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Archives for July 2010

The Election: Week Two

Nick Bryant | 09:01 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010


Hell hath no fury like a former Australian prime minister scorned. First it was Paul Keating ripping into Bob Hawke over a new biography written by the Silver Bodgie's wife, Blanche d'Alpuget. "I carried you through the whole 1984-1987 parliament, insisting you look like the prime minister," wrote Keating, using the same withering invective he had once aimed at the Liberals. "No other prime minister would have survived going missing for that long. But with my help, you were able to."

Now Kevin Rudd stands accused of leaking a story to the press that has badly damaged his successor, Julia Gillard - an accusation which he denies. The story came from Channel Nine's legendary political editor, Laurie Oakes, who once employed Kevin Rudd as a cleaner at his Canberra home. Now, allegedly, the cleaner has turned into a muck-raker: the disher of political dirt.

In his story, Oakes claimed that Julia Gillard had opposed two of the Labor government's marquee policies while she was the deputy prime minister, namely paid parental leave and an increase in pensions. It dominated the election for much of the week, and, in the parlance of modern-day campaigning, took Julia Gillard seriously "off-message". Rather than "Moving Australia Forward," the mantra of the ALP campaign, Ms Gillard was forced to revisit once-secret Cabinet battles of the past.

It was not so much a wiki-leak as a wimpy leak, according to yet another former Labor leader Mark Latham, the author of the eponymous and potty-mouthed diaries. "It's the coward's way to get on the blower with Laurie Oakes and say, 'I'll tell you this but you're not allowed to identify me'," Mr Latham told Sky News. "It's the snake's way. So I challenge Kevin Rudd to be a man, to be honest, to have some honour and actually, if he feels this strongly about it, put his name to his words." Again, it is worth pointing out that Mr Rudd has denied being the source of the leak.

In a press conference dealing with these allegations, some commentators were impressed with Julia Gillard's forceful performance. Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald called it a "leaderlike display" - "It was not Gillard the slick with the fake quick fix". But he opened his column with a piece of analysis which reflects how a once-admiring press gallery has quickly turned against the new Prime Minister: "The paint of Julia Gillard's bright and shiny prime ministerial image is cracking and peeling under the searing lights of prime ministerial scrutiny."

This week she has appeared in a 13-page photo shoot for Women's Weekly, looking glossy, glamorous and even seductive. But moonlighting as a model may well be unhelpful at a time when, as her declining approval ratings and poll numbers demonstrate, more Australians are asking whether she can adequately perform her day job.

Labor is wobbling badly, and the early momentum in this campaign is unquestionably with Tony Abbott. So the Liberal leader will have taken particular delight at the headline in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald. And so, too, I dare say, did the man that he thought he would be facing in this year's election: "Save Us: ALP's desperate plea to Kevin Rudd."

The televised debate

Nick Bryant | 10:30 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010


Does Julia Gillard pass the "What does she stand for" test? After more than a month as prime minister, and an hour of to-and-fro in the first and only televised debate of the 2010 campaign, it is a question that is being asked more frequently, and with no obvious answer. Rather like Kevin Rudd, she runs the risk of coming across as a political manager rather than a national leader: a prisoner of the polls rather than a prime minister of forceful conviction.debate_ap.jpg

Watching the debate, she became animated on the question of education reform - the child of immigrants, she clearly believes that a decent schooling offers the quickest route to personal, social and national advancement. But on other issues, from immigration to the environment, she appeared to be sticking to a political script that was written in accord with Labor's internal polling and focus groups.

There's a paradox here. Gillard clearly believes that this is safe politics, but it is the very thing that undid her predecessor. Kevin Rudd lost the respect of much of the Australian electorate - terminally so - when he back-flipped on the government's plans for an emission trading scheme. The widespread view, whether you agree with anthropogenic global warming or not, was that he had abdicated his leadership on the issue.

Julia Gillard, in advocating a citizen's assembly to fashion a national consensus on climate change, may well have repeated the same mistake. Certainly, the policy has invited scorn and ridicule. Paul Kelly of the Australian, the dean of the political press corps, called it a "joke". Bernard Keane of Crikey called it: "Truly wretched." A new Galaxy Poll for the Melbourne Herald Sun suggested that 62 per cent thought that the citizens assembly pledge demonstrated that Gillard has "difficulty making decisions".

On Sunday, the Sydney Morning Herald published a highly critical piece under the headline "The Incredible Shrinking Julia". On Monday, the Australian published a new poll - taken before the television debate - which showed that the Coalition is closing. Labor had a 10-point lead at the start of the campaign. According to the latest Newspoll, the gap is now just four points.

