When a problem comes along, whip it

There is an old joke about the sadist and the masochist. The masochist pleads, “Whip me, please whip me,” and the sadist smiles nastily and says “No, I won’t.”

And so it was with our beloved Prime Minister last week. After predicting, almost begging for, a severe whacking in the opinion polls, he got off with the lightest of slaps on the wrist.

Some of his colleagues were more obliging, and informed him that his recent performance, including the grand grovel, had been less than brilliant, but so what? They had copped him the way he was for more than three years and he wasn’t about to change just to please them. If the polls were happy, then so was he.

But in fact his government finally appeared stung by the persistent criticism that it was all talk and no action. In the space of a fortnight we have been hit with three headline grabbers and the promise of more to come. The anti-terrorism statement was, to a certain extent, buried in pink batts, but the national school curriculum was definitely a success. Julia Gillard confirmed her already impressive credentials as the government’s most convincing performer, with almost all the stakeholders giving the program a decent pass mark.

The exception was the man she called the poodle, opposition education spokesman Chris Pyne. Pyne did not actually read the curriculum, but a quick run through the computer revealed that the history curriculum had more references to Aboriginals than to the Magna Carta. Worse still, there was a mention of Sorry Day. Obviously the dreaded black armband was back. Unless due deference was paid to our British heritage with a more vigorous waving of the Union Jack, the opposition would can the whole thing and start again.

It was left to a more literate conservative, the Sydney Kings School headmaster Tim Hawkes, to point out that just 39 of the 237 content areas in the curriculum contained any reference to Aboriginals, a little over 16%. Given that the Aboriginal history of Australia was at least 200 times as long as that of the white settlers, this hardly seemed excessive.

And then came the big one: Rudd’s statement on hospitals, which was promptly dismissed by the opposition on the grounds that it was a statement on hospitals, and not on the whole health system, taxation, the future of Australian society, life, the universe and everything. This was truly opposition for the sake of opposition, especially as Tony Abbott had himself once suggested the two themes: funded nationally, run locally. Actually the funding wasn’t quite national, the states would still pick up 40% of the current tab, and the running wasn’t quite local; the hospitals would be clumped in regional groups for administrative purposes.

But there was no denying that it was a bold, indeed revolutionary plan and one which demanded to be taken seriously. Thus the Sydney Daily Telegraph’s response of a hit list of 117 NSW hospitals under threat was more than usually irritating. Rudd saw it as a conspiracy by power-hungry state bureaucrats; well, it takes one to know one. Perhaps his own early years in Queensland were coming back to haunt him. But for whatever reason he made it clear that he was prepared for a battle with the states and that he would relish it.

So, apparently, will at least some of the premiers; Victoria’s John Brumby replied that Rudd should simply hand over several buckets of money and piss off, and the others, while slightly more conciliatory, started work on their own wish-lists. It is just possible that Rudd can win them over by next month, in which case the opposition in the senate will probably fall into line. But if, as is more likely, there is a stand-off, Rudd will have to call his long promised referendum, with all the risks that it involves.

At least they will have something to work with. The plan needs work, and the details of finance, administration and accountability have yet to be defined. But even as it stands it is a pretty gutsy effort. Governments, both state and federal, have spent most of the last 30 years bemoaning the parlous position of the nation’s hospital system and the impending crisis unless someone, anyone, does something about it. Rudd is at last doing something.

As Rudd and his health minister Nicola Roxon kept emphasising, it is only the start, but it is a pretty solid one, and it will be the key plank in Labor’s platform for re-election. By any standards it was a major political announcement. So where was the Leader of the Opposition, the former Health Minister, the alternative Prime Minster, while all this was going on?

Well, lost, actually. Tony Abbott had mislaid himself in the course of a Boy’s Own photo op somewhere west of Alice Springs. Yes, there he was, stranded in the trackless wilderness with nothing to drink but his aftershave and nothing to eat but the three journalists he had brought with him to record his epic expedition. A desperate attempt to contact his press secretary proved futile. The dreadful ordeal lasted nearly five hours, ending barely in time for the late news. It made a fitting climax to a trip which had also seen Action Man Abbott eating a witchetty grub and hooning around on a quad bike.

But don’t think that there wasn’t a serious purpose behind Tony’s excellent adventure. As he put it himself: “Serious leaders need to spend some time in remote Australia, particularly in remote indigenous Australia, to be aware of what’s going on.” To prove his point he led the troops into a settlement called Hoppy’s Camp, where he was photographed with two destitute Aboriginal men. Walter Shaw, president of the Tangentyere Council which covers the area, described the event thus: “He barged into Hoppy’s camp with a huge media contingent and without an invitation or even the courtesy of telling people he was coming. This was rude and disrespectful.” Shaw also referred to “comments not based on fact” and “cheap shots in the media.”

Well, you can’t have everything. And gee, the pics looked good.


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