Opinion- 27 May 2008

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Harry Robinson Muses About a  Super - Bureaucrat Turned Prime Minister


pdf file-available from Australasian Science 

 One night in mid-May Kevin Rudd revealed his mindset. It wasn't candour, more a dropping of the guard. The result will interest strategists of the Ed-Sci community who must now be looking for the best way to approach our new government.

 Kevin Rudd

The moment came during The 7.30 Report, Kerry O'Brien in the interrogator's chair. The subject was pensions and their absence from the budget. TFW last month noted that 2UE's shock jock, Steve Price, had turned sob jock with a campaign to raise pensions on the basis of widespread poverty. His case was loosely argued but it was politically powerful, especially when the 7 Network rode in with support on This Day Tonight. Soon Price had reinforcements throughout media but not a word from Wayne Swan or Kevin Rudd.

O'Brien asked why was the government and the budget silent?

Rudd responded in his calm, cool way that the government was aware of the need to do something but it was a complicated matter and would be part of an overall review of the total tax regime -- due at the end of 2009.

O'Brien pressed the question, saying that the word 'pensioner' did not once appear in the budget speech of a week before.

Here came the revealing moment. Rudd looked puzzled. He was not objecting to the question, simply wondering why O'Brien was pushing it when he, Rudd, had already said the government was thinking about a better deal for pensioners --- all in good time, when the system got to it.

The moment was replayed next night on commercial TV and labelled "Excuses."

In the Rudd mind, popular campaigns carried no weight while long term process and planning were paramount. This is the mind that educators and researchers will have to deal with. The mind of John Howard was different. It saw every proposal as a challenge demanding sudden action. It had no room for what he dismissed as 'the vision thing' while the mind of Bob Hawke always sought consensus around pragmatic questions. He had little time for innovation.

The Rudd mind had a distinguished predecessor.

 Ben Chifley 

Let's go back to mid 1949. The scene is the prime minister's office in Old Parliament House. It is airy and spacious and the walls carry several Australian landscapes, notably an exquisite Tom Roberts of, if memory serves, a scene at Mosman Wharf. Nothing exquisite, though, about the incumbent Ben Chifley sprawling in his large chair. He smokes his pipe -- or rather he smokes matches. He used to load his pipe, strike a match, light the tobacco, become carried away with the conversation, forget to draw on the pipe. The tobacco would go cold and Chif would strike another match. In spite of his strine speech and lack of pretension, Chif is self-assured and virtually unflappable. His record included three war years as treasurer which brought us out of the conflict as solvent as could be. An admirable man but even admirable men take wrong turns.

This morning he is talking with Ned Hanlon, labour premier of Queensland -- a foxy man with the wary manner of an SP bookmaker. Hanlon was less than nice but he knew where votes came from and why. They talked briefly about the death of Chifley's Bank Nationalisation bill, an audacious attempt to give federal government control of all the nation's finances.

It sounds dry and dusty now but it raised hell in 1947 -- 48 until finally killed by the Privy Council.

Chifley admitted disappointment but went on that he had plenty in mind for the nation, such as the Snowy Mountains hydro electric scheme. He had a vision far beyond any light on any hill.

"Ben," said Ned Hanlon, "The dogs are barking that you will probably lose the election at the end of this year."

Another match, another draw on the pipe. Then an inquiring "Oh?"

"It's not Bank Nationalisation that is sinking you, it is your administration. You have price controls, inspectors telling butchers how much to charge for a pound of chops, you insist on retaining petrol rationing . they are saying the war ended four years ago and you've still got controls on damn near everything. They are sick of it."

The revealing moment: Chifley said nothing. He just smiled and lit another match. His plans prevailed over popular politics. The election campaign came and Chifley continued to defend his controls and rationing.

Liberal forces picked up the discontent and ran on radio a series of political ads voiced by "John Henry Austral" whose main line of attack was to threaten the nation with "Planned Economy." Oh the contempt!

In December, six days before Christmas, the Chifley government was thrown out -- decisively.

Let's move on to the late 80s. Wayne Goss is a kind of 'New Labor" opposition leader in Queensland. In 1989 Goss wins a state election hands down and becomes premier. After the sterility of the Bjelke-Petersen years, there is plenty to clean up, plenty to initiate. Wayne Goss is a busy man. He chooses one Kevin Rudd as his chief-of-staff and later promotes him to head of the department of state cabinet. He is said to be the pilot of Goss reform.

Fast forward now to 1996. Things have been going well, the state is now a better place. But voters, being a wilful lot, are unhappy with some of the Goss Reforms. Nothing seems to register on the minds of the government. In one instance, a new freeway from Brisbane to the Gold Coast is planned to run through three electorates where landowners are shouting "Murder, bloody murder."

 Wayne Goss 

The government sticks to its plan. The government is tossed out of office.

We shall probably never know how much blame attaches to Kevin Rudd but he was a partner in the Goss downfall. And as we now can see he thinks well, means well but is inclined to trust his processes and visionary plans with insufficient heed for the here-and-now demands of the ordinary folk. The pensioners affair continues to play against Rudd. Commercial radio commentators as well as some ABC people take it as a given that the government is being mean to pensioners. This Day Tonight runs a nightly "Adopt a Pensioner" segment. (It patronises the recipients but keeps the issue alive to the government's disadvantage.)

A few days later, Rudd compounded the effect when he said the government had done all it physically could against rising prices for petrol and groceries. The vox pop roared, "Not good enough! Do more!" Rudd was probably right but being right wins few votes.

Perhaps the ghost of Ned Hanlon should return to give advice in the PM's office in New Parliament House.

Vice Chancellors, FASTS and other advocates now have a road map to the mind of their potential benefactor. On one hand he is blind to the argy bargy of daily politics, on the other he has visions. Like Chifley.he hungers for long term, big horizon enterprises. His modus operandi is that of the super-bureaucrat who uses process and planning to turn ideas into reality. Given time, he might well lift our game in broadband, port and road infrastructure, water and, yes, higher education .

Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.