As for the debate, the fabled "worm", which measures the responses of a small group of wavering voters, handed it to Julia Gillard - 63% to 37%. But the commentariat was impressed with the performance of Tony Abbott. Certainly, the Liberal leader was much better than in his last debate outing against Kevin Rudd. He was less caustic, less mocking and much more user-friendly. Noticeably, in his opening statement he mentioned his wife, Margie, hoping no doubt to improve his standing amongst women, a real area of vulnerability. He would have hoped that his advocacy of paid parental leave would have had the same effect.

Some other quick observations. Viewers tuning in for the first time, who knew absolutely nothing about the country, could be forgiven for thinking that Australia is being besieged by boats - that an armada is arriving daily. Do people really worry about boat people and asylum seekers that much?

They might also have been struck by the number of times the phrases "fair go" and "fair dinkum" were trotted out. But overall, they would probably have found it rather dull, unenlightening and lacking in humour or wit.

One of the journalists on the panel, Chris Uhlmann of the ABC, who is one of the best inquisitors in the business, posed the courage question to Julia Gillard - he asked for an example of personal political bravery. Tellingly, she replied that the creation of the My School website, which allows parents to judge the performance of various schools, fitted that description. But while opposed by the teachers' union, it had the overwhelming backing of parents. Arguably, Tony Abbott came across as the politician of greater conviction and more passion.

The Canberra press gallery is clearly itching to write the Abbot comeback story, if only to make the next four weeks interesting. Journalists always like to invest a campaign with drama. His better-than-expected performance in the televised debate, combined with the first major poll of the campaign, lends that narrative more credence. But Julia Gillard can also claim some authorship for the simple reason that many of her compatriots are starting to wonder "what does she stand for?"

PS Masterchef was watched by over 4 million people last night - 3 million watched the leaders' debate over the various channels that covered it. They saw Adam Liaw, a media lawyer from South Australia, triumph.

PPS Thanks for your good wishes.

The Election: Week One

Nick Bryant | 02:56 UK time, Saturday, 24 July 2010


You will have to forgive me for continuing to monitor the election from afar, but needs must. Our travel timetable has been set, for reasons which will hopefully become joyfully apparent sometime in November, by a calendar that takes little account of the electoral cycle.

Still abroad, I have not been reading the papers with quite the usual diligence, but the one story that appears to have caught the imagination of international news desks is the decision to shift the start time of the televised debate on Sunday night so that it does not clash with the mega-hit cooking show, Masterchef (clearly, the Labor Party, which has gone into the election with a healthy lead after ousting Kevin Rudd was keen for the debate to reach a limited audience). Now Australians can watch both.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, 21 July 2010Two very different Australias will be on show on Sunday night. Masterchef has been such a hit not only because it focuses on fabulous food - isn't the way to an Australian's heart through his or her stomach? It also deals in hopes and dreams, and is hugely aspirational. Rather than humiliate the young contestants, most of whom dream one day of opening up restaurants of their own, the judges nurture and inspire them. The emphasis is on nice.

You can read the last blog, The Australian Ugliness, for a take on how politics has gone through a particularly nasty and brutal phase. So let's not belabour the point. But it is worth asking whether Sunday's televised debate will offer many of the same ingredients on display in Masterchef: hope, dreams, inspiration and aspiration?

Please holler if I am wrong - and I know that you will - but Australian elections do not tend to deal much with "the vision thing". Sure, politicians outline policies for the future, but they tend not to trade in big ideas, overarching national narratives or high-blown rhetoric. The rhetoric is workmanlike. The promise of change usually comes with the disclaimer that it will be incremental and risk-free.

In Labor circles, Gough Whitlam's 'It's Time' campaign in 1972 is so storied because it was so exceptional. The campaign was launched at the Blacktown Civic Centre in Sydney with the kind of bold speechifying that would certainly be rare today:

"Men and Women of Australia! The decision we will make for our country on 2 December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time. It's time for a new team, a new program, a new drive for equality of opportunities: it's time to create new opportunities for Australians, time for a new vision of what we can achieve in this generation for our nation and the region in which we live. It's time for a new government - a Labor Government."

You can read the full speech here.

