Feature Interview: Kevin Rudd

In the last several years there has been a great amount of concern of the loss of a common factual basis to political argument-- the emergence of post-truth politics. This trend, often the victim of buzzwords and dramatic pronouncements akin to ‘the end of truth’, has sparked a backlash among academics and policymakers alike. Our recent issue (13.2) deals with this issue from an academic lens, drawing on the expertise of scholars to address both the character and implications of this phenomenon. STAIR officers Leah Matchett and Nishad Sanzagiri sat down with Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, to discuss his work, his research, and how post-factual politics have shaped his time in government and academia. The conversation touches upon Rudd’s experience in government in Australia, as well as his opinions of current trends as a scholar and erudite observer.


STAIR: As information and truth become more heterogeneous and contested with the spread of cyber influence campaigns and the advent of ‘alternative facts’, how should governments communicate most effectively with their citizens?

I have an old fashioned view which is that there is something called objective truth, there are things called objective facts, and then there is a domain called subjective interpretation. This may be an unfashionable dichotomy in the 21st century, but it is one that I adhere to. I also think it’s consistent with the Enlightenment and if we blur the ground as postmodernists would have us do, then ultimately we corrode and corrupt the entire basis for political discourse in an open and frank fashion- let alone one that lends itself to the articulation of differences and the reaching of compromise. Having said that, plainly that distinction is not held by all political players. If you look within democracies, it is tempting first of all to go to the usual array of villains on social media. Let me stop short of that to start with. I would start with the villains within the mainstream media. I think we can underestimate the collective impact across the Anglo-sphere of the Murdoch media empire in the distortion of the politics of objective truth and objective fact in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia- and more broadly. That has been a process under way for some decades. I believe it has set the atmosphere in which social media distortions have in fact arisen. The fact that the Murdoch media pursues an ideological agenda is not unique across newspapers. The fact that it prosecutes a post-truth agenda is less subject to analysis and discussion. But the well-known case load of black being white and white being black across Murdoch media is, I believe, the beginning of the corruption of our democratic process in the West. In my own case in Australia,  because I happen to have a radical ideological disagreement with Murdoch and all his works, does that justify me as the Prime Minister being depicted on the front page of all his newspapers dressed in a Nazi uniform. I think this is a valid question, and it is certainly one which stands outside of the free-ranging buccaneering style of social media, where I think many learned some of their craft from the free-ranging buccaneering style of the Murdoch media.

Secondly, if you look at other sources, the radically balkanizing nature of social media can create a core problem for contemporary democracies and their discourse—namely a common, shared factual basis for political debate, political discussion, and political resolution. The fact that there are now ‘multiple facts’, with the assertion of opinion as fact, creates an enormous problem for creating a common basis for a democratic discourse. If we are speaking basically in a permanent babel, then how on earth can a common language of democratic majoritarianism emerge from that – let alone democratic consensus. So I think that’s the second problem, and I think it’s a direct and probably intended consequence of postmodernist fetishes in political science and international relations. I think postmodernism has nothing to contribute to these fields, and in fact has lent a veneer of academic credibility to the general balkanization and growing disfunctionality of politics.

And of course the third level of disruption has come from those who see rampant opportunities to engage in knowing distortion of facts for a predetermined political and ideological objective. Therefore you have the knowing distortion of facts by right wing populist movements. The knowing distortion of acts by various international governments all in pursuit of a quite defined hard realist, non-postmodernist objectives. In other words, using the field opened up by the postmodernist subjectivity of everything to realize a hard core realist political objective. So I think there are three cascading sets of influences.

What do you do about them? The best that you can do is along the following lines. One, harsh national laws concerning any foreign manipulation of domestic political processes, either by way of foreign fundraising for domestic political operations, or foreign media platforms of one form or another designed to influence the domestic debate. The second thing you can do is through a range of recognized social institutions across the academy, for example. Perhaps the various press councils around the world could have commonly agreed and multiple fact checking mechanisms, which can at least establish the veracity of claims.

For example, Britain today has a Foreign Secretary who during the Brexit campaign ran around talking about the savings to be had from Brexit that would instead be spent on Britain’s national health system. There existed then virtually no fact checking mechanism of any origin – left, center or right. This should be a matter of foremost political controversy in this country, and bar that person from office. The fact that this doesn’t occur means that this country, the United Kingdom, doesn’t take those processes seriously. So in response to your question I think it lies at those two levels, and I think there’s a third level – the mainstream political class having the guts to stand up against media monopolies like the Murdoch monopoly. Unfortunately these oligopolies and monopolies have created their own culture of fear, and the reason they’re not taken on directly is that they fear what they will do to them the next day in the public space, by way of character and reputation and distraction.

