Kevin Rudd has decisively dashed any illusions that he might end Labor’s race to the right with Tony Abbott. His deal with PNG is a drastic and ruthless move designed to stop any refugees arriving by boat from ever resettling in Australia. Thousands joined protests around the country less than 24 hours after Rudd’s announcement.
This is a shameful attempt to mimic what John Howard executed when he set up the Pacific Solution in 2001. And like Howard’s anti-refugee policies, it is a cynical attempt at an election fix. Ever since the number of asylum boats began to increase in 2009, Labor has introduced more and more draconian “deterrence” measures against refugees in the belief that this was necessary to appease voters in suburban marginal seats. They have consistently capitulated to racism and stirred up myths about “queue jumpers” and people smuggling. So the spectacle of a parade of Labor MPs trying to justify Rudd’s new plan in terms of saving lives at sea has been truly sickening.
His refugee policy is the clearest sign that Rudd is retaining the same approach that destroyed Julia Gillard—attempting to outflank the Liberals on the right over refugees and accepting neo-liberal budget discipline.
Rudd may have temporarily restored Labor to a competitive position in the polls, giving it some hope of winning the election. But setting out on this path means that he will end up destroying support for Labor.
Rudd’s early popularity is explained partly by who Kevin is not. Tony Abbott has never been a popular leader—just 34 per cent registered approval of his performance as leader, the second lowest for an opposition leader in history, at the end of last year. It has only been the anger at Julia Gillard that has made Abbott look good. A March poll in the Financial Review found that although 53 per cent of voters in marginal seats would prefer a Labor victory at the election, just 32 per cent were planning to vote for Gillard.
So the best thing going for Rudd, is that he is not Abbott, and he is not Gillard.
He has shamelessly promoted himself as the victim of the political elite, as a popularly elected Prime Minister unfairly knifed by the Labor Party factional leaders. Rudd has continually talked about the need to move beyond “old politics” and “negativity”, and to put partisanship aside to deal with the challenges facing the nation.
But Rudd’s PNG solution has exposed him to be a practioner of the same “old politics” and to be the same kind of grubby, callous politician as those he says he opposes.
He has also moved to terminate the carbon tax, by promising to move to an emissions trading scheme one year early. This will slash the level of the carbon price, from the current fixed price of $24 to an expected $6. The carbon tax was useless for dealing with climate change anyway, but Rudd is not proposing to put anything in its place.
Rudd talked initially of reversing Gillard’s $2.3 billion cut to universities. But now Minister Kim Carr says the government can’t do that, but simply wants ideas from university Vice-Chancellors about the best way to make the cuts.
Rudd made noises about wanting to reverse the cuts to single parents payments, but has since made no promises.
In the context of Rudd’s rush to the right, The Greens are a clear vote to the left of Labor. The Greens’ election platform shows what Labor could do, but won’t. It spells out how taxing the massive profits of the banks and mining companies, as well as the super rich, could raise $42.7 billion.
This could fully fund the money Gonski recommended spending on schools. Labor’s spending plan actually only boosts funding by $500 million spread over the next four years.
It could reverse the cuts to universities, and boost funding by 10 per cent, fund a $50 a week boost to Newstart, and reverse the cuts to single parents payments.
On its own voting left is not enough—we need to build the struggle outside parliament. Both major parties agree on punitive policies to keep out refugee boats, meaning The Greens balance of power in the Senate can’t prevent this. It is the same story in most areas of politics; Labor and Liberal agree on much more than they disagree on.
Over refugees, the challenge is to rebuild a campaign out of the outrage at Rudd’s PNG plan that is capable of taking pro-refugee arguments into workplaces and suburbs and shifting public opinion.
The national demonstrations on university campuses this semester are a further chance to build the fightback we need against cuts. These struggles outside parliament hold the key to shifting politics to the left and winning real change.