Is Kevin Rudd trying to wedge the Liberals?

It is no secret that the modern Liberal Party is – insofar as it can be characterised in ideological terms (always an important caveat, since few people’s views map neatly onto the organising ‘isms’ used by intellectuals) – an alliance of liberalism and conservativism. Interestingly, this is often an alliance within individuals as well as between individuals. There are social conservatives who hold essentially liberal (ie, pro-market) views on economic matters. There are social liberals who hold essentially conservative views on economic matters (ie, in favour of the old protectionist system). The Prime Minister has often discussed the liberal-conservative alliance, such as in this April 2006 speech:

The Liberal Party of Australia is the custodian of two traditions in Australian politics. It is the custodian of the classic liberal tradition, but it is also the custodian of the conservative tradition in Australian politics. You have frequently heard me use the expression

13 thoughts on “Is Kevin Rudd trying to wedge the Liberals?

  1. Andrew, based on your recommendation in a past blog post I got a copy of Stephen Holmes Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism. I’ve only flicked through it at this stage, but Rudd’s comments sound like pretty standard anti-liberal fare. Nothing the Liberal Party wouldn’t have weathered before?

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  2. Is he trying to wedge the Liberals, or he continuing a theme? Oppositions need to establish ideas and themes in the electorate – the ALP has been pushing the Howard is quite radical theme for some time. Also the government doesn’t support families line. While the economy is doing well, these themes don’t have traction. But imagine a downturn. At that point the ALP can argue that the ‘irresponsible, radical ideas of the government have lead to a situation where families are feeling the pinch, etc’ and the themes will then have traction. So this is a continuation of the groundwork.

    I thought the Rudd piece in the Monthly was outrageous and dishonest. Bonhoffer may well be a Rudd hero, but I don’t really think there are lessons to be learnt in Australia from the murder of a Christian martyr. I thought it undervalued and diminished Bonhoffer’s sacrifice and the millions who died under similiar circumstances.

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  3. James – You’re right that these arguments have been around a long time. They rarely get beyond the assertion plus factoid stage intellectually, but that’s not to say they don’t resonate, or can’t resonate more than they do, as Sinclair suggests. However, you’d have to say that the ALP is on dangerous ground here. The decline of the family hasn’t been driven by men working long hours in deregulated parts of the economy. It long predates that. It has far more to do with changing expectations surrounding marriage, women increasing workforce participation, and the state playing the role men once did in supporting mothers with children. It’s the ALP’s base that would explode if you tried to put those genies back in their bottles.

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  4. Andrew,

    I’m sure you must have done it before, but when you say “decline of family” it would be worthwhile knowing what you (and, for that matter, many other people) actually mean here.

    Maybe the overall median type of family has changed a small amount in the last few decades, but I think the idea of “decline” in the negative sense (say, as measured by outcomes associated with generally positive things e.g., , mental health, childhood achievement…) is basically science fiction, and most of the negative aspects are really people focusing on groups that remain relatively small minorities (like poor single mothers) and forgetting about groups with poor outcomes that existed but were hidden (e.g., women in violent households before divorce became more simple).

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  5. Sinkers,

    Bonhoeffer’s liberal theological tendencies would appeal to both anglo-catholic Rudd and p/t methodist Howard.

    Rudd is doing what all politicians do and that is to accuse his opposition of being bad on both wings in the hope one sticks.

    The Government does this as well.

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  6. Conrad – I agree that it is easy to forget that things weren’t all good in the family’s strongest era, in the 25 years or so after WW2. And I need to sit down and revist all the arguments about the family as much to argue against Howard’s spending as Rudd’s critique. But I did go through all this pretty carefully and critically in the mid-1990s when, at the CIS, I was editing the material Barry Maley and others were writing on the subject. The empirical evidence on the consequences of single-parent families was compelling. Yes, it is much worse in the lower than upper classes where it is mixing in with other social problems. For example, among this group especially there has a significant and very concerning increasing in mental health problems (some data here). But there is a large amount of literature on this that I have to read before saying too much. I avoided this aspect of the issue in my post because I have not done the necessary reading over the last seven or eight years. It was enough to work on what Rudd and Howard have said.