Tony Abbott,  Liberal Party leader, at a fruit shop in Melbourne, 20 July 2010These days, Australian campaigns are more about tactics rather than visions (it's the same elsewhere, before you press the comment button). Indeed, the first few days felt like a tactical re-run of the 1997 campaign with the issue of WorkChoices, the Howard government's unpopular labour laws, brought front and centre. Knowing he was being hammered on the issue, Tony Abbott tried to convince voters that WorkChoices was not only "dead" and "buried" but "cremated," as well.

Then, later in the week, Julia Gillard followed up with another tactic, by trying to neutralise another issue which has troubled the Labor government: setting a price on carbon through the creation of an emissions trading scheme. She did so by
announcing the creation of a Citizens Assembly to reach community consensus on climate change policy, which has been slammed by Liberals and Greens alike as an act of political cowardice. It also produced a rare moment of unscripted drama when an environmental protester tried to shout down the prime minister as she delivered her speech.

The old maxim is that good policy makes for good politics. But from Julia Gillard's change of course on the Big Australia policy to the fumbled new asylum seeker policy, which ABC's Annabel Crabb deftly dubbed "The Non-Specific Solution", policy is politics.

I'll be watching on Sunday night, and I dare say many of you will be too. The Masterchef final or the leaders' televised debate. Which will be the more nourishing?

PS Having said the international news desks haven't yet been paying much attention, one of America's leading columnists, EJ Dionne of the Washington Post, has weighed in.

PPS Thanks, by the way, for the response to Animal Kingdom. Someone complained that the thread was going nowhere, when it had already gone somewhere really interesting. Not a huge number of comments, admittedly, but proof that less is sometimes more.

The Australian Ugliness (2)

Nick Bryant | 13:37 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010


If at times of great national drama book titles could be requisitioned and redeployed, like merchant ships on the eve of war, The Australian Ugliness might offer the neatest summation of the events of the last few months. With the elevation of the country's first female prime minister, the 40th anniversary of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch has clearly come to mind, but it is Robin Boyd's opus, now celebrating its golden jubilee, that provides a timely epithet, if not an entirely accurate thesis. Ruminating on the schizophrenic streak in the national character, Boyd described his fellow countrymen and women as "cruel but kind". When applied to Australian politics, his analysis is surely two words too long.

I'm actually in America, where the relatively few people who had heard or took much notice of Kevin Rudd appear to have been shocked by the speed and brutality of his departure. After all, he was President Obama's best pal on the world stage (although, alas, the best book on Obama's first year in charge, The Promise by Jonathan Alter, does not even mention Mr Rudd,).

Kevin Rudd, stepping down

Perhaps they might have read that the removal of Kevin Rudd was a bloodless coup. But it was bloodless in the same way that water-boarding is bloodless - a process that simulates drowning, and thus near death, which leaves the body unblemished but the mind riven with scars. When Kevin Rudd braved the cameras to haltingly bullet-point his legacy, its effects were plain to see. But I wonder what the nature of his abrupt departure, and indeed that of others like the former Liberal leaders Malcolm Turnbull and Brendan Nelson, says about the health of the nation's body politic?

Any audit of Australian politics right now surely takes on the feel and stench of a triage, a sifting of the wounded and slain. For to describe the bush capital as a killing field not only makes for an apt headline but half-decent analysis. Along with a once prodigiously popular prime minister, two opposition leaders have been dispensed with in a single parliamentary term. In the space of just forty months, Australia has seen four Liberal leaders, and three from Labor. In New South Wales, the spiritual home of the Australian political ugliness, there have been four different Labor premiers in the past five years and just one election.

If both major parties could boast more talent, this casualty rate would still be alarming but at least vaguely sustainable. But the ranks are thin already. The voluntary departure of Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, a well-liked politician of undoubtedly high calibre, depletes them even further. So, too, did the former Treasurer Peter Costello's decision to leave. By any normal reckoning, all of their careers ended prematurely.

To outside eyes, Australian political leaders are being held to a ludicrously high standard. It brings to mind that hoary old adage about Louisianan politicians: that they could survive anything apart from being found in bed with a dead woman or a live boy. All it takes in Australia, apparently, is to wake up on four consecutive Monday mornings with a lacklustre poll. Curiously, the headline in the Washington Post this morning was another slump in Barack Obama's approval ratings, with support for his economic stewardship at an all-time low. But it's hard to detect any great sense of crisis, for the polls ebb and flow.

