Tall-poppy travel envy?

I noticed this evening that Australia’s desperately reputable Today Tonight program (why Matt White, why?) decided to air a story criticising the travel exploits of the Prime Minister. Personally, I am not sure what is driving this story, which has been running for some time now, or how many people out there really are concerned that Kevin Rudd is spending too much time overseas. Perhaps more than anything it is a statement about the fairly uncontroversial nature with which Rudd has lead his government so far. This is a truly petty cudgel with which to attempt to beat a government.

While it is true that Rudd has travelled more than any other Prime Minister in his first year, it’s also pretty fair to say that the crises facing the world today have demanded a significant increase in the level of interaction and dialogue between the world’s leaders. Relationships forged in face-to-face discussions are inevitably going to be stronger and more valuable than relationships based on the phone or online – and you just can’t phone in a formal meeting with a head of state, I’m sorry to say. The message that would send to peers would be that the Prime Minister does not value them personally or the people they represent.

Another common criticism stems from the so-called diplomatic ambitions of the Prime Minister. Bernard Keane from Crikey offered up just such a jibe on Today Tonight, namely that Rudd’s grand diplomatic designs on the world stage are partly to blame for the Prime Minister’s travel bill. If by this he means that the Prime Minister wants to take a proactive hand in shaping the foreign policy direction of the nation, I don’t see this as a problem. Keane and others may have been desensitised during the Howard years to the needs of the modern world of foreign policy, but Australia now has someone leading the country who has the calibre to reputably take the nation’s concerns to the bargaining tables of the world. It would quite simply be foolhardy for Rudd’s talents in this area to be wasted by keeping him at home, sad, myopic and isolated like John Howard’s Australia always was.

In short, these criticisms form a particularly thin broth; one-part rank political opportunism to two-parts tall-poppy syndrome. The sooner the nation moves on and starts arguing about political issues that actually matter, the better for all of us.

Minding Your Money – a bridge too far?

Last weekend, some readers will no doubt have tuned into Channel Seven’s landmark Minding Your Money: An Audience with the Prime Minister program which was televised on Sunday evening. Hosted by David Koch, the program featured Prime Minister Kevin Rudd fielding questions from a studio audience on Australia’s standing in the global financial crisis. For those that missed the program, it can be viewed on the Yahoo7 site here.

From all reports, the Prime Minister went down a treat with the studio audience, who reportedly were drafted in from the Sunrise email newsletter subscriber base. Watching the program, I certainly felt that Rudd did a damned good job of making clear his position on the issues raised by audience members, as well as conveying a sense of warmth and pathos. One could never have imagined John Howard fronting up like this, to a television studio audience in an impromptu fashion. With respect to the government’s relationship with the media, the former Howard Government was probably quite happy to keep doing things the way they had been done for the last few decades, with a couple of honourable exceptions.

Of course, “stunts” like this one will also attract cynicism from some quarters, and to be fair, that’s probably a good thing. I am quite sure that some viewers, when confronted with their Prime Minister lecturing them in an ad hoc fashion on national television, moved swiftly to issue an abusive remark and change the channel. Without necessarily being critical, there is the scent of something Orwellian in Rudd’s decision to participate in the program. The relationship between government and the media is arguably entering a new phase, whereby politicians with the requisite gall and self-confidence (some would say, arrogance?) can push themselves into previously unchartered openings in the infotainment landscape. When the Prime Minister offers himself up as a television host, as he effectively did last Sunday night, should we be concerned or appreciative that the government is launching itself into the infotainment sphere? Or both?

For my money, I think the endeavour offers some promise. At half an hour, including commercials and David Koch interludes, it was a bit saccharine for my tastes, but I think with some changes in the format, it could really fly. I would actually like to see senior members from the Federal Government or Opposition face up to scrutiny from a studio audience for an hour, once a week. We all know that parliament itself has declined in value as a house of debate in recent years, and the scrutiny of politicians in press conferences is at arms length from the majority of the population, twisted and mangled as it is into tidy packages for the nightly network news programs. Why not usher in a new, more direct breed of political debate into our living rooms?

