The Cringe Dwellers

When the Prime Minister announced his recent trip to the US, the ‘cringe dwellers’ emerged in numbers.  First the Opposition coined what it thought were cute descriptors: ‘Kevin 747’ and ‘Prime Tourist’, which apart from giving it some amusement, exposed an underlying attitude – who does the PM think he is, jetting off when he should be at home minding the shop?  An unspoken sub-theme was ‘What could Kevin Rudd possibly have to contribute?’

Soon columnists joined the chorus. The Sun-Herald’s Andrew Bolt in the 29 September issue begins his blog Rudd gets busy with WorldWatch: “What a strange addiction Rudd has for strutting the international stage, doing almost nothing at all of any note.”  Note the words “strutting” and “doing almost nothing at all of any note”.  But what could be expected? After all he’s only the PM of Australia, a large chunk of land with just 20 million down-unders, only an ex-diplomat, only a past Shadow Foreign Minister; what would he know that anyone else in the world would want to hear?  What could Australia possibly contribute on the world scene, and who would listen anyway?  What message could he bring from arguably one of the best regulated financial systems in the world to large nations like the US?  They must know better.  Otherwise the monumental financial mess they’re in would have been much much worse.  Bolt, like others of his type think it’s pretentious and arrogant for an Australian PM to be telling any other country anything.  He depicts them as trembling with apprehension as Rudd delivers yet another ‘lecture’.  Most of Bolt’s following think the same – they had a field day with this blog.  The Sunday Telegraph’s Editorial of 28 September Time to clip Rudd’s wings echoed “Kevin Rudd's travel addiction is getting out of hand.” and mockingly questioned the value of his visit, suggesting email and the telephone would have sufficed.  Same sentiments as Bolt.

Then there was The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan’s 26 September audio report from the US about the Rudd address to the UN.  Although he went on to explain why Rudd’s agenda had necessarily changed because of the global financial crisis and what Rudd had done during his visit, he could not resist beginning by saying that taxpayers watching Kevin Rudd’s address to the UN could be forgiven for wondering why the PM had gone there in the first place instead of staying at home to attend to the financial situation there and to his legislative agenda. 

On Channel Ten’s Meet the Press yesterday Glen Milne took a sideswipe when he said, with his usual dose of sarcasm, that Rudd seemed to have plans for global action on many issues but no plan for supporting pensioners.  Again the message was - how dare he get involved in global politics.  Even the benign Mark Riley in his Channel Seven Sunday Riley Diary made fun of the Rudd visit, although subsequently in his serious comment he acknowledged all that Rudd had accomplished and that his presence in the US was important.  Then on the ABC’s Insiders Piers Akerman predictably ridiculed the visit, as if someone as insignificant on the world scene as Kevin Rudd, Australia’s PM, could offer any useful advice.  Even the cartoonists portrayed on Insiders had a field day.

To balance this, thoughtful commentators like Paul Kelly, Malcolm Farr and Annabelle Crabb, also on Insiders, acknowledged it was important that our PM was in the US meeting with world leaders, updating himself with the latest on the financial crisis, speaking to the UN on financial regulation, climate change and world poverty, as well a canvassing a seat for Australia on the Security Council, the original reason for the visit.  But Insiders still took the time with its visuals to poke fun at Rudd’s UN appearance highlighting the empty seats and the sleepy audience. More...

The Turnbull Report Card 10 days in

10 days ago Malcolm Turnbull became Leader of the Opposition at a time of intense political activity and global financial turmoil.  This is one view of how he’s travelling.

As argued in another post: Will the real Malcolm Turnbull please stand up? Turnbull’s performance varies according to whether he is advancing a case in which he believes, or one in which he does not.  It is in instances of the latter that he has been unconvincing.

Why is this?  Looking back at Turnbull’s career he has had success as a barrister and a merchant banker.  A barrister takes a brief and argues the merit of the client’s case against that presented by an adversary, often a prosecutor.  From what we hear of Turnbull’s successes as a barrister, it appears that it has been greatest in those cases where he was an enthusiastic advocate.  The ‘Spycatcher’ case is an example.  Since entering politics he seems have done best when his heart is in his advocacy, such as signing Kyoto or saying ‘sorry’.  His is less convincing when his heart is not in it, such as was the case in the 5c/litre cut in fuel excise.

Since his ascent to leadership we have seen several pointers to his modus operandi:

First he will not shrink from populist politics if he sees it as advancing his and the Coalition’s cause.  The fact that he endorsed Brendan Nelson’s populist positions without hesitation, when he could have stepped back from at least some of them when he assumed leadership, shows that he has embraced the ‘anything it takes’ approach to winning.  The statesmanlike utterances he made shortly after he entered parliament have given way to ‘political-speak’.  So he gets a tick for his ‘win at any cost’ approach, but a cross for populism.

Second, he has shown that he performs best when, to use his media cheerleaders’ words, ‘he takes it up to Rudd and his Government’.  This is perhaps most closely aligned with the skill of advocacy at the bar, where the job is to take the client’s case up to the prosecutor, something at which Turnbull has excelled.  So his aggression at Question Time or in proposing censure motions is to be expected.  Although he knows he is unlikely to succeed, for example with censure, he proceeds with great vigour and eloquence, knowing that this will hit the news bulletins, and that when shown on TV will promote the strong advocate image, that of someone who can take the fight to the adversary.  That the argument he is making may be flawed or his facts faulty, is no deterrent, so long he considers he is giving the impression of a strong articulate leader.  His trenchant criticism of the exchange of abuse at Question Time on the ABC TV’s Q&A programme this week would have been more plausible if he had not been contributing to it so fulsomely. So he gets a qualified tick for his performance in the House. More...

