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Archives for May 2010

The Primacy of Television

Nick Bryant | 06:46 UK time, Thursday, 27 May 2010


When it comes to political influence, television is reasserting its primacy all across the Anglo-sphere. In America, Glenn Beck of Fox News has emerged as the most influential voice in the right-wing commentariat, ousting the radio host Rush Limbaugh. When Sarah Palin wanted to launch a media career, she chose television, again with Fox News.

The former Alaskan governor's unravelling during the 2008 presidential campaign also occurred on TV, first in a sit-down interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC News, when she revealed a rather shaky understanding of the Bush doctrine; then in a series of interviews with Katie Couric of CBS News; and finally in the ruthless parody perfected by the comedienne Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live.

In Britain, a campaign touted ahead of time as the Facebook or Twitter election turned into a largely televisual affair. Obviously, it saw the advent of the inaugural televised debates; and its most talked-about moment came when Gordon Brown called an elderly lady a bigot, a comment caught by a television microphone that was attached still to his lapel. True, the BBC News website recorded its highest ever audience figure as the results started to come through, but one of the main reasons why I found it hard to tear myself away from my laptop that day was because the site was streaming our televised coverage.

In Australia, as well, most of the talked-about moments in politics in recent months have unfolded on TV. Significantly, three of them have come on ABC's 7.30 Report, a fixture in the early evening schedules which has been presented for the past 15 years by Kerry O'Brien, something of a national institution himself, and a broadcaster who used to be the former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's press man.

First, the programme secured an Australian exclusive by conducting the first interview with the US President Barack Obama. In it, the president put on tape what senior officials had already placed on-the-record: that Kevin Rudd is the international leader with whom he has the closest mind meld.

Second came an interview with Mr Rudd in which the embattled prime minister rather famously lost his rag when pressed by O'Brien about the decision to shelve government plans for an emissions trading scheme. Defending the government's record on climate change in general, and its efforts at Copenhagen in particular, the prime minister noted: "There was no government in the world like the Australian government which threw its every energy at bringing about a deal, a global deal, on climate change. Penny Wong and I sat up for three days and three nights with 20 leaders from around the world to try and frame a global agreement.

"Now it might be easy for you to sit in 7:30 Report land and say that was easy to do. Let me tell you mate, it wasn't."

The deployment of the word "mate" in such a determinedly unmatey voice, combined with the memorable evocation of a realm called "7.30 Report land" produced headlines for days. The opposition also claimed that the prime minister's rather ill-tempered performance - though it was far from a temper tantrum - demonstrated Kevin Rudd had "lost it".

Finally, the 7.30 Report completed its hat-trick last week with a weird interview involving the opposition leader Tony Abbott. It turned into something of a confessional. Indeed, it was almost as if his water in the green room beforehand had been spiked with some kind of truth serum. During the interview, in a rather tortured formulation, Tony Abbott admitted that he could at times be flexible with the truth .

"Well, again Kerry, I know politicians are gonna be judged on everything they say, but sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is those carefully prepared scripted remarks."

Again, it produced headlines all week, and most of them negative.

During the Howard years, radio seemed to be the dominant political forum. John Howard was an almost omnipotent presence on the airwaves, at a time when talk-back hosts like Alan Jones were in their pomp. But Kevin Rudd, who partly owed his rise to his regular appearances on Channel Seven's Sunrise programme, was more of a television man. Indeed, for the first two years of his prime ministership, when he was enjoying high approval ratings, he spurned the talk-backs shows, whose hosts felt badly neglected.

Radio, of course, remains hugely influential. ABC's AM programme, the closest thing Australia has to the BBC's Today programme, is a must-listen in the politics and news business. ABC's PM, presented by the peerless Mark Colvin, offers an invaluable wrap of the day. Radio talk-back hosts, like Neil Mitchell and Jon Faine in Melbourne especially, continue to frame the public conversation.

As for online, Crikey has a dedicated following among media types and politicians, but does not yet pack the punch of Politico in Washington DC. The Punch, The Drum and the National Times tend to ruminate on the news rather than make any. New Matilda, the online news and analysis site, has just announced it will stop publishing. As in Britain and America, it is the Australian newspapers which continue to break by far the most stories.

