Rudd and the pulp mill

.....If Rudd is sincere in his belief that in modern Australia the real battle of ideas is between free-market fundamentalism and the notion that individual wealth should be balanced by social responsibility, the pulp mill is a vital test....

Peter Henning

"The time has come to forge a new coalition of political forces across the Australian community, uniting those who are disturbed by market fundamentalism in all its dimensions and who believe that the country is entitled to a greater vision than one which merely aggregates individual greed and self-interest."

This is the concluding statement in Kevin Rudd’s essay, “Howard’s Brutopia”, published in the magazine The Monthly, in November 2006, just weeks before he and Julia Gillard launched their successful challenge against Kim Beazley for leadership of the federal Labor Party.

Rudd’s essay is a powerful and sustained intellectual attack on the neo-liberalism of Howard’s government, in which he argues that Howard has deserted the basic principles of social justice that were part and parcel of the Australian Right since the time of the Deakinite Liberals at the beginning of twentieth century, “variously dominated by old-style conservatives or social liberals:  Deakin, Menzies, Fraser, Peacock and others.  All supported the social welfare state as a form of social insurance and an institutional corrective against market fundamentalism.”

The essay can be seen as a sort of Rudd manifesto, an outline to the Australian public – and to his party and caucus colleagues – of his bedrock political beliefs that would underpin the future direction of the ALP under his leadership.

He set himself in complete contrast with Howard, stating that the “real battle of ideas in Australian politics today (is) the battle between free-market fundamentalism and the social-democratic belief that individual reward can be balanced with social responsibility”.

At a time when he was – in hindsight – clearly positioning himself to replace Beazley as Labor leader, and had already impressed his colleagues with an extremely strong parliamentary performance in relation to the AWB scandal, Rudd was staking a claim to moral authority in an Australia lost in the desert of Howard’s neo-liberal experiment, in which “neo-liberals reject the legitimacy of altruistic values that go beyond direct self-interest”.

Rudd’s time had come, not on the basis of  “it’s the economy stupid”, but on the assertion of a return to moral integrity in politics, of a return to social democratic values in terms he frames carefully as “the allocation of resources in pursuit of equity (particularly through education), solidarity and sustainability (because they) assist in creating the human, social and environmental capital necessary to make the market economy function effectively”.

Rudd wrote “Howard’s Brutopia” on the back of an earlier essay, “Faith in Politics” (The Monthly, October 2006),  which is, in part, a tribute to the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler during the Second World War. 

For Rudd, “Bonhoeffer is, without doubt, the man I admire most in the history of the twentieth century”, and in so saying he is applauding a politically engaged Christianity, and stating his own Christian values, as he wishes the public to see them.  “The proper relationship between Christianity and politics in the modern world” is to identify the “voiceless”, taking as a core principle Bonhoeffer’s positive activism that “must always take the side of the marginalized, the vulnerable and the oppressed”.

Rudd places Bonhoeffer at the centre of  progressive social democratic tradition, in which Christian socialists based political action on an informed ethical framework, which valued “equity, community and sustainability” as fundamental.

In identifying the voiceless, Rudd says this in relation to the environment and specifically climate change:

By definition the planet cannot speak for itself.  Nor can the working peoples of the developing world speak for themselves, although they are likely to be the first victims of the environmental degradation brought about by climate change.  Nor can those who come after us, although they are likely to be greatest victims of this inter-generational injustice.  It is the fundamental ethical challenge of our age to protect the planet – in the language of the Bible, to be proper stewards of creation.  The scientific evidence is now clear, and the time for global, national and local action has well and truly come.

It was in the context of these publications towards the end of 2006, and in the context of his increasing authority in the federal Parliament, that Rudd defeated Beazley, and set the stamp of his moral authority on the Australian political scene from then until now.

Rudd’s mandate on November 24 was given by the voters on the basis of hope – hope for integrity in government, hope for honesty, hope for good governance, hope for a better society, a better environment, a better future.  Hope for an end to wedge politics, to a politics driven by division.

For months before the election, as the polls consistently showed the ALP in a winning position, the Canberra press gallery and the media commentators throughout the country didn’t take it seriously.  The main mantra was that incumbent governments aren’t voted out at times when the economy is strong.  Even on election day many of the main dailies were advocating a return of the Coalition for economic reasons.

