Op edders that is. Anyway, below the fold is an op ed of mine the Age published today ostensibly on Kevin, which was foreshadowed to Troppodillians here. In it I try to argue that all this stuff about the importance of projecting values in politics can be turned to good effect from opposition by working towards various social ends even without the power to determine government policy.
In particular I suggested that campaigning for things to happen and helping them come about before one came into government was not only politically healthy – in that politics and the use of the state should reflect the activity and aspirations of civil society, of people trying to ‘do it for themselves’. It would also, I argue, be a way to capture the imagination of an electorate which is, (in this day-and-age rightly) cynical of politicians’ motives.
Unfortunately the op ed was edited down so that the second example I gave of a campaign the opposition could run was garbled. If I wasn’t the author, I don’t think I would have been able to understand what I was saying from the words that survived into the Age. So I reproduce the full text as submitted below the fold.
Doing rather than saying
For those lucky enough to receive it, this year’s Christmas Card from Kevin Rudd’s looks both backward and forward. The back of the card describes Rudd as the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Trade and International Security. That was a long time ago what’s that they say about a week in politics?
But the design of the card offers a portent of the future. It’s drawn by Georgia Cupples. Should you know her? Probably not. She’s a student at St Josephs Catholic Primary School which (I presume) is in Rudd’s electorate. It’s a nice drawing of Brisbane with the Gabba and the Story Bridge as the chief landmarks.
Putting Georgia’s design on his card is good PR. But it’s also a clue to a broader political strategy in a cynical and policy weary electorate at least as hungry for leadership on ‘values’ leadership as policy. One of Rudd’s themes in this struggle for Australian hearts and minds is self-help at the community level and the politician’s role as social entrepreneur.
As he observed in an interview earlier this year:
There is a great opportunity for any member of parliament at any level of government throughout the country to become a community entrepreneur. What do I mean by that? Work within market structures or normal local community structures to achieve social outcomes that benefit the community. . . I think we’ve got on our side of politics, a dual responsibility to work locally as an entrepreneur to achieve community outcomes using the resources available and then to work separately and simultaneously at a policy level to try and achieve outcomes through a change of government and overall national policy.
In describing how he acted as go-between between various parties to rescue 800 jobs by saving a local abattoir from closure, Rudd illustrates the role of the politician as social entrepreneur. That’s not new, though within the cynical culture of party politics today, the experience clearly came as something of a revelation for Rudd.
He comments on how the old-timers in his branch used to greet newcomers to the neighbourhood with a box of groceries on the back step compliments of the local ALP branch. It was good PR and good politics. Just like Rudd’s Christmas card.
This approach offers a powerful force of renewal for politics. Rudd’s local social entrepreneurship has presumably been part of his remarkable success in extending his winning margin in each election he’s fought.
But if it can be used to extend his margin of incumbency, it’s even more important from the perspective of an opposition seeking office. Doing rather than saying is a much better way to demonstrate what one stands for and to capture the attention of the media and the electorate in a cynical age.
Self-help politics can be taken further beyond local social entrepreneurialism and into national policy itself. Here’s an example. With ballooning trade and payments deficits it would be prudent for Australians to save more. But people’s hip pocket nerves being what they are, politicians find it easier to talk about the need for more saving than they do restraining consumption.
Enter default superannuation.
Next year if they do nothing, each New Zealander will have an additional 4 percent of their wages paid into their super accounts. They’ll be able to opt out to complete a form electing not to save the extra 4 percent. But the research suggests that many of those who are too apathetic to save enough will be too apathetic to opt out thus increasing savings perhaps substantially and certainly relatively painlessly.
I’ve argued along with others, including the members of a Federal parliamentary committee, that Australia should follow suit – indeed we used to be policy innovators like New Zealand is now. Labor should embrace default super as a policy. But if it did it would be a one day wonder with a brief story in the middle of paper.
But – and here’s the point – who says governments have to adopt the policy for it to be implemented? Rudd could proselytise the policy’s virtues and campaign for businesses to adopt it as an expression of their own corporate social responsibility as some firms have done in the US. If only a few did so, Rudd would be showing us, not telling us. He’d be doing, not saying. And with each firm that signed up, he’d ask why others weren’t signing on. Before long it might even interest the pundits as a symbol of a political struggle. And the Opposition would be effecting worthwhile change before it took office.
I’ve also argued that, while we debate how much to deregulate labour law we might pay some attention to a huge labour market failure: You usually don’t know what it’s like to work for a firm before you start working there! Yes, yes I know it’s not a mainstream talking point. But imagine a market for houses or cars where you knew almost nothing about how they performed until you bought them and it gives you a whole new insight into how inefficient our labour market is now.
We can improve it. Right now most large firms circulate questionnaires to their employees, seeking information on a range of factors governing work satisfaction. The best managed employers have an interest in standardising this information to make it comparable across firms and publishing the results. Why? To attract the best employees. So the Opposition might be able to encourage a few firms to take the plunge. If so, how much more influential might it be in office? A good question for Labor to pose in an election.
These are just two examples, but Kevin Rudd’s penchant for that old Christian standard of doing well by doing good could be a formidable political weapon.
And even if he loses, he’ll be true to his pledge in his maiden speech:
I do not know whether I will be in this place for a short or a long time [but] I have no intention of being here for the sake of being here. Together with my colleagues it is my intention to make a difference.