Hard News by Russell Brown


Back in the mainstream

Australia's last two Labor Prime Ministers, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, were raging personalities: brash, passionate, prone to controversy and somehow embodying national character. I don't think there's much chance of that with the new guy.

Now, after 11 years' indulgence of a small and rather mean man, they've elected a man who looks bland and sounds more so when he opens his mouth. This isn't to say that Kevin Rudd won't be a success. He is just by no stretch of the imagination a shitkicker.

It's no accident that both Hawke and Keating (having apparently settled a 16-year feud) provided what fire there was in the Labor campaign (which also, remarkably, saw the rehabilitation of Gough Whitlam). Both men wrote what can only be regarded as typewritten assassinations of Howard in the last week of the campaign, and Keating was swiftly into print again afterwards with this assessment:

The Liberal Party of John Howard, Philip Ruddock, Alexander Downer and Peter Costello is now a party of privilege and punishments. One that lacks that most basic of wellsprings: charity.

The French philosophers had it pretty right with the Enlightenment catchcry of liberty, equality and fraternity.

There was not much liberty for the boat people or fraternity for the Aborigines or the Muslims or equality for the trade unionists who believed in nothing more revolutionary than the simple right to collectively bargain.

You didn't hear that from Rudd. Indeed, having elected him, Australians still seem keen to find out exactly who he is. But for all his caution, he is committed to bringing Australia back into the international mainstream in ways that, by the standards of the past decade, are radical: Kyoto will be ratified, and the combat troops will be brought back from Iraq.

Rudd's centrist, even conservative, image, and his Christian belief have inevitably led to comparisons with Tony Blair. These seem terribly wide of the mark. Blair's core compulsion was to do what he knew in his heart to be right -- which, of course, allowed him to preside over much that was morally wrong -- and to sell it with rhetoric born of conviction. Blair trampled diplomats, Rudd is one by training.

There will be debate about exactly what lessons can be taken into New Zealand's election campaign next year, but there is no doubt about one thing: the internet will be important. Kevin Rudd, famously, has 20,000 friends on Facebook, and his Kevin07 website was a masterpiece of online momentum-building. The campaign ads that ran on Australian news websites were numerous and increasingly biting.

As the Electoral Finance Bill caps third-party campaign spending in particular, internet advertising will look both smarter and more cost-effective. The full-page newspaper ad your lobby group buys is tomorrow's fish-and-chip wrapper -- but the same money could buy you a pervasive campaign online. Just watch.

Anyway, the funniest thing on my Facebook newsfeed morning is this:

David Farrar left the group 'People who support Prime Minister John Howard'.

He doesn't muck about, does he?

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