Politics in itself can’t effectively compete with entertainment when it comes to holding people’s interest in the short-term, but maybe political infotainment can. In an age where hedonism is king and political apathy is of considerable concern for our democracy, why shouldn’t political parties be seizing every avenue they can for engaging people in debate about the big issues of the day?

The Rudd Government’s bribe program… I mean stimulus package

I must admit to having some mixed feelings about the Rudd Labor Government’s $10.4 billion stimulus package, announced today. On the one hand, there is certainly quite a bit to like about the package from a Labor point of view. It specifically targets those who are likely to be hardest hit during the trying economic times we find us in; namely low income earners, pensioners, and people trying in vain to buy their first home. It is courageous and decisive, and in effect has forged a bipartisan approach to the financial crisis. Politically speaking, it will no doubt be a big winner, particularly with Christmas fast approaching.

I also have some concerns about the package. Firstly, it must be noted that the stimulus package is being delivered for the most part in the form of lump sum payments to the electorate. In the past I have been highly critical of the Howard Government when it has delivered “taxation relief” through the bundling out of ad hoc lump sum payments, and thus it is only fair for me to call Federal Labor out accordingly on this occasion. Lump sum payments to targeted interest groups raise some serious questions about political expediency, and also whether or not the government is actively encouraging the electorate to spend the stimulus payments frivolously by delivering them in such a throwaway form. For a lot of people, handouts like these from the government feel like a free, one-off bonus payment, that it is okay to completely splurge away. These sorts of payments do not feel like “earned money” to such people. They feel like obligation free gifts, and effectively serve to distort the normal consumption cycle for taxpayers.

I suppose one rebuttal to this line of argument would note that the world is experiencing a financial crisis right now, and that therefore a program of lump sum payments now is justified. If the stimulus package was spread out as a form of weekly or fortnightly additional allowance payments to pensioners and low income earners, it would likely not produce the desired effect, which is to stimulate the economy now. This rebuttal leads us to a second possible criticism of the stimulus package; is it really necessary now? The Reserve Bank has just cut the cash rate by one percent. The stock market has been a bit up and down over the past couple of weeks, but there are signs just over the last couple of days that the situation is stabilising. Are we really in such a dire situation at the moment that blowing half the budget surplus on a series of handouts is justifiable? I can’t say I am too sure either way, but in the very least, it is questionable.

The third potential negative point that I think is worth considering with the stimulus package relates to our old friend, interest rates. It is fascinating to me how quickly the nation has apparently moved from a mode of economic operation where the government is actively trying to reduce inflation, to one where the government is frantically trying to stimulate growth through arguably inflationary policy measures. It is a point that has been alluded to by Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull, who seems to want to have a bob each way by pledging his support for the package but foreshadowing possible repercussions for inflation:

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull backed the strategy and said it would help cash-strapped pensioners but noted it was fiscal concerns, not compassion, that had prompted the government to act.

He also questioned whether existing homeowners might end up bearing the brunt of the bonus for low-income Australians.

“We trust that the government has taken into account advice from Treasury and considered the impact that this stimulus may have on the Reserve Bank’s ability to continue reducing interest rates,” Mr Turnbull said.

So overall, it’s great that these payments look like they are going to go to the right people (for a change!), but it is almost impossible to deny that these lump sum payments have been inspired by a prominent chapter in the Howard/Costello book of economic management. Not to mention a prominent chapter in the Howard/Costello book of election-winning pork barrelling measures. That aspect of this stimulus package, even if it is somewhat unintentional, absolutely galls me.

Defending the prime tourist

The new Federal Opposition Leader’s opening gambit on the populist rhetoric front has been to attack the Prime Minister over his decision to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. For my money it is a cheap and uncompelling shot, for all except perhaps the Liberal Party’s most sour-faced and envious supporters. Rudd has reportedly been on eight foreign trips over the past nine months, which to this taxpayer at least, does not seem excessive. Unlike the comparatively unilateralist era that was ushered in by the previous government, Australia under Federal Labor is once again interested in engaging the world with open arms, lead by a man who understands global politics arguably better than anyone who has ever held the position. It would be a waste for Rudd not to use his not inconsiderable diplomatic talents and experience on the global stage as much as possible; indeed it would arguably be contravening Australia’s national interest not to in most circumstances.