It wasn’t the economy which decided the election.  It was issues related to social justice, the health of the nation, the health of society.  Australia’s future.  An exit poll conducted for the Fairfax press found that those who voted Labor and those who swung to Labor were influenced most strongly by health, education, global warming, industrial relations and workchoices and water – all issues involving equity, sustainability and community.

There is other convincing evidence that Howard had lost all semblance of moral authority to Rudd in the eyes of a majority of the people.  One piece of evidence is the consistently large swing to Labor across north-west Western Australia, home to the most lucrative AWAs in the country, where swings exceeded  the national average in the boom mining towns, including one at Port Hedland of 10%.  Another is the fact that Liberals who rebelled against some of the more inhumane aspects of Howard’s neo-liberalism, incumbents like Petro Georgiou and Russell Broadbent, resisted the swing, both increasing their majorities in their electorates against the national trend.

Perhaps most significantly, regions and states which resisted the swing were those localities where local Labor administrations are most tainted by issues of governance themselves, issues that have undermined their moral authority as they have Howard’s.

West Australia’s swing to Labor was less than half the national average, and even that level was bolstered by the mining vote, as has been seen, the local scene still plagued by the on-going Burke saga. 

But the most obvious case is Tasmania, where, without any Georgious or Broadbents, there was actually a swing away from Labor, a unique statistic on the national stage, quite remarkable given the anti-Latham vote that lost the ALP two Tasmanian seats in 2004.  The fact that this did not prevent Labor from winning all five seats is testimony to the bigger swing against the Liberal Party, mirroring the national trend.

The swing against the Liberals showed Tasmanians, like the rest of Australia, voted to get rid of Howard, but there is also something very different going on.

That difference, of course, is the pulp mill issue.  The booths in the Tamar valley tell the story.  On the west side of the valley in the Lyons electorate, the eight booths of Exeter, Beaconsfield, Beauty Point, Gravelly Beach, Sidmouth, Legana, Frankford and Glengarry recorded an average of 23% first preferences for Ben Quin, the former Liberal Party candidate who resigned from the party and ran as an independent when Malcolm Turnbull gave his stamp of approval to the mill.  The Greens candidate, who ran a low profile campaign, polled 14%, giving a combined anti-mill vote of 37%.  The sitting member, pro-mill Labor’s Dick Adams, received 36% first preferences and Quin’s Liberal replacement, Geoff Page, publicly bankrolled by former Tasmanian Premier and Gunns board member, Robin Gray, got 35%.  Adams’ vote was bolstered by strong support for him in the mining town of Beaconsfield, and Page’s by strong support in well-heeled suburban Legana.  Without those two strongholds, support for the anti-mill position would have been more emphatic, but even so the anti-mill vote would quite probably have seen Quin elected if the electorate had been the West Tamar valley. 

On the East Tamar, in the conservative electorate of Bass, the ten booths of Dilston, Georgetown, Georgetown South, Hillwood, Karoola, Lebrina, Legana (Bass), Lilydale, Pipers River and Weymouth, recorded an average vote for the Greens Tom Millen of 20% of first preferences, an average swing of 10% from 2004.  In coastal Weymouth, east of the location of Gunns’ proposed effluent pipeline, Millen received 27% of the vote, an 18% swing, and the Labor Party’s Jodi Campbell also got 27%, an 11% swing away from Labor.  Even in largely working class Georgetown, one of the strongholds of pro-mill sentiment in Tasmania, which anticipates a boom in housing prices and influx of wealth from the pulp mill, especially in the construction phase, the Green vote was over 11%, a positive swing of nearly 5%.  Every booth recorded a swing to the Greens, and every booth recorded swings against the sitting Liberal, Michael Ferguson, with an average swing of nearly 7%.  With one exception, every booth swung against Labor, four booths giving Campbell less than 30% of the vote and another three between 30 -33%.  Only three of the booths exceeded 40% for Labor, including both Georgetown booths.

There were no swings to the major parties in the Tamar valley.  It was all one way traffic.  This is a microcosm writ large of the voting pattern throughout the state.  Every electorate showed swings to the Greens, every electorate swung against the Liberals, and every electorate except Braddon swung against Labor.  The pattern was repeated in the senate, the Greens’ 18% more than double the national average, only matched by the ACT. 