As with the print media, it's become fashionable in recent years to write off TV. Yet it's the media of the moment in Australian politics, and a 24-year-old programme anchored by a 64 year old presenter in a dominion called "7.30 Report Land" is setting the pace.

PS When I wrote the other day that: "So it is that time of the year again when Queensland beats New South Wales at rugby league in the ritualistic hype-fest known as the State of Origin", what I really meant to say was: "So it is that time of the year again when Queensland beats New South Wales at rugby league in the ritualistic hype-fest known as the State of Origin, and when the Blues defence will be completely bamboozled by Jonathan Thurston."

What a shame that rugby league does not have more of a global following, because Thurston is surely on a par with Rooney or Ronaldo.

Taking on Google

Nick Bryant | 09:57 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010


Who needs the Australian comedy troupe The Chaser when the Rudd government appears to be declaring war on everything? First, it is the resources sector, with the proposed super tax on the mining companies super profits. Now, comes a ferocious assault on the internet giant, Google. Previous corporate targets have included Telstra, the formerly state-owned Australian telecommunications company, fat-cat salaries and what Kevin Rudd has called "extreme capitalism".

The attack on Google came from the communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, who was appearing before a Senate committee looking into the government's controversial plans for an internet filter. He accused the company of "probably the single greatest breach in the history of privacy", a reference to the Google Street View cars which were found to be gathering information on peoples' wireless connections, a practice discontinued once it became public.

In a very personalised attack, and with the freedom offered by parliamentary privilege, Senator Conroy singled out Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, describing his approach as "a bit creepy, frankly". He also said that Google considered itself above governments: "When it comes to their attitude to their own censorship, their response is simply, 'trust us'. That is what they actually state on their website: 'Trust us'."

The Greens Senator, Scott Ludlam, called it a "ten-minute tirade of corporate character assassination".

Google has been a strong critic of what has been dubbed the Great Firewall of Australia, arguing that the proposed filter would slow down the internet, mistakenly block innocent material, and be easy, in any case, to circumvent. Senator Conroy insists his comments should not be interpreted as retaliation or payback. For its part, Google has released a written statement saying it was surprised that the Senator's remarks came during a hearing into the internet filter.

As the federal election approaches, it could be argued that a bunker mentality appears to overtaking the Labor high command. With the party slipping in the polls, perhaps it feels the need to shore up its traditional basic by lashing out at the corporate sector. If so, it seems a curious strategy from a prime minister who went to such lengths at the last election to portray himself as a fiscal conservative and a friend of business.

It might also prove politically counter-productive. The mining super tax has not been the populist vote-winner which the government probably assumed it would be, and could badly harm the ALP in resource-rich Western Australia. The message from the mining giants that Australia is in danger of slaying the goose that lays the golden egg might also be gaining traction, especially at a time with the Aussie dollar, a commodity-linked currency, has started to slide and when the stock market is so very volatile.

In its early years, the Rudd government was renowned for its cautious self-discipline and the precision of its politics. But could the attack on Google be viewed as more evidence that the government is losing its cool, if not its temper?

Hype and scandal

Nick Bryant | 21:10 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010


So it is that time of the year again when Queensland beats New South Wales at rugby league in the ritualistic hype-fest known as the State of Origin - a forerunner of another NSW/Queensland showdown later in the year, when Kevin Rudd takes on Tony Abbott in the federal election. Perhaps both contests will be a little more competitive and unpredictable than we had all previously assumed - although the odds of a Queensland victory in both still look pretty good.

Fear not, this is not a blog about rugby league, or Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. But I do want to talk about hype, because it appears to have been much in evidence during the last eight days or so while I have been out of the country and observing a near total news black-out. Just after I headed off, there was the media extravaganza surrounding the made-for-television climax of Jessica Watson's round the world solo voyage, which Deirdre Macken in The Australian Financial Review said had been turned into a "major marketing event". Young Jessica appears to have got a very hard time in some quarters, by the way, with Brendan Shenahan writing in The Punch that her epic voyage was "nothing more than a dangerous narcissistic indulgence", which seems a harsh thing to say of a 16 year old who has just spent months on her own in the most challenging and dangerous of seas.

There's also been a lot of hyperbole in the battle over the mining super-tax - "hype and scaremongering", according to Paul Howes, the head of the Australian Workers' Union, an increasingly influential voice and, I suppose, another name who could have been added to the Australian Power List. The mining industry, meanwhile, has accused the Rudd government of a campaign of misinformation by underestimating its current tax burden.