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  7. Homer – I’m happy for the opposition to oppose, and do the hard yards, and the like. But it is dishonest to suggest, as Rudd (implicitly) does, that there is a similarity between a totalitarian regime such as Nazi Germany, and Australia and the US. Maybe he didn’t mean too. Okay, I’m happy to be wrong. As best I can recall Christianity has a prohibition against being a false witness – I think Rudd has broken that commandment. And, I think, he has trivialised Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom.

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  8. From my chair I think Howard ended up delivering lots of platitudes to the socially conservative members of his support base, but little in the way of action. The republicans in the US have been criticised in a very similar way.

    As an example, I find the whole “gay marriage” debate fascinating. It seems like a carefully crafted way to annoy your socially liberal opposition without actually damaging anybody. The position of being “against gay marriage” is automatically considered to be “anti gay”, but at the same time “pro christian marriage”. However, getting married without the other legal protections that buys you in todays society is little more than a ceremony without substance.

    In this case, by “banning gay marriage” the social conservatives felt like they won, without really winning anything, and the socially liberal felt like they lost without incurring any penalty.

    It is anomolous to consider same sex unions as being somehow inferior in their commitment and longevity to heterosexual ones given the current rates of divorce. Now we have Turnbull et. al. proposing to (finally!) fix a lot of the financial issues, which surely is a kick into the guts of social conservatives (I mean, you’re downright encouraging people to be gay!).

    What does this mean for Rudd and his wedge? I’d agree that will be extraordinarly hard to pull off. The hard-line conservatives won’t bite and the moderately conservative christian he is trying to appeal to is disappearing so quickly as to be considered endangered.

    Howard’s confusing mix of liberal market rhetoric and socially democratic policies can be easily explained as a kind of cardigan populism that voters find unthreatening. Except for Iraq.

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  9. Sinkers I think you are reading a way too much into Ruddie’s speech.

    The ‘wedge’ so to speak is merely to get division between social conservatives and social and economic liberals.
    the ALP did this successfully up to Tampa and then lost it.

    it appears to be regaining them.
    Howard did the same in 96.

    Unfortunately although you can campaign against in Opposition you must adopt economic liberal polices so it can be self-defeating

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  10. Homer / Andrew, my bad. Sorry. This is what happens when you read the Saturday papers on Sunday night. My comments about Bonhoeffer were in relation to Rudd’s previous Monthly article, not the forthcoming Monthly article. If they’re running Rudd on a montly basis, I’m glad I let my subscription lapse. If they chose to run Gideon Haigh on a manthly basis, I’d renew it.

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  11. There are no more corrosive agents at work today, on the so-called conservative institutions of family, community, church and country than the unforgiving forces of neo-liberalism, materialism and consumerism, which lay waste to anything in their way.

    I will be absolutely fascinated to see Rudd’s comprehensive plan of dealing with these “corrosive agents”. John Hewson could identify the chinks in Labor’s armour but could never poke any weapons into said chinks. Seems that Rudd may have the same problem.

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  12. Andrew, I’ve noticed a tendency amongst the political classes in Australia to read a book on the beach with an idea and suddenly they’ve got a whole new paradigm of analysis. There is nothing new, exciting or wedge-like in what Rudd is saying. In fact it sounds like a rehash of what the Labour Party in the UK was saying about Thatcher almost 30 years ago and what Blair was advocating for the Labour Party 12 years ago.

    I think the bigger problem that Labor is going to face in this country is in relation to the war on terror and how to combat extremism. One need only look in the US and the UK to see “progressives” split between those who prefer to put human rights before anti-Americanism and those who have decided to put anti-Americanism before human rights.

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  13. The reason why the economic liberal-social conservative alliance is dominant, despite its philosophic incoherence, is a simple Marxist one – such a position is highly favourable to the rich and powerful in a society.

    It conserves their social position while liberalising their moneymaking. For the powerless, OTOH, it is the worst of both worlds.

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