BBC BLOGS - Nick Bryant's Australia

Archives for April 2011

The William and Kate Effect

Nick Bryant | 08:56 UK time, Thursday, 28 April 2011

For the Australian Republican Movement this has become something of an annus horribilis. Julia Gillard, a lifelong republican, has ruled out a referendum on the question while Queen Elizabeth remains on the throne, thus taking the timetable out of Australian hands. Tony Abbott, its long-time bête noire, has fortified his leadership of the Liberals. The King's Speech, where the survival of the monarchy was portrayed as a joint Anglo-Australian enterprise, has played to packed houses and even standing ovations. Now comes the public relations juggernaut of the royal wedding, threatening to leave the republican movement flattened, like road kill, in its thundering path. The injuries come with an insult: that of seeing Ms Gillard attend the nuptials in London, the latest in a long line of prime ministers to inflict coronary damage.

Australian stamp commemorating the royal wedding

This week a new poll suggested that support for a republic has dwindled to its lowest for 17 years. The poll of 1,200 voters conducted for The Australian newspaper found that 41% favoured a republic, the lowest level since 1994. Thirty-nine per cent of those quizzed were opposed to a republic, while the remainder, 20%, had no opinion.

In the face of these setbacks, the republican movement claims with good reason that it is very much alive; but alive, one increasingly senses, in the sense of a hibernating animal for which a full awakening is still a long way off.

Republicans continue to believe that they are on the right side of history, which may very well be true. But the problem right now is that they are on the wrong side of rolling news. Everyday, it seems, the Buckingham Palace press machine serves up yet another William and Kate-related puff piece to a global press corps ravenous for uplifting headlines. A dry constitutional counter-narrative is up against a love story. Neither can the republicans hope to compete with the instant iconography of the wedding in a country where two out of three of the most watched television events in history have involved the Windsors, Diana's wedding and funeral.

If there has been one public relations misstep from London it has been the controversy surrounding the cancellation of The Chaser's take on the wedding on ABC2. The BBC, which is providing the live feed of the service for foreign broadcasters, says that there was always a contractual stipulation making it clear that the real-time footage could not be used for satirical or comedic programming. But here the lingering and occasional sense of deference towards Britain, which lies at the root of much of public and media interest in the wedding, has collided with Australian larrikinism and an instinctive mistrust of people or institutions that take themselves too seriously. "For a monarchy to be issuing decrees about how the media should cover them seems quite out of keeping with modern democratic times," says Julian Morrow, the executive producer of The Chaser, "but I suppose that's exactly what the monarchy is."

One of the reasons why the monarchy has survived so long in Australia, aside from the long-standing constitutional inertia, lack of political consensus and divisions within the republican movement, is because this remains a surprisingly Anglo-centric country where the British-made or British-influenced takes up a huge amount of cultural space. It means that a British head of state is not so incongruous as perhaps it should be in a country so fiercely patriotic, egalitarian and suspicious of elites.

What is particularly striking about the William and Kate Effect is the amount of tabloid space it is taking up - of how it dominating popular culture. It has been particularly noticeable of late, partly because the couple face relatively little competition from home-grown stars of equivalent age. Nicole and Keith, the last Australian objects of a tabloid wedding frenzy, are getting a little long in the tooth. Cate Blanchett increasingly suits the requirements of the broadsheets, while Russell Crowe is more commonly found on the sports pages. Kate and William have helped fill something of a tabloid void, thus performing the dual role of royals and hot celebrities. In this sense, they have not only become an adornment to Australian national life, but a much-needed addition to a tabloid talent pool that has been looking rather shallow. This is not necessarily something that young Australians will automatically want to give up.

Here, Sir Robert Menzies made an often overlooked point in his swooning "I did but see her passing by" speech during the 1963 royal visit, during which he sounded like an adolescent with a crush on the curvy prom queen. In the presence of the young Queen, he called the monarchy: "An addition to our freedom, not a subtraction from it." To this day, it remains a powerful idea, as evidenced by the blanket Australian coverage of the wedding.

Of course, Australia will not get a King William or Queen Kate without Charles and Camilla coming first, at which point the republican movement will make its move. But for now it is stymied. Like Prince Albert in The King's Speech - played with such aplomb by a British republican, Colin Firth - it appears temporarily to have lost its voice. Why, even The Chaser has been taken off air.

