The Australian on Friday 13 February and this Weekend Australian carried pieces by Frank Devine, Peter van Onselen and Dennis Shanahan, all directing acerbic attacks at Kevin Rudd. Devine’s piece attacks Rudd’s article in The Monthly, the others Rudd’s ‘connection of the economic stimulus package to the Victorian bush fires’.
In case you are unfamiliar with his background, Devine has been editor of the New York Post, the Chicago Sun Times, and The Australian. He now writes regularly for The Australian. I can’t find the link to his article on 13 February but it was titled Words pour out of PM, but each of them ring hollow. That’s all you need to read to imagine what followed, but here’s a sample: Devine starts by describing how he had waded “...through several hundred thousand words of disconnected chatter (it can’t possibly be the terse 7700 words pedantically claimed for it) Kevin Rudd has passed off on The Monthly as a scholarly essay about the economic crisis.” That sentence removed any doubt about the tenor of his piece, but intrigued I pressed on. In case you thought he might be a Rudd admirer indulging in some harmless satire, he then went on to condemn Rudd’s grandiosity for calling the 2020 Summit, for his “...plan to lead the world to nuclear disarmament and Asia into an economic community...” and his “...rapidly fading scheme to combat global warming.” He then quotes ‘people’ having listened to Rudd who ask ‘But what did he say’, the old Ruddspeak chestnut.
Having primed his readers he finally got round to lampooning Rudd for his introductory sentence: “From time to time in human history there occurs events of a truly seismic significance, events that mark a turning point between one epoch and another, when one orthodoxy is overthrown and another takes its place.” And a later sentence “There is a sense that we are now living through such a time...” He calls ‘is a sense’ a ‘slippery’ phrase. Note the word ‘slippery’ which is creeping into anti-Rudd writing. Expect more of that word which seeks to portray Rudd as a slippery character. And Devine then queries who has this ‘sense’. Where has he been? Practically the whole world has a ‘sense’ that we are living through epoch-making times. He then asks “Is ‘neo-liberal’ a Rudd coinage”. No Frank, try Google-ing ‘neoliberal’ – there’s lots of references there. It’s really too painful to dissect in detail any more of Devine’s piece, but one of his conclusions is that the “The leitmotiv of Rudd’s essay is that it is irresponsible for anyone to interrupt him when he’s thinking big.” Well Devine’s leitmotiv is that Rudd’s a poor communicator, a babbler with ‘varying degrees of coherence’, does not understand the subject of his essay, who can’t define what he’s talking about, and who is so grandiose in his ideas that no one must interrupt him. So there it is. It would be easy to similarly dissect Devine’s piece, which exhibits the very incoherence that he lays at Rudd’s feet. But why bother. The central message from Devine is that he can and will find little in Rudd to commend. Expect more of the same. [more]
The Van Onselen attack was surprisingly vicious. The headline Shameless Rudd wields a blunt wedge is a foretaste of the attack that followed: “Kevin Rudd has attempted one of the most shameful examples of wedge politics in recent Australian political history. On Tuesday this week he stood up in parliament and linked his controversial and contested $42 billion stimulus package with aid for victims of the Victorian bushfires. Speaking during a condolence motion in the parliament, Rudd said: ‘The Government of Victoria will be able to draw on its estimated $1.5 billion share of the social housing fund to assist families in need as a result of the Victorian bushfires.’” Van Onselen continues “The look in Rudd's eyes when delivering the statement gave away his political motives.” There you have his thrust. He quotes Rudd’s brief statement, but that was not what convinced van Onselen of Rudd’s base motives. It was the ‘look in Rudd’s eyes’. So the 33 year old associate professor in politics and government at Edith Cowan University is an expert in non-verbal signals and can judge our PM’s motives just by the looking in his eyes, on the TV or a video! If you want to see it for yourself, it’s embedded as a short segment about two thirds of the way through a Fox News video, which I note The Australian is still this morning featuring on its homepage. See if you can see that ‘look in Rudd’s eyes’. Later in his piece he partly lets Rudd off the hook when he says: “The PM may have been so moved by his recent visit to the bushfire-affected areas in Victoria that his judgment was put out of whack. Even just reading about the fires and watching the television footage is moving enough. Let's hope that's what motivated Rudd...,” But note that he still impugns Rudd’s motives, and labels him ‘shameless’.
The vitriol in van Onselen’s piece surprised me but then I remembered his attack on Julie Bishop over the plagiarism issue, but I thought that was because she had upset him professionally over his book Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead of which he was editor. But maybe he believes he will attract most attention to himself by being outspoken, even if that involves maligning people in power. There’s no point in analysing his piece much further as he makes his case in the first few paragraphs, but it’s worth noting that, like Janet Albrechtsen he felt the need to admit that John Howard was not free of the sin of which he accuses Rudd: “I was not impressed by the wedge politics tactics Howard often embraced during his prime ministership. But Howard went down that path only in the second half of his prime ministership, and he did so only on policy scripts he, albeit sometimes misguidedly, believed in.” So it’s OK to wedge so long as it’s in the second half, and on policy issues. Really!
Finally, as one could anticipate, Dennis Shanahan could not resist the opportunity to sideswipe Rudd in his piece in The Australian on 11 February PM playing politics with Victoria bushfires disaster. He makes no attempt to argue his case – he has drawn his conclusions and that’s that: “Kevin Rudd has dragged politics into the Victorian bushfire disaster to put pressure on the Coalition to pass his politically charged $42 billion economic stimulus package. The Prime Minister has explicitly linked the idea of completely non-partisan relief for the victims of the Victorian bushfires and the Queensland floods with a political and economic response to the global recession.” The anti-Rudd bloggers are out in support, but Shanahan doesn’t get it all his own way.
“Media beat-up’ is an over-used used expression to downplay contentious events; in this case it’s wholly appropriate. Columnists who can read looks in another’s eyes, as well as those who don’t even bother because they already know another’s motives, deserve the contempt thinking people heap on them.
I’ve noticed that Julia Gillard and Lindsay Tanner scarcely ever attract media criticism, and even Wayne Swan, now sans training wheels, mostly escapes unscathed. So why is Kevin Rudd such a frequent media target? Because he’s leader? Because he’s a tall poppy? Because he’s ultra-smart? Because he regularly outwits and wrong-foots the Opposition? Because he’s a jump ahead of the game and calls most of the political shots? Because he’s an ideological thinker? Because he’s religious? Because he has a heart? Or all of the above?