In any case, Rudd himself responded more than adequately, methinks, to this related question from Kieran Gilbert of Sky News:

GILBERT: You’re heading off to New York this afternoon. You’re going to miss the rest of the week in parliament. Why do you need to go?

PM: Well, this week in New York the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly will have heads of government from 122 countries around the world including the heads of government from 13 of the world’s 15 major economies.

There’ll be one subject, one core subject on people’s mind, and that is the global response to the global financial crisis.

And there are two schools of thought here. Either you can go down the populist road, the opportunistic populist road, which is what various people in politics are championing at the moment and not go, or you can act in the national interest. My judgment is that my responsibility as Prime Minister is to act in the national interest, which means working through with other heads of government the best response to this global financial crisis.

Australia has to have a seat at the table, not just sort of hang out to one side an expect everyone else to kind of solve it. That’s not how it works.

Apparently Malcolm Turnbull would prefer to bury his head in the sand and let the rest of the world discuss these sorts of pertinent problems without his, or Australia’s input.

The first six months; a homecoming

It certainly feels as though it has been a long time coming. Over five years since Australia’s original commitment of combat troops to Iraq, helplessly in lockstep with the Bush Administration, our troops are finally coming home. It is perhaps a relatively small achievement for the Rudd Government, a decision that once made, become more of an operational matter for the armed forces than anything particularly difficult in political terms. On the other hand, in the withdrawal we have right in front of us another example of Federal Labor’s modern approach to governance. In a word, it is managerialism.

In its first six months in office in Canberra, Labor has set about ticking off several of the boxes that it had neatly outlined on a crisp white page prior to the election campaign. This is an approach that has numerous obvious advantages over the ad hoc, politically motivated operational agenda that the Howard Government ran with, particularly in its final years. One gets the palpable sense that this is a government that is planning for the future and acting on its plans, not just a government that plans for its future and acts accordingly. Perhaps as a consequence of this intensive emphasis on “planning, and then doing”, the Rudd Government does feel to me to be a little constrained by the goals it is setting; by the bullet-points on its page. While there are a few big ticket, “big picture” items on its to-do list (e.g. the national broadband network), the majority of the government’s first term agenda probably feels like well-meaning ephemera for many.

One of the core challenges that the government will face in the latter half of its first term is defining a provocative but winnable political narrative for its next term in office. The Opposition is well and truly down under Brendan Nelson, of course, but hardly out. In contrast, the Rudd Government still holds much of the political capital that it gained during its victorious election campaign, boosted as it has been since then by Kevin Rudd’s swift move to ratify Kyoto and his bonafide apology to the stolen generations. The scope exists for a somewhat aggressive political agenda to be laid out for the government’s next term. Clearly issues relating to climate change and energy management are going to be high on the agenda, particularly once the Garnaut Review delivers its final report at the end of September 2008. The funding issues that currently plague the nation’s schools look set to be addressed at least in part by some groundwork during the government’s second term. Additionally, the government’s lifting of the Medicare surcharge threshold in this year’s Budget offer some hope that more reform of the nation’s disjointed and two-tier health system is on the way.

There are clearly a large number of potential reform avenues that many would like to see this new government explore. After a decade of oft neglect, I think it is fair to say that many of us have perhaps unrealistically high expectations of what the Rudd Government should be doing. Six months really is a drop in the ocean when it comes to the processes of government and the implementation of lasting reform agendas. Still, it will only get harder, particularly as the Opposition slowly becomes more competitive, and the government inevitably trips itself up a few times. Indeed, despite the fairly odd stories suggesting otherwise (what hard-nosed voter ever thought the public sector didn’t need to be pushed a bit harder?), Kevin Rudd and his team need to do the proverbial and make reform hay while the sun shines. It sure won’t last forever.

