Peter Hartcher, in a column titled How a toxic elixir destroyed the prism of trust, has starkly set out a potential disaster scenario for Labor in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald:
Australians will never see Rudd in the same light again. Every policy will now be seen as just another piece of clever politics. What's the point of Kevin Rudd? Australians don't know any more.
A shock jock I heard on radio the other day told his listeners that a caller, a critic of the government, must be correct in his rant against Rudd... because Rudd is always wrong. Whoever disagrees with Rudd is therefore right, the logic went. The subject was the Tobacco Tax. The critical caller, stricken with lung cancer, had rung to complain that Rudd had deprived him of his final six months' of smoking enjoyment. The shock jock could not but agree and sympathise.
The aim of the last few weeks in Australian political reportage has been to slander Rudd's character so that the centrepiece of the election year, the Budget, will be destroyed before its ink is dry on the paper.
Critics of the government won't have to set out why the Budget is flawed. They will just assert that Rudd is unhinged, desperate, panic-stricken, unable to deliver programs, and useless at seeing things through. With the Budget in tatters there will be no upswing from the current disturbing poll figures, and Tony Abbott will be elected Prime Minister. Or so the theory goes...
In the details, the theory states that it is possible to elect the Coalition with no policies (except 'Real Action', whatever that means) and little talent left after its post-2007 blood-letting and systematic desertions, if only the incumbent Rudd is so damaged that the voters turn away from him without considering his policies. As to Rudd's record, it is to be turned into a series of nightmares, travesties, all of which (we have been told) have been failures, rorts, inept, disasters and fiascos.... whether this is true or not. Any official report made on any Rudd policy is to be trawled for the one snippet of criticism it contains and then that supposed flaw is to be exploited to the hilt.
The media organizations, especially those based at News Ltd., have given up imitating fairness and balanced comment. Their front pages and TV headlines are now all bad for Rudd, viciously so, all the time. Nothing escapes their attention. By being so disrespectful, they are giving permission to their readers to blame Rudd for everything and anything. If a reader's business goes bad, or even experiences a slowdown, it is Rudd's fault for not rescuing it. If they have trouble finding childcare for their kids, blame Kevin07. If their superannuation takes a dive for a week or so, ditto. But it takes two to tango. The media can set up the miserable scenario, but the public needs to be receptive to the idea. This is where Rudd made his first mistake. He believed the voters would remain constant.
Australians, by nature, are a scared, cowed lot. We literally hang off the end of the human archipelago. Surrounded by ocean and, after that, brown and yellow people, we see ourselves as vulnerable to attack and invasion. We are in constant stress from the fear that anytime soon the fragile thread by which we hang onto the world will snap. We are a cork on the water, in almost a real and certainly a metaphorical sense. If we are not swamped by the hordes to our north - potentially millions of them, according to Tony Abbott - our economy will be clobbered by a fat finger in New York, pressing zero one too many times on an anonymous keyboard.
To compensate for our parlous perch in the world we've developed a protective cockiness altogether inappropriate to our situation. We constantly boast of Australia being 'The Lucky Country', 'God's little acre' and so on. We travel the world, punching above our weight in sports, business, war and the arts, yet we still call Australia 'home', because it is so fabulous. We would rather believe that we avoided recession during the GFC because we are better than other countries, whose economies have been devastated and remain so. It is easier to put our faith in a manifest destiny to be spared as a nation than to accept that our government acted swiftly, courageously and controversially to stop the economic rot using stimulus measures during 2008-2009. But the Stimulus did no good, it is said. Many now believe there was no recession to avoid, or that if there was, Rudd and his government over-reacted, in order to make themselves look like heroes.
We are constantly informed that we owe our economic success to mining. So, when a tax is proposed that will properly compensate us for the excess profits forthcoming from the mining boom, we panic and turn against the government. We must not upset those who can ruin us by threatening to go elsewhere to dig their holes. When such threats are made we don't feel a proper, righteous outrage at their arrogance. In our insecurity we beg for forgiveness instead, in effect allowing ourselves to be held hostage, bluffed by a bunch of billionaires, all of them Liberal Party donors and patrons, thinking only of themselves and their political mates.
The absurdity of this scenario is seen when we consider that the mining boom is set to last for thirty years, as if that was a long time. No-one asks, "What will we do then, when our landscape is littered with craters and the miners have moved on? Why shouldn't we make hay while the sun shines, like so many other resource rich countries, and tax the miners more appropriately?" The answer lies in our insecurity, always there, waiting for the opportunity to bloom again.
Rudd's mistake has been to trust the voters to see the issues as clearly as he sees them; to see that we cannot rely on digging up dirt forever; to see that we are a part of the world, subject to its vicissitudes; to realize that we must never let our cockiness override reality, thinking we are somehow immune from danger. Our country has a 'Small Dog Syndrome': ready to pick a fight with a Rottweiler, but even more ready to turn tail and run when the bigger dog bites. Our country runs scared. It is axiomatic that it will respond to a scare campaign.
Some may think this is blaming the nation for Rudd's mistakes. Not so. The whole thesis of this piece is that Rudd made a monumental mistake: he thought the public, having once made up its mind, would never change. He thought he could do whatever he wanted to and they would forgive him. He trusted a constancy, which was never there. He left the moral ground to his enemies, hoping that we would be rational in assessing their claims. But we are an irrational lot. Given the chance to be scared we let ourselves in for the terror every time. Our naive trust in miners as our saviours, for example, leads us to offer obsequiousness to them whenever they demand it. Mining is a very small employer, but the rewards are huge. As for the rest of us, we can sit back for thirty years and sell each other real estate and insurance policies. Let the miners be the productive ones, and don't ever upset them, because then we might have to do some work. This brings me to the second aspect of the Australian people: they are lazy.
By any measure Australia is a banana republic. Our chief sources of wealth have always been what we could pick up off the ground or otherwise scavenge for easily and flog off to international buyers. As bananas grow on trees, so are gold nuggets found in streams, wools on the sheep's back, and so does iron ore get dug up by the mega-bucketload. Somebody else will always add value to our ores and our nuggets, while we sit on our bums and congratulate ourselves for being wonderful. The slightest threat to this cosy existence engenders panic.
Combine national laziness, cockiness and paranoia with a well-placed scare campaign, a vicious media controlled from New York, a cynical Opposition, a complacent Prime Minister and you have an almost sure winner. What Rudd can do about it, I don't know. He may cobble something together to get him over the election line. I certainly hope so. But the disease will still be there. The Budget is stillborn (the media will see to that). The miners will continue their posturing. Most alarmingly, the people will remain scared, as they have always been, since right back before Federation. They will continue to believe that — as the media tells them — unless a solution is instant it is no solution. But most of all they will not want to challenge their cosy view of Australia as something special, apart from the rest of the world, blessed by God, with them being lucky to be on the inside looking out, if only in fear. Rudd's challenge is to convince the public we can control our own destiny and that only then we need not, every morning, wake in fright.
What do you think?