Australian affordablity

Nick Bryant | 00:31 UK time, Monday, 25 April 2011

For all the talk of the wonder down under and Australia's almost recession-proof economy, is this country becoming increasingly unaffordable for the people who live here and the migrants who want to make it their home? Anecdotal evidence abounds of Brits who would dearly love to emigrate, but have been put off by the soaring Aussie dollar and seemingly inexorably rising property prices. The oft-heard cry of visitors, that Australia has become ridiculously expensive, often finds an echo from the people who live here - Aussies and ex-pats alike.

Last month, The Economist came out with a survey showing that Australian property prices are the most overvalued in the world, and by as much as 56%. Most economists here think that is an exaggerated figure, but accept that the ratio between house prices and house rents - the gauge upon which these kind of tables are compiled - is way out of kilter. Somewhere between 30% and 40% is probably a more realistic figure, but still one which puts the dream of owning property beyond the reach of many Australians, first-time buyers especially.

These kind of surveys always spark debate about whether the Australian housing bubble is about to burst. "We've had 20 years where the Australian consumers have been willing to borrow more to buy an asset that they believe always goes up in value," Gerard Minack of Morgan Stanley recently told ABC's PM programme: "The classic sign of an asset bubble." Still, he thinks it would require a major economic shock to send property prices tumbling. A sharp increase in unemployment, say, which does not appear to be on the horizon.

Other economists discount the possibility of a bubble, arguing the property price hikes are in line with increases in disposable income over the past seven or eight years. Christopher Joye, a property market analyst with Rismark International, notes: " The house price to income ratio is in line with its average over the last decade." 

Then there's the simple question of demand and supply. Because of the Queensland floods and higher mortgage rates, January saw the biggest slump in home-building approvals in the past eight years. Yet the population is still growing in size, and thus the demand for property.

Australia not only has the highest house prices but the some of the highest household debt levels in the world. They have been called the two Achilles heels of the Australian economy.

Riot fans flames of asylum debate

Nick Bryant | 05:24 UK time, Thursday, 21 April 2011

On an issue that commonly attracts overblown rhetoric and shrill commentary, it is no longer an exaggeration to say that Australia's immigration detention system is in a state of crisis. The past five weeks have seen a mass break-out and riot at Christmas Island, Australia's high security offshore processing facility for asylum seekers, and now another violent protest at the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney thought to involve men from Kurdish Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

What began as a small rooftop protest involving just two detainees escalated into a full-blown riot involving 100 men - a quarter of the 400 detainees held at Villawood. A number of buildings were destroyed, including a medical facility, a computer centre, a laundry and a kitchen. The authorities were powerless to stop a modern, high security detention facility from being torched. Given the scale of the damage, the ferocity of the protests and the intensity of the flames - which leapt over 10m (30ft) at the height of the overnight disturbances - it is a wonder that nobody was killed.

Protagonists on both sides of the asylum seeker debate will seize upon the riots. Critics of the government will claim the detention centres are overcrowded because the softening of border protection policies and the end of the Howard government's Pacific Solution has encouraged more asylum seekers to head for Australia.

It will also contribute to the ongoing process through which asylum seekers have been criminalised and portrayed as "illegals" - even though they have a legal right to claim asylum under the UN Refugeee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory. Many will cast the rioters as violent trouble-makers who have no place in the wider Australian community - a line taken by both the Department of Immigration and the conservative opposition.

For critics of Australia's mandatory detention system - which was brought in by the government of Paul Keating - the riots will be seen as an act of desperation men who have been kept under lock and key for too long in detention centres that are far too crowded. In the past seven months, there have been five suicides in Australian detention centres, which refugee groups say is "worryingly high".

The Department of Immigration claims that Australia has the highest level of care in immigration detention in the world, but concedes that the system is under strain because of "capacity" issues - which is shorthand for overcrowding. New detention centres are being opened up to temporarily relieve the problem. The government also says that the anger of detainees is often the result of them having their applications rejected rather than the long wait for those applications to be processed.

Critics of the Labor government will see in the ruins of the burnt-out buildings at Villawood a landmark for a failed policy. Opponents of the system of mandatory detention system will see a group of desperate men, kept too long in detention, whose pent-up frustrations erupted into violent fury.

PS: PeterD and Greg Warner. Gentleman, I think it is time for a truce, to swap emails or to take your argument elsewhere.

