Sunday, February 17, 2008

An update on Rudd's performance

A bit jocular but with some interesting points. Rudd is portrayed as a technocrat rather than an ideologue but politically astute nonetheless

For a short time it seemed as though only the name on the door had changed. Like his predecessor, new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd seemed to spend most of his summer holidays at the cricket. Then there was the lightning visit to a war zone, this time to Afghanistan, and the familiar sight of our PM dressed in army fatigues mixing it with the troops. Interest rates, grocery prices and daytime temperatures kept rising. None of the heads of the 18 commonwealth departments was taken out the back and shot, and Amanda Vanstone was advised that she was welcome to stay as ambassador in Rome for as many years as the former government had promised. Even the smaller things seemed destined to stay the same. The stewards on board the RAAF VIP plane kept stocking the jet's pantry with John Howard's favourite marmalade, refusing to heed polite requests that the new man hated the stuff, preferring Vegemite on his breakfast toast.

By the end of January, though, some points of difference had begun to emerge between the old regime and the new. The new Prime Minister appeared without warning at a Christian charity in Canberra, staying for a whole morning to dish out food to the homeless. At an afternoon soiree at the Lodge in late January to honour the Sri Lankan cricket team, it became clear that the new PM was determined that all and sundry address him by his first name, rather than the formal titles demanded by his predecessor. Not "Mr Rudd". Not even "Prime Minister". "I'll always be Kevin, mate," he said.

In something of a personal triumph, Rudd also managed to persuade Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam to sit down and share a meal with him at Kirribilli House - something no one had been able to do for a very long time.

But it wasn't until last Tuesday, when Parliament finally met - with Peter Costello sitting on the back bench for the first time, and the member for Bennelong [Maxine McKew] wearing a skirt - that the full impact of last year's election results seemed to sink in.

In the afterglow of those first few days, previously unheard of qualities were being ascribed to the Labor leader: inclusive, warm, attentive, friendly, popular. Only 76 days into his first term as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd has made the practice of politics seem almost effortless, an early allaying of any doubts about his suitability for the job.

It has been a remarkable transition to power for a man who a decade ago was barely outside the inner circles of Queensland state politics. A tenet of Australian political wisdom used to be that anyone hoping to become prime minister had to first spend at least 20 years on the parliamentary stage getting himself known. It took John Howard almost 22 years to go from backbencher to prime minister, and Keating a few months more than 22 years. Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam made it in 20 years, Billy McMahon in 21 years, and John Gorton in 18. Harold Holt had to wait 30 years. Not only did Rudd manage to rise from total obscurity to Prime Minister in a record nine years and 64 days, he did it virtually on his own, without the traditional block of factional support that has carried every Labor leader before him. Not bad for a bloke who the Liberals warned during the election campaign "would be the most inexperienced prime minister in Australia's history" and whose every decision would serve to "stuff our economy".

In a sunny, affable and efficient way, Rudd has all of a sudden managed to dissect and divide a crestfallen Opposition and unite the country. And only three-quarters of the way through his first 100 days, it seems that voters might already have a clear picture of what sort of prime minister Rudd will turn out to be. "What we see today is what we're going to get," says veteran Labor pollster Rod Cameron. "It's not going to change. He is governing with certainty and purpose, and he is already totally focused on winning the election."

Cameron identifies Rudd's political cunning, evident in last week's embrace of bipartisanship, which Cameron says could also be viewed as a tactic. "Politics is never far from the decision-making, and the politics of the apology was superbly constructed. This was something that for a long time there has been a majority against it. Yet in a very short time, Rudd has proved an ability to persuade and to carry people with him, as there now exists a very clear majority in favour of the apology. He's left those who opposed it looking like rednecks."

Cameron believes that Rudd may also have won the loyalty of an influential and noisy constituency - the elites who had grown so dispirited under Howard, yet remained sceptical of Rudd and his display of "me-tooism" throughout last year. "They will always remember this moment and be grateful for it. He silenced them, in effect, and bought a huge amount of political capital," says Cameron. Like Hawke, Rudd has avoided the breakneck speed of Whitlam, whose first 19 days of office were among the most tumultuous of his government.

According to historian Stuart Macintyre, a professor of history at Melbourne University and co-author of True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, one of the advantages the Government has is a release of suppressed wishes. "The apology is an obvious beginning, but no less effective for that . Howard stamped down on 'symbolic reconciliation' but failed to deal with the deep feelings of many indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Hence, a fairly simple apology becomes a momentous occasion," says Macintyre.