But the story from last week which appears to have generated the most hype is the resignation of the New South Wales transport minister, David Campbell, following the revelation, first aired on Channel Seven News, that he had visited what is being described as a "gay sex club" in Sydney. Mr Campbell is married with children, and resigned, minutes before the report went to air last Thursday night, "for letting down" his family and colleagues.

Whenever I leave the country, it seems, a New South Wales minister resigns over some scandal or other. And I'm not sure how this story has been playing out in other parts of Australia. After all, one of the things that dilutes the national impact of these kind of stories is the absence of a nationwide tabloid, along with the states-based focus of most early evening news programmes, which are presented from the respective state capitals.

But was the hyped-up media response - "a beat-up", in Aussie parlance - commensurate with the alleged "misdemeanour", if it can even be called that? No crime was committed. There was no breach of any of his ministerial responsibilities. He did drive a ministerial car to the club, but the guidelines set down say ministers can take their cars wherever they want.

And what of the political response? The NSW premier, Kristina Keneally, originally said that Mr Campbell's actions were "unforgivable", although she later apologised for that remark.

Channel Seven has defended its decision to broadcast the story by arguing that Mr Campbell's public persona was at odds with his once-secret private life. Here's the channel's news director, Peter Meakin: "In the case of Mr Campbell, here was a guy who had been minister for police, which is a very sensitive portfolio, who had been presenting himself and gaining re-election as a happy family man - sending out Christmas cards with his wife and sons pictured on the card and portraying himself as a loving father and husband.
"Now all this time and apparently for the last 25 years he has been acting otherwise. I think the electorate have the right to know that."

But others in the media vehemently disagree. Here's Andrew West, a transport reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald: "Once again, we have seen a political career end in a scandal that is manufactured by the media, based on a series of so-far thin justifications. Campbell had never set himself up as a 'family values' campaigner. A photograph of himself with his wife and sons is merely that - a family photograph - not a morals crusade. But even more obnoxious than the faulty justification is the self-righteousness of journalists and TV executives who set themselves up as arbiters of public morals."

Mark Day, a veteran reporter and editor who writes a column for the media section of The Australian, has an interesting take: "Until recently, I'd say the story of former NSW transport minister David Campbell's gay secret life would have fallen at that hurdle. But I think the times are changing and with them the rules and conventions of publicly dealing with personal issues. The increasingly open nature of public debate - the product of easily accessible and vigorous online commentary - is eroding the walls around ancient no-go zones."

Once a seldom-go-there area for most Australian journalists, the private lives of politicians now appear to be fair game. Is the media to blame, or is it simply meeting the demands of an increasingly voyeuristic reading and watching public?

Who wields power in Australia?

Nick Bryant | 05:07 UK time, Thursday, 13 May 2010


A bit of fun. In the month that Time magazine published its annual power list, and the British electorate could not quite decide who should be the most powerful Briton, a simple question: who wields the most power in Australia?

For what it's worth, here is a possible Top Ten:

1. Kevin Rudd: At a time when Australian politics is becoming increasingly presidential, and when more power is flowing towards Canberra, Kevin Rudd is the most powerful man in the country. His micro-management, relentless work ethic and reluctance to delegate decisions to his Cabinet ministers means that he has accrued even greater powers. But arguably his decision to shelve the emissions trading scheme, after vowing to take the global lead in green diplomacy, has made him a less consequential figure abroad.

2. Glenn Stevens: the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, and thus one of the most influential voices in the monthly meeting of the bank's board which decides the cost of borrowing. A key figure in the economic success story often called the "wonder from down under".

3. Rupert Murdoch: he may have taken American citizenship but he is, at heart, an Aussie. He continues to exercise massive influence here through a stable of newspapers, which includes The Australian, The Sydney Daily Telegraph and the Melbourne Herald Sun. It is estimated that his company, News Limited, controls almost three-quarters of metropolitan newspaper circulation. Ahead of his election in 2007, Kevin Rudd worked assiduously to woo Rupert Murdoch. Arguably, he should be higher up the list.