The elitists, the punters, and Bill Henson

First, a disclaimer: I do not claim to be familiar with Bill Henson’s oeuvre or indeed the content of his exhibition in Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Paddington for which he is now apparently facing criminal charges. Having said that, and speaking as someone who as seen some fairly dubious stuff presented in the name of “art”, I find it hard to believe that the content of Henson’s work on show realistically does constitute child pornography. The naked human form is not pornographic, and I don’t think it should be considered so unless it is presented in such a way as to be primarily concerned with sexual suggestion. There can be little doubt that Henson was not primarily engaged in an act of sexual suggestion in exhibiting the work; his primary aim was no doubt to express something through his art. This interpretation of the semantics of the situation is one that legal experts reportedly adhere to and at least one prominent Australian screen royal has staked her reputation on.

In a political sense, what I find interesting here is the yawning rift this particular issue opens up between those whom we might term the “elitist” supporters of the Rudd Government and the mainstream. Thus far many of the more vehement detractors of the Howard Government have more or less been quite satisfied with the performance of Federal Labor, despite the fact that the party has in recent months often taken a similar tack on certain issues to the previous government. Partially this may be because Rudd in particular has so far done quite a deft job of mixing symbolism with pragmatism in a concerted effort to keep people from all quarters generally on board. This issue is precisely the kind of issue, however, that divides the elites from the party’s mainstream supporters, and the reason it does so is because it is an issue that requires a multi-layered consideration of the situation.

The first layer worth considering here, and the layer that the government’s more elitist supporters are drawn to first is of course the moral/legal question. In a civilised, truly liberal society, there should of course be nothing to prevent artists from using the naked forms of people of any age in their work, so long as the goal of the work was the expression of something explicable other than potentially offensive sexual perversion. It is unlikely that anybody within the artistic community or anybody who has studied the arts at any significant length at university or elsewhere would disagree with this statement. On the other hand, one needs only to walk in the shoes of the average conservative suburbanite to sense why Henson’s work has produced the reaction that it has. The average person has not had an education in the arts. The average person does not really give two hoots about elitist babbling about freedom of expression. Should we then be surprised that when the average conservative suburbanite person walks into a gallery and sees some of the more provocative examples of Henson’s work, they might feel confused and/or appalled? The problem here is of course one of interpretation. It is possible for someone who has studied art and the human form to view photographs of young naked adults as nothing other than something quite beautiful in an asexual sense. On the other hand, it is possible for someone to view the same photographs and see nothing but seedy, dubious trash.

This is just the kind of wedge that the Rudd Government has to be clever enough to avoid if it is to retain the support of the progressives and conservatives who voted for change last November. Rudd was of course quick to condemn Henson’s work as “absolutely revolting” and wonder publicly why we “just can’t let kids be kids”. I have little doubt that the Prime Minister was sending a message to the conservatives who voted Labor in November and those who might vote Labor next time around when he came out and gave both Henson’s work and elitist opinion such a vicious backhand. This message is intended not so much as a dog whistle as a message sent between the lines to the electorate; I am on your side. When the common sense of the average suburbanite is pitted against the sophistry of elite opinion, Rudd has signaled his intentions here to lean towards the former.

So do I think that Rudd is genuinely, truly offended by Henson’s work? Personally, I think it is doubtful. I think on this particular score, the Prime Minister did what he thought was politically sensible, fearing that the somewhat resurgent Nelson Opposition would be handed a juicy wedge if he backed Henson. It is extremely unfortunate, particularly for the artist and the children at the centre of it all, but it shall nevertheless be interesting indeed to see how this drama develops and what the repercussions are for the government’s here-to-fore rosy relationship with Australia’s artistic community.

UPDATE You can make up your own mind over at Junk for Code here. Over at LP they have an interview with Henson here, and Kim has an wonderfully thoughtful post on the topic.

