Labor’s new leader promises to be a more formidable foe for John Howard because he is so much closer to him on many key issues.
The swift and fairly brutal move against Kim Beazley to install Kevin Rudd as federal Labor leader signals that the Labor Party is prepared to move closer to the centre to regain government.
This is the most significant outcome of the latest leadership change – the fifth Labor has undergone since it lost government in 1996.
Mr Beazley promised only experience and stability, but the members of the ALP Caucus decided that, whatever the risks involved with Mr Rudd, the party had to move on to the next generation.
And they are now convinced Mr Rudd, who is more media savvy and imaginative, could be the man to return them to government, if not at the next election, then the one after that.
While Labor’s new face has been marketed as a duo – Rudd and deputy Julia Gillard – it is actually Mr Rudd who will have to soften Labor’s hardline approach on many issues, to placate business, and work to win back the so-called “Howard battlers”.
Already the Queensland leader has opted to keep an old enemy, Wayne Swan, in the Treasury job, rather than taking the risk of pitching the left-wing Ms Gillard against Peter Costello.
As part of his attempt to tell Australians who he is, Mr Rudd has renounced “socialism” – although, if the truth be known, there has not been anything remotely like a socialist Labor leader for at least three decades.
In fact, part of Labor’s present-day problems stem from its abandonment in the 1980s of traditional Labor concerns about the commonweal or communitarian values when it sold off important public assets without consulting the party or the people.
Labor embraced the free market without asking any questions.
But Mr Rudd is instead promoting Labor as a pro-capitalist party, but one tempered with traditional Labor values of fairness, solidarity and nationalism.
He has foreshadowed a more interventionist industry policy, arguing that he doesn’t want to live in an Australia which does not make anything anymore.
For that he has been pilloried by the usual free-market commentators, but if Mr Rudd can devise some suitable policies to back the rhetoric, this will be a vote-winner.
Mr Rudd has also introduced a new Labor value of “sustainability as a form of intergenerational justice” which moves Labor into a sensible environmentalist camp.
And he has unashamedly championed his Christian credentials. One of his first acts as leader was to symbolically vote against the Patterson Bill to significantly widen experimentation on, including cloning of, human embryos.
There are some inconsistencies though.
Previously, Mr Rudd has voted in favour of the abortion drug RU-486 and for the first restrictive bill on embryo experimention using excess eggs from the IVF program.
But Mr Rudd has argued that being a Christian politician is more about being concerned with social justice issues rather than strictly moral issues, and in taking the side of the “marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed”.
Unlike Mr Latham, who was happy to antagonise big business and agitate for class friction by stripping affluent private schools of government funding, Mr Rudd has no intention of trying to shake down society.
Emulating John Howard, Rudd is telling people he is not out to change society, but to make existing society better.
Mr Rudd promises to be a more formidable foe for Mr Howard because he is so much closer to him on many key issues.
Voters may in the end decide that if they have a choice between John Howard and John Howard lite, they may go for the real thing.
But, by the time the next election comes, they may have decided that Mr Howard has had a reasonable run and give “conservative-Labor man” a try.
But Mr Rudd is vulnerable on a few counts.
He is untried electorally. The longer he remains Labor leader, the more his conservatism will create strains among elements of the Labor left, and he will meet strong resistance from the party’s union base.