An independent foreign policy

Nick Bryant | 07:05 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The history of Australia's foreign policy can be divided into two broad eras: the period between federation and the Second World War when it essentially allowed Britain to dictate its diplomacy; and the period afterwards when it slavishly followed America's lead. Not for Australia the feisty independent-mindedness of New Zealand, which pulled its troops out of Vietnam in the early 1970s and blocked American warships from using its harbours in the 1980s, having declared itself a nuclear-free zone.

No, Australia has put a premium on diplomatic mateship with two longstanding allies. Prior to World War II, the then Attorney General and later Prime Minister Robert Menzies said it would be "suicidal" to "formulate our foreign policy independently of what may be the foreign policy of Great Britain". Much of that same thinking survives today, with the US replacing the UK. Indeed, ever since signing the ANZUS treaty in 1951, when Australia decided that America was the guarantor of its regional security, it has rarely taken a diplomatic position at odds with Washington.

Australia's diplomatic stance towards Libya is a case in point. Initially, Julia Gillard showed no enthusiasm for a no-fly zone, but then reversed. The only thing that changed was that Barack Obama came out unambiguously in favour of firmer action against Colonel Gaddafi. If there is such a thing as a Gillard Doctrine, it is to basically agree with Washington. Indeed, there is something very Pavlovian about all this. Less the boxing kangaroo and more the poodle.

For those who have hoped for a more independent foreign policy, the new foreign affairs minister, Kevin Rudd, is showing real promise. He was an early and enthusiastic advocate of the Libyan no-fly zone. He was quick to call on Japan to provide urgent briefings on the radiation threat after the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Most controversially of all, he mounted a strong defence of Julian Assange's legal rights, and pointed out that America was responsible for the leak of 250,000 diplomatic cables.

The problem is that Kevin Rudd's foreign policy is also independent of Julia Gillard. As we recently noted in Ruddology, one of the prime minister's aides recently told the Sydney Morning Herald he was "out of control".

Earlier this month, Rudd demonstrated his continued diplomatic pulling power by hosting ambassadors, high commissioners and senior diplomats from 70 countries in Brisbane to show that Queensland was still open for business. But it seemed something of a personal showcase as well, and signalled that he regards foreign affairs as something of a personal fiefdom. This week a poll suggested more Australians would prefer Kevin Rudd as prime minister than Julia Gillard, which gives him more of a mental edge. He clearly thinks he is much cleverer than Julia Gillard, and successive polls have shown that he is more popular as well.

This week Julia Gillard has the chance to assert herself more forcefully in the foreign realm, with a North Asian tour of Japan, South Korea and China - before jetting off to Britain for the royal wedding. But as she noted on her first international trip as prime minister, in a quote that has come back to haunt her, she has no passion for foreign affairs.

Certainly, Kevin Rudd has become that genuine rarity: an Australian foreign affairs minister who clearly believes that he is punching well below his weight.

Dutch dollars down under

Nick Bryant | 01:21 UK time, Monday, 18 April 2011

Is Australia in danger of catching the Dutch disease? Lest there be any confusion, this has nothing to do with soft drugs, canal jumping, total football, wooden footwear or cycling royals. It is the economic malady that infects a country when its resources sector becomes so very dominant that it has a distorting and damaging effect on its manufacturing. Revenues from natural resources make the national currency so strong that the country's other exports are simply too expensive to buy.

A shopper brandishes Australian dollar banknotes in Sydney

The term was first coined by The Economist in the early 1970s, which reported on the decline of Dutch manufacturing in the wake of the discovery of a large natural gas field in the 1950s. And it was the same newspaper, as The Economist prefers to think of itself, that this month asked whether Australia had become infected. It quoted a survey of manufacturing chief executives, 93% of whom warned that their exports could not compete when the Australian dollar was at parity with the US greenback. In recent weeks, a currency once mocked as the Pacific Peso has been purchasing well over a dollar.

A resources-linked currency, the strength of the Australian dollar is bonza news if you are importing goods from abroad or a tourist visiting a foreign country because your money obviously goes a lot further. It is also quite useful for mortgage holders, because the strong Australian dollar is suppressing inflation and thus reducing the pressure on the Reserve Bank of Australia to increase the cost of borrowing. Tellingly, interest rates have been on hold since November.

But the soaring Australian dollar is near disastrous for manufacturing companies which export and the Australian tourism industry, whatever the much-vaunted Oprah Effect.