4. Ken Henry: Ken who? I hear you ask. He's the most powerful public servant in the country because he occupies the most powerful non-political post at the Treasury. True, normally the second most powerful person in Australia might be the Treasury Secretary himself. After all, past incumbents have included Paul Keating, John Howard and Peter Costello. But the present Treasurer, Wayne Swan, does not wield anywhere near the same influence, nor command the same confidence in the financial community. So his top public servant, Ken Henry, is often called the de facto Treasurer. This month, he unveiled his proposals for tax reform, the landmark Henry Review. Had more of his recommendations been adopted by the government, he might have been higher up the list.

5. Julia Gillard: the deputy prime minister, and the acting prime minister while her boss is away on foreign service. Her policy portfolio includes education and workplace relations, and she is arguably the government's most effective spokesperson. Morepopular within the Labor party than her leader, she has to be Australia's most powerful ever female politician.

6. Gail Kelly: she is the first woman to become the CEO of a major Australian bank, Westpac. Forbes magazine also named her the 18th most powerful women in the world, ahead of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

7. Frank Low: the 79-year-old businessman is one of Australia's richest men, and the founder of the Westfield group, one of the biggest shopping centre companies in the world. Lowy has helped change the way Australians shop. He's also heading up the Australian World Cup soccer bid, and set up the influential foreign affairs think-tank, the Lowy Institute.

8. Noel Pearson: the aboriginal leader, land rights activist and founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. Arguably, the most innovative, creative, and original indigenous voice in the country. His geographical isolation in Cape York in northern Queensland might have lessened his influence, but he has been compared with the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

9. John Coates: the head of the Australian Olympic Committee is arguably the most powerful man in Australian sport, although Andrew Demetriou, the boss of the AFL, Aussie Rules, might not agree. Coates has created a medal factory in Australian, which has been copied all over the world. He is also one of the most powerful figures in the International Olympic Committee, and if Kevin Rudd freezes the funding for elite sports, Coates will do his damnedest to make him pay a political price.

10. Cate Blanchett: Surely, the saintly Cate is Australia's leading cultural figure, not only because of the brilliance of her acting but through her directorship of the Sydney Theatre Company. The one-woman answer to the cultural cringe.

Here are a few more Australian powerbrokers who almost made my cut. Mark Scott, the ambitious managing director of the ABC, the national broadcaster, who wants to make "Auntie" more of a global and regional player. Jamie Packer is still one of the richest men in the country, but wields nowhere near the influence of his late father, Kerry. Some might like to see the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, on the list. You could argue that Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest is one of the dominant economics players, because he runs one of the country's big resources company Fortescue. In 2007 and 2008, he was Australia's richest man. He is also a key player in promoting indigenous employment.

Over to you......

The Tipping Point

Nick Bryant | 13:00 UK time, Monday, 10 May 2010


With a poll suggesting for the first time that more people disapprove of Kevin Rudd's performance as prime minister than approve of it, we might have just witnessed a tipping point in Australian politics. Indeed, for the Fairfax newspapers which commissioned the polling it is not so much a tipping point as a plunge point. With its cartoonist depicting Mr Rudd as a skydiver plummeting earth-bound with an as yet unopened parachute, its stable of papers report that "Mr Rudd's approval rating has nosedived 14 percentage points to 45%, while his disapproval rating has skyrocketed 13 points to 49%. The loss of personal support is the most dramatic for a prime minister in a decade."

Since coming to office in late 2007, Kevin Rudd has usually been able to rely on the respect of the electorate, if not its affection. But in recent weeks two successive polls suggest that he has lost that sense of command and authority. There has been the cumulative effect of the negative headlines attached to his government's home insulation scheme and the cost blow-outs from the school improvements scheme. Then there have been hikes in the cost of borrowing, even if interest rates are still on the low side, historically, and are decided by the Reserve Bank of Australia rather than the government. On the progressive side of politics, many one-time admirers have also been angered by his decision to suspend applications for asylum from Afghans and Sri Lankans, which they see as craven populism.

But it is also possible to identify a single pivotal moment: the decision to shelve the government's planned emissions trading scheme (ETS) having failed repeatedly to win its enactment in the Senate.

Whether you were for the ETS or not, whether you believe in the science of climate change or don't, there does appear to be a measure of common agreement on Mr Rudd's handling of the issue: that the decision to retreat demonstrated political cowardice. "Gutlessness" is the word I hear most frequently. And it is being uttered with edgy scornfulness both from those who voted Liberal at the last election and, more worryingly for Kevin Rudd, those who voted Labor.

