Ideas for a Better Australia
"Dear Mr Rudd hopes to help resume the conversation between public intellectuals and government, which broke down so badly during the Howard years. It hopes to play a part in suggesting that solutions to our problems need not be framed by the neo-liberal and neo-conservative perspectives that have threatened to dominate public discourse in recent times."
"When I began commissioning the chapters for this book, what I discovered was that, among the commentators I approached, the hopes I felt about the new possibilities that would open up for Australia if a Rudd Labor government was elected were very widely shared. So was its main ambition - to issue an invitation to all interested citizens to participate in the discussion of ideas about how, in this new era, a better Australia might be built."
"During the period of the Howard government, the nation's critical intelligentsia had been treated by government ministers, Coalition backbenchers and right-wing commentators as un-Australian traitors. Unwelcome voices [...] had been, by one means or another, marginalised or silenced."
"With the coming of a new government, in an atmosphere of new possibilities, at the end of the barren Howard years, would there not now be an opportunity for conversation between the government and the nation's public intellectuals and independent policy experts to begin again?"
Paul Keating once said: "Change the government and you change the country." Just imagine for a moment that you were in conversation with the new PM - what would you tell him about your expectations and hopes for Australia's future?
In Dear Mr Rudd, leading Australian thinkers offer essays on key areas of interest: climate change, the economy, human rights, the republic, water and much more besides. Each letter is passionate and imaginative and will create discussion and debate. On the eve of the Australia 2020 summit, here is a set of new ideas to provoke and inspire - not just for our nation's leader but for all Australians.
About the publication Robert Manne (ed), Dear Mr Rudd: Ideas for a Better Australia (2008): This book is now out of stock, and we no longer supply it to our members or to the wider public. We suggest you could search for online new or second-hand bookshops to secure your copy.
19 March 2008: Reviews of Robert Manne et al, Dear Mr Rudd: Ideas for a Better Australia - With the coming of a new government in Australia, Robert Manne is probably the only person with the cultural and political capital necessary to so quickly produce a book like Dear Mr Rudd, in which an array of writers who, in Manne's words, 'stood against the predominant neo-liberal, neo-conservative tide' now present a positive program for the new government.
1 August 2005: Do Not Disturb: Is the Media Failing Australia? - Is our media doing its job when it comes to Australian politics? Is it frank and fearless in pursuit of spin and evasion? Why have we entered an era of shockjocks and celebrity commentators? What will changed media rules mean for our public sphere?
26 June 2007: Clive Hamilton, The Australian, Free Speech and Hypocrisy - "This sorry story sheds a different light on the noble appeals of ... The Australian ... for a more open society in which free speech and a variety of opinions are not just tolerated but encouraged. The newspaper's defence of high principle is vitiated by its slavish support for the Howard Government, including its attacks on the Government's critics."
28 February 2007: Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison, Silencing Dissent: How the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate. The book Silencing Dissent uncovers the tactics used by John Howard and his colleagues to undermine dissenting and independent opinion. Bullying, intimidation, public denigration, threats of withdrawal of funding, personal harassment, increased government red tape and manipulation of the rules are all tools of trade for a government that wants to keep a lid on public debate.
Dear Mr Rudd,
The idea for this book came to me in the middle of 2007 when the public opinion polls had made it seem highly likely that, after more than eleven years of Coalition rule, Australians were about to elect a Labor government under your prime ministership. Changes of government in Australia are rare. At this time, only five had occurred since Curtin became prime minister in the early part of the Second World War. Yet invariably, when these changes happen, as Paul Keating once famously observed, the culture of the country shifts.
I thought there were by now several good reasons to believe that the country was, once again, about to change direction. The Howard government's reputation had been badly damaged. The prime minister's palely Australianised imitation of American neo-conservatism had brought us a sterile Culture War and participation in the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. His neo-liberal free-market faith had led to his government's failure to rise to the challenge of global warming and had lured it into its ultimate folly, the passage of the WorkChoices legislation, an employers' Charter of Rights. In articles written by you for The Monthly [here and here] before you were leader of the opposition it seemed to me that you had put your finger on the basic weaknesses of the Howard government: the contradiction between its support for untrammelled capitalism and its preaching sermons of social conservatism; its Iraq and global-warming failures; the unseemliness of its triumphalist declaration of victory in the Culture War. Key policies and attitudes seemed almost certain to shift. The nature of the transition from Howard to a Rudd government would also most likely be affected by developments occurring elsewhere. As the Bush administration, with which the Howard government had been intimately associated, limped towards its rather pitiful end, and as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama struggled with each other to be either the first woman or, alternatively, the first African-American president of the United States, was it not likely that, across the Pacific in Australia, through a process of sympathetic contagion, the political atmosphere would be influenced by what Obama had already called 'the audacity of hope'?