I’ve reflected on these things for a long time, both as an Australian political practitioner, and as someone who engages increasingly in the debate about the survivability of the Western democratic project, and someone who is deeply familiar with the Chinese authoritarian forms of government.

STAIR: As someone who has spent a lot of time in government and diplomacy, why, in your opinion do electorates the world over seem to be turning to ‘outsider’ and anti-establishment candidates? What should establishment candidates be doing differently?

I think you don’t have to be a Marxist to conclude that economics shapes politics radically, and shapes economic politics just as radically. So when you turn to the nature of change in the economies of the West over the last several years, the radical impact of global capital and technology flows has created a greater and greater class of either unemployed, underemployed, or poorly paid employed. There comes a point when such groups no longer feel as though they have any connection with what was previously conceived as a binding social contract. As a part of that, to use a Marxist term, people will feel radically alienated, and as a consequence will lurch to the politics of the extreme right and the extreme left, for two reasons. One, to vent – as an entirely legitimate operation of politics – even if in the process of venting they know in their heart of hearts and their mind of minds that process of their venting will not produce the material results which will make their material circumstances better. Two, they vent and give expression to their alienation by voting for the far right and the far left because they are partly persuaded that anything must be better, whether it’s populist identification with the comforting symbols of cultural familiarity, or whether it’s through radical appeals to re-collectivization. There are these dual phenomena at work. So what do you do about it?

As has been the history of capitalism, the only force capable of saving capitalism from itself, particularly given its turbo charging qualities towards self-destructionism, is a series of social-democratic interventions. This has been done repeatedly through history- often with the political force of being punished for having done so. The most recent example is the global financial crisis, where the center-left consensus at that stage shared between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia helped drive a series of responses through the G20 through Keynesian interventionism, both in fiscal policy and in financial markets to prevent systemic collapse. This was as opposed to classic capitalism, which simply waited back to see markets self-correct at the carnage of tens of millions of people unemployed. We’ve seen the consequences that that has had in history- most notably in the 1930s. So again I think the challenge for the centre-left is to save capitalism from itself by causing the captains of industry to conclude that they don’t necessarily have to become trillionaires or even billionaires in order for this model to succeed. That high levels of redisitributionism will be necessary to sustain the social contract. And furthermore, that the new innovators both in finance and technology must increasingly carry a parallel responsibility themselves for the level of social disruption that they bring about. In other words, the attitude up to now which is ‘we disrupt, it's the business of the state to correct what imbalances we create’ is the most self-indulgent, self-interested, socially irresponsible, and ultimately destructive set of arguments I’ve seen on display.

STAIR: As someone who is truly an expert in foreign affairs, what is the role of a democratic government in engaging the general population in foreign policy matters? How should governments balance between democratic accountability and lack of knowledge of foreign affairs among the population?

I think people exaggerate the tension- and maybe it’s because one side or the other wants to evade responsibility. To me it’s very simple. Governments are elected. The buck stops with them. It stops with you in terms of local accountability as a member of parliament, and it stops with you in terms of national accountability if you are in government or cabinet or you happen to be prime minister. What expertise you choose to buy in to assist you in decision making process is a matter for you. If you happen to be a renaissance man or woman and don’t need any such expertise well good luck to you, but if you need it then you should be able to obtain that which is necessary. And given the complexity of the policy domain these days, and the interconnectedness of the policy domain, given the pace of change in the policy domain, the level of expertise which will be required in governmental processes will be greater. I often think that the role of the diplomatic service will increasingly evolve in terms of being a neutral but intelligent collator and analyst of the best brains available in a particular field, rather than carry with it the illusion that the permanent public service can itself be the permanent curation of all domains of emergent policy knowledge. In other words, the public service will retain its essential quality of advising ministers, but will become the agency through which collective pools of expertise are brought together, sifted, analyzed, distilled, and the ultimately presented and recommended. I see no contradiction there – it’s how any intelligent government should operate.

STAIR: What about the use of referenda by many governments, which are on fundamentally foreign policy issues, brought to the general public?

It shows a gutlessness of political leadership. The most appalling decision former British Prime Minister David Cameron made was to take an internal Tory party management problem and outsource it to the British public, and have the British people decide something that was far too complex to be considered in a single simple referendum question. It’s an absolute failure of the political class. Eton gave us a combination of David Cameron and Boris Johnson; it has a lot to answer for.

The problem with the British referendum on Brexit is that it wasn’t a referendum, it wasn’t even conceived as a plebiscite. It was some sort of general advisory process. Referenda in my country are defined by a very tight definition-which is a bill to change the constitution from X to Y. For anything other than that, you might consult the public in a plebiscite if you wished to obtain an advisory opinion.

