Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Renewing old acquaintances

No one could seriously consider Kevin Rudds 17-day trip to America, Europe and Japan as a junket, and no one has criticised it as one; there has been no nicking off on a tour of archaeological ruins in the style of Gough Whitlam, still less lazy days spent at the cricket in the footsteps of the sainted Sir Robert Menzies.

It has been full-on face-to-face diplomacy, and if the talks with George Bush showed alarming signs of degenerating into the mutual masturbation that so dismayed us during the Howard era, at least old Dubya wont be around to embarrass us (and the rest of the world) for much longer.

Apart from that, Rudd renewed old contacts and made many new ones in Washington and confirmed the new governments intention to re-engage with the United Nations, a welcome and long overdue commitment. The rest of the tour, to London, Paris and the NATO meeting in Bucharest before the climax in Beijing, will be equally relevant.

The only real criticism has been not that the trip is too long, but that it is too short: it should also have included a visit to Tokyo. But Rudd decided that two and a half weeks was enough time away from home. And that really is the political problem: the timing has been less than ideal, and it is largely Rudds own fault.

He has spent the first four months of government warning that we face a crisis indeed a series of crises: inflation, housing, hospitals, climate change, water, gambling, teenage binge drinking and anything else his energetic staff can dream up. If the situation in Australia is really as dire as he claims, surely he should be sitting in Canberra dealing with it, especially in the crucial weeks before his governments first budget.

Once home, our Prime Minister would be wise to plant both feet firmly on the ground and keep them there.

At least Rudd was able to leave on a note of triumph: the COAG meeting with the state premiers was a huge political success, with in-principle agreement on the Murray-Darling, hospitals and business regulation an impressive start to the great election aim of ending the blame game.

Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt complained that the Murray-Darling impasse should have been resolved sooner, which, considering John Howard had failed to make any progress at all for nearly a year, showed admirable hide. But he might have done better to have a critical look at the solution.

Essentially it involved a one-billion-dollar bribe to Victorian irrigators, which, assuming it was simply an advance payment out of the $10 billion package announced by Howard is no great problem: about $3 billion was destined for irrigators anyway. But why? Well, to improve their efficiency and financial viability. But surely this is something they should have been doing for themselves. And of course the provident ones already are; the handouts are going to allow the duds to catch up, not the most sensible allocation of resources.

One way the money will be used is in reducing waste by sealing the irrigation canals; at present there is considerable leakage. But this is not all bad: the leakage goes back into the water table or into the river. With the leaks sealed the water will remain in the canal, and the irrigator will take half of it. The other half, to be returned to the river, may in fact represent a net loss. Yet the policy is meant to be all about looking after the river system.

At least the agreed model of administration at the top is a sound one: an independent commission to determine state quotas, the states to have right of appeal but the federal minister to have the final say. But that leaves the states plenty of room for fiddling further down the line, and the $10 billion Howard allocated to his Great Big Splash will give them plenty to fiddle with. It may be that the COAG agreement will need a bit of fine tuning, perhaps in the form of a total takeover by Canberra somewhere down the line. Now that really would end the blame game.

A second-level Rudd crisis, binge drinking, is apparently to be attacked through a scare campaign.

Rudd harks back approvingly to the Grim Reaper AIDS campaign and the anti-smoking ads showing nauseating pictures of diseased lungs. These, he notes, were truly memorable. And so they were, but there is no evidence they were effective. The control of AIDS was largely due to educating the tightly-knit gay community and needle exchanges; the decline in smoking came about after the habit became hugely expensive and inconvenient. The scare was incidental.

Drinking is unlikely to be different. Many years ago the French government, alarmed by a huge incidence of genuine alcoholism in the community, ran a national campaign that blitzed the country with posters warning: Alcohol is a slow killer. The French drinkers, with their customary sang froid (or perhaps savoir faire), replied: So whos in hurry? and retired to the nearest bar. Will Australians be far behind?

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