These thoughts led to the idea of this book. The thinking went like this. During the period of the Howard government, the nation's critical intelligentsia had been treated by government ministers, Coalition backbenchers and right-wing commentators as un-Australian traitors. Unwelcome voices - like former senior defence, intelligence and foreign-policy experts, or those who worked in scientific institutes, universities and non-government organisations - had been, by one means or another, marginalised or silenced. With the coming of a new government, in an atmosphere of new possibilities, at the end of the barren Howard years, would there not now be an opportunity for conversation between the government and the nation's public intellectuals and independent policy experts to begin again?
During the Howard years I had developed an admiration for a number of commentators - for their policy grasp or independence or originality and in some cases also for their courage in standing against the predominant neo-liberal, neo-conservative tide. On one day in early August I got on the phone. Within a few hours, three-quarters of this book had been successfully commissioned. Almost everyone I talked to was keen.
During this remarkably painless operation, only one aspect of the book changed. Because of the almost comical concentration of media ownership in Australia, a process that was accelerated once the Howard government took control of the Senate, I had initially intended to have a chapter on possible changes to media law. I invited the person I regarded as the most cogent critic of this aspect of the Australian media to contribute.
He declined. Since the passage of the Howard government's new media laws, he argued, the trend to ever greater media concentration could not be reversed. Not only would the dominant media corporations savagely attack any government which sought to change the law. If new laws were passed, the major media players would be able to claim massive compensation payments in the courts. Despite the fact that I regard media concentration as one of Australia's greatest anti-democratic curses, the idea of a chapter on what your government might do about the problem was dropped.
On the Monday after the November 24 election, potential contributors were told that the book was indeed proceeding. In mid-January the contributions began to arrive. Of course I had only the sketchiest idea at that time about what the contributors would want to say to our newly elected prime minister, the organising conceit on which the book was based.
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On questions central to national identity the Howard government had reversed the cultural trajectory of all Australian governments since the era of Whitlam. With its fall, discussions about 'unfinished business' - like the question of the republic and reconciliation between settler and Indigenous Australians - seemed bound to revive. Mark McKenna, the historian of the republican idea in Australia, had been invited to write about its prospects now. His chapter opens the book. In the 1990s, he believes, the republic debate gradually lost its way. Means became confused with ends. We did not need to become a republic in order to have an Australian head of state. We needed an Australian head of state if we were to become a republic. In the profoundest sense the republic question was bound up not with legal tinkering but with public feeling, not only about the end of British Australia but also about the coming to terms with the great tragedy of the Indigenous dispossession, which cast its shadow still. We needed to become a republic in order to be able to think of ourselves as a fully independent nation and finally reconciled people.
Before the book was commissioned I had heard one of the great Australians, Pat Dodson, speak about the prospects of reconciliation in a packed town hall in Brunswick. There was a particular reason why I hoped he would adapt his speech (originally given for the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University) for this book. Whatever its virtues, the reconciliation movement in the 1990s had one very serious flaw. In the way the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was structured it assumed, in advance, an identity of interest between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. If the Howard years had achieved anything in this area, it was to prove this assumption false. Dodson made it clear that 'on a daily basis' Indigenous Australians were aware of the racism that pervaded the public and private spheres. If there was to be reconciliation, it would only come if there was genuine dialogue. The speech had been delivered in the context of the Northern Territory intervention, which, in Pat Dodson's view, had been characterised by an arrogant and impatient unwillingness to listen and consult. In Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations a different attitude was needed if, with the new Rudd government, there was to be both symbolic reconciliation and practical advance.
At his government's eleventh hour, in thinking about the relations between the Commonwealth and state governments, John Howard had coined the ugly slogan 'aspirational nationalism.' He was the first conservative prime minister in Australian history to treat the federal principle with something approaching disdain. Ironically, under Labor, traditionally the party of centralism rather than federalism, following the election of a government led by you, serious discussions about how the federation could be strengthened would now have to begin. No one seemed better placed to enter this discussion than Geoff Gallop, a former Labor premier and now professor of politics. His chapter in this book seeks to show how the principles of both co-operative federalism (power-sharing between the Commonwealth and the states) and subsidiarism (the devolution of decision-making as far as practicable to the local) naturally belong to the contemporary left-wing political agenda, with its new-found interest in checks and balances and the dispersion of power. In re-positioning federalism - from the conservative to the progressive side of Australian politics - Gallop has, I believe, made a contribution of great theoretical and practical importance for your new government as its work begins.