Mr Rudd's response to downward poll numbers is usually to work harder, make more media appearances and announce more new departures in policy. Recently, we have seen a hike in cigarette taxes and the introduction of a super tax on the super profits of mining companies. But political correspondents in Canberra complain that these kind of announcements come at such a hurtling pace that they create the impression not of an energetic government pursuing full-throttled reform but of a car careering out of control. Voters are also getting wise to the difference between policy pronouncements and policy outcomes. The promise regularly outstrips the performance, so they may be tuning out.

Only a matter of weeks ago, Kevin Rudd benefited from an Australian version of the "Clegg effect". He aced a televised debate on healthcare and whipped the fabled "worm" into such ecstasy that it brought talk of a Tony Abbott comeback to an abrupt halt. But, as in the UK, the effect of that televised debate wore off fairly quickly. Indeed, having likened the UK election to Britain's Got Talent, and cast Nick Clegg as Susan Boyle, we should have all remembered that the Scottish songstress did not go on to win the final. But I digress.

Now, after the diversions of his Iron Man trialthlon and his Pollie Pedal ride from Melbourne to Sydney, Tony Abbott is very much back in the political race. Though he is still a long way behind Kevin Rudd in the preferred prime minister polling - 53 to 38, according to the latest poll - the gap is narrowing. And fast.

The word "honeymoon" is commonly used to described the period from late 2006, when Kevin Rudd became the Labor leader, until early 2010 when his poll numbers first started to slide. But honeymoons have passion, love and great affection. Kevin Rudd, I suspect, never enjoyed that kind of relationship with the Australian electorate. Instead, he was more like a competent, hardworking CEO, who had the trust of his board, his employees and his shareholders. To push this metaphor to its limits, now the shareholders appear to have lost much of that respect and confidence, and his personal stock may struggle to recover.

Of course, history suggests that he will win a second term. After all, Australians like to give their new prime minister a "fair go". But the polls suggest that the electorate is in the mood to punish Mr Rudd, even if it is not ready to embrace Mr Abbott.

So as Britain deals with the aftermath of its most unpredictable election in decades, we can look forward to an Australian election that might also lend itself to unexpected drama.

Can Britain learn from Australia's Saturday voting?

Nick Bryant | 06:47 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010


I've been watching the results of the British election come in from Canberra, where the British High Commission put on a breakfast at the National Press Club - which came with a mock-up of the front door of 10 Downing Street and a British bobby stationed outside. Despite scurrilous rumours that the policeman was, in fact, a "strippogram" and was about to go "Full Monty", I am glad to report that he remained fully-clothed throughout.

In those early morning hours, as David Dimbleby launched the BBC's coverage, the thing that struck me - indeed stirred me - was the sight of so many of my compatriots queuing up outside polling stations. Alas, then came the dispiriting news that many had not been allowed to cast their ballots.

My mind was cast back to the 2000 American presidential election, which I had the good fortune to cover, when polling stations in the richest nation on the planet looked more like a banana republic - the site of scenes of anger and dismay in Florida, most notably, which quickly ended up in court. The scenes from Britain looked more like one of our great exports: a period drama. People are already wondering why the mechanics of British elections look like they come from the Industrial Revolution rather than the digital age.

Australia has featured in this election a couple of times, mainly when the debate has switched to immigration, and Gordon Brown has laid out how the Labour government brought in a points system based on the Australian model. We have also reported from New Zealand on how the British Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, has been studying what the country does in the event of a hung parliaments - which has happened in every election since the country introduced proportional representation in the mid-1990s.

But both Australia and New Zealand might offer the simplest of lessons when it comes to staging an election: hold them on a Saturday - a practice followed, as well, by many other European countries. The Australians always prepare for the highest of turn-outs, of course, because turning up at polling stations is compulsory. But one of the main reasons that polling stations never get overwhelmed is because the voting is staggered throughout a day when many people do not have to go to work. New Zealand also brought in Saturday voting in 1950.

So a simple question as Britain contends with the confusion of an election which has not produced a clear-cut result: is it time for the UK to move from Thursday to Saturday?