Certainly, the brutopia of Rudd's departure adds to the sense that Australia is out of kilter with the rest of the political Anglo-sphere. Its cadres of professional politicians have become more tribalistic, clannish and intensely partisan at a time when office-holders in America and Britain are heading in the opposite direction. By design and through necessity, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are fashioning a new politics that is more ecumenical, less clannish and genuinely bipartisan. Australian politics is in danger of looking like a throwback. While lawmakers operate still within the Washminster system, the politics is Tammany Hall, right down to the faithful recreations of its bullying ward bosses and brutal machines. If ever the actress Tilda Swinton gets to play her doppelganger in the movie version, it will be a watch-from-behind-the-sofa affair. Animal Kingdom might have fitted as a working title, had it not already been purloined.

This has been an ugly phase in national and state politics, and I suspect we are on the verge of an ugly campaign. The messy debate over asylum seekers, which never arouses the nobler aspects of the Australian character, is a sign of what we will see over the coming weeks. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are political street-fighters, and the next few weeks will be a brawl,

To finish where we started, this year has already been cluttered with literary celebrations. The 50th anniversary of The Australian Ugliness, the 40th of The Female Eunuch. Yet it is also 60 years since A.A. Phillips first noticed that listeners of a programme called Incognito on the ABC tended to pick the outsider when asked to adjudicate between the performance of a foreigner and a home-grown musician. Nowadays, little remains of the cultural cringe, and it is easier to identify Australia's cultural creep. But what of its politics? Is it now possible to speak of Australia's political cringe?

UPDATE 07:23 UK time, Thursday 14 July 2010

The comments include some persuasive arguments about the impact of three-year terms, and how they lend themselves to perpetual politicking and thus fuel the sense of frenzy. Faced with a run of bad polls, there is not much time for an unpopular leader to turn them around, hence a sense of panic, which is commonly followed by putsch. I would also add the impact of continuous news, whether it be on radio, television or online. Concertinaed news cycles have led to concertinaed politics. And Camo makes a good point.

On the question of the US comparison, it would be daft to deny that American politics is a bruising and bare-knuckle business - which is why I chose my words carefully. I said that a new cadre of politicians was emerging, like Barack Obama, who find partisan politics rather tiresome, counter-productive and ugly. Obama told the American Sixty Minutes programme in September 2009 that he was worried about "a coarsening of our politics that I've been running against since I got into politics". I'd also suggest that American politics does not have the same cannibalistic fury that Australian politics has right now. In Washington, the knives tend to be aimed at partisan opponents rather than between the shoulder blades of their own. When a party moves against an unpopular senator or congressman, it usually happens in the primary process through which real-life voters get to choose which candidates will fight the election.

Animal Kingdom

Nick Bryant | 11:24 UK time, Monday, 12 July 2010


In a land of such vivid self-expression, the recent crop of Australian movies have been disappointingly sparse in their dialogue. The fashion has been for dark movies with brooding characters, who do not have a great deal to say. The Australian road movie, Last Ride, starring Hugo Weaving (and Lake Gairdner in South Australia), may have been exquisitely shot and acted, but Weaving's damaged outlaw was the strong, silent and occasionally psychotic type. Beautiful Kate, another of last year's critical successes, was a film of rich story-lines but a meagre script. As for Samson and Delilah, the outback love story which was a winner at Cannes in 2009, the point was to explore a largely speechless relationship between two Aboriginal teenagers.

So Animal Kingdom, which has been described as the best Australian film in a decade, is a treat: an Aussie movie oozing with sharp lines, clever turns of phrase and spellbinding set-piece scenes. It is the debut feature film of David Michod, who both wrote and directed it, and has already picked up the dramatic jury prize for world cinema at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Set in the mean suburbs of Melbourne, it tells the story of a dysfunctional criminal family, the Codys, as they try to outwit the Victoria Police - a force, as depicted here, with renegade officers prepared to dispense their own brutal form of justice. It opens with "J", an awkward teenager who has just arrived home to find Deal or No Deal on the television, and his mother dead on the sofa. She has overdosed on drugs. The film then follows him as he is welcomed, grudgingly by his uncles and over-happily by his grand-mother, into the heroin-peddling gang.

Go see it for yourself - and given its success at Sundance, it will no doubt be screened beyond these shores - but the performances are simply outstanding. International audiences will recognize Guy Pearce, who plays a police detective, but the other homegrown stars are less well -known outside of Australia. They should be, and perhaps soon will be on the strength of their performances in Animal Kingdom. There is Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Pope, the homicidal head of gang. There is Joel Edgerton, who played opposite Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire and is a familiar face in Australia. But the stand-out performance comes from Jacki Weaver, one of those Aussie actresses who pops up all over the place, who plays the matriarch of the family - Smurf, a platinum blond whose relationship with her sons borders on the incestuous without actually crossing into it. The New York Times has rated her performance as among the five best of the mid-year releases.

