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Shame under Howard and Rudd

Paul Keating famously commented that 'when you change the prime minister, you change the country'. How much has Australia changed in the transition from John Howard to Kevin Rudd? I was recently invited to address this question in a panel with Paul Kelly and Clive Hamilton at the Sydney Writers Festival 2010. 

Earlier this month, a major newspaper's regular monthly list of Australia's ten bestselling non-fiction books included one war history, one crime history, two memoirs, and six cookery books. There were no books on current affairs, politics, economics or climate change. Quite a change from the Howard years, when public interest in serious political or social themes regularly produced bestsellers like Dark Victory or The Weather Makers.

It isn't that such books aren't being written today. The difference is that they are not being read in anything like the numbers they were under Howard. We have turned off the heavy stuff: the irony is that Rudd has achieved the relaxed, politically inattentive public that Howard sought.

I believe a key difference between these two prime ministers is in the area of public decency, as measured in terms of how governments treat individual human beings.

Rudd may be an artful spinner of verbal structures and a man whose main interest is to retain power, but he does not arouse the politics of moral outrage which for many Australians defined the Howard years. Political professionals dismiss the moral outrage factor, or disparage it as not very important statistically. It is mocked by phrases like 'bleeding hearts' or 'luvvies'.

Yet the perception that the Howard government enjoyed going after vulnerable groups of people mattered in unseating him. I am sure Howard lost power in 2007 because significant numbers of Australians had reached a tipping point. It wasn't that we had become bored by him: it was rather that we had become disgusted by him. Perhaps the harsh military takeover of Aboriginal welfare and the mishandled Haneef case tipped the balance.

So I am unable to think of Howard as a 'patriot', in the sense that I think of most Labor and Liberal prime ministers before him as patriots. I remember how the Howard years made me feel ashamed to be Australian, and how I felt about his electoral defeat the way East Germans felt about the Berlin Wall coming down: as a kind of cleansing. Maxine McKew's victory in Bennelong was the sweetest victory of all.

Mainstream Australian political scientists don't frame the Howard years in this way. They have a professional investment in the idea of the essential normality of Howard's time in power. They like to think that he generally observed Australia's unwritten rules of political fair play.

But for me, these were shaming years, defined by memories like these: attack dogs lunging at workers on the Melbourne docks; sick refugees sitting in regimented rows for days on the hot steel decks of the Tampa, guarded by Australian SAS troops toting machineguns; scared kids forced to jump overboard in lifejackets from the sinking vessel SIEV 4; the 353 unexplained deaths when SIEV X sank in international waters patrolled by Australian aircraft and monitored by Australian long-distance radar, and the subsequent efforts to dissemble and hide those facts; the cruelty of Temporary Protection Visas and the Nauru solution; children born and growing up mad in desert detention camps; undeclared attacks on Iraqi troops by invading Australian SAS forces, early in the allies' 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to cede power; the encouragement of anti-Muslim prejudice in Australia, culminating in the Cronulla riots.

The style of the Howard years was little by little brutalising Australia, destroying our multicultural decency.

These are some of the names that I remember — Lance Collins, Andrew Wilkie, Merv Jenkins, the Bakhtiari family, Shayyan Badraie, Vivian Solon, Cornelia Rau, David Hicks, Mamdouh Habib, Mohammed Haneef. There were too many victims of corrupted or vindictive government practice in the Howard years. Many of us are glad that those times are gone.

So it is a real compliment to Kevin Rudd to say that he is not John Howard! The Rudd Government respects Australia's multicultural society, and takes care not to fan the flames of bigotry in public debate on sensitive matters like boat people and domestic terrorist crime. These are important gains, and I give the Rudd Government due credit here. 

Rudd disappoints for a different reason: that he is failing to meet what is truly the greatest moral, economic and security challenge of our time — the climate change crisis.

I see this as a strange lack of imagination, rather than malevolence. Rudd for all his intelligence and political skills has just not been able to join the mental dots on climate change. As he showed on the now famous ABC 7.30 Report interview with Kerry O'Brien, he really believes he has been working hard on the problem, and that it is other people's fault that he has not yet succeeded.

