Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 August 2009
Republished in the Brisbane Times and WA Today (Perth)
The Prime Minister may only get three hours’ sleep a night, and it took Kevin Rudd’s latest essay in the Herald to understand what keeps him awake. He sees himself surrounded by the evil forces of free-market fundamentalism and neoliberal ideology.
Clinical research has shown that sleep deprivation is often linked to paranoia. Maybe that’s why the Prime Minister feels so threatened by ghosts that exist only in his imagination. The thought of neoliberal ideologues ruling the world clearly belongs to the realm of conspiracy theories and has little to do with reality.
In fact, the opposite of Rudd’s perception is true. A cursory look at our leading politicians reveals that arbitrariness has replaced any real commitment to principles – grey is both the new black and the new white.
We do not have too many ideologues, but too few.
The beauty of true ideology is that it provides answers where others still need to think about the questions. There is no a guarantee that these answers will always be right. However, from a voter’s perspective it is still an advantage to be able to choose politicians who know what they want. With an ideologue you can at least be sure that what you see is what you get.
With most present day politicians, on the other hand, what you get does not depend on their beliefs but on their advisers. All on their own, without focus groups, spin doctors and opinion polls, they are like fish out of water.
Modern politicians have elevated unpredictability to a virtue. They boast about being economic conservatives one day and pose as traditional social democrats the next.
In our post-ideological age political positions have become interchangeable. Is Rudd’s emissions trading scheme policy really so different from the one Malcolm Turnbull had when he was environment minister? Would the Coalition really have handled the economic crisis any differently than the Labor Party?
For politicians there is no safer place in public debates than the non-committal centre ground. Cosy consensus politics has become the rule, not the exception. Deviating from mainstream positions is the equivalent of political suicide. This is not only an Australian phenomenon.
No one has exemplified ideological non-commitment as much as Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. In an interview she summed up her non-philosophy like this: “Sometimes I’m a liberal, sometimes I’m a Christian socialist, sometimes I’m a conservative.” Next to Merkel, even a chameleon would blush.
True ideologues are difficult to find, but Germany’s new Minister of Economics shows there may still be a place for them in politics. Until February Baron Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg, 37, was a Bavarian MP unknown outside his own constituency. An unexpected resignation in his party catapulted him to the cabinet table.
Within four months he has become Germany’s most popular politician, leaving Merkel and other party leaders far behind in the polls. Guttenberg’s approval rating has reached such heights that commentators have begun to ask if he could be the next chancellor.
The remarkable thing about Guttenberg is that, far from following conventions of speech, he spoke his mind. Where his colleagues went for stimulus, he called for prudence. Where others wanted to bail out struggling companies, he argued to let them go bankrupt. The political newcomer was not afraid to articulate his beliefs, even though they went completely against the prevailing consensus.
Guttenberg’s opponents have tried to portray him as an ideologue. The campaign failed completely when it realised that this was why the public loved their new political superstar.
Modern politics sometimes looks like a refuge for cowards, conformists and consensus fetishists, and Baron Guttenberg’s surprise popularity demonstrates that it need not be this way.
The public is thirsting for political leaders who dare to speak their minds.
If only Australian politics would produce someone like the young German economics minister, our political debates would become infinitely more interesting. And Kevin Rudd would finally have a real reason to be afraid of ideologues.