The Professionalisation of Australian Politics

Nick Bryant | 02:28 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010


In search of a quote the other day, I rang up a contact who can normally be relied upon to deliver a near perfect sound-bite, with the requisite servings of knowledge, erudition and controversy. Alas, this time he could not help, because he is hoping to win pre-selection as a parliamentary candidate and thought it better to refrain from public comment.

The conversation then turned to his prospects for being chosen as the candidate to fight the seat, which he did not think were good. The problem, he confided, was that he is not a professional politician, and he would be handicapped by having conducted most of his adult life outside of the realm of politics.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Julia GillardThe professionalisation of politics is much in the news, both here in Australia and at home in Britain: this modern-day tendency for public life to be dominated by those who have essentially lived a political life.

Australia throws up numerous examples. Kevin Rudd spent seven years as a career diplomat, but has been directly involved in politics for 22 years, having started out as the chief of staff for the then opposition leader in Queensland in 1988. His deputy, Julia Gillard, started out as a lawyer, but also left to become the chief of staff for the then opposition leader in Victoria. After turning his back on the priesthood, Tony Abbott worked for a time as a journalist before becoming the press secretary to the then Liberal leader, John Hewson. He has remained in politics pretty much ever since.

This trio is presently dominating Australian politics, and in a neat piece of political asymmetry, two well-known figures who boasted high-profile outside careers before entering politics have seen their political fortunes dip. The former opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, a highly remunerated former lawyer and businessman, recently announced he was stepping down at the next election, only to reverse himself a few weeks later. Then, there is the little-seen environment minister Peter Garrett, the former lead singer of Midnight Oil, who has been sidelined following the home insulation mess.

A few weeks back, the former Treasurer, Peter Costello, weighed into the debate by arguing that it pays to get into professional politics early, a jibe at Malcolm Turnbull, whose skills set appeared to malfunction in Canberra. "I do not think a person's pre-parliamentary career counts one way or another," said Costello. "But I do think that to be successful in politics a person needs to pick it up early." That would appear to disqualify people who want to see their careers come to fruition before considering entering politics.

"A successful businessman has likely spent a long part of his working life outside politics," said Mr Costello. "It's harder to adjust to parliamentary life at 50 than it is at 30. The number of people who enter politics later - from whatever occupation - and go on to have successful careers as senior ministers is tiny."

The alternative view, of course, is that the political late-bloomers bring with them a wealth of experience and expertise. And perhaps they are not so prone to become as narrowly and destructively partisan as professional politicians, for whom politics infuses everything.

As in Britain and America, Australian politics now has the feel and urgency of a permanent campaign, a battle for favourable headlines the next day rather than a battle of ideas which shape the long-term future. Many believe this is a by-product of the proliferation of political professionals, who know little else but politics.

Of course, career politicians are hardly new on the scene. As the veteran Canberra watcher Mungo MacCullum recently observed in The Monthly, the three Prime Ministers who have dominated the past three decades, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard, all started young. He also notes: "In the past 20 years alone, the Liberal Party has embraced John Hewson and Malcolm Turnbull, both outstanding figures in the commercial world, both political disasters."

But would not Australia's increasingly professional political class occasionally benefit from the addition of a few talented amateurs?

A swan plucks a goose

Nick Bryant | 09:05 UK time, Monday, 3 May 2010


Is Australia about to slay the goose that lays its golden eggs? That is essentially the complaint of the country's mining sector, which has reacted fiercely to the Rudd government's plan to introduce a new windfall tax on its profits.

From 2012-2013, mining giants like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton would be hit by a 40% 'resource super-profit tax' - an overly punitive tax regime which they claim would stall investment, cost jobs and make the Australian resources sector the most heavily taxed in the world.

Undated image of reclaimer working in the Yandicoogina stockyard, Western Australia

Since the strength of the resources sector is one of the major reasons why Australia has managed to avoid the last three global recessions, the mining giants complain that they are being unfairly punished. Rio Tinto's Australian managing director David Peever said that the resources sector had kept Australia out of recession at the height of the global financial crisis. "But the same industry is now being portrayed by the government as not paying its way." BHP Billiton, Rio's great rival, complained that the measure would raise the total effective tax rate on the company's profits from 43% to 57%, undermining the global competitiveness of Australian mines.