On the other hand, Macintyre identifies some flaws, and is cautious in his welcome of Rudd's announcement of the 2020 ideas summit. "The 1000 great minds, on the other hand, has its hazards. It is a welcome enlargement of the 'summit', but less specific in its purpose, so it will be harder to demonstrate its effectiveness. And as a few commentators have already observed, it lends itself to the sort of ridicule that affected Barry Jones' Commission for the Future."

Macintyre says Rudd has also failed to make as much as he might have of the scapegoat opportunities. "Yes, the last government allowed inflation to fire up and failed to deal with debt, but this is barely a shadow of the attack on (Kim) Beazley in 1996."

Macintyre identifies caution as a likely theme of the new Government. "He (Rudd) is also circumscribed by the failure to control the Senate. This is probably a long-term advantage - those whom the gods wish to destroy they first give a Senate majority - but means he has to work with many existing legislative arrangements. "The continuation of the Australian Fair Pay Commission, for example, is an absurdity, but public expectations of the new Government are low and this is an era that favours caution."

Leading conservative intellectual Greg Craven, now vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, sees in Rudd something of the Hawke model of building a reform platform through consensus. "I think he is in substance, although very different in style, quite strikingly similar to Hawke, and what he is doing is working very, very hard to build up a consensus government," Craven says. "The thing about consensus government is that they not only form a consensus but they starve oppositions of life - when the stranglers take over the jungle, nothing else can grow. It can be a very useful political tactic."

When you consider how successful the Hawke government was, that could spell some lean years ahead for Liberal leader Brendan Nelson and his would-be assassin Malcolm Turnbull.

If Rudd continues to build on the consensus model, Craven sees the opportunity for more adventurous reforms not already on Rudd's public agenda. "What that sort of consensus government does is, it builds you a platform from which to tackle big issues, but it takes time to build the platform. We won't see any run-at-gate stuff. But if you do it properly, it does allow you to tackle big issues," Craven says.

Rudd biographer Robert Macklin also sees signs of a return to a style of government more in keeping with Robert Menzies and older Westminster traditions. "I find the most striking difference with his predecessor is the way that Rudd is taking the politics out of politics," says Macklin. "Rudd has the instincts of a manager and the training of a diplomat and businessman. He is not ideologically driven . He is more concerned about fixing problems and, in his view, deserving a win at the polls than 'wedging' the Opposition or stacking the boards and other instrumentalities with 'his people'.

"I was impressed by the speed with which he grew into the job of Opposition leader. I think he has what it takes for the same transformation - albeit at a slower pace and with a few stumbles along the way - into the prime ministership. He is, of course, assisted by the fact that Brendan Nelson is uncertain of his own identity, let alone what he and his party stand for."

A paradox of Rudd's leadership is that how he comes across to the public is not how he has come across inside his party. Watching Rudd at the centre of a crowd of autograph-seekers at the Prime Minister's XI match in Canberra last month, a Labor MP who has observed Rudd's rise from inside the caucus room remained mystified by Rudd's public appeal. Speaking before the fanfare of the opening week of Parliament, the MP said it remained the case that Rudd was unpopular among his fellow MPs, despite his election victory.

Rudd's sense of fun and the warmth of personality on display at the cricket were things not often on display inside the party room. "This is not the same person," the MP wryly observed. Speaking at the end of last week, the same MP was quick to name the decision to freeze MPs' salaries as a sign of bad times ahead. Still furious at Mark Latham's decision in 2004 to force the Howard government to abolish the generous superannuation scheme for all new politicians, the MP described the pay freeze as "appalling". "What do we do next year? Presumably we will be allowed a pay increase. Then we'll get flogged for it and people will forget about sacrifices we supposedly made. "How many people thank us all for giving up the super? No one does. The only thing Rudd achieved was to piss us all off a little bit. To do that, in the first week in Parliament, was stupid."

Rudd biographer Macklin points to other potential weaknesses, such as Rudd's presentation skills. "Rudd is not a natural performer in the House," he says. "He has yet to find his feet in some areas of public speaking. At times he can be sublime, such as the speech delivered with the apology on Wednesday, yet at other times only very ordinary. "He has an oddly old-fashioned, and in my view inappropriate, attitude to speech writing. He seems to feel that engaging wordsmiths somehow robs his speeches of their essential authenticity. In fact, it is often the best way to distil and encapsulate the prime ministerial vision and set the tone of a prime ministership and a government. And the audience is not just the Australian people but other members of the government itself. I think he is yet to learn that lesson. "But the one thing you can say with confidence about Kevin Rudd is that he's a mighty quick study," says Macklin.