Labor's climate change policy has simply been a train-wreck. On our nation's clear and present danger from climate change, Rudd is Howard revisited: from his backing-away from the 2008 Garnaut Review, to his divisive political handling of emissions trading legislation during 2009, to his recent abandonment of the emissions trading bills, and now his unconvincing attempts to convince Australians that he has in place serious renewable energy and energy efficiency policies, in place of no progress on carbon emissions trading or taxing. It is still mostly spin, and people have started to see through it.

These are complex policy issues, which people have to trust governments to get right. But Rudd's policies on climate change are marked by irresolution and political opportunism. He has muddied these waters in important ways, making future reform harder to achieve by discrediting good policy ideas and instruments. His disastrous combination of overblown rhetoric and inadequate actions has tarnished the brand, inadvertently encouraging climate change denialism.

The precious first six years of Labor government — assuming Labor is re-elected — have been wasted. It was open to Rudd in 2007, advised by Ross Garnaut, to inspire and lead real national decarbonisation policies to sharply reduce Australia's carbon dioxide emissions: to move the nation quickly towards electric cars and a renewable energy — based electricity supply industry. Instead, he opted for hollow, feel-good gesture policies which were about appeasing strategic constituencies, not about the urgent arithmetic of real carbon emissions reduction.

Rudd hoped that by his decision to shelve the CPRS bills, Labor could see off the climate crisis as an election issue for 2010. With Tony Abbott as Coalition leader — the man who said climate science is all crap — Rudd is probably secure, in the short term. But the climate crisis will continue to haunt him, unless he moves to real policy leadership on the issue.

More and more voters who care about the climate crisis have formed a view of Rudd as lacking policy vision and integrity on this key issue. Indeed, if Malcolm Turnbull were still Opposition Leader, he could be a real threat to Rudd in the coming election.

Just as British voters turned away from Tony Blair over his habitual dishonesty on Iraq — and Gordon Brown's Labour Party later paid the delayed price — Australian voters could do the same to Rudd Labor. I think Labor will pay a electoral price for Rudd caving in to the coal lobby and deferring any possible real climate action until 2013. I suspect that we may well see new party leaders, on both sides of politics, in a couple of years' time. Perhaps then Australia can begin to make up for these six wasted years.

Public understanding of the reality of the oncoming climate crisis, and readiness to support radical policies, is increasing, spurred by events like the Caribbean oil disaster and the Iceland volcano, which remind us of the growing fragility of our global life support systems.

Yet over the last three years, Australian climate change policy has stalled. Australia now is a society hamstrung by different kinds of climate crisis denialism. It is easy to laugh at people who clog up public discussion sites and newspaper letters pages with their resentful pseudo-scientific pontifications. But I am angered when intelligent people, leaders of opinion in society, on all sides of politics, persistently put short-term 'realism' and respect for powerful vested interests ahead of the science that they know in their hearts to be true.

These are the people who encouraged Rudd in his present weak policies. They share responsibility with him for Australia's climate change policy stagnation.

WIN: Post your comments about this article below to win one of three copies of Tony Kevin's climate action manifesto Crunch Time. Winners will be chosen on merit by the Eureka Street Editors and contacted by email. Entries close 5pm Thursday 3 June 2010.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is author of the climate change book Crunch Time. This essay is adapted from his presentation at the Sydney Writers Festival.

Topic tags: Kevin Rudd, John Howard, Shame, climate change, Lance Collins, Andrew Wilkie, Merv Jenkins, Bakhtiari



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Existing comments

Everyone is entitled to their opinion of Howard. To me he epitomised Australia and those that made this country. You seem obviously think that he did nothing for the country.

BTW- I voted Kevin 07 but like my previous vote for Labor (Whitlam-heaven forbid) it was for a change-nothing else and I suspect this was the case for most people. You are joking when you state it was over the Crunulla riots, Tampa etc. You don't seem to realize that most Labor voters don't even read the paper or only watch Channel 10 news.

David | 26 May 2010  

Howard did nothing but bring in the GST, bomb two countries to bits, incite brutal racism and so on.

However, here is an interesting comment from Robert Hill today.


Also agree with Tony about vested interests, like our media who never let up.

Just as they are now like dogs with bones demonising the BER which is building wonderful halls and sports centres, repainting and rebuilding on a large scale every school in this country.