STAIR: Or a postal vote?

Or a postal vote. But both of those are invariably abandonments of political responsibility. The survey on marriage equality is a recent example in Australia. Why the vote couldn’t simply be delegated to members of parliament with a free hand to vote on behalf of their constituencies, to vote with their conscience, or to vote both, defies my imagination. But that was the case in Australia. I took marriage equality to the polls in 2013, and had we won it would have been enacted in 2014. Three years later in both Prime Minister Turnbull’s case in Australia and in Cameron’s case in United Kingdom, you have an example of kicking the ball down the road through so-called consultant processes with the wider public, rather than using the parliament for the processes for which it was designed. Parliaments exist for the purposes of governing and enacting legislation. I don't think this is an extreme view. If a constitution begins to construct a practical impediment for the parliament to discharge its duties, then the parliament should proscribe a referendum to change the constitution. It's a pretty simple view.

There’s only one reason to have a referendum, which is to change a fundamental constitutional provision or precept, given the curious construction of the British constitution.

STAIR: In this Post-Truth era, there is a general contempt for experts and their expertise. Why do you think this is? In your opinion (1) Why are people rejecting expertise, and (2) Why do you feel like more advance expertise will help you contribute despite this rejection? It also seems that expertise and experts are perhaps less valued than they were, and that having an advanced degree makes you irrelevant in a certain way.

Look, the responsibility of the legislator or the government official is to take ultimate responsibility for the expertise which has been sought. I mean, you’re the elected person. You can defend either the public funds or views to buy such expertise or the conclusions that have been recommended to you that come from it.

If you have found no value in it – well and good – tell the public that as well. But there is a very basic discipline involved in public policy development, and if you deter the expertise to answer those questions then you shouldn’t get in.

As for the question of relatability of expert opinion to the wider public, that’s irrelevant because they are not employed by the wider public. They are engaged by religious ideologues or executives for particular policy purposes. Do you think the wider public would prefer you to make a decision, for example, on the future of the water management system in North Wales based on a couple of Tory backbenchers who once went fishing there? You think they’ll know about it? Probably not.

The only wisdom in politics and international politics lies in knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know – and being able to frame questions about that which you don’t know in order to define the expertise that you need.

STAIR: Can you speak a little bit about the political tumult in Australia during your tenure as Prime Minister?

People have a vast range of different conclusions from that event. I think what was safely concluded by the most recent poll was that in the post-2007 leadership in Australia , the public regards me as the most effective leader in that period against the three that succeeded me (Gillard, Abbott, and Turnbull). It all comes down to the data, I think.

I think it’s now accepted that those who engaged in the parliamentary coup in Australia in 2010 did a grave violence to the way in which politics has been conducted in the country since then. And that what they did is a consequence of engineering a backroom faction-driven coup at one-minute-to-midnight, absent any stated policy basis. This has created a new set of norms for Australian political behaviour both in the Labor Party and within the Conservative Party whereby the whole notion of a revolving door leadership was established by those who actually broke a fundamental convention. It’s not as if in the past parliamentary leaders haven’t been removed. But on previous occasions they seemed to occur on the basis of an extensive public debate and stated policy positions around which there were differences, the resignation of disaffected ministers, and then contesting of leadership from positions outside of leadership, as opposed to a midnight coup. So it is that which actually shook the conventions and that I think continues to shake the conventions. And the two leaders of the current parties are very much affected by this process given their own career backgrounds within their own parties.

STAIR: So, you famously presented a national apology to Australia’s indigenous population soon after assuming office. However, other countries haven’t done so. What was the advantage of making such a declaration? And what are your views on the ‘symbolism’ of saying sorry?

In all settler societies, there are unresolved questions of race. The United States has it with Native Americans and with slavery; Canadians have it with their First Nations people; Australians have had the same with Aboriginal Australians; and this country has also had an untidy history with slavery. So you have two approaches to these questions in settler societies: One, airbrush the problems from the historical records because it’s simply not convenient and seem to be just too difficult. For example, when I raise it with Congressmen in the United States, the standard response is: “Great idea, Kevin, it just ain’t gonna happen.” There is a form of national and political ‘learned helplessness’ within the United States on this questions– a bit like with guns, really.

The alternative is to seek to change social attitudes through the position of political leadership. So I chose to do the latter. And when I did so as the first act as elected Prime Minister in parliament, I fully expected there to be a full-blown racist reaction within Australia. What surprised me was that this question of the appalling treatment of Aboriginal Australians by the white Australians had obviously been lurking fully deeply within the Australian subconscious for quite some time. By bringing it to the surface and by naming it for what it was – which was ugly beyond belief – and then humbly seeking forgiveness from indigenous Australians through the symbolic act of national forgiveness and apology, something was transacted at that point. Not all problems of reconciliation were resolved at that point – but seeking someone’s forgiveness and apologizing is a necessary first step towards building or rebuilding a substantive relationship.

