Originally published in The Oxford Student, 20 October 2017
By Nicholas Linfoot
Kevin Rudd certainly lives up to his reputation. The two-time Australian Prime Minister, and now Oxford fresher, is a jocular figure, chatting away, slapping backs and shaking hands. His political life was as vibrant as he is in person, entering Australia into the Kyoto Protocol, leading them through the financial crisis and providing the historic apology to Australia’s Stolen Generations. He sat down with me after a talk at the Oxford Union to give his opinions on the events of the day.
We’ve heard a lot in the UK about an Australian-style point system for immigration. Do you think this is a feasible thing and, if so, what is an Australian-style points system?
Well, we’ve been proudly a country with a high level of migration. What’s the debate in Britain now in terms of ceilings? ‘Tens of thousands’? Well, you know something? We’re a country with a third of your population but we still take in 200,000 migrants a year. We think it’s good, we actually do. I watched Merkel the other day making a deal between the Christian Democrats and the CSU [its Bavarian sister party] and she’s put a ceiling of 200,000 a year in a country the size of Germany with a population of 85 million. We’re a country of 25 million and we take the same number. So that’s the background to my answer, which is that we don’t run a small migration system, by global standards.
The second question is: what does the points system do? Our Australian system does two things, it has two branches to it. One is what we need for the country, what the skillsets we need in a particular year and that will change depending on state of national economy. We unapologetically then say you have those skills, and you’re under 40 years of age…then come on in. Then the other stream which brings in about half the total migrant load is people who are related to those currently in Australia by whatever source – whether they be refugees or migrants of different origins. The points system refers only to skilled workers, which is about half the total intake, the other half is purely family reunion. Then on top of that you have an annual quota of I think its 12,500-20,000 purely for refugees alone. For our government it’s always higher, when the Tories are in power it’s lower, they make a demonstration for local racist sentiment. I’ve seen that in a few other countries too.
During your time in office you were very open about your faith, and you talked about the gay marriage plebiscite in your talk. Some have said that Christians might be persecuted in Australia as result of this plebiscite. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Look, I cannot give you an appreciation of those Australians of a religious faith on marriage equality, but I would think it’s pretty much split down the middle. There’s folks like me who are god-botherers straight from central casting and if you heard my remarks before how I got round to that from a theological position quite apart from the equal rights perspective. So, one, don’t assume it’s a uniform Christian constituency who are all homophobic or all opposed doctrinally to same sex marriage.
The second thing I’d say though, and let me enter into one of your local controversies having been here for two or three days, is it Balliol, that ripped into the Christians? Can I just say that as someone who is on the centre left of politics and have been for about 35 years, the moment we start banning Christian groups from the debate is a very bad day. We need to be broad shouldered enough to be able to take opinions from wherever they come from. If we go back into the history of this university from the time they set fire to the Protestant martyrs about 500 years ago under Bloody Mary to where, as it were, the Christian settlement arrived at. This gives a place and an opportunity for people of no religious belief, atheists and agnostics to fully express themselves. It has been a very good evolution to a situation where there is one platform for a full range of views. But now the boot is on the other foot, in a post-Christian age, as I referred to in my remarks.
I really humbly suggest that there be an open platform for all and that includes voices from the Christian Union, whether they oppose same sex marriage or not. That would be ideal.
Leading on from that, what do you think about the state of our discourse? Do you think we’re entering a world of more fake news, more confusion and a more complex and divided political realm?
I think what I would say is that this generation is facing a number of firsts, serious firsts, and it is a difficult challenge. As I said in my remarks, this is one of the most difficult challenges since the end of the Cold War, and maybe since the end of the world war. Why? Values in flux, whether you are a Christian or not it’s the decline of the Judeo-Christian ethic as the basis for ethical belief. That’s a change – it’s big. Although there are changes in history with the Wesleyan and the revivalist movement in 18th Century.
Number two: the decline of western power, as I described in my remarks. That’s big and that’s new. China’s going to be the biggest economy pretty soon, and that’ll be the first time since George III that a non-English speaking nonwestern non- democratic state has had that status. That’s quite a while, that’s new, and it’s in your generation. Thirdly, the social media technology explosion which is, shall we say, changing the engine room of democracy, which is how the way in which facts and opinions are promulgated through intelligent platform which will not prostitute either. So, when you start shaking the foundations with that, then there is no longer a basis for a common discourse in terms of the tools for knowledge, evidence and reason – instead, the triumph of a post-fact world. I think we’re in for a world of pain, so on this one my appeal to the emerging generation is find a way in which, given all the liberties and opportunities presented by the social media evolution, you can take hold of the great traditions of Hume and Descartes and still have them ground the social media revolution. You can’t censor but you can still have the grounding element within that. Take a note of this, here there is extensive fact checking and the evidence within this and a dedicated set of social media platforms on a large scale which does that, rather than the shit that I’ve seen in the United States.
You’ve been one of the leading voices on climate change, both now and during your terms in office. Do you think that climate change is one of the areas where the West can rebuild its strength?
I’d cast it slightly differently – three huge challenges and three huge opportunities. I’m not a determinist – you make your own future All this stuff is, to use a technical Australian term, bullshit. We can go out and change the world if we want to. So, one of the projects is to sustain the tools of democratic discourse and engagement, reason and evidence. And relatedly, if we are in a post-Christian age, to work out what our post-Christian values, minus god, are. Reason and evidence are the unspoken of formative constituents of the democratic process, otherwise the value of democracy slides out of the window. Then there is the planetary challenge which you alluded to. All of this is doable by bright young leaders, whatever their discipline or background inside or outside of the political process. But I think that there is a level of existential focus which is required of this generation, just as there was a previous generation who held the line for containment against the Soviet Union, just as there was a previous generation before that who held the line against fascism. These are new, more opaque lines, but frankly there’s a new super smart generation
who are capable of taking them on.
But my final cautionary line is never despair; the enemy of the West is dystopianism.