The halls the media have mocked are magnificent and so are the COLA that they mocked as shade clothes on sticks. They are no such thing.

I wish I had something similar when I was at school.

Marilyn | 26 May 2010  

Gee, you've really read mainstream Australia wrong. People were bored with Howard, and so they voted Rudd who they thought was a safe option, and he's turned into the worst PM since Whitlam. To top it off, like you he backed man-made climate change. Rightly or wrongly, Climategate has killed all that. The average punter thinks its a scam to vacuum more money from the wallet. It means Al Gore will have to invent his billions some other way.

Fiona | 26 May 2010  

Fiona there was no climategate.

Marilyn | 26 May 2010  

Sadly, Rudd may now realise he has disappointed, and that as Al Gore said "We have everything we need to solve the crisis, except perhaps, political
will,and....political will is a renewable resource."

Annie | 27 May 2010  

KRudd - all words, no balls.

Owen Holmwood | 27 May 2010  

Real action on climate change requires many things to be done other than just putting a price on carbon.

If Rudd ever cared about talking action he would have:
starting cutting the massive fuel and company car subsidies,
started to upgrade pubic transport,
end old growth logging,
increased energy efficiency standards, and much more.

Note that most of these things will take years to do.

For example it is no good taxing petrol more to discourage car travel if the public transport system cannot cope with more people. It will take many years to fix our city rail networks and to buy new trains, yet Rudd still funds roads and ignores public transport.

All these things could have been started in his first year. Yet we are still waiting for any of these actions. Especially at the beginning of his term, many real actions would have got through the Senate.

And perhaps the best example of not taking climate change seriously is turning the solar cell rebate scheme into something that is BAD for the environment.

The CPRS was also more bad than good.

Look at what Rudd has done. His lack of action shows that he never ever cared.

Michael Wilbur-Ham | 27 May 2010  

I believe that the many acts of deceit and racial intolerance by Howard together with sham inquiries finally sealed the coalitions time in government. The fact that Abbott has resurrected the old guard will reinforce the perception that the coalition is the same tired and failed mob that lost the last election. Andrews think Haneef or Bishop think kerosene baths, the list goes on and on. Whenever I read about some expat saying they felt ashamed to be Australian under Howard's time in office I understood what they meant. I felt the same emotion and I didn't have to defend my country abroad but reside among my fellow Australians.

geomac | 27 May 2010  

Sometimes I feel as if Tony Abbott would be like a breath of fresh air after Howard and Rudd.

But I couldn't vote for him because of his attitude to refugees and climate change.

And I can't vote for Rudd because of his attitude to climate change and refugees.

And I can't vote for Brown's Greens because of their attitude to the unborn.

So I think I just won't vote.

Gavan | 27 May 2010  

I'm not in denial but feel that opinions expressed by such as Professor Plimer and even Bill Bryson appear much more deeply researched than those of Al Gore and Garnaut. Tony Kevin owes it to Eureka Street readers to explain why he considers the first two are wrong and the second two right

Peter Beeson | 27 May 2010  


The Greens are in favor of a woman's right to choose.

But why single out The Greens?

They were not even in existence when abortion first became legal.

And abortion has remained legal because every Labor and Liberal state and federal government has not made it illegal.

Michael Wilbur-Ham | 27 May 2010  

Personally, I think you've nailed it, Tony.

I've never voted conservative in my life, but for the first time I have a problem with giving my vote to Labor (the second time will be in the next NSW election).

I really thought Rudd was an intelligent and compassionate man (I shed a tear when he said
"sorry" to the Aboriginal people), but now I find he's just another pollie after all. But
the alternative is unthinkable - if Howard was bad, Abbott is mad - picking up one nutty idea after another, then usually dumping it within

If John Howard missed his opportunity to go down in history as the man who apologised to the Aborigines and to declare Australia a republic, then Rudd will go down as the man who
failed to act on climate change when he had a huge mandate to do so and who failed to declare Australia a republic.

What a wasted opportunity.

Carolyn White | 27 May 2010  

"Yet the perception that the Howard government enjoyed going after vulnerable groups of people mattered in unseating him."

