Since I know Speccie readers like a bit of a shock, let me oblige: I think Chris Bowen is a top bloke. We went to university together more than two decades ago. I have known him well in recent years, like him enormously and we’ve been sparring partners on television. He’s Labor’s most compelling orator and their best writer whom I was happy to publish in these pages almost every week on the condition that he remained a backbencher, which was not for long. A man of substance, discipline and great ability with much to contribute to public life, the 40-year-old Bowen represents the future of the Labor party.
However — and this brings me back, I’m afraid, to shocking predictability: I don’t agree with this book. It is full of contradictions. He boasts that the Labor party represents true liberalism, yet in the workplace he discriminates against individuals in favour of unions, which account for only 15 per cent of the private labour force. He has the gall to call the carbon tax a ‘reform’, despite the fact it has all the hallmarks of a giant revenue grab and creeping socialism. And he proudly embraces the social progressive agenda, never mind this self-confessed atheist’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
Bowen’s criticisms of conservatism and the Liberal party are what you’d expect from an ambitious Labor frontbencher. He suggests that the ALP is far more committed to long-term reforms than the Coalition. Yet ever since Liberals first held office in 1949, they have pushed a wide range of innovative reforms: from introducing state aid to independent schools to ending the White Australia Policy to making it easier for small business, the engine of the Australian economy, to hire and fire. By contrast, Bowen’s own party has been responsible for some catastrophic errors: from Chifley’s mass nationalisation to Whitlam’s loans scandal to the shenanigans of the Rudd-Gillard years.
Far from impeding progress and harming individuals, as Bowen appears to suggest, John Howard and Peter Costello cleared up Labor’s mess and made possible economic progress on a scale not seen since the Gold Rushes. Cuts in taxes allowed individuals to decide how to spend their money, and not the state. And we passed the point that was reached in the UK under Mrs Thatcher’s government where we have more shareholders than trade union members.
None of this is to dismiss this book, which was written shortly before Labor’s defenestration in June. Bowen’s call for party reform — opening up the election of the parliamentary leader to party members as well as caucus — was prescient and will help loosen the stranglehold of factional warlords over the party. His defence of free trade and foreign investment in the spirt of Hawke and Keating is a welcome contrast to the discredited protectionism of Doug Cameron and Kim Carr. And his pronouncements on growth and opportunity sound almost Menzian.
All of which is why Bowen ought to be taken seriously as a future leader. For one thing, history is against Opposition leaders after their party has lost power: Snedden (1972-75), Whitlam (1975-77), Peacock (1983-85), Beazley (1996-01) and Nelson (2007-08). Predictions are always dangerous. But it is a fair bet that, by waiting patiently for ‘Electricity Bill’ to fall, Bowen will fill the leadership void and represent the most serious threat to Liberal hegemony.
For another thing, Chris Bowen is a byword for boring. And that’s a political compliment. Take John Howard, who won four elections on the trot. That sober, measured and prudent demeanour, coupled with those safe pair of hands, had a calming effect on his people. When contagion threatens to rob people of their savings (Asian financial crisis 1997-98, US tech wreck 2000-01), and when bombs go off in the backyard (Bali 2002, our Jakarta embassy 2005), the very last thing the nation needs is what Paul Keating promised to give the people: ‘a touch of excitement’. If boring worked for Howard, it could work for Bowen. Why would Australians, temperamentally a conservative lot, want colourful characters with delusions of grandeur when the circumstances demand a cool, calm, collected commander in chief? No, the people want boring; they want safe; they want the reliable bank manager, not the charismatic door-to-door salesman.
The irony about Bowen’s criticism of the Liberals is the extent to which he himself has sought to attract support by practising what is essentially modern-day conservatism. I am, of course, referring to his stance on border security. When he was Immigration Minister, he unashamedly embraced a robust border protection policy even as he increased refugee resettlement. Alas, he was undermined by not only the Greens on the left and Tony Abbott on the right, but also activist judges on the High Court.
Unlike many zealots in his party, but like many migrants and refugees themselves, Bowen recognises that tough border protection helps build public confidence in large-scale legal immigration, which has been an outstanding success story in postwar Australia. He ultimately failed to stop the boats, but not for want of trying. Like Howard and Philip Ruddock, he weathered at great personal cost a hysterical campaign of vitriol from those who take it upon themselves to represent the nation’s conscience.
Bowen instinctively knows that, contrary to his cynical rhetoric in this book, Australian Liberalism has always been a creed that rewards merit, encourages the individual, prizes wealth creation, protects our borders and which preserves itself by adopting an agenda of managed reform and gradual change. Oddly, this is what Bowen seems to represent. Perhaps he’s in the wrong party!
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