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Playing the politics of distraction

By Natasha Cica - posted Friday, 1 June 2007

The intense speculation surrounding the business affairs of Therese Rein, and their potential political implications for prime ministerial contender Kevin Rudd, probably reveal more about us than about either of them.

It suggests we've turned into a nation of voyeurs, alive and reactive to any deviation from prevailing norms. "Reining her in" and "firm grip on rudder", the headlines have tittered since Rein announced her decision to divest local operations. Granted, it's not the average Australian wife - certainly not the average Australian political wife - who has the entrepreneurial drive and talent to set up a booming global business, never mind referring to it on the record as her "life support".

Then again, it's not the average middle-aged Australian woman who's also a cheerfully practising Christian, evidently still happily married (but not joined at the hip) to the man she met at university, and clearly satisfied with the balance she's struck between family and fortune.


Having said that, in many respects Rein is pretty stock standard - most able-bodied Australian mothers work, or they want to. As is her husband - most able-minded Australian men don't want a dependant appendage and are prepared to stand up and say so. So why the fevered commentary pitch?

One reason might be that it's still not crystal clear why Rein and Rudd didn't have their private powwow on conflict of interest before it blew up in their faces. The reason may never be revealed, especially now both parties must surely be supersensitive to the dangers of one misplaced public utterance, like the politically incorrect "appendage". But do we really need to know this?

Without evidence of any intention to wilfully deceive the public - Rein and Rudd have hardly kept the Ingeus empire and its government contracting secret - it's hard to see there's any meaningful issue, especially as earlier this month Rein explicitly flagged her intention to seek advice on this matter from the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet should Rudd be elected, and further to give the new opposition leader a chance to review any suggested probity arrangements.

It's also hard to see any continuing point regarding Rein's alleged industrial relations practices, about which The Age's Michelle Grattan recently noted no evidence has emerged that Rein had acted unethically, much as the Government and its cheer squads try to make AWA angels dance on the heads of the pins of individual contracts.

Grattan also observed that Rein has become the target of disgruntled former employees in the media fuss of recent days. These include one person anonymously complaining about working 30 minutes' unpaid overtime each day. Call me politically incorrect as well, but the obvious response is "that's news?", if not "get a grip!" Yet this whingeing voice found a willing media ear. Which raises important questions about exactly who is trawling through the lives of people such as Rein and Rudd to pick up the smallest flaws, who is responsible for blowing some of them out of all rational proportion, and why is our appetite for this kind of beat-up seemingly insatiable?

It's conventionally and conveniently argued that anyone who puts themselves in the public spotlight, including by seeking elected office or being their close supporter, is fair game for attack by their opponents. That's true, especially when the target is a skilled Sunrise seeker such as Rudd. But only up to a point, and increasingly we're losing our balance on that spectrum.


Consider Maxine McKew's recent experience at a Sydney fund-raiser for Opposition immigration spokesman Tony Burke. Assuming she was addressing party faithful, McKew allowed humour to creep into her speech delivery. Nothing politically incorrect, mind you, just a few self-deprecating comments about how campaigning had brought home to her what she really didn't know about sport. Faster than you could yell offside, a cuttingly crafted article implying McKew lacks the right kind of common touch appeared in a Sydney tabloid.

Many might assert McKew was fair game, as an even savvier media tart than her new boss. That overlooks the real point. Which is that in this kind of witch-hunt the playing field is not level. Not merely in terms of party-political or even gender bias, although both cases can be made in light of the Rein affair, but more importantly in terms of what rates the response "that's news!" Every word from every bylined commentator and ranting blogger this week about Rein was a space that wasn't devoted to issues that should matter a whole lot more to Australians in an election year, like, say, the policies on offer.

And if our main concern is really stamping out actual and perceived corruption at the coalface of government, how come last week's post-Cole announcement by John Howard that AWB would be stripped of its wheat export marketing monopoly - combined with what's emerging in the unfair dismissal case brought by former government trade economist Trent Smith, plus Caroline Overington's damning claims about Alexander Downer in her new book Kickback - didn't set off similar screeching? Exactly why is our scrutiny so selective?

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First published in The Age on May 29, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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