Under Howard, many believed that the expansion of the executive branch of government and in particular the concentration of power in the prime ministership had weakened the institution of parliament and politicised the public service. Were they right?
As you will be aware, Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, is simultaneously one of the country's greatest authorities on the Australian parliament and one of its most steadfast champions. As his chapter here reveals, he is convinced that very many of the means by which the parliament can exercise its critical legislative and inquisitorial functions - its control over the appropriation of funds and capacity to examine government bills; the independence of the parliamentary committee system; the neutrality of the Speaker of the House of Representatives; the proper use of question time; the freedom of parliamentarians from the tyranny exercised by their political parties - were even further weakened during the period of the Howard government. Evans also believes all these illnesses can be overcome with greater public interest and, even more importantly, with greater executive branch self-restraint. Ironically, he thinks that the eventual unravelling of the Howard government was in part a consequence of the political price an arrogant and therefore blinded administration paid for failing to treat the institution of parliament with sufficient respect. It is a lesson he hopes your government will have learned.
In contrast to Evans' pessimistic assessment of the remorseless undermining of the parliament by the executive branch in recent times, Patrick Weller, the doyen of students of the Australian bureaucracy, believes that the parallel story of the politicisation of the public service has been somewhat overcooked. He also believes that, under Howard, responsibility for the problems that arose between ministers and their public servants rested overwhelmingly with the ministers themselves. Weller deplores Howard's purge of several senior public servants in 1996. He believes that, by contrast, the relationship between you and the Canberra mandinarate has begun very well. During the Howard years ministers created firewalls between themselves and public servants bearing unwelcome news. Two great public service-related scandals occurred under Howard as a consequence - children overboard and AWB. If the lessons from these debacles have been truly learned as they should be - no one understands children overboard better than your party's president, Senator John Faulkner, or AWB better than you - and if your government continues to treat its public service with the consideration it deserves, Weller believes that your cabinet will discover that it still has an invaluable asset, at once professional, independent and loyal. Actually, he thinks you realise this already.
One of our contributors believes that the relationship between the government and its public servants should not be the only organisational question now exercising your mind. As Mark Aarons argues, now that it has taken office Labor will be obliged to examine problems of the party's internal structure. Although he is a strong supporter of the role of trade unions in the workplace - in this, a true member of the Aarons dynasty - as a consequence of his experience as adviser to the Labor governments in New South Wales, he is convinced that inside the party the trade union bosses now exert an altogether unjustified influence. On the eve of its defeat the Howard government was dealt a lethal blow by a scandal - the Jackie Kelly Affair - in which members of the poisonous New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party were involved. This should serve as a warning. Although internal party organisation is now unlikely to be at the front of your mind, Aarons' case about the importance of restoring life to the party branches and curbing the unhealthy influence of the trade union bosses, especially over pre-selections, ought not, I think, to be ignored.
It is widely agreed, and argued in this book, that there has been no new prime minister in Australian history better qualified in the field of foreign affairs than you. Your task, however, will be formidable. Under Howard, Australia turned its back on the post-Menzies foreign-policy trajectory of middle-power independence within the frame of the alliance with the United States. The chapters in this book by William Maley and Hugh White, both lucid public commentators and professors at the ANU, are concerned with aspects of this repudiation. Both deplore the lamb-like support Howard offered Bush during the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq, an Australian policy which White describes as both over-personal in nature and backward-looking. Both question the foolish assumption underlying recent policy - namely that Australia's national interests are always served by uncritical reliance upon our 'great and powerful friend.' Both think the long-term health of the alliance has been weakened as a result. Both believe that there are large questions concerning future relations with China. Maley especially deplores Australia's retreat from multilateralism under Howard. White believes that, under Howard, Australia did not respond sufficiently to the most remarkable recent development in our region - the emergence of a democratic Indonesia. Both see signs of inattention and condescension in Australia's relations with the troubled states of the Pacific. Both believe that, under your administration, Australian defence and foreign policy will require new thinking. Both seem confident about the new government's capacity for the task.
