Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Question time with the dancing bears

Its taken them a fortnight, but Rupert Murdochs dancing bears have finally lumbered out of hibernation and are sharpening their claws for the kill.

Led by The Australians quaintly titled Editor-at-Large, Paul Kelly, they are now lining up to tell the new Labor leader Kevin Rudd exactly what he has to do if he wishes to avoid disembowelment at the next election.

And it is not an enticing prospect, either for Rudd or for the rest of us. Basically our alternative Prime Minister has been told: stop attacking economic fundamentalism and commit to a Murdoch-style free market or die.

Kellys ultimatum in the Weekend Australians Enquirer section is bookended by a couple of the real crazies, Christopher Pearson (Rudd must renege on IR) and Kevin Donnelly (Comrade Rudd is a closet leftie) to fill in the details, but the core message has been left to the man his colleagues have christened The Professor for much the same reason that our Dear Leader received the sobriquet Honest John.

In Kellys case the name has less to do with erudition than with pomposity, a sanctimonious self-importance that has been nurtured by decades of duchessing by the rich and powerful. These days Kelly is so far up himself he has almost turned inside-out; from once being an avid Whitlamite he is now an unquestioning acolyte of Murdoch Mark II, the American version.

So when Ruperts flagship announces that he has The Questions Rudd Must Answer, little Kevin had better believe it. Actually they are not questions but orders, and Kelly takes several hundred words of turgid propagandising to get to them. But here is the brutal list.

What, demands Ruperts alpha grizzly, is the economic task for the next Labor government? It will be to cut the fat from government spending; expand competition policy (except, it goes without saying, in the media my interpolation); deregulate universities; introduce more market signals into health, education, transport and energy; eliminate red tape from business; simplify the tax and industrial systems; cut marginal tax rates; encourage the welfare to work transition and more labour force participation by assisting the work-family balance; invest more in education and training; encourage entrepreneurs in the market place; and aspire for a more competitive economy.

If Rudd broadly agrees then he should say so. He needs to convey and market this position to the public. It is not hard to imagine his framework: how Labors version of the market economy can advance a fair and decent society.

There is just one teensy weensy problem here: this is not Labors version of the market economy but Murdochs. Labors version, as outlined by Rudd (details to be filled in ASAP) is rather less bleak.

Rudd starts from the premise that Howards so-called economic reform has already gone too far; that it has abandoned fairness and decency and needs to be rebased in more humane values. Much has been made of the fact that Rudd, like every Labor leader in the last 40 years, rejects the idea of economic socialism (he is rather attracted to the idea of Christian socialism, which is a very different thing). But because he has no plans to nationalise the banks does not mean that he is ready to embrace laissez faire capitalism in all its ferocity.

Specifically it does not mean total deregulation of just about everything in the name of supposedly greater efficiency, which seems to be the central point of the Murdoch-Kelly agenda. Indeed, about the only point with which Rudd would unreservedly agree is the one about more investment in education and training. The rest, whether or not they are economically desirable in themselves, all have social consequences which require rather more consideration than simply stating as demands. And some, like the total deregulation of universities and further simplification of the industrial system, are quite simply not on. However, it is useful to have The Masters ambit claim on the table and it will be interesting (but, I fear, predictable) to see how he deals with its rejection.

Rudd at least has the holiday break on his side. With his honeymoon in the polls well established (surprisingly only one voter in 10 actively dislikes him, although just under half remain undecided) he has time to work up his own vision before the real head-to head starts next year. We can only hope for something rather more inspiring than Murdochs program of Howard reinvigorated.

Rudd may be a conservative, but he needs, above all, to be a Labor conservative even if he has adopted the silvertail postcode of 2776. (Which is, of course, Faulconbridge forknbridge. Ho Ho Ho to you all.)

Does the proposal for a new citizenship test have any purpose other than to provide material for satirists? Of course new arrivals should learn English and they should be taught it at public expense. And of course they should take an interest in Australian history, law and customs, and they should be helped and encouraged to do so. But to suggest that they should then have to compete in a sort of multiple choice quiz (Who Wants to Be a Citizen, with Eddie McGuire) is surely too absurd for even this government to contemplate for very long.

It is also grossly insulting to most immigrants who are generally fluent in more than one language and have a good grasp of international affairs, while the Australian ministers who are judging them make do with a smattering of English and have trouble pronouncing the word maroon. Yet another mindless distraction from the Dear Leader, albeit one perfectly suited to the silly season.

And on that note, bah humbug to 2006.

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