It is important that Australian prime ministers travel internationally. And it is understandable that they tend to regard their contributions to international developments as somewhat more significant than is the case.
No Australian leader in recent memory has been devoid of hubris. Indeed the likes of Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard possessed the condition in spades. So does Kevin Rudd. Hubris and political success just happen to go together.
However, problems emerge when sections of the media get caught up in the political hype. This is more likely to be the case when assessments are made of Labor leaders if only because most journalists prefer Labor or the Greens to the Coalition.
Last week some commentators seemed somewhat overwhelmed when the former United States president Bill Clinton described Rudd as one of the most well informed, well read, intelligent leaders in the world today. When the journalist Eleanor Hall mentioned this to Keating the former Labor leader responded that Clinton used to say this about him. Quite so.
On ABC TV’s News Breakfast last Tuesday the commentator Gael Jennings said Rudd was really so super smart. It’s quite awesome being around him. Sure, the Prime Minister is smart. But so were his predecessors back to, and including, Whitlam.
Political leaders are best assessed, over time, according to their ability to implement and sustain worthwhile change. Hawke, Keating and Howard were able to do this. In time, Rudd may be assessed in a similar fashion. It’s too early to enthuse.
Australia is a significant player in the world as should be expected of a nation with about the 15th largest economy. Due to almost three decades of economic reform, Australia has perhaps the strongest economy among the developed nations. Clearly Australia has credibility and influence but no more than that.
It so happens that some journalists tend to channel the enthusiasm of those they report.
In recent times Lisa Millar, the ABC’s North American correspondent, has been caught up in the excitement of reporting the Prime Minister in New York and Pittsburgh. On Lateline on September 21 she implied that the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, was relying on Rudd to break the deadlock on emissions between the developed and developing world. On Insiders last Sunday Millar used words such as amazing and brilliant to describe Rudd’s involvement in the successful attempt to make the Group of 20, rather than the G8, the key international forum for economic co-operation. She has not been the only commentator to imply this would not have happened, but for Australia.
Certainly Rudd played a leading role in promulgating Australia’s case that the G20 should be strengthened. However, the expansion of the G20’s role was consistent with the interests of the likes of China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Korea which are not members of the G8. Some journalists have given the impression the G20 is new. In fact, it was an initiative of the Clinton administration, after what was widely regarded as a poor response by the International Monetary Fund to the Asian economic downturn in 1997.
As a long-standing treasurer, Peter Costello played an important role in building up the influence of the G20 as a meeting place for finance ministers and central bank governors. He tells the story in The Costello Memoirs.
Rudd’s achievements in Pittsburgh are real enough, but they build on what had gone before. Politicians are entitled to exaggerate achievements; journalists are expected to throw the switch to reality.
Howard tended to be respected by the media during the early and mid-term of his government. But, unlike Hawke and Keating, he did not have a journalistic fan club. Rudd is enjoying the media plaudits that initially befell Hawke and Keating. It is possible that, like his immediate Labor predecessors, Rudd will be increasingly criticised from the left on issues such as climate change and Afghanistan. Yet he is having a dream run in most of the media.
The widespread, albeit not universal, journalistic support for Rudd is accompanied by a reluctance to report criticism of the front bench.
The former Labor leader Mark Latham is embittered and, consequently, not a reliable source of uncorroborated information about his former colleagues. But in his column in The Australian Financial Review on September 17 he quoted from a 2005 email to him from Julia Gillard in which she criticised Rudd. This received scant media attention. Imagine the coverage if, two years into Howard’s prime ministership, written evidence was produced of Costello bagging his leader.
It’s much the same with Gillard. In The Making of Julia Gillard the author Jacqueline Kent details the animosity between Gillard and the Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, in their younger days. Once again, this has ignited little interest in the media. Imagine what would have occurred had a book on Tony Abbott revealed considerable tension with Costello.
The Rudd Government looks sure of a re-election, irrespective of the media. But journalists would be well advised not to get caught up in Labor’s spin and to cover the ALP as they would the Liberal Party.