The human analogies, I think, are quite clear. So, the classic Conservative critique in Australia and elsewhere is: “It doesn’t matter and we should be engaging in practical reconciliation to make sure the schools and hospitals are there and all the rest of it”. To this my response is: “That doesn’t work unless you’ve achieved some form of spiritual reconciliation as well.” And the two must be done in tandem. Otherwise, we’ll never see a partnership of equals. It’ll remain a partnership of the powerful with the powerless.

In the United States I think it’s just the culpable lack of political courage, and I don’t really understand why. It would, in my judgment, do so much to improve Black/White relationship in the United States. Having lived in the United States now for quite a few years, what I see is two communities constantly looking past each other. I grew up in the Australian equivalent of rural Alabama so I kind of know what the other side is like. I’m not some Ivy league intellectual coming from a good New England family.

Politicians by their silence and by their language issue ‘licenses of permission’ in terms of the parameters of national discourse. For example, both of my Conservative predecessors, John Howard and Tony Abbott, engaged in the dogmas of the politics of race in our country. They didn’t say anything explicitly racist, but everyone knew what it meant and so that creates social norm. What we sought to do via the apology in that process was a reconciliation. And my experience, therefore, is that those in public leadership positions have an extraordinary responsibility to do that.

STAIR: Currently, negotiations are ongoing with regards to the ‘Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership’ (RCEP), a proposed trade bloc between 10 ASEAN member-states and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. At the same time, there is also the stalled ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’ (TPP). What do you think the effect of America’s withdrawal from this pact will be on Asia Pacific Relations? What is Australia’s role in the region in the future?

The withdrawal from the TPP of the United States is one of the longest economic suicide notes in history. It is a willful decision to render yourself redundant in the most dynamic economic region in the world in the twenty-first century. All because of some view that this symbol was worthwhile in US domestic politics. Once again, it represents an abject failure in the part of the American political class for reasons I again don’t understand why.

So in terms of America’s interest with a prosperity agenda, it is a great disservice to the American public. Towards the wider prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region, it is a great disservice. In terms of America’s long-term geopolitical interests in the East Asian/West-Pacific, it is an altogether even greater disservice as regional governments conclude that the Americans are incrementally, willfully sliding off stage.

STAIR: And how do you think that affects Australia’s role and future in the region?

I think with regards to the TPP, the TPP-11 have started to circle the wagon and keep the flame alive in the hope that what happens with the next American administration will be more positive. However, given the current political climate in the United States, both amongst Democrats and Republicans, it’s like we’re holding our breath. I think that’s one of the responses in Australia. I think more broadly in South East Asia what you can begin to see is that the region forming deep conclusions about America’s general lack of staying power and, therefore, people now increasingly accommodating their future economic, political, and foreign policy interests to China. All a consequence of American inaction.

STAIR: One of the ‘Three Pillars’ of Australian foreign policy you formulated during your time as shadow foreign minister was the US alliance. Since the election of President Trump, many traditional US allies, including Germany, Canada and France have felt the need to increase their independence from the US. How has this election in your mind affected Australia’s stance? Is the US alliance still a key pillar of Australian foreign policy moving forward?

The three pillars (the alliance with the United States; membership of the United Nations and a multilateral rules-based system; and a policy of comprehensive engagement in our region) remain valid. And Donald Trump does not equal the United States; he’s just the current incumbent. Our military alliance so far has survived 13 American Presidents, Republican and Democrat, and 13 Prime Ministers in Australia, both Labor and Conservative. And that’s because of our binding commonality and deep values and a common security perspective.

Secondly, from the Labor party’s perspective, we’ve never seen the alliance as mandating automatic compliance with US foreign policy on every issue. Hence why we parted company with the United States in the Iraq War, unlike the supine British Labour party, because we simply didn’t think the arguments stacked up against the tests which need to be brought to bear in triggering military action in third country, let alone an invasion. So, for example, we as the Labor parted company with the Americans before in Vietnam and in Iraq. We didn’t choose to do so on a whim. But I think the worst thing a good ally of the United States can do is just sit back and sign blank cheques, particularly when the incumbent in the White House may have misread circumstances. In fact there is a parallel argument that the responsibility of a close ally of the United States is to be a friend who can say: Listen Uncle Sam, we think you really got this one wrong – and for the following reasons. That takes courage – and hence, is usually not welcome.

STAIR: Thank you so much for speaking with us Mr. Rudd.