It also means that the phrase "the wonder from down under", which was coined after Australia avoided recession in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, is wholly inadequate in describing the economy as a whole. Instead, Australia has a two-tier economy. A wonder economy centred on the country's quarries, and the rest.

I've written a piece here about the fortunes that are to be made in the mining states, where employees in their early twenties without a university degree can earn up to $220,000 a year.

But I'm keen to harvest your comments on the broader question of whether the mining boom has made Australia economically complacent, and whether enough money is being invested in higher education, trade apprenticeships and research and development. Right now, Australia's national prosperity is based on digging things up rather than being inventive, creative or ingenious. And crucially, its own economic strength is increasingly dependent on China's inexorable rise.

When economists predict a golden Australian era lasting until mid-century and reflect on the once-in-a-generation mining boom - or super-cycle, as it is called - the temptation always is to think China. But should Australia be trying harder to boost others sectors of the economy, ever mindful that it is in danger of going Dutch?

PS: I didn't think so at the time but the last blog, I suppose, was a textbook example of the "light the blue touch paper and step back" form of the genre. Feisty stuff, and lots of material to pick up on for a future blog. Thanks, as ever, for the comments. I'm still not sure why threads get shut down. I will find out.

The self-satisfied country

Nick Bryant | 02:31 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

You will have to forgive me for coming up with yet another headline on The Lucky Country theme, which, confessedly, is something of an occupational hazard in these parts.

Most Australian journalists and headline writers, I sometimes suspect, have a function key on their computers which spews out "The ...... Country". Then they simply fill in the blanks: "Smart." "Clever." "Paranoid." "Strange.""Polarised." Or "Unlucky," if they are feeling particularly unimaginative.

In Washington, reporters have two function keys that work in much the same way. One throws up the suffix "-gate", to be attached to any scandal, large or small. The other is for variations on the theme of "commander-in-chief." At times of national tragedy, it is "emoter-in-chief" or, perhaps, "grief-counsellor-in-chief." At this time a year, when the president is expected to perform a self-deprecating stand-up routine at various black-tie correspondent dinners, the words "joker" or "prankster" apply. But I digress.

For what I really want to talk about is a new report from the OECD - don't click away quite yet - which fuels the boast that Australia is one of the great lifestyle superpowers of the world.

To start with, Aussies live longer than most other people in advanced economies - to a ripe old average age of 81.5 - which puts the country third in the world behind Japan and Switzerland. In the longevity stakes, that's 2 years longer the OECD average. Median disposable income is also the fifth highest in the world, with only Luxembourg, America, Norway and Iceland doing better.

When it comes to their natural environment, Australians are particularly content - some would say downright smug. The report suggests more than 93% are content with air and water quality. There's also a high degree of confidence in the military, in government and the incorruptibility of public officials.

Australia is apparently the third kindest in the country in the world, judged by voluntary work and charitable giving (American and Ireland come first and second, with Britain fifth).

What is also particularly interesting in the context of the ongoing debate about immigration and asylum seekers, where Australia's nobler instincts often vie with prejudice and outright racism, is the OECD findings on racial tolerance. The report suggests that only Canada shows more tolerance towards minority groups, which bolsters Australia's claim to being successfully multi-ethnic.

There are blog posts in the pipeline on Australia's current affordability problem, which appears to be making it a less attractive option for Brits in particular and putting pressure on the living standards of Aussies, as well. Over the next week or so, I also want to ask whether Australia has caught the 'Dutch disease,' which is to say: has it become overly reliant on its resources sector?

All overlapping subjects, for sure. But does the OECD report ring true? When it comes to all-round liveability, how safe is Australia's position at the top of the global rankings?

The death of Darcey Freeman

Nick Bryant | 11:05 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

Every few years or so a murder case grips the public mind and refuses to let go. So it is with the case of Darcey Freeman, the four-year-old girl thrown to her death from the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne in the midst of a busy rush hour. Today, more than two years after she was murdered, her father, Arthur Freeman, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

On the day of the killing in January 2009, Freeman had telephoned his former wife, Peta Barnes, and told her to say good-bye to her children because she would never see them again. Moments later, he parked his four-wheel-drive car in the emergency lane of Melbourne's highest bridge, pulled Darcey from the car, carried her in his arms and then hurled her over the edge. He did so not only in full view of dozens of commuters stuck in rush-hour traffic, but also in front of his two sons, then aged six and two. One eyewitness who experienced the horror of seeing Darcey plunge 58 metres to her death described how Freeman had returned to his car as if he had just posted a letter. As Freeman drove away, his then six-year-old son reportedly said: "Darcey can't swim."