Tales of Rudd driving his staff to the point of exhaustion are also dripping out of the executive offices. Standing in line for a cup of coffee at the Parliament House coffee shop last week, one Rudd adviser said it would be impossible to continue the current pace for much longer. "Sleep is good and one day someone should show Kevin how to do it. I'm sure he would enjoy it," the adviser said.

Business also remains sceptical, concerned about the impact of changes to workplace relations on labour market flexibility, and the dangers of a wages breakout. Economists, too, are concerned that Rudd may lack the political will to do what is really necessary to tame inflation, such as delaying the $31 billion in tax cuts, the first instalment of which - about $8 billion - is scheduled to start from July.

On the one hand, business groups such as Heather Ridout's Ai Group, which represents about 10,000 employers in manufacturing, construction, automotive, telecommunications and other industries, seem happy for now. "Strong and authoritative is how I would describe the start thus far," says Ridout. "I don't think he's engaged in a popularity contest. I think he is doing what he thinks is right and seems to me to be going about it in a very systematic way." With legislation to dismantle the Howard government's WorkChoices legislation already on the floor of the Parliament, Ridout praises Rudd and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard for including her at every step. "They're listening and they're consulting. We can't complain."

On the other hand, it might be harder to keep the economic purists happier. As the ANZ's chief economist, Saul Eslake, warned last week, handing over such large tax cuts sets up conflicting pressures in the economy. "Monetary policy works by squeezing households, the budgets of people with debts and businesses, in the hope that they will be induced to reduce spending, and makes it harder to increase prices," said Eslake. "But if the impact higher interest rates is meant to have on constraining budgets is offset by tax cuts and government handouts, then business can continue to increase prices."

No matter how well Rudd performs, whether he sticks with his current style, or can adapt as the times change around him, he might do well to consider Paul Keating's advice that governments begin dying as soon as they are elected: "It doesn't matter what you do, it's difficult to hold on to power for longer than a decade."


Leftist politician signals return to era of ignorance about black welfare

A FEW hours after the Prime Minister apologised to the stolen generations last week, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin appeared on ABC1's 7.30 Report. Why, asked Kerry O'Brien, had the Government made housing the priority of its new policy commission on indigenous disadvantage? "So that children can sleep safely at night, so that kids can do their homework in the afternoon, so that mothers and fathers can get ready for work the next day," she said.

What planet is she talking about where bricks and mortar can create such miracles? In the Northern Territory there are 2000 indigenous children who aren't even enrolled in school, and most remote communities think they're doing well to get 50per cent school attendance, so homework is hardly a norm. Nor is "mum and dad" or "work". As for the plan to send every indigenous four-year-old in remote Australia to preschool, how is the Government going to create a new preschool bureaucracy in remote communities when the existing school system doesn't work properly? Macklin's plan to "pay half of the HECS fees" of a new batch of early childhood teachers "to encourage them to go out into remote Australia" is hardly inspiring.

After 75 days in office, Macklin has not visited a single remote Aboriginal community. Her spokeswoman stressed on Friday that, as Opposition spokeswoman, she travelled to 15 communities last year and gained "a lot of corporate knowledge" to inform her decisions. But for a Government big on symbolism, the message is that the minister is listening only to the usual suspects from the old rights-based Aboriginal power establishment, who have vested interests in the rotten status quo that has been so disastrous for so many Aboriginal children. So disastrous that researchers in the latest Medical Journal Of Australia seriously advocate a mass antibiotic program in remote communities because of the soaring rate of sexually transmitted diseases among children. So dysfunctional that the former indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough tells of one community in which eight six-year-olds were raped by older children, aged eight to 10. In another, recent health checks identified 300 rat bites on children.

Yet when Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson began listing the unpalatable, well-documented facts of Aboriginal misery during his apology speech on Wednesday, he was attacked. The fact that people, including, famously, two Kevin Rudd staffers, slow-clapped and turned their backs on Nelson at precisely the moment he spoke of child sexual abuse shows how the deaf ear has been turned to the suffering of the most vulnerable. Instead we have a craven revival of the Keating-era victimhood agenda.

"They do not want to hear the truth because it's so offensive and insulting," says Brough, the former army officer whose passion to actually fix problems in dysfunctional Aboriginal communities drove the Northern Territory emergency intervention. The aim was to re-establish social norms the rest of Australia takes for granted, by inserting police, preventing alcohol and drug abuse, performing medical checks and instituting income management. Brough abolished the permit system which had long protected the potentates and predators of the communities from prying eyes. He also began dismantling the Community Development Employment Projects' work-for-the-dole schemes which had degenerated into fiefdoms with local standover men controlling all wages.