Few people outside of the mining sector will be shedding many tears, which may partly explain why Kevin Rudd has walloped these corporate giants with such a hefty tax hike. BHP Billiton recently announced profits of $6.14bn for the six months ending 31 Dec, more than double the result of a year earlier. Rio Tinto posted profits of $4.9bn for 2009, up a third over the previous year.

Certainly, Kevin Rudd has framed the measure in overtly populist terms. He has said that the nation's resources belong to the people and that they deserve a bigger share, especially in times of plenty. The increased revenue from the mining sector will also help underwrite superannuation changes which will make pensions more secure, another voter-friendly move. The Australian treasurer, Wayne Swan, has argued you cannot have one without the other.

The shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, has raised the specter of Australia's remarkable post-war prosperity being put in peril. He said the new tax would kill off the mining boom, fuelled by the rise of China and India, which he compared to the "golden goose who is laying the eggs for the foundation of Australia into the future". The resources sector has also shown that it can play populist politics, arguing that new tax would bring down Australia's comparatively high standards of living.

The announcement of the new tax follows the publication of the long-awaited Henry tax review, which was headed by Ken Henry, the leading civil servant in the Treasury and one of the most influential men in Australia. Ultimately, the Henry review made 138 recommendations. The Rudd government has adopted only four.

Much of the commentary in the papers today follows the same analytical line as the response to Kevin Rudd's decision last week to shelve the emissions trading scheme: that he is cautious to the point of cowardice.

Days after describing the ETS decision as one of the most the spectacular climbdowns by any Australian government in decades, The Australian's Paul Kelly notes: "In its highly selective response, Labor has avoided losers, averted sweeping changes to the income tax system, shown an election-year caution."

In a column entitled "It's not the economy, it's the election, stupid", Peter Hartcher notes in the Sydney Morning Herald that the central thrust of the mining tax 'is to raise a new tax to give benefits to the swing voters that Rudd most fears losing to Tony Abbott.'

Are we in danger of looking at everything through the prism of a politics, of being unfairly reductionist? Or is that merely the way that Kevin Rudd views his planned reforms?


Greg Warner and Floyd, I am in total agreement. That opening about the tax being "overly punitive" was meant to be attributed to the mining companies, but you are right it does read as if it is my criticism, which is wasn't meant to be. Mea culpa.

To throw in some more political context for all this, a new poll out on Tuesday suggests that the opposition coalition has overtaken the Labor party in what's called the two-party preferred vote for the first time since 2006, which was back in the days when Kim Beazley was leader of the ALP (now, of course, he is Australia's ambassador in Washington).

Though Kevin Rudd is still the preferred prime minister by a comfortable margin - 50% to 32% for the opposition leader, Tony Abbott - the poll suggests that his personal satisfaction rating has dropped sharply. You can read more details from the poll here.

A weird, wonderful, barking April

Nick Bryant | 21:00 UK time, Saturday, 1 May 2010


An Icelandic ash cloud, a Melbourne storm, an Indian summer across much of Australia and a British election that appears, from this far distance at least, to have become a television talent contest. You can now buy "I agree with Nick" t-shirts in Britain, apparently, not that I expect many readers of this blog to be placing orders.

All that in a month when Susan Boyle, the Nick Clegg of singing, cancelled her trip down under, and in which Australia produced its very own internet sensation - "barking man", whose life-like impersonation of the feral dogs that have made him a prisoner in his own bungalow quickly went viral.

I should have known April was set to be a weird month when I opened with a blog about how Australian artists no longer depicted the landscape as if it were the Alps or the Scottish Highlands. Days later, I found myself reporting on how the Melbourne-based painter Sam Leach had won the Wynne Prize for the best Australian landscape by reproducing what many people thought looked in parts like a photocopy of a Dutch masterpiece featuring an Italian shoreline.

Blog-wise, it has been a fairly lively month, and I wanted to get back to you on some of your comments, and to provide a few updates and further thoughts on some of the topics covered.

The Lie of the Storm: Would the fans still turn up to watch a scandal-tossed side capable of winning games but incapable of winning points? Yes, for now, it seems. Almost 24,000 fans turned out for their home game on Sunday evening, a relatively small crowd by Melbourne sports standards, I know, but a large crowd for the Storm.

The former player and coach Phil Gould, the "biggest brain in footie," made some interesting points about the salary cap on Channel Nine's Footy Show last Thursday night. At a time when so many players are heading to Britain where they can earn more money, and when rugby league is facing so much competition from Aussie Rules, the salary cap is making it harder to compete. The counter-argument is that only a few teams can afford the present cap, and the others would fall way behind if it were raised much further.