Because it focuses on the Melbourne underworld, Animal Kingdom has inevitably been compared to Channel Nine's ratings winner, Underbelly. But that's like assessing a bottle of Grange, Australia's most collectible wine, against a $A30 bottle of Shiraz.

As we noted in this blog earlier in the year, Underbelly has raised questions about the glamorization of violence If that is truly the case, Animal Kingdom is the gritty corrective.

Given nine stars out of ten by our old friends Margaret and David, the Siskel and Ebert of Australia, it is surely destined to become an Australian movie classic.

Solution becomes a problem

Nick Bryant | 11:28 UK time, Thursday, 8 July 2010


It was all supposed to be so neat and tidy. A set-piece speech at a prestigious Sydney think-tank with a policy proposal that would take the opposition by surprise and neutralise a contentious political issue ahead of calling the forthcoming election. All followed up by a flashy photo-opportunity on board a border protection vessel that would signal her personal determination to stop the people smugglers.

Julia Gillard and her political image-makers had devoted her second week to the politics of asylum seekers. On Tuesday, she proposed what has inevitably been labelled The East Timor solution, whereby asylum seekers who set out for Australia by boat would have their claims assessed at a newly-constructed regional processing centre located somewhere in East Timor. Inevitably, it has been likened to John Howard's Pacific Solution, where asylum seekers were sent to detention centres on small Pacific islands - a policy slammed by refugee groups as uncompassionate and inhumane.

But what she hoped would be a quick political fix is turning into an almighty policy mess, for although Julia Gillard had discussed the concept with the President of East Timor, Jose Ramos Horta, she had not got the go-ahead from the government of East Timor. Nowhere near. Indeed, the country's deputy prime minister, Jose Luis Guterres, has said his country is "very unlikely" to accept the idea.

As I write, Julia Gillard is now denying that she ever specified East Timor as the site of the regional processing centre. "I'm not going to leave undisturbed the impression that I made an announcement about a specific location," she said, in the kind of convoluted language that eventually made people tire of her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. But in her speech to Sydney's Lowy Institute, she spoke more clearly: "In recent days I have discussed with President Ramos Horta of East Timor the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region." You can read the entire speech here to judge for yourself: and I know that some of you have already kicked off a discussion already in "Julia Gillard's Bungalow Politics".

Kevin Rudd said he would not engage in a race to the bottom over the asylum seeker issue, but that is precisely what the Greens are accusing the Gillard government of doing. Their leader, Bob Brown, has asked why the region's richest country, Australia, should rely on the region's poorest country, East Timor, to process asylum seekers. He's also claimed that Pauline Hanson-style xenophobia is "alive and well" in the asylum seeker debate. Senator Brown has also lashed out at the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, for describing asylum seekers as being part of a "peaceful invasion". "That's not dog whistling," said Senator Brown, "that's plain xenophobia."

Kevin Rudd was roundly criticised for coming up with make-shift policies on the hoof in the hope of garnering a few good headlines the following morning and a few good polls the following week. On the boat people question, the most paranoiac issue in Australian politics, is Julia Gillard doing the same?

Julia Gillard's 'bungalow politics'

Nick Bryant | 11:40 UK time, Monday, 5 July 2010


Abraham Lincoln had his log-cabin. Julia Gillard has her bungalow in suburban Melbourne. And already one of the defining images of her brief term in office was her return there over the weekend, when Klieg lights illuminated its red-brick facade as she fumbled in her handbag for the door-keys and then let herself in.

It looked like something out the 1950s, like someone returning from an afternoon at the bingo hall. But perhaps that was the idea. It is hard to think of how her arrival home could have been more successfully choreographed to portray the new prime minister as part of mainstream Australia.

There's been a lot of commentary here about how Julia Gillard is not married (her boyfriend since 2006 has been Tim Mathieson, a hairdresser whom she met in a salon in Melbourne), and how she is open about her atheism - both of which arguably might make her unelectable in the more conservative states of America. But here, neither has caused much of a stir.

Since she had conviction when talking about her lack of religious convictions - and was respectful of compatriots who have a faith - the debate stopped there. Ditto the boyfriend factor. There's been the suggestion that she has delayed moving into the PM's residence, The Lodge, until - and if - she wins an electoral mandate because of the fear that Australians are not yet ready for an unmarried couple living under the same prime ministerial roof. But again, you wonder how many people would truly care.

