18 May 2010

We need to talk about Kevin

In the 2 1/2 years that Kevin Rudd has been Prime Minister a number of attributes have emerged that suggest that he is not all that we might hope for in a Prime Minister.

First, there is the Blackadder-like quality of striking heroic poses and then going to water at the first hint of danger – climate change and the humane treatment of asylum seekers spring to mind.

Second, the processes of government appear chaotic. Policies appear without having been thought through or the proper implementation groundwork being done, and the communication and selling of them is disastrous, more often than not:

-  Much as I applaud the alacrity with which the Government responded to the Global Financial Crisis (don’t listen to anyone who tells you that the fiscal stimulus was not needed) it would be hard to argue that the insulation program, or the abandonment thereof, was deftly handled. And I would take a lot of convincing that we have had value for money in the school buildings program.

-  Everyone wants shorter hospital queues and a better health service (good as ours is), but somehow it seemed to have to be rammed down the necks of the chief ministers who will have to implement the new framework, one Premier has remained aloof from it, the funding still has to flow through the state bureaucracies that are part of the problem, and many people with more expertise than I in this area say that it is not going to do much for us. One has the impression that the Prime Minister got himself into a situation where he was so desperate for an outcome that the Premiers were able to end-game him and save themselves from meaningful reform.

-  Professor Garnaut presented the government with a robust framework for tackling the greatest moral challenge of our generation, but the Prime Minister and Climate Change Minister Penny Wong allowed it to be gutted and then abandoned it, leaving themselves threadbare on climate change. They snivel and whine that the Opposition prevented them from legislating their dog of an emissions trading scheme, but if it hadn’t been such a dog they could have got the Greens and the public on side, if they had mastered the detail and been able to explain it they could have exposed the Opposition’s policy position as ridiculous and inconsistent with the Coalition’s own free-market rhetoric. Besides which, it is the job of elected Governments to get their policy programs over the line. At the end of the day, there is no excuse.

-  There is every good reason for Australia with its high quality low cost mineral resources to introduce a resource rent tax, and I believe that, skilfully handled, it could have been sold to the mining industry as a solution to the ramshackle collection of state royalties that are currently imposed on them – one of those “win-win” solutions that politicians are so fond of talking about.  Instead, the industry seems to have been ambushed, and it took about five minutes for the Prime Minister to resort to the language of class struggle – they are big multinationals, they are foreign owned, we are not getting our fair share. He now finds himself in a situation of all-out war, quite unnecessarily. With a suitably measured approach industry can be brought to accept things it would rather not have, but the handling of this has been downright clumsy, thus putting at risk an overdue reform.

Third, there is some very sloppy thinking that seems Prime Ministerial in origin, about important foreign policy issues that in my view warrant much more careful consideration and alignment with the Australian national interest than is evident to me:

-  The proposition that Afghanistan is “the right war”
-  A quite unnecessary swipe at China in the Defence White Paper
-  Reflexive obedience to Israeli positions (eg complete silence on the invasion of Gaza and its continuing strangulation; let us not examine the crimes documented in the Goldstone Report)
-  Being a fully paid up non-thinking member of the anti-Iranian cheer squad led by the United States.  Yes, it is an obnoxious regime, but a more nuanced approach to it would better serve both the United States and ourselves.  Why was it left to the Americans’ friends in Turkey and Brazil to try to hammer out a deal that gives some prospect of making progress on the nuclear issue?  Why aren’t we thinking about what the Iranian response to “crippling sanctions” might be?

All of the above are legitimate causes for concern, but they are not the only ones in my mind.  I have been troubled from the very start of the life of the present government by its absolute refusal to kick any rocks over.  The Prime Minister has no interest whatever in inquiring into any of the following:

-  Who in Government knew what and when regarding the $300 million in kickbacks to the Saddam Hussein regime by AWB Limited, at a time when we had members of the Australian Defence Force in harm’s way. Some officials of AWB have been hung out to dry, deservedly, but we will never find out whether the disgraceful performance of the Howard Government and its agencies in this matter were malfeasance or incompetence.

-  Who in Government knew what and when, who in Government said what and when, regarding the invasion of Iraq.  The British are engaged in their Chilcot Inquiry, which is producing some real gems, but there is no danger of any such exercise in accountability occurring here.  We will never know.

-  Who knew what and when regarding the disgraceful treatment of Dr Mohammed Haneef.

Our body politic is much the poorer for the Government’s failure to hold proper open inquiries, with appropriate powers, into all of these matters.  Oppositions never tire of telling us that they are in the business of holding governments to account, but as soon as they get across the line on election day they seem to lose the stomach for it. My guess is that the Prime Minister is fearful of what might turn up –  inconvenient truths might emerge, something that would force him to act – and that this is just another set of “tough decisions” that the Prime Minister would prefer not to take.

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