As a result of our uncritical involvement alongside the United States in the War on Terror, old ideas about the meaning of the rule of law in Australia have quickly shifted in recent years. No Australian has thought more deeply about the rule of law than Professor Martin Krygier, a close friend from my Quadrant days. Unlike some civil libertarians, Krygier does not underestimate the threat jihadist terrorism poses to society. He does not believe that no matter what the circumstance the law must never change. However, unlike some securitators, as he calls them, Krygier emphasises the very many ways in which traditional understandings of the meaning of the rule of law are surprisingly well equipped to handle the new challenges of jihadist terror, not only justly but also robustly. He also calls attention to the emptiness of Howard-speak about the need to balance liberty and security. As the Dr Haneef case revealed, when a general suspicion is cast on Muslim citizens, it is often our security which is (supposedly) protected and their liberty which is (unmistakably) taken away. He commends your attorney-general for promising to build stronger bridges of understanding with the Australian Muslim communities. So do I.
One additional dimension of the uncritical embrace of the foreign policy of the United States was the Howard government's refusal to involve itself in multilateral action over global warming. Apart from signing the Kyoto Protocol, what should your government now do to restore Australia's reputation as a good international citizen? In this book Clive Hamilton, the author of Scorcher, provides a bracing answer. Because Australia was treated with extraordinary generosity in the first Kyoto round - effectively permitted to increase its emissions between 1990 and 2010 by almost one-third - the Howard government has bequeathed to you a truly daunting legacy. The Howard government was, as Hamilton has shown, captured by the fossil-fuel lobby throughout the period of its rule. He believes you must never let down your guard. Even more, all governments must be psychologically prepared for worsening news on the scientific front. At present countries are being asked to reduce their greenhouse emissions by 2050 by 60 per cent; it may not be too long before scientific understanding requires agreement to an 80 per cent reduction. It seems almost certain that no public-policy issue will prove to be more difficult for your government than crafting a response to global warming. It is likely to be over its capacity to respond adequately to its challenge that your government will eventually be judged.
One of the possible consequences of the impact of global warming was the arrival of perhaps the worst drought in Australian history. The dry continent was becoming even drier, at least in the settled area of the south-east. The Howard government had tried and failed to solve the crisis of water scarcity in the Murray-Darling catchment. In this book, Mike Young, of the CSIRO and the University of Adelaide, outlines for your consideration what he believes to be a better plan. Only true experts in this area will know whether he is right.
The great success story of the Howard years was the continued growth of the economy and the unprecedented general prosperity that arose as a result. Ironically, it seemed likely at the very moment you became prime minister that the new Labor government, unlike Hawke's but like Whitlam's and Scullin's, would soon find itself governing in difficult economic times - in an unpropitious international economic environment, in a period of rising inflationary pressure at home, of skills shortages and capacity constraints. Andrew Charlton, a collaborator with Joseph Stiglitz, is one of Australia's most talented younger economists. In his chapter in this volume he considers carefully and soberly whether there is much about any of these problems that your government can do. Even in advance of the new economic problems, it was clear that the generally admirable Australian health system was beginning to creak under the weight of the twin challenges of rising cost and growing structural incoherence. Bill Bowtell played a key role in shaping Australia's highly successful AIDS policy. Here he argues that apart from learning from the experience of both the contemporary United States and United Kingdom about how not to proceed, there are several practical reforms that, in association with the state governments, the Rudd government could now pursue.
It was obvious that, despite unprecedented prosperity, Australians were scrambling, very often unsuccessfully, to find a balance between obligations to work and responsibilities to family. John Howard famously called this issue a barbecue stopper but then comprehensively failed to act. No one more than you understands the contemporary political potency of the phrase 'working families.' In her chapter in this volume, Anne Manne, the author of Motherhood, suggests that in regard to family policy within the developed world there are now two basic paths - the neo-liberal and the social-democratic. One is found in its purest form in the United States; the other in northern Europe. The former encourages unbroken workplace participation for parents and early institutional child-care; the latter a choice between paid parental leave or high quality childcare, guaranteed rights for parents to return to work, and more flexible child-friendly working hours. In the history of the Blair government there was an interesting movement from the neo-liberal to the social-democratic path. Can your government learn from the Blair experience? Which path will you choose?
The Howard government lost power largely as a consequence of WorkChoices, its industrial-relations legislation. Partial repeal of the new laws by the new Labor government was certain. In her chapter in this volume, Jill Murray, a colleague of mine from Law at La Trobe University, outlines these changes but also considers a deeper question. After the failed neo-liberal experiment, how can Labor move towards the greater humanisation of the workplace?