Integrity in journalism

How do you react to journalists who quote ‘informed sources’ or ‘senior public servants’ or ‘experienced politicians’ but never name them?  How much credence do you place on such anonymous sources?  How reliable do you believe this ‘reporting’ is?  Yet such journalism still exists, even appeals to some readers, if one can judge from their reactions.

In The Australian of 23 September there was a blog by Glenn Milne, Rudd’s control issues that exemplifies this type of journalism.   A man on a mission, Milne has been pushing the ‘Rudd is a control freak’ notion for a while now, and like anyone that harbours a pet idea, he’d like to be proved right.  So he often returns to that theme.  He also finds irresistible the ‘Rudd lacks a narrative’ mantra, so he frequently returns to that.  And since he enjoys heaping scorn on the emphasis that Rudd places on process, that took centre stage in this article.

In Rudd’s control issue we have a piece that pushes all these themes. Reporting on a speech by Kim Beasley at a Chatham House rules Australian Defence Industry Network seminar in Canberra three weeks previously, he quotes the recollections of ‘those present’ of what Beasley, among other things, is purported to have said about process:  “...the pace of reform under Rudd had been slowed by the constipation of process”.  Is this exactly what he said, or a dimming memory of it, or a paraphrasing of what was thought to have been said?  Milne conceded that he had not been able to talk with Beasley to confirm these recollections, so we’ll never know.

 It seemed not to matter to him that he broke the Chatham House rules of secrecy by quoting ‘those present’, or that he had been unable to confirm what was said.  In his piece he went on to recycle comments by Paul Keating that supported his case, to assert that ‘every senior bureaucrat’ knows about “the self-obsessed sclerotic arteries that run from the PM's office”, (every senior bureaucrat - a bold assertion).  He then quoted without qualification the view of anonymous ‘senior public servants’ that as a result there is ‘policy paralysis’.  His piece ended with what supposedly was Beasley’s gratuitous advice to Rudd, as if Rudd would take the time to read it. 

I marvel that he could expect thinking, rational people to take him seriously?

I note though that many of his respondents did.  They were not disturbed by his approach to journalism.  Indeed they seemed to welcome the opportunity to lambaste Rudd, his ministers and the Government, and in so doing confirm Milne’s views, thereby stroking his ego. 

Which leads to the question: “What was the purpose of the article?” Did Milne believe it would change anything?  Did he think his assertions, his conclusions and his advice were sound, that he’d made the right diagnosis and suggested the right treatment?  Did he ever consider he might not be right, that he might not understand the way Rudd and his Government work, and that the process-intense approach he pillories might be the one that will give the best result?

Would a serious journalist really believe that this style of journalism could enhance his, or his paper’s reputation?  But if the prime aim was to write a provocative piece that evoked emotions and engendered angry and conforming responses, judging from the comments of respondents, the article was a success.

Integrity in journalism is a precious thing.  Truth, honesty, accuracy, and quoting reliable, named sources are its lifeblood.  Good journalists know this; lesser ones seem not to know, or care.

Do we want our Prime Minister to travel overseas?

Just when it was hoped that a change of leader might bring a less opportunistic approach to opposition than did Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull outdoes his predecessor by turning up the heat on Kevin Rudd about his visit to the US. 

We all know why Rudd is going – to speak to the UN about Australian membership of the Security Council and climate change, and now that global markets are in turmoil, to consult with many of the 100 heads of government that will be in New York for three days where the number one topic will be the content of a further global response to the financial crisis.  We know he plans to have formal bilateral meetings with more than a dozen of these world leaders, and informal meetings with another ten to fifteen.  He plans to have contact with US President George W Bush and key financial figures, and take part in a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting on reform of financial regulation.  All in three days. 

Turnbull knows what is planned, but calls the whole trip “a waste of time”.  We have the spectacle of him making a scathing attack on Rudd insisting he should stay at home and deal with the ramifications here of the global financial meltdown.  He doesn’t give a clue as to what he would actually be in a position to do here in Australia over and above what has already been done, is being done hour by hour by the regulatory authorities APRA and ASIC, the Reserve Bank and the Stock Exchange, and what his Treasurer could do during his absence if necessary.  Turnbull knows he’s talking gibberish, but that doesn’t faze him so long as he can score a political point or two.

Turnbull can tell you where Rudd has been, how many trips he has made and how many days he has been overseas, all critically important facts his people have ferreted out.  He asserts that he has been overseas more than any other PM or his own Foreign Minister, both of which are incorrect.  By why worry about factual accuracy. "Have we elected a prime minister or a prime tourist?" he asked with scorn on the Nine Network on Sunday.  While he conceded that overseas trips and personal contact with world leaders were important, he insisted Rudd was “overdoing it”.  He’s chuffed with his new slogan ‘747 Kevin’, his suggestion for a T shirt logo with ‘where the bloody hell are you’ on the back.

He mockingly enlightened Rudd: "There is such a thing as the telephone".  But Turnbull insisted he needed a face-to-face meeting with finance officials in the US in April; presumably a telephone was not sufficient for him.   He quips: "Just because you're sitting on an aeroplane flying to New York doesn't mean you're doing anything", and accuses Rudd of "mistaking motion for action".  His insists “his travelling is extraordinary and so early in his term - he seems to be constantly on an aeroplane."  All very amusing stuff if the world was not embroiled in such a global financial crisis that threatens this country as part of the global economy. More...