure that they have the appropriate public image and are popular. They engage in activity, as Sir Humphrey pointed out many years ago, as a substitute for achievement.

Rudd has followed in the footsteps of Howard in that he no longer sees himself as just a political leader but rather as some sort of moral authority benevolently issuing advice, like a local equivalent of Dr Phil, on all sorts of matters, including the behaviour of Kyle and Jackie O. This type of democratic politician can, if he is effective, soothe the worries and concerns of the electorate and make voters feel that they are being protected. Kevin, like John before him, becomes a benevolent uncle with whom one can feel safe.

The triumph of appearance over reality does have its costs. The problems to which Hawke and Keating responded in 1983 have not gone away; and there can be no going back, thankfully, to the policies of an earlier era. It is not in the best interests of the electorate to be serenaded into complacency. This is best demonstrated by the example of Bob Carr, who may be regarded as Kevin’s role model. Bob was very good at being re-elected in New South Wales, and he had all the gifts required of a democratic politician of the early twenty-first century. He appeared to be doing things. But one has only to look at New South Wales in 2010 to realise the ultimate consequence of that sort of politics. And there appears to be very little light at the end of the tunnel.

Of course, we may yet receive another dose of the “Lucky Country” as we ride the Chinese tiger. Just as in the early twentieth century Australia could afford its poor policies because it was rich, so early twenty-first century Australia may yet be able to use its Chinese connections to support its illusions and its do-nothing political leaders. The day of reckoning may be able to be put off for some time, but there will eventually be another 1983. Then Australians will need political leaders who can actually do something beyond soothing us with honeyed words.


Greg Melleuish is an associate professor in the school of history and politics at the University of Wollongong. His books include Cultural Liberalism in Australia and The Power of Ideas: Essays on Australian History and Politics.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 36, Australian Story. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 37, What's Right?.


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