In his first two months since being elected federal ALP leader on December 4, Kevin Rudd has made subtle, but significant changes to federal Labor policy in its "battle of ideas for Australia's future". As if following a dictum not to be "wedged" — politically outflanked from the right by PM John Howard's Coalition government — Rudd is moving significant sections of Labor policy in a more rightward direction and attempting to position Labor as the defender of "the fabric of Australian family life".
So far the approach seems to be working, with Newspoll showing the ALP leading the Coalition by 56-44% on a two-party preferred basis, and Rudd only one point behind Howard as preferred prime minster.
The question is: Will the Rudd tactic of "wedge-proofing" Labor make his honeymoon last longer than those of his predecessors Kim Beazley or Mark Latham?
Less than a week after his elevation to the Labor leadership, Rudd attacked Howard from the right on the issues of immigration and multicultural affairs.
Labor immigration spokesperson Tony Burke was renamed spokesperson for "immigration, integration and citizenship".
Australian Associated Press reported on December 14 that Burke, "while denying that Labor was abandoning its long-held support for multiculturalism in favour of integration — a term more often associated with Prime Minister John Howard's views on migration", said that "there are concerns about wanting to make sure we're building a stronger community, rather than having a situation where people are living in isolated communities or a cocoon or a silo situation".
This was a thinly veiled attack on Muslims that would have made Howard jealous.
Multiculturalism, while retained in form, was downgraded in importance and parcelled-out to a different shadow Labor spokesperson.
It took Howard until January 23, with his ministerial reshuffle to catch up, formally scrapping reference to multiculturalism from title of the immigration department and renaming it the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
On nationalism, Rudd (predictably) echoed Howard, after claims were made that organisers of Sydney's January 25 Big Day Out concert were attempting to "ban" displays of the Australian flag. "This is political correctness gone mad", Rudd said on January 22.
The December 27 Australian revealed that, under Rudd, Labor had finally released its response to the Coalition's draconian Welfare to Work legislative package, which forces disabled pensioners and single parents back into the workforce, or onto lower benefits if they cannot find employment.
While pledging to retain many of the nastier aspects of Welfare to Work, Labor would also force existing disabled pensioners — exempt under the Howard legislation — to seek work.
Labor would curtail the horrendous breaching system for unemployed people begun with Welfare to Work in July, whereby unemployed people who disobey Centrelink's rules can have their entire benefit withdrawn for eight weeks. However, Labor would maintain a similarly punitive system, only a little watered-down.
It's on industrial relations that Rudd has made most the difference to Labor's message. On December 10, Rudd announced that a federal Labor government would establish a new ministry covering the service industry, small business and independent contractors. Rudd's intention is to separate these areas of low unionisation out from Labor's campaign against the Howard government's Work Choices amendments to its 1996 Workplace Relations Act, potentially leaving many of the most vulnerable workers with little protection, in the interest of pandering to more "aspirational" layers.
On January 10, Rudd confirmed that a Labor government would retain Howard government legislation that allows independent contractors to strike their own price with employers, without any reference to minimum standards, and denies them the protection of a union.
Labor had voted against the Work Choices legislation when it went to parliament on November 29. "The Howard government will be trampling over more workers' rights with these new changes to IR laws", was how ACTU president Sharan Burrow greeted the laws at the time.
"Already we have seen the Howard government's new IR laws make it easier for employers to sack their permanent staff and re-employ them on contracts with lower wages and conditions. The government now proposes to take this a step further with a new law that will give big business the upper hand in pay negotiations and fails to protect contractors who wish to bargain collectively. This law fails to help sub-contractors who are being pushed around by big companies", Burrow added.
Yet Labor under Rudd will keep the legislation, with the addition of the tiny fig leaf that to be recognised as contractors, workers may not receive more than 80% of their income from any one employer.
On February 1, Rudd refused to repeat Beazley's promise that a Labor government would "rip up" the Work Choices laws. While Rudd continued to argue Labor's opposition to the laws, there is more to his change of pitch than style or semantics.
Rudd does not want to come to government on the back of a mass campaign against the laws, which would raise expectations in a newly elected Labor government — not even on the back of the kind of half-hearted, electorally focused campaign run by the ACTU since early 2005.
Rudd is counting on the fact that the Howard government is on the nose with most voters, and while maintaining Labor opposition to Work Choices, is treading carefully so as not to alienate big-business support.
It's the same with the hated Iraq war. Labor could make life very miserable for Howard if it attacked his unabashed support for US President George Bush's war policy (rejected by most Australian and US voters), but Rudd doesn't want to be seen as disturbing the bipartisan consensus in favour of the Australia-US alliance.
So, rather than focusing on industrial relations and the Iraq war, Rudd is making climate change, education and health his key points of difference with the Howard government, while girding Labor against Howard's very successful "wedge" strategy by adjusting Labor rightwards on other issues.
Will Rudd's strategy be a winner? Certainly the Howard government is unpopular, which gives Labor a chance. However, much of that unpopularity has been built on the back of the mass mobilisations against Work Choices.
Only an on-going mass campaign against the Coalition's anti-worker laws can continue to confront working people with the need to oust the Coalition parties. This combined with an industrial campaign that shows the bosses the real cost of backing Howard's Work Choices "reforms", is the strongest suit that we have in forcing a change of government.
The only thing certain is that Rudd Labor's abandonment of the plight of disabled pensioners, its refusal to stand up for ethnic minorities, and its reticence to speak loudly for workers' rights, does not make these issues go away.
Parties like the Greens and the Socialist Alliance have the campaign before them. If Labor under Rudd is to move even further to the right, it is the job of these parties and their supporters to seize these issues and bring them to the centre stage. Whoever wins the next federal election, the fight for justice for working people will continue uninterrupted.