I'm not so sure about this. The Rudd Government are going after poor people on welfare (the decision to quarantine payments for unemployed/single parents and making it harder for people to get the Disability Support Pension and as we saw today, the dole), they also have increased the price of cigarettes by 25% a pack which in the main hurts low income people and they have no qualms about demonising boat people as we've seen with the suspension of arrivals from Afghanistan & Sri Lanka which by definition means people are no longer fleeing from persecution in those countries (supposedly).

In my opinion the one and only reason Howard got voted out was because of WorkChoices. It threatened to affect the lives of too many 'Working Families'. This Rudd Government cares just as little about vulnerable people in society as the Howard Government did.

Adam E | 27 May 2010  

I find it hard to believe that Mr Kevin was a senior Australian diplomat who exercised ambassadorial power.
Didn't he at least once experience the disappointment of his fellow policy formulators when the Secretary of DFAT would return from a Cabinet meeting to report that their finely crafted, exhaustively researched and brilliantly presented only to be told that the Department's submission was rejected on - wait for it - POLITICAL GROUNDS.

As for the commentators who generalise on the voting habits and motives of the Australian people I will take them seriously when they tell me how many Aussie voters they consulted to reach their tendentious conclusions.

As long as the Herald-Sun is the major tabloid in Victoria I would guess that most voters living in Melbourne vote for a particular party or candidate who promises them a better financial deal. Most of them are like the Mining Resources Industry - they hate paying tax and will pull every trick in the book
to cheat the system.

They chat in all sorts of public venues, including sporting venues, where psychological disintegration of the opponent is all part of the game. The great Aussie tradition of "a fair go" is gone.

Uncle Pat | 27 May 2010  

I am not a political animal and often miss news broadcasts because of other things happening in my life but yesterday I did catch the news about the Coalition's new refugee policy and saw Tony Abbott marching along with a rather satisfied Philip Ruddock behind him. Then just now I heard Michelle Gratton expressing the opinion that many Australians are probably behind the Coalition's extreme policy with its fearmongering re boat people 'swamping' the country and the effect this may have on the Labor party's future policy regarding refugees.

Added to the Labor Party weakness on climate change policy I think we have much to fear. Sometimes democracy doesn't look much like democracy to me - we are fooled into thinking our vote will make a difference. I worry about what to do at each election but still cast my vote... and am usually disappointed by the party in power whether I voted for them or not.

Mary Lancaster | 28 May 2010  

"Climate Change" is not happening as per Al Gore and his supporters claim. The world will end when God wills it. It will be an act of His Will. Have some faith!
John Howard's Government gave my family the means to buy a house of our own, on a disablity pension. No other government before afforded that opportunity for many poorer citizens in Australia. Only the poorer recognise that fact. The mainstream media completely avoided anything positive about Howard.

Kevin Rudd has made many of the poorer much worse off with the prices of everything, including necessities (food, clothing etc.) taking a vast toll on our fortnightly pension. Rudd is a disaster for the poor, the pensioners as he allows our small buying power to erode so quickly. This is another matter that the mainstream media never talks about.

trent | 28 May 2010  

This is a very insightful piece by Tony Kevin, who has summed up many of my sentiments concisely. I also very much concur with his article about the bushfires and the denial that climate change may very likely have exacerbated the Victorian bushfire tragedy.

John Howard made lying "respectable", which is why Tony Abbott is having trouble understanding why he is in strife for recent words. Howard did numerous appalling things from which it will take us a long time to recover, if we ever can. But Rudd has to take responsibility for walking away from the climate change issue. He could have come up with a different plan - a better one than the one he put forward which subsidises the polluters and locks in commitment to the carbon clique. He could have talked to the Greens and to numerous strategiests and climatologists. Why doesn't a clever person like him see the urgency of this? Is it just that he thinks short-term and doesn't look beyond the papers on his desk that day? History will condemn Howard and, unfortunately, it will have every reason to also condemn Rudd for his negligence on this crucial issue.