The expensive intervention was hardly a vote-winner, with Brough losing his seat. And while Rudd has promised to keep it going, at least until a 12-month review, Macklin has already wound back key aspects, including re-establishing permits, to placate lobbyists who have been queuing at her door.

Speaking on the phone last week, before flying overseas for an extended holiday, Brough urged Macklin to go to remote communities and listen to "those without a voice". On his ministerial visits, he was "careful not to be captured by the gatekeepers" who ensure "you see only what they want you to see". He outsmarted them by bringing his wife, Sue, unannounced, to "wander off to the women's shelter" where she would quickly learn what were the problems in the community. Brough says the obstacles to tackling Aboriginal disadvantage are political correctness, fear of being branded a racist and fear of failure. Macklin won't make progress without a fight. She will be defined by the enemies she is prepared to make.

The first test of the Government's commitment will be whether Rudd invites Brough to join his new bipartisan Policy Commission on indigenous reform, as Nelson requested. The former minister will no doubt be troublesome but no one can question his knowledge and passion. Nelson should make it a condition of his own involvement.


Rent crisis forces some realism about red tape in Victoria

The old era of Greenie restrictions and developers being treated as milch cows may be winding down. At least we now have a recognition of what restrictions on the supply of housing lead to

THE State Government has announced new fast-track home building rules as Melbourne rents jump 12.7% in just 12 months. The rent rise is more than double the previous year's increase and almost three times the average annual increase over the past eight years. The increase has pushed the proportion of rental properties that can be afforded by low-income earners down to just 25.2% - the lowest rate in eight years, the Victorian Office of Housing rental report for the September 2007 quarter shows. The rental crisis has become so critical that federal, state and territory housing ministers will meet in Sydney on Wednesday to discuss the problem. Rental vacancies across Melbourne are at just 1.4%, while the average vacancy rate for the period 2000-05 was 3.6%.

The surge in rent comes as the State Government moves to ease red tape for new homes. Planning Minister Justin Madden said proposed new laws would reclassify residential zones into three categories: "substantial change zone", "incremental change zone" and "limited change zone". These would replace the old residential zone one, two and three and are aimed at allowing councils to make faster housing development decisions. "These new reforms will make a big difference to councils, giving them the tools they need to manage development and change in their municipalities," Mr Madden said in a written statement. People living in a "substantial change zone", could see a rapid increase in housing and changes in style.

Opposition planning spokesman Matthew Guy said the proposed changes were an admission of failure for the Government's planning blueprint, Melbourne 2030.

Meanwhile, the Victorian Office of Housing rental report blamed tight supply for the sharp increase in Melbourne rents. The biggest rent rises were in inner-Melbourne, up 13.3% to $340 a week. Southern Melbourne jumped 13.2% to $300 a week and north-east Melbourne is up 13% to $260. For the September quarter, rents increased by another 2.6% across Melbourne.

Kate Colvin from the Victorian Council of Social Service said the figures showed that the crisis in affordable housing was getting worse. "With the state budget coming up in May we are hoping the Government will make a solid commitment to affordable rental housing," she said. "There is a particular issue for singles - it's very, very expensive to get a one-bedroom apartment, even in public housing where the bulk of public housing is focused on families," she said.

Housing Minister Richard Wynne's spokeswoman, Manika Naidoo, said "rising rents are a complex problem and need to be handled on a national basis". "The minister is meeting federal, state and territory housing ministers this week to start working on the national rental affordability scheme to put 50,000 affordable homes onto the market and make sure Victoria gets its fair share," she said.


Police Commissioner lashes out at 'lenient' magistrates

Sentencing is a joke in most of Australia. When there is no effective punishment it just must lead to more crime

Western Australia Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan says mandatory sentences may have to be introduced if magistrates continue to treat people who attack police officers leniently. The Commissioner says he knows of 12 recent cases where magistrates have failed to convict people who have assaulted police officers. Constable Barry Butcher, 32, remains in hospital after he was allegedly attacked while he was trying to break up a brawl at a Joondalup pub earlier this month. It is thought Constable Butcher may have suffered brain damage and paralysis.

Mr O'Callaghan says the State Government may have to step in if magistrates will not. "My view is that the magistrates have to step up to the plate and issue the type of penalties that are commensurate with the types of offences that are being committed," he said. "And if that doesn't happen, then I think the only option for us is to opt for mandatory penalties."


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