Nicola made a strong point about the real news that day being buried by the government - the cancellation of the troubled home insulation scheme, and the news that the Rudd government would proceed with the only 38 of the 260 childcare centres promised at the 2007 election. Chris Uhlmann, the ABC's always excellent political editor, has written a good piece on that.

Australia's Balance of Power: Some interesting thoughts on the federal/state balance of power from Bob Hawke and John Howard, who locked antlers last week at a charity function in Sydney. Hawke had refused have a televised debate with John Howard during the 1987 federal election. Both agreed that were Australia to start with a blank sheet of paper the states would not make it past the drawing board. Mr Howard's preference was for regional authorities. Bob Hawke thought the state boundaries should remain, but only for the purposes of the Sheffield Shield inter-state cricket competition and the State of Origin rugby league clash between New South Wales and Queensland.

Glamorous TV Life of slain mob boss: The alleged murder of the Underbelly mobster Carl Williams was another big story from Melbourne, even if some of you thought the media, including the BBC, lavished far too much attention on the alleged murder - fosterspiesandkangaroos, bardiera, treaclebeak, among others. Jonathan Holmes, the presenter of ABC's Media Watch programme, wrote a good piece on that front.

The Australian Ugliness: In all honesty, I thought that a post about an architectural writer from the early 1960s would get a handful of comments, but your response to Robin Boyd's The Australian Ugliness showed that it still has resonance. A number of you - Bren54, seajay 23 - wrote that Boyd did not have the right to lecture anyone about design because his own architecture was so ugly. The Domain Park flats/apartments in Melbourne are arguably a case in point.

Most of you thought Boyd was better on the contradictions of the Australian character than the quality of Australian design. Me too. I also think that Australia has produced some of the best residential design in recent years, with architects like Peter Stutchbury leading the way. Admittedly, however, most of the best stuff is found on the coast on spectacular plots of land that few Australians will ever be able to afford.
ABC Radio National's Late Night Live had a terrific studio discussion on the book, which you can listen to here.

The Acronym Country: Michael W proved he could speak such fluent acronym-ese that I suspect he may be Kevin Rudd's speech-writer - or at least channeling Kevin Rudd's speech-writer. Here's his comment: "In health the ALP is proposing that the AGPN transforms into a networks of PHCOs and work with the NHHN to provide GP and acute care services. This will be overseen by DOHA, but will leave SBOs out in the cold and it also has to win over the AMA and RACGP, not to mention the ANF. All this is dependent on getting COAG on board, of course." I also enjoyed Wollemi: "It's those pesky Australian flies, making bombing runs on open mouths 

Acronyms and abbreviations make it easier to keep them out."

There's nothing like Australia: Most of you highlighted the main flaw in Tourism Australia's latest campaign, which encourages Australians to reveal their favourite places or holiday spots. Presumably, the reason why they have become favourite places is because they are not inundated with tourists.

Finally, a few thoughts on who was up and who was down in April.

A good month for:

• The blog rarely has much good to say about Canberra but credit where credit is due - the Australian Capital Territory, the ACT, came top of the economic table for the Australian states and territories. New South Wales was number eight in the rankings. The full list, from top to bottom, was ACT, Western Australia is ranked in second position, followed by South Australia, the Northern Territory, Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland and NSW.

• The Aussie dollar, much as it pains me to say so. It is creeping towards parity with the dollar.

• The Queensland Reds: the in-form side of the Super14 competition has reminded everyone that William Webb-Ellis picked up the ball and ran, rather than booting it down the field in the hope of getting a penalty at the breakdown.

A bad month for:

• Christine Nixon, the former Victoria Police chief , who admitted that she went out to dinner on the night of the Black Saturday fires rather than remaining at the command centre.

• Australian first-time house buyers. A new report suggests that one in three Generation Y prospective first-time house buyers will never be able to afford to get into the housing market.

• Those who believe Australia should have a Bill of Rights. The Rudd government says it will not be introducing legislation for an Australian Bill of Rights

• The betting organisations that got stung by the punters who suddenly started placing what seemed like ludicrous bets that the Melbourne Storm would finish bottom of the league.

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