The pulp mill is the issue which defined Tasmania’s difference in the national swing away from Howard’s neo-liberalism.  The pulp mill fits fairly and squarely within Rudd’s definition of free-market fundamentalism.  There has been no cost-benefit analysis done by Gunns or the Lennon government, no baseline testing in relation to impacts on primary industry, farming or fishing, no analysis of impacts on tourism, no study done on the likely or possible effects of pollution in the atmosphere or the marine environment, no analysis of any issues surrounding wood supply, no analysis of the impact of the nature and scale of clear-felling in water catchments, in all of its dimensions, no analysis of impacts on native habitat, and no analysis of impacts on people’s health and well-being.

Quite simply, on the basis of the whole approval process, which deliberately excluded examination of any social, environmental or economic costs within the state, and any examination of wood supply issues, the pulp mill is a classic example of the kind of neo-liberalism Rudd condemns.  The failure of Gunns and the Lennon government to accept the legitimacy of a cost-benefit analysis in all its dimensions is a perfect exemplar of neo-liberal political action, which in Rudd’s words, “rejects the legitimacy of altruistic values that go beyond direct self-interest”.

In the whole pulp mill saga, the only interests examined other than Gunns’ direct interests were those that fell within the limited terms of reference of national environment law, which applied only to Commonwealth waters and migratory species.  No other interests have been explored except those of Gunns, no other benefits have been postulated except those of Gunns.  All independent analyses, done by a range of economic and scientific professionals, which have examined the mill’s impact within the framework of costs and benefits, have reached cautionary or contradictory conclusions to those of Gunns and the Lennon government.

If Rudd is sincere in his belief that in modern Australia the real battle of ideas is between free-market fundamentalism and the notion that individual wealth should be balanced by social responsibility, the pulp mill is a vital test.

It is a vital test because it goes to the heart of Rudd’s moral authority.  He has been universally applauded for his rapid ratification of the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The decision blows like a breeze of fresh air through the Australian political landscape, shaking off some of the shackles of shame, and returning the nation at last to the multilateral international fold and giving us at last an independent voice in international affairs.

Inaction on the pulp mill will contradict ratification of Kyoto.  Rudd has the option of allowing the mill to proceed, on the basis of the Labor’s position throughout the election campaign, or of being true to his convictions, for which he says he so much admires Bonhoeffer, social democrat, internationalist and Christian activist, for whom “whatever the personal cost, there was no moral alternative than to fight the Nazi state”.  Well, Rudd’s not fighting fascism, but by his own admission he is fighting neo-liberalism, and he is fighting for those whose voice has not been listened to by the two main parties, and he is fighting for social justice, and he has made clear, to repeat again, that action on the environment is a “fundamental ethical challenge”, which has to be fought at global, national and local levels. 

There are already plenty of people fighting against the pulp mill at national and local levels.  The voters at Gravelly Beach on the West Tamar are testimony to that, 44% casting a Green senate vote and 49% an anti-pulp mill vote for the House of Representatives.  In the same booth both major parties first preference votes didn’t reach 30%.

If Rudd fails to act on the pulp mill issue, it will signal the first crack in his moral authority, for it will contradict all his rhetoric of the need to fight neo-liberal free-market fundamentalism and restore social responsibility to political policy and action, and it will contradict his avowed commitment to activism in relation to climate change and the health of the planet.  If he fails to act on the pulp mill he will immediately be seen as hypocritical and deceptive in relation to his values and principles.

As John Howard has found out, once you lose moral authority it is gone forever.  It can’t be replaced.  And hypocrisy and deception are the poisons which destroy moral authority.

Let us hope that Kevin Rudd is the statesman Australians would like him to be, someone who can be admired for stepping beyond the confines of the mould Howard created, and someone who can lead a government to serve “in the national interest, and nobody’s sectional interest”, as he said three days before the election.  The people of Bennelong have dared to hope that he will, as have the majority of Australians. 

But the people of Tasmania are not yet convinced, because Rudd’s campaign position of support for the mill placed a cautionary hand on their willingness to believe he really would act against free-market juggernauts.  So Tasmanians withheld their support from Rudd, but also junked Howard’s direction.  It was the Greens who ensured Labor candidates would sweep the state, but it was the independent Ben Quin who will most likely top the poll for courage and integrity.

Let’s face it.  Our hope and our admiration rests with politicians who stand by their convictions.  It’s why Petro Georgiou, Bruce Broadbent, Barnaby Joyce, Judi Moylan and Terry Martin are assured of continued support from their communities.  They have moral authority and people vote for them.

Polls suggest that a majority of electors voted for Kevin Rudd.  He can only keep that alive by maintaining his moral authority, and for that reason the pulp mill is a real test of the integrity of his leadership.

Peter Henning