On last week’s ABC Q & A program Professor Kulkarni of Monash University made plain her view that David Marr is not qualified to “diagnose” Kevin Rudd. Which is a fair point, given that Marr, a lawyer and a journalist, is not actually a doctor. But it is perhaps something of a mischaracterisation to describe Marr’s masterful Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd as a “diagnosis”. Marr’s analysis of the Prime Minister is instead a series of observations and commentary, and quite insightful ones at that.
But one of the conclusions that Marr draws is perhaps undermined by his own research. After one Rudd tirade Marr suggests that the Prime Minister is driven by anger. Yet this cannot be correct. A man driven by anger is likely to be a whole lot more combustible than Rudd has been, both publicly and privately, and should surely have burned out years ago. Somebody driven by anger would not last in the labyrinth of Australia’s public service, with all its quiet diplomacy and slow moving processes.
You do have to ask yourself, what type of ANU undergraduate goes around the halls of Burgmann College urging his fellow students not to drink themselves silly. What type of politician is so concerned with alco-pops or decides to extend income management for welfare recipients beyond those people affected by the Intervention? More importantly, what type of Minister, let alone a Prime Minister, has, as his key advisers or staffers young men in their early 30s or late 20s? There’s no funny business going on - perish the thought. So maybe they aren’t advisers so much as apostles.
Perhaps that is an uncharitable thought. But it does suggest that Kevin Rudd is not driven by anger. He is instead driven by a burning desire to do good. After all, which Labor Prime Minister in his first term would stake his credibility on a massive stimulus package? It doesn’t get a lot of attention now but Rudd took a huge risk to himself and in doing so stimulated the level of consumer demand that kept Australia out of the global financial crisis. Anybody who has been to Europe or North America recently can see for themselves that Rudd has done Australia a huge favour.
The most puzzling aspect of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership is that he is quietly doing some good work while publicly going backwards. On key issues such as welfare reform, health, education and the economy Rudd has actually been quite good. But his temperament is open to question.
First, temper tantrums aside, he has a slight tendency to panic. His response to Marr’s summation of his own essay, was to get angry. With apologies to Professor Kulkarni and her colleagues, I would suggest that Rudd’s reaction shows anxiety rather than outright aggression. If Rudd had actually read Marr’s essay, he would have seen it as a curious mix of both flattering and unflattering observations. In fact it’s hard to come away from Marr’s essay without a better understanding of Kevin Rudd, a degree of admiration for him and a sense that he’s almost perfect for the role of Prime Minister barring a few key flaws, all of which can be fixed.
Case in point for Rudd’s tendency to panic is his actions on asylum seekers. The key electoral demographic that both Rudd and Abbott are chasing after here is the one million ex-Hanson voters. These are mostly working class voters. They have legitimate concerns about their cultural identity and social mobility.
In reality asylum seekers are a non-issue. The total number of boat people is a tiny fraction of all immigration numbers. But instead of getting to the heart of the issue and hitting the real concerns, Rudd panicked and opted for a stern and unfair line on asylum seekers. By freezing applications from the problem areas of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, Rudd effectively went to war with another part of his core base vote - educated middle and upper middle class urban Australians.
There is an opportunity here for Rudd and Labor. Abbott’s rhetoric and the Coalition’s policy plan on asylum seekers, replete with red arrows and the disingenuous use of the term “illegals” lays one thing bare. That is, that the Coalition, a party made up of mostly upper middle class Australians, cannot communicate with working class Australians, in any language other than the language of prejudice. Maybe that is because on social mobility, education and labour laws, the Coalition does not really have much to offer the ex-Hanson voters.
Second, Rudd isn’t a great communicator. For example, the decision to drop the ETS was greeted with dismay from Labor’s base vote. But neither Rudd nor Labor did a good job of pointing out the facts on the ETS. Labor tried three times to get the ETS up. But they were blocked by the Coalition and the rather po-faced Greens Party. The Coalition does not believe in climate change. As Barnaby Joyce said on Lateline, “If the science was settled, Copernicus would be dead. Sorry, he is dead.” Indeed. On the ETS the Greens showed that despite their warm and fuzzy image that they were unwilling to compromise and are in fact willing to let Australia get much warmer rather than to give a bit of ground. If Labor had its way Australia could have been a world leader on climate change.
The Resources Tax also shows up Rudd’s poor communication skills. Rudd’s logic on this tax is actually quite sound. When the original tax arrangements were in place profits were expected to be quite moderate. But profits since then have become astronomical. So if the fundamental assumptions surrounding the mining tax bargain have changed then why shouldn’t the tax change? The tax arrangements represent a bargain between the industry and the Australian people, and any lawyer would know that a fundamental change of circumstances leads to a change in the contract or bargain. Given the number of lawyers on the Coalition side it’s a fair bet that they all know this to be true.
Moreover, it’s wrong to think that the mining industry is like a normal industry. It isn’t. It is a non-renewable sector. These are all one-off asset sales. When the mined products are sold there will not be another chance to recoup the monies on these sales. A fair number of the mining companies are partly foreign-owned. So a reasonable proportion of the money from mining in Australia actually goes overseas as shareholder dividends. Further, the success of the mining industry actually impacts adversely on other parts of the Australian economy. For example, if the success of the mining industry pushes the Australian dollar up to 90 cents US then this negatively impacts other export sectors such as agriculture, higher education and tourism, because their prices go up. The sight of Twiggy Forrest embracing Julie Bishop, at a protest led by Gina Rinehart, does make you wonder in whose interests the opponents of the mining tax are really acting. Kevin’s common sense may yet win through.