Wendy V | 28 May 2010  

Like many who take more than a cursory interest in Climate Change - I observe the local weather 24/7 with an AWS (Automatic Weather Station).
.I have been doing amateur research since the 1980's. My records dating from 1980, show a definite trend in Canberra's climate over the 30 years of warming and drying. Looking at trends from data from the Bureau of Meteorology since the 1900's something is happening. The Bureau and CSIRO have publised Reports in recent times, warning of dangerous climate change- the message is out there. When Rudd became PM I hoped that something would be done to mitigate the change being observed.Sadly I was wrong.

Rudd has turned out to be yet another political figure who "went to water" when faced by the powerful vested interests of the energy industry- mostly foreign owned - who used their lobbying skills to derail the attempt to limit our use of fossil fuels. The Green's response was gut whencing! I hope that Tony is right- we get leaders on both sides of politics who can see the big picture. I am a frustrated and very angry voter who can not vote for any of the present political parties.

Gavin O'Brien | 28 May 2010  

I also am very disappointed in Mr. Rudd's lack of determination to bring to fruition some of his most vehement promises , viz addressing the climate change situation, showing compasion towards Assylum Seekers, and taking responsibility for our health system. These are major policies,and it would seem he could be digging his own proverbial grave.

But who to vote for?

Mr`Abbott's self confessed dishonesty , and apparent lack of compassion for those seeking a better life,, may be anathema to all thinkinng people, and perhaps not to be tolerated.

I believe Mr Rudd's behaviour may be weakness.

Mr Abbott's behaviour could appear to be malicious.

Bernie Introna | 28 May 2010  

BERNIE INTRONA, you ask "But who to vote for?"

The answer is very simple, the party which you feel confident will do closest to what you want. If you want real action on climate change and compassion for asylum seekers, then that is The Greens.

GAVIN O'BRIEN - You say "The Green's response (to the CPRS) was gut whencing!"

Labor spin is that their CPRS was a good first step. If the CPRS had just been an emissions trading scheme, then this would have been true. But it was much more than this.

The CRPS legislated certainty that the polluters would be able to keep polluting for many years to come, and it legislated certainty that they would get massive compensation.

Passing the CPRS would have made is very difficult to take an effective second step. Either the next step would be massively expensive or the government would have to renege on the legislated certainty.

And note that under the CPRS Australia's emissions would still have gone up because the CPRS allowed emission reductions from questionable overseas schemes to be counted.

Thus The Greens (and many others) think that we are much better off without the CPRS.

Michael Wilbur-Ham | 29 May 2010  

"and takes care not to fan the flames of bigotry in public debate" Is he not taking a they're not Australian so they don't matter approach to the Supertax. No doubt your leftist views will side wiht Labor on this as well. Whilst you can slander the greatness that John Howard did for Australia, you can not degrade the fact that the Liberal Coalition built Australia a great financial bed for Labor to squander under the false pretences of a Stimulus Package.

Craig | 30 May 2010  

Tony Kevin offers names/groups brutalised under the Howard regime and, I fear, an Abbott regime would offer no respite. My hope for a future Labor Government is to have the vision of Gough Whitlam with the tenacity of Paul Keating. The alternative is for a continuation of vested interests determining National policies.

Chris Cudmore | 31 May 2010  

Are we are headed for ruddy complexions under the current administration, then?

amanda moss | 31 May 2010  

Thank you so much Tony Kevin (though isn't it a bit ironic that your name has these two most disappointing leaders' names) for your article. In every aspect you have articulated my own disjointed but strongly held views right to the point of "surely anyone who valued the integrity of Deitrich Bonhoffer and could write such an article extolling him" could only be strong and honest and full of integrity.

I am so bitterly disappointed with Rudd's short term political expediencey in so many critical current issues.(climate change, refugees, etc etc etc)

But where to on election day? The Greens? No way...they could have supported a poor ETS bill but at least got it in to improve on.

The opposition (without Malcolm Turnbull as leader)? ANYWHERE but.

Margaret Bennett | 31 May 2010  

Of all the issues that condemn John Howard's reign the GST is the one that reveals his ideology, that is continued by Tony Abbot. This broad based tax entrapped us all, we all shared the burden. The rich were the beneficiaries. As predicted it has widened the gap between rich and poor.

Howard's inheritors are hell bent on preserving that legacy.. A legacy that unashamedly supported greed. And now supports the lie that super profits are in the interests of the nation. A policy that continues to ignore its social effects and instead promotes the politics of division. The demonisation of desperate people fleeing persecution is a sordid example of that policy.

