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Rudd’s all about managing media

IT'S becoming increasingly obvious that the Rudd government was a major unintended beneficiary of last year's near-collapse of America's banking and financial sectors.

As his government approaches its second birthday - due on November 24 - the only substantial successes it can boast of stem from the way that Australia's economy has coped with the global financial crisis.

But far from all the credit for that success goes to Mr Rudd and treasurer, Wayne Swan.

And the reason is the fact that virtually all the key economic essentials were already in place for whichever administration succeeded that led by John Howard and Peter Costello.

Despite Mr Rudd's strange proclivity for submitting long, university student-type essays for publication, in which he always condemns his predecessor's record, the fact is that what his predecessors left behind was a ship-shape economy.

No debt, surplus budget, full employment, and a banking sector that's the envy of treasuries worldwide.

On top of that the economies of China, India and several others in East Asia continue to grow, with Australia well-positioned geographically to meet their needs, as well as having plentiful supplies of what they want - coal, iron ore, and liquefied natural gas.

Little wonder unemployment hovers below the 6 per cent mark, whereas economies with comparable living standards - Europe and the US - it's just below double that level.

Back in the 1960s, leftward-oriented academics and activists took great joy in claiming all the successes of the Robert Menzies years - 1949 to 1966 - could be explained away by the slogan 'the lucky country'.

Such critics were grudging when it came to bestowing credit for the successful integration of millions of post-war migrants, ongoing full-employment, low interest rates, and a steadily better educated and skilful workforce.

To them such outcomes were all due to luck, never good management or farsightedness of level-headed conservatism, which today's Liberal Party so obviously lacks, and even fears.

But one would need to have exceptionally good ears today to hear an academic publicly claiming good luck has been the defining feature of Ruddism.

No doubt partisan Labor backers will counter such a contention by claiming it's sour grapes.

But is such defensiveness valid?

Not according to the previous Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, who was recently asked by a national newspaper for his thoughts on the Rudd government's most experienced old-style minister, John Faulkner, who had earlier served in a Keating ministry.

Mr Keating, as only he can, immediately cut to the quick by adding some unsolicited thoughts about Ruddism, without actually using that term, preferring to identify Mr Rudd and his allies as that "new class of professional politicians".

He wrote: "In many respects, John [Faulkner] is a representative of the old school of Labor, where policy objectives and social passions provide the motive power.

"Whereas among the new class of professional politicians, power and the pathways to getting it; polls, news management and election campaigns, etc, is what turns them on."

Telling words, indeed, and ones that are unlikely to have pleased Mr Rudd and his media minders.

So after praising Senator Faulkner, Mr Keating got off his chest what he believes Ruddism's defining feature to be. Clearly he harbours little respect for the Rudd government. Nor should he.

Mr Keating never believed in having his policy settings guided by what polls indicated.

Nor was he heavily into news management. He believed one simply got on with the job of selecting the right path and proceeding to attaining that goal.

Even the man who toppled him in 1996, John Howard, recognised this and emphasised the Coalition was not coy in backing such policies.

The policies and goals Mr Howard specifically highlighted were the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas, floating the dollar, streamlining Australia's financial and capital markets, and opening Australia's economy by lowering tariffs.

"The Liberal and National parties supported the reforms initiated by the Hawke and Keating Governments," he wrote.

"Privatisation of Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank became Coalition policies in the mid-1980s and as both Keating and [Kim] Beazley will know, the legislation privatising the bank would not have passed through the Senate in 1995 without Coalition support.

"As prime minister I would, from time to time, praise what the Hawke government had done with financial deregulation and tariff reform."

It needs to be stressed that the Howard-Costello team was far less indebted to Mr Keating that Mr Rudd is to them.

Yet as we approach year two of Ruddism not a single word of recognition - let's forget about waiting for praise - has been uttered about the Liberal predecessors.

Magnanimity most certainly isn't a defining feature of Mr Rudd and his government.

That being so, what is?

Over and above the obvious one of big borrowing and spending - which is about to be complemented with sizeable boosts to taxation via the mega-taxing Emissions Trading Scheme and the various recommendations from the soon-to-be released Henry report - it's precisely what Mr Keating so skillfully and poignantly identified.

Australia has never had a government that's so blatantly and doggedly managed the news.

A knock down tell-all instance State Scene vividly recalls came with the reporting that Mr Rudd had ear-bashed an Air Force attendant because his sandwiches weren't to his liking.

When that story broke he was on one of his overseas trips, which meant a story - a big one - was needed to smother him being quizzed by reporters about why he was so brash to the attendant. So, what happened?

Exactly what you'd expect - an "eye-catching announcement", to use Tony Blair's term, was ready and waiting.

The Rudd government announced it would be unveiling a $43 billion broadband internet hook-up across the nation.

This was, to use Mr Keating's term, "news management" at its biggest and its best.

How could anyone with a computer at home - about 70 per cent of the population - ignore that eye-catcher? Forget the temper tantrum.

The fact that a crucially important business plan for the broadband proposal was months away, and the project won't be happening until well over the horizon, mattered not.

An eye-catching announcement was needed and clearly that was the biggest and the best one on the desk in Mr Rudd's boiler room.

Meanwhile, all sorts of things, urgent things, are not being done.

One that immediately comes to mind is the fact that Australia's oil self-sufficiency, which a decade ago stood at 85 per cent, is now down to 67 per cent, and will be just 30 per cent by 2015.

As Perth energy expert, David Archibald, points out: "The impact of such a dramatic reversal - from 85 to 30 per cent self-sufficiency over 15 years - on our terms of trade in this strategically crucial commodity is on a par with the global financial crisis that has brought about such a sudden turnaround in economic policies.

"The merest unpleasantness by a foreign government in South-East Asia would bring the Australian economy to a halt within a couple of weeks.

"Australia's refining industry is well aware of the stock problem, but they want someone else to pay for the carrying of extra stocks.

"In Japan, the refiners and distributors are required to carry 90 days of stocks.

"Australia should have at least a similar level of stocks, either taxpayer-funded and owned by the federal government or consumer-funded and carried in our refinery and distribution system."

Mr Archibald stresses that Australia should begin moving now to equip itself to meet its fuel needs with tried and tested coal-to-liquid technology.

But that type of thinking isn't "eye-catching" enough for Mr Rudd.

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