The defence claimed that the 37-year-old was mentally impaired - "mad not bad" in the words of his barrister - but prosecutors argued that he acted out of revenge. The previous day he had had his access to his three children reduced, and his father said the news had put him in a trance-like state. After killing Darcey, he drove to the courts complex in central Melbourne, and handed his then two-year-old son to security staff. Then he broke down.

In delivering the life sentence, Judge Justice Paul Coghlan said that Freeman had tried to hurt his former wife as profoundly as possible, and had chosen a remarkably public place to have the most dramatic impact. What particularly rankled the judge was that Freeman had never said sorry for his actions, and that others had somehow felt culpable for his actions. Then he put four-year-old Darcey front and centre. "What Darcey's last thoughts might have been does not bear thinking about," he said, "and her death must have been a painful and protracted one." During my time here, I cannot recall a more awful murder.

DEFENCE SCANDAL: The comments section on the Defence Academy Skype sex scandal closed quickly - I don't have anything to do with moderating the comments or shutting the commentary, by the way - but today, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced a probe into the culture of the military, and in particular its treatment of women. It will be carried out by the country's Sex Discrimination Commissioner, and will be a "far-reaching cultural appraisal", according to the defence minister. An over-reaction or an investigation that is long overdue?

Big tobacco takes another big hit

Nick Bryant | 08:58 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

Olive green is the latest weapon in the ongoing battle between the Australian government and Big Tobacco.

This week, the Gillard government unveiled aggressive new proposals to eradicate branding on cigarette packaging, and to make it as ugly and plain as possible.

Packets of cigarettes here already carry grotesque pictures of cancer tumours and the carcinogenic effects of nicotine. Now they will be even more prominent, and cover virtually the entire packet - 90% on the back and 75% on the front.

Research has found that dark olive is the most unattractive colour for consumers, and particularly young people.

If the proposals are minted into law, every packet of cigarettes sold in Australia would come in that colour. Brand names would also be a standard size and font, making them as bland and anonymous as possible.

Claiming a global first, the government says these are the most aggressive proposals anywhere in the world.

Certainly, Australia would become the first country to ban logos and brand names. The Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, says she wants to take any remaining glamour out of smoking. She also notes that 15,000 Australians continue to die each year from smoking-related illnesses.

Fearing a worldwide knock-on effect, Big Tobacco has opened up its war chest and given $A5m (£m) to the Alliance of Australian Retailers to fight the proposals. They are also calling on smokers, who have already been hit by hefty tax hikes and measures curbing public smoking, to lobby MPs.

The tobacco companies note that they are selling a legal product and that product should carry their own logos and branding. It claims the new proposals infringe international trademark and intellectual property laws.

The government claims it is a killer product and needs to be regulated as heavily as possible.

Big Tobacco is on the wrong side both of history and health trends.

In 1945, 72% of Australian men were smokers and 26% of women. By 2007, those figures had plummeted to 21% and 18%.

As with drinking, Australia has been slipping down the global league tables. In the mid-80s, this country ranked 10th. Now it ranks 41st (Greece tops the table, while Britain ranks 65th).

These proposals are the toughest in the world. Should the Australian government be applauded, or has it gone too far?

Sex scandals

Nick Bryant | 10:31 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Up until a week and a half ago, the Labor state government in New South Wales was Australia's prime source of sex scandals. In its enforced absence, the Australian Defence Force has stepped into the breach.

Members of Australia's special forces conduct an exercise in Melbourne

The latest tawdry tale comes from the Australian Defence Academy in Canberra, where an 18-year-old cadet claimed she was secretly filmed having consensual sex with a fellow first year cadet, who used Skype to webcast it to six other cadets watching in another room.

The woman told Channel Ten that her world came crashing down after being approached by investigators who had been tipped off by another cadet, and that she was physically sick during an interview in which she was told that still photographs had also been distributed at the academy.

To add to her humiliation, this morning the door of her room at the academy was daubed in shaving cream.

She also had to attend a disciplinary hearing on a different matter - the teenager pleaded guilty to being absent without leave and drinking - the scheduling of which was described by the visibly angry Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, as "insensitive or completely stupid". There are even suggestions that she was threatened with disciplinary action for speaking out.

