Kevin Rudd’s decision to appoint Kim Beazley as ambassador to the United States and Brendan Nelson as ambassador to the European Communities was smart politics. Both are well qualified. And the appointments give the impression the Prime Minister is above the political fray, prepared to give influential jobs to two former rivals. But it would be unwise to assume he has embraced bipartisanship.
John Howard held the view that, when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, he was too reluctant to appoint Coalition supporters to senior positions. When Howard became prime minister, he reversed Fraser’s stand with a vengeance appointing many former Coalition politicians to senior positions while all but ignoring similar talent on the Labor side.
Consequently, Howard was accused of engaging in jobs-for-political mates. So far Rudd has avoided such a charge.
However, the favours Rudd provides to retired Coalition MPs are not extended to those regarded as Labor critics. Here Rudd and his cabinet demonstrate on occasions a vindictiveness and ruthlessness not evident under Howard and Peter Costello.
Just over a week ago it was announced the consulting firm Concept Economics, headed by Henry Ergas, had gone into voluntary administration. It is a small business, based in Canberra, which employs about 20. Employment has held up relatively well during the global financial crisis. Even so, the unemployment rate has increased from about 4 per cent to about 6 per cent in the past two years and is likely to go higher. So you would expect that Labor ministers would be concerned about the loss of even one job.
Not so for Concept Economics, it seems. Ergas has done some work for the Liberal Party (in particular for Malcolm Turnbull) and he has provided advice to Telstra (in recent years at odds with both the Coalition and Labor). Last week senior ministers gloated at Concept Economics’s difficulties and mocked Ergas.
In question time, the Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, declared the Opposition’s brains trust has gone broke and suggested the resultant unemployment was another minor obstacle to the budget returning to surplus. Then the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, laughed at Ergas’s plight, claiming that he’s just recently been structurally separated from his own company. This was a reference to the pro-Telstra position Ergas has taken in the public debate always after declaring any perceived conflict of interest.
Tanner and Conroy are able ministers in a popular government. They do not need to ridicule the chairman of a small company, even if Ergas is an occasional critic of the Rudd Government’s policies. Nevertheless, Tanner returned to the target on the Insiders program on Sunday. He dismissed, without an attempt at analysis, an argument advanced by Ergas describing the Concept Economics chairman as a spear thrower for the Liberal Party.
The same program showed footage of the PM’s doorstop interview in Washington, following Glenn Milne’s report in The Sunday Telegraph that Rudd had used bad language during a meeting with Labor factional leaders. The report was not denied but Rudd described Milne as the Liberal Party’s journalist of choice.
This is a harsh criticism. Even if it were true, the fact is most journalists are more favourable to Labor or the Greens than to the Coalition. One of Howard’s errors in handling the media was that he was too nice or, rather, too weak. He was continually courteous to some journalists who were rarely, if ever, courteous to him. At the weekend Rudd reacted with spite to a leak, reported by Milne, from within the Labor Party. The ALP is so far in front that Rudd does not need to bag Milne.
Rudd looks like being prime minister for quite some time. His tactic, as evident in the Nelson and Ergas incidents, is a formidable way of handling political conservatives. There is a carrot for those, like Nelson, on the way out of politics. This makes Rudd Labor look bipartisan. And there is the stick for those, like Ergas, who criticise government policies. This makes Rudd Labor look vindictive and serves as a warning to other potential critics.
There is a key problem with this approach. Rudd’s reaction to Milne’s story indicates that this Labor government is super sensitive to criticism. That will work while Labor remains popular but is likely to be counterproductive if, or when, the political tide turns.