Policy narratives and Michael Cooney

I was taken by Per Capita policy director Michael Cooney’s observations on the political narrative of the Rudd Government and Rudd’s recent speech to the Sydney Institute. The reformist centrism that Federal Labor has embraced under Rudd promises to pose a real challenge to the Coalition moving forwards, assuming that the government continues on its present generally upbeat course for a while yet. Cooney summarises the problems facing the Liberal and National parties as follows:

And the challenge for conservatives is enormous. The conservative populist criticism of Rudd is two-fold: that the Government is dealing alternately in symbolism (they say: Kyoto, the apology) and trivia (they say: petrol prices, grocery bills).

This already fails on two grounds. First, the symbolism is positive, and has public support, while the opposition to it is inherently backward looking. Second, what they say is trivia is at the heart of everyday life in middle Australia.

While the symbolism remains positive and unifying rather than dividing, and the government continues to view the so-called “trivia” of people’s everyday lives as an important issue, one would have to think that the Opposition is going to really struggle to make an impact. Much does depend on the Budget, and whether or not the likes of Turnbull and Nelson can manage to make some valid criticisms of what Federal Labor ends up bringing to the table. Realistically speaking, there should be some scope for this, given that the government has made some sizable spending commitments and yet professes to be deeply concerned about inflation. However, whether or not the public adopts any concerns raised by the Opposition as their own remains to be seen.

What is clear is that the Rudd Government has in its short time in office already carved out a policy narrative (as Cooney has summarised so succinctly) for itself. Unfortunately for conservative voters and adherents of the Liberal and National parties, I don’t think at this stage we can say the same for the Nelson Opposition. We still don’t really have a good feeling for what they are all about post-Howard. The reason for this, of course, is that they collectively don’t really know yet either.

Bravura from Lu Kewen

Although I’d have to do some extensive rummaging around to confirm, I dare say that few world leaders have had the gumption to criticise China’s human rights record on Chinese soil as straightforwardly as Kevin Rudd did at Beijing University yesterday. An English transcript of the full speech (which was of course delivered in Mandarin) is here, provided by The Australian, and the key passage from the speech that has no doubt got a few chins wagging in the Chinese bureaucracy is as follows:

Some have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because of recent problems in Tibet. As I said in London on Sunday, I do not agree.

I believe the Olympics are important for China’s continuing engagement with the world. Australia like most other countries recognises China’s sovereignty over Tibet.

But we also believe it is necessary to recognise there are significant human rights problems in Tibet. The current situation in Tibet is of concern to Australians.

We recognise the need for all parties to avoid violence and find a solution through dialogue. As a long-standing friend of China I intend to have a straightforward discussion with China’s leaders on this.

In my estimation, Rudd has played his hand forthrightly here because he feels that the political measure of the Chinese Government is within his grasp. His diplomatic experiences, and of course his strong personal relationships with people in numerous prominent positions in China are proving emboldening. If the world was casting a mold for a leader who is able to speak frankly and openly with the Chinese Government and bridge the gap between tomorrow’s superpower and the West, I don’t really think there is very much doubt that Rudd’s frame would fit it. It will be very interesting to see if the discussions that the Prime Minister now has with Chinese President Hu Jintao are impacted at all by the situation in Tibet and Rudd’s comments on the situation there. One hopes that the the two governments take this opportunity to build closer and less obfuscated ties, and that the Chinese President absorbs Lu Kewen’s comments in the spirit they were given; a tap on the shoulder from someone who wants to help.

ELSEWHERE: Of course, there’s no mention of Rudd’s concerns about Tibet in this blatantly information-washed article covering the speech from Xinhua. Truly shameful.

For now, leading by confident example

As readers may be aware, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been in London over the last couple of days and just yesterday evening gave a talk at the London School of Economics (podcast download available here). I would have liked to have gone along to see the Prime Minister speak in the flesh, but alas work commitments and a quite difficult 5PM starting time put paid to that idea. As it turns out, rock star-like (and, one adds, in a similar vein to all decent gigs in London), tickets for the “performance” were exhausted in fifteen minutes flat, with queues for the event running out the door. Given that there are roughly as many Australians living in London as there are living in Hobart, this is probably not all that surprising, but Rudd is certainly riding a wave of goodwill in the electorate at the moment.

