No more Mr Nice Guy

Can this be the real Kevin Rudd we are seeing? Not the caring, humane Christian, friend of the homeless, chronicler of economic history and dumb animals, star of TV, Facebook and Twitter, but a calculating, ruthless, whatever-it-takes politician, a veritable born again Richo.

Well, probably not; our Prime Minister is a far more complex and complete specimen of humanity than the notorious numbers man. But there were moments last week when the similarities were more apparent than the differences.

Rudd retreated to Tasmania while his perpetual clean-up man Greg Combet was sent out with the bad news of the inevitable, final demise of the home insulation program, an announcement which prompted cries of betrayal from the genuine insulators who had stocked up in anticipation of its return. Another junior minister Kate Ellis was giving the job of unobtrusively breaking another promise: only 38 of the 260 child care centres aimed at ending “the double drop off” would actually be built; apparently other places were available and the double drop off was no longer important.

Asylum seeker policy had already been reversed: not only were the Afghans and Sri Lankans in limbo, but Chris Evans prepared to reopen the remote Curtin Detention Centre, which The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan belatedly discovered was a hellhole – during the Howard years he had seen it as something of a holiday camp. A task force was examining the Building Education Revolution and the auditors were sent in on the Green Loans Scheme. And to cap it off, the government pulled the plug on any idea of a Bill of Rights for Australia, a move welcomed by the autocrats of New Limited, who know all about human rights and don’t want any unelected judges interfering with their monopoly.

This orgy of recantation by the government was euphemistically described as “clearing the decks.” Fortuitously, much of it coincided with the revelation that a football club had overpaid some of its players, a news event of such magnitude that it swamped the media for the rest of the week and seems likely to perform the same salutary function at least until the serious leaking of Ken Henry’s tax review and the budget is set to begin.

Interestingly, the club responsible for this earth-shattering crime against civilisation was wholly owned by News Limited, whose chief executive John Hartigan indignantly denied any knowledge or responsibility. This lame and self-serving excuse was apparently quite acceptable, at least to the New Limited publications. The Australian is considered unlikely to demand his resignation with quite the fervour with which it pursued Peter Garrett over the pink batts affair.

Similarly, it would seem that Rudd is likely to get away with his massive tergiversations, but they will leave a sour taste nonetheless. Until now he has been almost obsessive about honouring his election commitments, determined not to fall back on the Howardian formula of “non-core promises” even when there is good reason for doing so. The only real exception has been the private health insurance subsidy, and even then Rudd’s proposal was only to means test this absurd measure rather than abolish it altogether, as he should. But the last fortnight has seen a relentless determination to kill off difficult or embarrassing loose ends in what is clearly the lead up to a no-holds-barred election campaign.

We are still getting glimpses of the old Kevin 07, the avuncular figure who won the nation’s trust a mere three years ago. Dr Jekyll has not yet morphed irrevocably into Mr Hyde. But it is a safe bet that in the weeks ahead we will see rather less of Mr Nice Guy.

The newly implacable Kevin Rudd was obviously the one on show at COAG, adamant that no one was leaving until he had the agreement he wanted, or at least one that he could sell as a big win.

Operating on the widely held and well founded theory that every premier has his price, he simply kept shovelling out the goodies until his chief antagonist, Victoria’s John Brumby, decided that perhaps hanging on to his share of GST was not a sacred inviolable principle after all, as long as the money kept flowing. Colin Barnett held out, but this was only to be expected as (a) he was the sole Liberal in the Labor den, and (b) he is a Western Australian.

In the latter role he has form. Back at the time of federation the West was the only colony that refused to sign up to the new constitution. Its negotiators held out for the ultimate bribe: a promise by the Commonwealth to build a railway link between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta. Rudd clearly believes that Barnett, too, will come to the party when the price is right.

Rather more surprising was the premiers’ insistence that they retain a hand in the control of the funding money. From the Commonwealth’s point of view part of the attraction of the proposal was to relieve them of that responsibility; the feds would not only shoulder most of the present running costs, and of the huge increases which were predicted in the fairly near future, but would be prepared to take all of the blame if the voters maintained the habit of a lifetime and complained that things weren’t good enough.

This was what Rudd meant by ending the blame game, a proposal which seemed to have universal approval. But under the arrangement which Brumby and his colleagues finally negotiated, they will continue to carry their share of the can. In practice the feds will set the terms and conditions for the distribution of the funds, and so will have ultimate control; the likelihood is that the states’ input will eventually wither away. But it was a less than perfect outcome. Still, whatever it takes.


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