Coming little more than a fortnight ahead of Australia's most solemn day, the scandal reeks of Animal House rather than ANZAC.

In recent months, two very different faces of the Australian Defence Force have been on public display, and bona fide heroes have shared the headlines with bone-headed bozos.

Back in January, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith received the Victoria Cross for Australia, the highest award in the Australian honours system.

A giant of a man and a member of the Special Air Service Regiment, he had single-handedly charged and destroyed two separate Taliban gun positions in Afghanistan.

A few weeks afterwards came the release of a scathing report on the activities of a group of sailors aboard the inaptly named naval supply ship, HMAS Success. It exposed a culture of predatory sexual behaviour and fiercely tribal behaviour in which women sailors were treated with disdain, public sex acts performed while on shore leave and the misuse of alcohol. Sailors believed they could act with impunity because discipline had broken down.

Only two weeks ago, another investigation was launched after Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan allegedly posted racists messages about Afghans on the social networking site, Facebook.

Recently, the Australian Defence Force even raised the spectre of compulsory breath-testing to cut down on the drunkenness of its sailors.

The ANZAC revivalism of the past decade has not only engendered much greater public respect for the veterans of past wars but much greater public recognition for the defence force personnel who continue to serve their country in trouble-spots like Afghanistan.

But even the former Liberal defence minister, Peter Reith, took to the airwaves today claiming there was a misogynistic culture within the Australian military, and an institutional reluctance to confront the problem.

The front page of the Australian Defence Force's website proudly displays a photograph of cadets at the Defence Academy hurling their caps and hats into the air on graduation day. It's real An Officer and a Gentleman stuff, but these latest allegations suggest that the behaviour of certain cadets at the academy has been anything but.

Ruddology - inside or outside the tent?

Nick Bryant | 05:11 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The talk in the papers is of new eras, what with the election of a new premier in New South Wales, the country's most populous state, and the appointment of a new cricket captain, filling what is often referred to, semi-jokingly, as the country's second most important job (the first, needless to say, is the chairman of the selectors).

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd 10 March 2011

But what struck me this morning when I flew back to Sydney after a few weeks' absence was how the news agenda was pretty much the same as when I left. There's a new poll out showing that Labor's popularity continues to fall, this time plunging to its lowest level since 2001 in the aftermath of the Tampa crisis. There's another row over asylum seekers, with the government announcing the opening of a temporary new 400-bed detention centre in Tasmania to relieve pressure on the overcrowded facility on Christmas Island. And a couple of rugby league players are in trouble again - it seems almost mandatory - this time for public urination.

What gave the papers even more of a recycled feel was the presence on the front pages of one Kevin Michael Rudd causing more trouble for the woman who deposed him, Julia Gillard. Were we to borrow Lyndon Johnson's memorable aphorism, I suppose you could call it public urination of a political kind.

When I left, the former prime minister stood accused of essentially running his own foreign policy, with his open calls for a no-fly zone over Libya which at that time put him at odds with the US president, and thus the Australian prime minister. "He's out of control," one of Julia Gillard's advisors reportedly told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Now he has appeared on ABC's popular Q&A debate programme, and said that he was wrong to delay the emissions trading scheme, a decision that arguably cost him the prime ministership, and that unnamed cabinet colleagues wanted to ditch it completely.

Rudd has been accused of breaching cabinet confidentiality. "I do not believe that it is proper to discuss confidential discussions between cabinet colleagues," said Julia Gillard this morning, in a clear rebuke. The opposition has gone further, suggesting that he is "applying to be prime minister," in the words of the shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey.

For Australian Ruddologists this is a key moment. It is right up there with his statement last month that he stood more chance of becoming the coach of the Brisbane Broncos (rugby league team) than recapturing the prime ministership, a caustic reprise, perhaps, of Julia Gillard's oft-quoted quip from May last year: "There's more chance of me becoming the full-forward for the Dogs (AFL team) than there is any chance of a change in the Labor party."

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard 9 March 2011

Clearly, their relationship is deeply dysfunctional.

Of course, strong governments can withstand poisonous personal relationships at their very heart, as evidenced by the Blair, Hawke and Howard administrations in their pomp. But what about a minority government that is slipping in the polls? It is not a good look.

Has the time come for Julia Gillard to decide whether she wants the man she deposed inside or outside of the tent?

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