For nearly a decade now it has become fashionable to accept the death of ideology, the triumph of neoclassical economics, the politics of convergence and the rise of managerialism.
Put crudely, it is the view that, because parties of the traditional Right and traditional Left have now moved to some mythical place called the `Centre', all that is left is an essentially technocratic decision between one team of managers against another, both operating within a common, or at least similar, mission statement.
Politics on this argument becomes little more than theatre — a public performance necessary to convince the shareholders at the AGM that the company needs new management.
The ideal he came up with for the Labor Party was not exactly original. He merely restated the underlying distinction between left and right liberals. Both kinds of liberals take as a starting point the idea that we are made human by being self-determining, autonomous individuals. But if society is made up of millions of self-determining, autonomous wills, how is it to be regulated?
Right liberals have generally preferred the free market solution. Individuals were to work for their own profit and the hidden hand of the market would regulate the outcome for the overall benefit of society. Left liberals, in contrast, argued for a greater degree of regulation by the state.
So it's no surprise that Kevin Rudd, as a left liberal, argued in his maiden speech for a higher degree of state regulation and that he saw in this a distinctive political ideal for the Labor Party:
I believe that there remains a fundamental divide between our two parties on the proper role of the state in a modern economy and society. This government's view is a minimalist view of the role of government. It is a view that holds that markets rather than governments are better determinants of not only efficiency but also equity ...
It is a view that now dominates the treasuries of the nation — both Commonwealth and state — and their combined orthodoxy that a good government is a government in retreat — retreat from any form of ownership, retreat from most forms of regulation and retreat from responsibility for the delivery of as many services as possible. It is a view which says, in effect, that governments are the enemies of freedom ...
It is a view that is Thatcherism writ large, including her most infamous proclamation that there is no such thing as society. And it is a view that labour markets are like any other market that should be deregulated because, according to this view, labour is no different from any other commodity.
This is not my view. Nor is it the view of the Australian Labor Party, of which I have been a proud member for 17 years.
Remember, Kevin Rudd pinned his hopes of being something more than a technocrat on this ideal. So is it really true that Mr Rudd, as PM, has based his politics on something other than the market? Is he something more than Economic Man?
In yesterday's Age there was a brief discussion of Australia's extraordinary rate of immigration. Tim Colebatch, the economics editor, was sufficiently broad-minded to observe that,
... as anyone in Melbourne knows, there are drawbacks to population growth. Labor MP Kelvin Thomson is worried: "We are sleep-walking towards environmental disaster" ... And trying to cut carbon emissions by 60 per cent while raising population by 60 per cent, he says, is "trying to fight with both hands tied behind your back". Another 13 or 14 million people will not give us a richer country, it will spread our mineral wealth more thinly and give us a poorer one."
And what did our supposedly market-independent PM have to say? Mr Rudd was all Economic Man:
I think it's great that our population is growing because so many countries around the world are shrinking and that poses a real problem in terms of having a strong tax base for the future and a strong economy.
Perhaps what is most striking is Mr Rudd's opposition, in his maiden speech, to the idea that labour should be treated just like any other commodity. He declared himself opposed to the view:
... that labour markets are like any other market that should be deregulated because, according to this view, labour is no different from any other commodity.
And yet his own minister felt free to declare to the public exactly this view: that labour is to be treated just like any other commodity, even to the extent that immigration decisions would, from now on, be left to employers:
Senator Evans said immigration should be the nation's labour agency, meaning a continued high intake of migrants ... Decisions about who came to Australia would increasingly be left to employers.
I don't even recall the Liberal Party publicly admitting to such a view: that immigration decisions would no longer be made by government as part of a larger national policy, but to employers as a function of the market.
So is being a political leader of a nation like being a manager of a company? Rudd wants the answer to be no, but in his most critical political decisions he is acting as if the answer were yes.