At least she has now taken up residence in the prime minister's office, and again you sensed the hand of her image-makers when she added her own personal touches - a Sherrin football, the type used in Aussie Rules, her Western Bulldogs scarf (the Bulldogs are her Aussie Rules team), a Melbourne Storm scarf (a nod perhaps towards the rugby league-loving states of New South Wales and Queensland), some gumboots and an Akubra hat. You can get the full list here

Admittedly, she did not bring along a barbeque or Victa lawn mower, but it's still a pretty good collection of Australiana. And again an attempt, you sense, to make Australia's first female prime minister come across as the Australian everyman.

Over the weekend, she went further by saying that Australians who were worried about the arrival of boat people, the most paranoiac issue in Australian politics, should not be labelled intolerant or racist. She also said that "political correctness" should be "swept out of the way" in the national conversation about immigration.

While it may strike some urban Labor supporters as a strong blast of the dog whistle - as opposed to a fair shake of the sauce bottle - it will doubtless have resonance in some of the suburban seats, like Lindsay in Sydney, which are always seen as a bellwether on contentious issues like immigration. She'll unveil a new asylum seeker policy later in the week, and appears to be preparing the ground for a shift to the right.

To end where we started, with Lincoln's log cabin, the Americans have always loved their presidents to personify a uniquely American story. The strength of a personal narrative has often been the key to their political success. From her pride at her immigrant "Ten Pound Pom" roots to her Western Bulldogs scarf, from her red-brick suburban bungalow to her Akubra hat, Julia Gillard is presenting a quintessentially Australian story - and therein lies much of her appeal.

Mining, masterchefs and masterstrokes

Nick Bryant | 05:17 UK time, Friday, 2 July 2010


Perhaps I am misreading the mood of the nation, but there seems to be more public outrage directed towards the producers of Masterchef, Australia's most popular television show, for bringing back three rejected contestants, than the powerbrokers of the Australian Labor Party who cooked up the plot to oust Kevin Rudd, Australia's one-time most popular politician. The thinking behind the Masterchef manoeuvre was to lengthen the run of a kitchen-based reality show that has delivered ratings riches to one of the big four networks here, Channel Ten. The thinking behind the hatchet job on Kevin Rudd was to dramatically shorten the run of a prime minister whose ratings were plummeting at a hurtling pace. In Australia these days, prime ministers, like primetime TV shows, live or die on the strength of their ratings. For Masterchef, more cooks means more shows, and more profits.

Pardoo mine near Port Hedland, Western AustraliaAll of which neatly brings us to the issue of the day, the mining tax agreement reached between the new Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, which she'll view as something a political masterstroke. On becoming prime minister, she announced that reaching a compromise agreement with the resources giants would be her number one priority. She has achieved a breakthrough by end of her first full week in charge - a deal celebrated with a trolley of wine and champagne, which was wheeled into the cabinet suite in Canberra where the negotiations with three mining giants, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata had taken place.

By slashing the super profits tax rate from 40% to 30%, the government will lose an estimated A$1.5 billion in projected revenue, but reap a political dividend. The proposed mining tax was hammering the Australian Labor Party in the resources-rich states of Queensland and Western Austalian, the home of the many of the key marginals which the government has to win to retain power at the forthcoming election. The Minerals Council of Australia reportedly had a war chest of A$100 million dollars to prosecute its opinion-shifting television advertising campaign. Now there will be a truce.

In a country often called the quarry of the world, where many people daily monitor the value of their BHP Billiton shares, Julia Gillard needed to neutralise this as an election issue. With the mighty resources giants welcoming the government's climb-down, that she has now done.

As an aside, sometime we should rework that Australian power list that I blogged on in mid-May. Mitch Hooke, the head of the Minerals Council, the country's most powerful lobby group, would definitely feature high up (actually, he was included in my first draft but then got biffed by the shopping centre magnate, Frank Lowy). Julia Gillard would move from number five to number two. And arguably, the top slot would be shared between the ALP powerbrokers who conspired to remove Kevin Rudd, such as the New South Wales Senator Mark Arbib and the Labor MP Bill Shorten.

For all that, the Australian people will soon get the chance to assert their own primacy. The deal with the resources sector surely brings the federal election closer. Next week will see some more political housekeeping from the new prime minister with an announcement on asylum seekers, another toxic electoral issue. Expect the same kind of political equipoise that was achieved over the mining tax.

By delivering a big bounce in the polls, Julia Gillard is proving to be something of a Masterchef herself, not least because she has such a keen sense for knowing exactly what the Australian people will find politically palatable.

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