QUARTERLY ESSAY 36 Australian Story



Tim Soutphommasane

Reading Mungo MacCallum’s Quarterly Essay of last year for a second time in January, I wondered whether he might have changed anything had he written it after Tony Abbott claimed the Liberal Party leadership. The motif of MacCallum’s essay is, of course, the Australian Story. His thesis: that a great deal of Rudd’s political success has been bound up in his judicious appropriation of Australian cultural myths. How, then, might MacCallum respond to the suggestion that the emergence of Abbott as Liberal leader neutralises such an advantage of Rudd’s? 

In terms of cultural authenticity, Abbott undoubtedly poses a more formidable challenge to Rudd than Brendan Nelson or Malcolm Turnbull ever could. Commentators, particularly those who lean to the Right, have certainly been excited by Abbott’s leadership. After all, not since the days of Robert James Lee Hawke has a national politician paraded so proudly before cameras in budgie-smugglers. Authenticity is that rarest of political assets these days, although, of course, it can never on its own guarantee electoral success. 

MacCallum’s rich and refreshing essay makes a thought-provoking claim in suggesting that Rudd has all this time been quietly cultivating an Australian authenticity. Our prime minister is not a technocrat concerned only with power, process and efficiency, as commentators frequently suggest, but a leader who acts squarely within the national tradition.

MacCallum has done us a service in placing the Rudd prime ministership in some historical context. A long view of Australian politics is sadly one that our commentators do not offer us in the right doses. Too often, for instance, political slogans get mistaken for comprehensive narratives. When during the 2007 federal election campaign Rudd Labor adopted the phrase “new leadership,” many quickly latched on to it as the narrative of Rudd’s remarkable path to office. Excited by the prospect of the Howard years drawing to a close, many in our republic of letters believed a Rudd government would usher in a period of reinventing Australia. 

Yet it was never entirely clear that “new leadership” would mean a “new Australia.” The vision behind Rudd’s case for office extended only to calculated signals of a reformist agenda rather than an exhaustive political program. Talk about a Rudd narrative was hopelessly premature, and the long honeymoon our new prime minister enjoyed well into 2008, if not also 2009, meant there was hardly a rush to articulate one. 

Rudd has since found his narrative, however, with the global financial crisis. As Harold Macmillan would have said, “events” were the key. Ideologically, Rudd has emerged as a critic of free-market, neo-liberal capitalism, and an avowed Keynesian social democrat. 

MacCallum’s contribution is to propose that this story has a cultural underpinning. It is “unfair,” MacCallum argues, to judge that Rudd has failed to offer a coherent political narrative to replace John Howard’s version of Australia. Rudd has “in fact embraced a great deal of the Australian tradition, in terms of both its myths and its values.” On my count, MacCallum surveys at least six particular aspects of the Australian tradition that Rudd has tapped: an optimistic belief that we are the “Lucky Country”; a utilitarian preoccupation with jobs in our economic debates; a deep sense of egalitarianism; an equally deep yearning for stability; a cultural larrikinism; and a national self-understanding built on sport, mateship and the bush.

There is a danger in all this that we may overplay the extent to which Rudd has made himself and the Australian tradition one. At one point, for example, MacCallum suggests that Rudd’s promise to end the “blame game” between the Commonwealth and the states in health care is motivated by a sense of a fair go and egalitarianism; a more plausible account would perhaps recognise that it is the goal of administrative efficiency and a belief in a strong central government that are the real sources of Rudd’s pledge. But there are many other points at which MacCallum is surely right in his analysis. Nowhere is this more so than in his observations on WorkChoices, an area where Rudd was indeed able to make political gain by making himself “the champion who would restore justice and decency.” Recall Rudd’s declaration that he would not allow the fair go to be thrown “out the back door.”

Yet Rudd is not, as far as anyone can tell, a cultural nationalist in the same way as, say, his Labor predecessor Paul Keating. With Keating there was an unvarnished radical nationalism, a direct lineage with Henry Lawson and Jack Lang. Rudd’s confessed ideological influences are more pluralistic, ranging from Keir Hardie and Andrew Fisher to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to John Maynard Keynes. Moreover, the depths of such ideological attachments are not entirely clear, in part because Rudd remains, even though he is prime minister, a figure who has spent relatively little time in public office.

What is becoming increasingly clear, though, is that Rudd would like to position his government as a reformist, nation-building one. The language of nation-building dominated his government’s response to the global financial crisis. Rudd has enthusiastically claimed a continuity with Hawke and Keating while brazenly thrashing the reform credentials of Howard and Costello. In a series of speeches in January this year, Rudd indicated his government would pursue a productivity agenda and declared this would be a “building decade” as part of a vision of a bigger Australia whose population will nudge 36 million by 2050.

Any judgment of the Rudd government’s performance should naturally be made against the standard of nation-building reform. Here, Rudd faces some challenges. When used by Rudd and his ministers, nation-building has frequently been reduced to a synonym for physical infrastructure. A more discerning understanding of nation-building understands that it has both a “hard” and “soft” dimension – the latter referring to efforts to build a community of citizens. Thus understood, questions such as indigenous reconciliation, the republic and immigrant integration are also fundamentally nation-building concerns. 

Another way of putting the matter is to say that the Rudd government stands at a curious juncture in Australian political history. The last three decades have been dominated by successive efforts to dismantle the Deakinite “Australian settlement” – an institutional and ideological system that offered a coherent vision of citizenship and community for much of the twentieth century. Yet no equivalent architecture has replaced it. 

The Rudd government has an opportunity to reshape Australian political culture along social-democratic lines. But any ideological development beyond the Australian settlement may well be too traumatic. What MacCallum identifies as the Australian tradition might simply reflect the cultural residue of the settlement. If MacCallum is right about Rudd’s authenticity, then Rudd may be more inclined to be culturally reassuring rather than radical. 

In any case, any brand of social democracy pursued by Rudd is likely to disappoint some of the more quixotic within the Australian Left, as it will draw as much upon progressive liberalism as it will upon democratic socialism. Then again, social democracy has always been a hybrid political ideology grounded in practice rather than in doctrinal political philosophy. The heritage of modern social democracy can be traced both to socialism and liberalism. 

This essay reminds us we should not easily dismiss Rudd as a nation-building prime minister. “Rudd would dearly love,” MacCallum argues, “to recapture the heady optimism of those days [the Whitlam years], and one of the ways he is trying to use and modify the Australian tradition is to restore a sense of idealism; to persuade the so-called aspirational voters that there is more to aspire to than just moving up to a bigger McMansion.” 

Whether he can succeed in doing so is perhaps the big question, and it boils down to leadership. 

The political scientist and historian James MacGregor Burns once distinguished between leaders who are transforming and those who are transactional. Transforming leaders were ones who elevated their followers to a different plane. They engaged with their followers’ moral values. Transactional leaders, on the other hand, were ones who focused on engaging with followers’ interests, and bargaining their way to results.

In their very different ways, both Paul Keating and John Howard exercised transforming leadership at particular moments during their respective times in office. For now, Rudd’s transactional leadership cannot be faulted. Whether he can also be judged to be a transforming leader depends on whether he can fashion from the global financial crisis a compelling narrative for reform. This will need to draw upon not only the Australian tradition, but also the social-democratic tradition of which he has said he is part. 


Tim Soutphommasane is a research fellow at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University and a senior project leader at the Per Capita think-tank. He is the author of Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation-Building for Australian Progressives, published in 2009, and worked on Labor’s 2007 federal election campaign.


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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