A balanced workplace was not the only traditional Australian expectation that was threatened during the Howard years. Home ownership was once within the grasp of most Australians. At the end of the Howard years it had ceased to be. Even affordable rental housing had become scarce. Despite prosperity, one fundamental aspect of what the Australian tradition had offered ordinary people was under threat. Professor Julian Disney, formerly president of ACOSS, provides a detailed program, going well beyond the neo-liberal mantra about the existence of a simple solution to our housing problem, the release of new government land for sale. Disney emphasises the failure of schemes that subsidise first-home buyers, which merely exacerbate the problem of steeply rising housing costs. He suggests the importance of courageous tax reform, not excluding the politically radioactive question of negative gearing; and, in breaking with the neo-liberal orthodoxy that has constricted our public-policy choices in recent times, the restoration of some carefully crafted public-housing schemes.
Even more daunting than all these very real social problems is the existence of 'failed state'-like conditions on remote Aboriginal settlements in the north. In her contribution to this volume, Professor Marcia Langton, Indigenous activist and anthropologist at the University of Melbourne, ponders the connection between the legacy of settler racist attitudes and behaviour, and the present reality of remote Indigenous community breakdown. Langton's balance on this matter will disconcert both Left and Right. Unlike the Left, she faces squarely the nightmare conditions of life that afflict so many remote communities and the consequent need for urgent protective action by governments and courts. Unlike the Right, she is clear-sighted and angry about settler racism in the past and the rise of the Howard government-supported denialist school of history in the present. The terror now visited upon Indigenous women and children by Indigenous males is described as "lateral violence". It might indeed need to be explained in part by the long-term impact of settler brutality. Yet whatever its origins, it cannot be forgiven and must not be ignored. No one could express a more passionate support for the government apology to the stolen generations, the victims of past racial abuse, than Langton. But as with her friend Noel Pearson, she thinks your government has an even greater responsibility - to assist young Indigenous Australians prepare for their successful participation in the real economy of the globalised world.The well-being of the country would in part at least be determined by the vitality of its core cultural practices and institutions. Alone among governments in the OECD, the Howard government reduced public funding to universities. In addition, it came to regard the contribution of academics with suspicion, made universities financially dependent on their capacity to attract international students to vocational courses, and, at a time of reduced public funding, exerted over universities an even stronger direct control. In his chapter in this volume, Professor Simon Marginson identifies these problems with precision. He proposes a comprehensive but realistic program of reform. The Howard government was not only unhelpful to Australian universities, it showed a conspicuous indifference to the work of the country's artists, a matter including but also going well beyond questions of funding. In the concluding chapter of this book Juliana Engberg, artistic director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, offers a spirited case for the opening of a new era in the history of government and the arts. Under the neo-liberal period of Howard, some sectors of the arts had laboured, with some success, to pay their way. Those representing them had learned to speak to government in the kind of economically rational language it was likely to approve. All this was necessary. Sometimes it was admirable. Ultimately, however, it was misleading. The real purpose of the arts is not to attract patrons or encourage tourism. It is to stir imagination, unsettle complacency, provoke new thought. Yet Engberg's chapter also contains an implicit warning. Government support for the Australian arts must never again become an ally of provincialism or nationalism, as it sometimes had in the past. In the contemporary world, art is nothing if it is not cosmopolitan. For Australian artists, the world must be the stage.
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Inescapably this collection is personal. It is shaped by the questions I consider most important and by the decisions made about who would be invited to write. Yet I hope that the selection of questions and contributors will not seem idiosyncratic to you, and that the purposes of this book will by now seem reasonably clear. Dear Mr Rudd hopes to help resume the conversation between public intellectuals and government, which broke down so badly during the Howard years. It hopes to play a part in suggesting that solutions to our problems need not be framed by the neo-liberal and neo-conservative perspectives that have threatened to dominate public discourse in recent times. When I began commissioning the chapters for this book, what I discovered was that, among the commentators I approached, the hopes I felt about the new possibilities that would open up for Australia if a Rudd Labor government was elected were very widely shared. So was its main ambition - to issue an invitation to all interested citizens to participate in the discussion of ideas about how, in this new era, a better Australia might be built.
The book relied on the generosity of Morry Schwartz, the great editorial support of Chris Feik, and the characteristically outstanding work of the whole Black Inc. team. As soon as it is published a copy will be sent to you. I hope it will prove to be of interest.