Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ruddy Hell: Another view from the electorate of Griffith

I’ve been inhabiting that stream of the Twitterverse which has been closely following /tweeting the whole Rudd vs Gillard tussle. I found myself rather furiously tweeting (in both senses of the word) some comments which may have some of you wondering why one of Mr Rudd’s constituents isn’t keen on his return to the prime ministership. This post is, therefore, a ‘Psephy Extra’, (accidentally extra-long), a post in addition to the one I planned to write tomorrow.

This post is that awkward mix of professional and personal reasons why I despair at what Mr Rudd is pursuing and, by extension, what he is doing to diminish our political culture. He is not solely responsible; he is not doing it single-handedly. Rather, events this week are symptomatic of a bruised and battered social contract and it is our responsibility as alert and engaged citizens to rehabilitate it. The way to do it is not through the lame appropriation of ‘people power’ that Mr Rudd has sought to extol either. Government is not a popularity contest.

In 2007, I attracted admonition and whispered scorn of friends and colleagues as I failed to jump on the fabled Kevin07 bus. Yes, I was tired of the Howard Government like many others. I was disappointed with the way in which we had become a less generous society as a form of naked neo-liberalism began to establish itself like a pesky vine that resists cutting, spraying and downright cursing. But even then, for me, ‘Rudd for PM’ was not going to be the answer. Why?

Why indeed. My background and experience aligns closely with the Rudd story. I too am an Asianist, though I graduated from Griffith and Queensland Universities in Japanese studies (not Chinese at ANU); I’ve spent some time in DFAT (though not long enough to be posted somewhere where my university training would be irrelevant, in the first instance). I could spin a bit of a ‘hard-life-done-good’ narrative too if I wanted to, but I won’t. He’s not actually that much older than me, so I suppose we are more or less of the same generation (though I distinctly prefer the Gen X label, given I sit right on the cusp). Why, I’ve even ‘met’ him a couple of times at book launches and the like as our divergent paths have managed to occasionally intersect.

But in 2007, to my sceptical friends and colleagues I argued he wasn’t made of the ‘right stuff’ to be PM, and that his run was, if anything, premature but actually quite foolhardy. A PM, I suggested, should have some ministerial experience under his or her belt before taking on the top job. The opposition benches don't quite cut it. I have three instances, as an Asianist, a constituent and a political staffer, where the seeds of doubt about the Rudd juggernaut were sown. Sadly, nothing about the events of the last week have demonstrated to me he has paused and reflected on his failings and sought to make the world (not his world) a better place.

In the early to mid-1990s, I was one of the bunnies tasked with implementing elements of what became known as the Rudd Report, a paper for encouraging the study of Asian languages in schools. For all intents and purposes, a great initiative with terrific promise, a way to encourage students to explore the joy of learning an Asian language in the way I had been able to at high school. Of course I was an early advocate. But on the ground, poor planning and implementation, lack of funding, the overwrought expectations of converting dedicated and committed teachers of European languages to Asian language teachers over a summer break ultimately overwhelmed us. The resulting ‘compulsion’ of ‘Asian language learning for economic benefit’ instead of instilling a love of learning for the sake of it, simply fostered pockets of resentment towards our Asian neighbours. For all the time and energy expended, we still haven’t managed to ‘get Asia’ satisfactorily (the intended subject, as it happens, of my regular post; more on that tomorrow).

So I was a little surprised, a couple of years later, to find that the author of that report was campaigning for election in my federal electorate. Suddenly the face of a once ‘faceless’ Qld bureaucrat was beaming to us everywhere on corflutes and in letterbox drops, street corners and ads in the local paper. I was also a little taken aback that his primary campaign platform seemed to have something to do with the airport—over on the northside and not exactly the first issue that came to mind in the electorate (I surveyed the neighbours and the shopkeepers in support of my assertions). I was intrigued but perplexed. Coincidentally, I had read a book by Robert Hughes, The Culture of Complaint, (Oxford UP, 1993), his examination of the growing culture of complaint, litigation and failure to take responsibility in the US at the time. I was somewhat uncomfortable that a wannabe public figure was in fact whipping up a ‘culture of complaint’ over a non-issue, really—let’s face it, we live in a city, we need an airport, we need to learn to live with it—it seemed somewhat disingenuous to me. He didn’t win the first time, but kept beating the drum until elected in 1998, and he’s been constructing the ‘local member, happy little vegemate’ persona of the popular, ever since.

As life’s wheels turn, by 1998 after a period ‘between jobs’, I found myself working for a senator and doing the regular shuttle between Brisbane and Canberra for a couple of years. I beat my new local member to parliament by a few months (ha-ha). As a first-term member, I recall Mr Rudd then being ambitious beyond all expectation. He demonstrated a certain haughtiness I suppose and a hubris in decrying my senator publicly as he felt he could (since my senator had just previously resigned from the Labor Party and become an independent, sharing the balance of power—sorry, no prizes for guessing). Very early on, Kevin Rudd, member for Griffith, courted the local media and one particular fiery statement about the senator that he made in our local suburban newspaper could not be counterbalanced despite our requests to the editor. Clearly, Mr Rudd had ambition. There were other exchanges along the way, suffice to say, the videos and tales of PM&C survivors don’t surprise me.

I am, however, grateful to Mr Rudd for his contribution to steering my career, as an academic, in the direction it has taken. You see, working in parliament for one of the less-liked politicians when you cross paths with one of the most nakedly ambitious, (and I apologise for that image) teaches one much about the rawness of human nature. I’ve seen what people, who can seem gracious and amenable, on the one hand, are prepared to do to get what they want. Sometimes our bearpit of a parliament plays it quite dirty. I eventually left wanting to believe we can do better.

So, I turned to political philosophy to find some answers. I’ve been studying for a while, and I think we can do better. I actually think that transformation of our political culture, and what it has become, is in our hands. We need to insist on more policy integrity from our local members, not fall to the cult of celebrity. We, the people, cultivate our political culture—are the machinations of the last week or so really what we want? Out with vacuity, in with substance, please.

So no, Mr Rudd, you don’t have my vote, but you do have my thanks. You’ve made me seek a better polity, far away from the one you would proffer an ‘adoring’ mob. And, for the record, Ms Gillard, another ‘almost’ contemporary: you’re not doing a whole lot better for the politics for the people over the politics of naked ambition. I put the challenge to you all to contain the politics of personal ambition and foster a public politics of which we can be proud and engaged. The integrity of our political system depends on it.