It is on this note that Simon Tisdall had quite an effusive piece in The Guardian today, complimenting the Prime Minister on the way he is handling things and taking a rare potshot at the Australian media from one of the most criticised media environments in the Western world:

Policy wonk, nerdy control freak, bureaucrat-in-chief, charisma-free bore and junketeer are some of the kinder epithets the whingeing Aussies have applied to the man who ousted the long-serving conservative John Howard.

Rudd has been forced to deny he is a robot, defend his “quirky” sense of humour, and rebut claims he is a US lackey after he jokingly saluted George Bush.

Tisdall goes on to conclude that Rudd is “too brainy” for the Australian right, which I am sure conservatives in Australia will scoff at, perhaps with a touch of self-doubt.. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that while the most substantive criticisms of Rudd’s performance doing the rounds in the media are ad hominem caricatures such as these, the government knows it must be doing fairly damned alright. Of late, even folks such as conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen seem pleasantly surprised by Labor’s performance so far, summarising it as “so far, so good”.

Apart from his ongoing wretched poll figures, Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson must also be a bit concerned that even his party’s staple supporters in the media are abandoning him, or in the very least, not panning the new government consistently. Indeed, with the Opposition in the state it is in, the door is open for Federal Labor to forge a new, powerful coalition of the centre-right and centre-left. Such a coalition, should it prove binding, would spell utter disaster for the conservative parties in Australia.

Tibet and the Olympic flame

The passage of the Olympic torch through these parts of the world over the last few days has been a lot more dramatic than it usually is. I probably can only admit to having a passing interest in the world’s premier quadrennial sporting competition, but this year, the political slant of this year’s games promises to have quite profound ramifications across the international world. The recent skirmishes between the Olympic bandwagon and protesters in London and Paris throw up some interesting questions about the right way to pressure the Chinese Government into ending its seemingly malignant authority over Tibet. Like many, no doubt, I am incensed by the images of violence that have found their way out into the media in recent weeks from the troubled province. Relatively speaking, on a much milder scale, I have also found myself disgusted at the way that some torch runners have been treated by the odd rat-bag protester. That is of course an absurd juxtaposition of concerns to have when one considers the relative severity of the actions that we are talking about, but its hard not to think that the more aggressive protests aimed at the torch relay participants are representing the protest lobby in a poor light.

China is the elephant in the room of the modern global political economy. It is a superpower to be; that is, if it can not already be considered a superpower, given its population and the ubiquity of its economic power. You only have to have a look through the various items in your own house to get a thumbnail view of this ubiquity. I don’t really doubt that the Gordon Browns, the Kevin Rudds or the Nicolas Sarkozys of this world are not morally troubled about developments in Tibet and their own vague complicity in what is going on. I also don’t doubt that each of these leaders is acutely keen to avoid any rash act of political activism that does more harm than good diplomatically. Presumably, no leader with strong personal feelings on Tibet wants their act of political activism to be the straw that sets the world on a path towards another catastrophic military conflict. It is for this reason that Kevin Rudd’s reluctance to be around the Olympic torch or indeed to engage in talk of boycotts is understandable. A unilateral protest action by Australia would merely ensure that we would no longer have a credible position for engaging in talks with the Chinese. A multilateral diplomatic effort may under the right conditions achieve something, but the Olympics is far too tokenistic a platform to carry the burden of a debate of this scope.

In short, Tibet represents a seemingly intractable political conundrum. There are no easy answers, and the path towards Tibetian independence is an uncertain and risky one. It seems certain that the only path towards an eventual resolution will be paved with the (perhaps begrudging) cooperation of the Chinese. It is for this reason that the global community should avoid trivialising the issues by using the Olympics as a primary vehicle for pressuring the Chinese Government. These are clearly not problems that are going to be solved by turning our backs on a little sporting event, nicking the Olympic torch or directing attacks at the athletes and celebrities who want to honor the greatest sporting competition of our times. A resolution, if it comes at all, can only realistically be reached if the international community slowly and patiently nibbles away at the resolve of the oppressive elements within the Chinese Government.

The only alternatives to this approach imply a high risk that the bloc-centric military antagonism of the last century will return.