The policy also inflames the contradiction that caused the Great Financial Crisis. The GST helped cause what the economists call "the lack of consumer confidence". The lack of confidence was because we had less money to spend, thanks to the GST's tax on everything. This was recognised when some of it was returned to pensioners with a bonus as part of the stimulus to get us out of the hole that the CST had helped dig.

Taxing the super rich is ethically justified and makes economic sense.

Reg Wilding | 31 May 2010  

Tony KEVIN precised clearly with this article and the earlier one from December 15, 2008 -
RUDD's great greenwash.

Once Malcolm TURNBULL was replaced as liberal party leader an act which buried any bipartisan majority approach for an ETS, Rudd's Labor Government should have immediately switched to deal with the GREEN's and present a science based scheme which would prevent the polluters
continuing their daily business with massive compensations.

Kevin RUDD has to face this dilemma and get the backing from the voting public as he did for the last election which brought about a Labor

Armin ROTH | 31 May 2010  

Perhaps Mr. Kevin needs to re-read Macchiavelli's "The Prince". Politics is not about behaving honourably or in an ethically correct manner: it's is about gaining and retaining power within the limits imposed upon the actors. When politicians misjudge those limits, then they either lose an election (as here), are disposed of or (numerous examples), as in the case of Marius Whitlam, die as a forgotten aside in a retirement village.
To hell with morality in politics! What Australia needs is a broad shield and a sharp sword. Mr. Kevin seems conveniently to have forgotten the sacrifices made by our parents' generation as the Japanese sought to create a Greater Co-prosperity Sphere at the points of their bayonets, and even worse, ignores the likelihood of a Pax Sinitica, much less the nightmare of a Calpihate.
We do not need Rudd's soupy opportunism, nor Howard's Low-Churchiness: we need a a gimlet-eyed, no-nonsense Mick for PM (not Abbott - he's to much into lace & frankincense) & a dour Presbyterian for Treasurer: Cosgrave or someone like him with operational experience for Defence & Immigration. Cold comfort to the bleeding hearts, but at least our grandchildren may be able to sleep safely.
PS: "Kevin" is not a legitimate surname - it's a forename, from the Gaelic "Coaimhín" meaning "handsome": a nom-de-plume perhaps?

Edward Reilly | 03 June 2010  

Thanks for the many interesting comments here, on whose substance I won't comment further, except on the interesting (to me, at any rate) matter of my name. Yes, it is an odd and sometimes irritating fsct that my name reproduces the first names of Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd. When I check how my published work is faring on Google, I always have to wade past many references to those far more famous names, even when I try to protect mine with inverted commas.

As to whether Kevin is a 'legitimate' surname or an invented nom de plume, I sm happy to say mine is real enough. My great-grandfather, a British Army doctor in India of Irish descent (County Armagh) emigrated to Australia in the mid-19th century. There are now quite a few Kevins in Australia, the US and Ireland, and there is even a tailor's shop in Dublin called Kevin snd Howlin that sells excellent Donegal tweed clothing.

I'll grant it is an unusual name, and I am glad to hear that in Gaelic it stems from the word for 'handsome' (maybe a few decades ago, but sadly no longer so!). I am also informed that the name may come from the O'Keevane clan which originated in the County Sligo area.

As to the claimed oddity of Christisn names used as surnames, actually there are more than a few of these around e.g. Robert Bruce, Kenneth Grahame, David Cecil, James Joyce, Governors Arthur Phillip and George Arthur, Dick Francis etc.

tony kevin | 07 June 2010  

Kevin Rudd wanted climate change but the with world's global financial crisis other countries were not supporting another tax system on the electorate so don't blame Rudd that he had lack of policy. The electorate does not want to support any policy where they have to pay more taxes. Malcolm Turnbull has interests in climate change because it will make him richer than what he is - don't burden the people to pay more taxes on another system just like GST!! which took the money away from the states -maybe its time for nuclear energy to make things cheaper for consumers.

Stop blaming Kevin Rudd, everyone who becomes a politician is interested in power anyway.

Dena Chambers | 25 September 2010  

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