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Howard's blowtorch applied to Rudd's belly


Howard's blowtorch applied to Rudd's bellyKevin Rudd is not enjoying the experience of John Howard putting the blow-torch to his belly, to use Neville Wran's evocative phrase. But much more is involved, from Rudd's point of view, than whether the ordinary voter will adopt Howard's confected indignation or ultimately conclude that a sanctimonious prig has been shown to be a mortal, human, and very ambitious politician.

The public does not much know Rudd, though he has been having a dream run since taking the Labor leadership. Much of what they do know is about his mind, and quite a bit of that they seem to like. They also know that he is a Christian – something he tells them all the time – although they so far have little idea what this means for him. But they have little feeling for his heart, his instincts, his character, the broad drift of his ideas or how he responds to pressure, and many will want to know more before they commit themselves to him. By contrast they know a lot about Howard, and even when they dislike what he has done, they are reasonably comfortable with him.

It was events, and luck, and nothing directly of the Prime Minister's doing that made Rudd's relationship with disgraced Labor politician and lobbyist Brian Burke the character test, but it is not a bad one. John Howard, and Peter Costello have been completely over the top in their indignation – and in their assertion that merely meeting Burke was some sign of moral unfitness for office. That overreach was accentuated by the forced resignation of Human Services minister, Ian Campbell, after it emerged that he had had contact with Burke – like any number of other politicians on both sides – long after it was clear that he was politically toxic.

Burke is especially on the nose, but there are any number of old political hacks – Labor and Liberal – who hawk their friendships, and their intimate knowledge of how systems work and are working: among those doing it are a number of Howard's old ministers. For many, the mere seeking of such work has involved breaches of commonly accepted views about abuse of power; for others, the fact that lobbying income ultimately turns on success is a continuing invitation to abuse of power.

Burke has sought to continue to run a political machine, one plainly available for hire, to exercise power even as he has sought to influence it. He controls politicians, and not only (though particularly) Labor ones. If they do not do his bidding, they suffer – in pre-selections, in ballots and sometimes in other ways as well. One does not cross him with impunity, and many people, in politics and in business, do well to solicit his favour or his good opinion. They fear him more than party discipline or public dishonour.

Howard's blowtorch applied to Rudd's bellyThe Burke machine is the western wing of the National Labor Right – long in bed with the NSW Right – and closely aligned with the Right factions in NSW and Queensland. These were the factions who propped up Kim Beazley – a man who retained his friendship and close association with Burke through all of Burke's scandals. It was Beazley's reliance on such people, and his consequent absolute dead hand on any party reform, which prompted me to write, about a year ago, that the moral guardianship of the Labor Party stood on the shoulders of Brian Burke, Joe Tripodi and Bill Ludwig.

Politics is in the real world, and even politicians who are essentially honest and decent – as I am sure Kevin Rudd is – soon learn that one must deal with practical realities.

There is nothing wrong with ambition or intense desire for office. Indeed, we often admire some politicians who are ruthless in their pursuit of power – Howard, say, or Paul Keating – and despise some who shrink from ruthlessness – Peter Costello, say.

But the image Rudd wants to project is not of a lack of scruples. That's why he has seemed so coy in being frank that he was wooing Western Australian Labor figures in his search for power, not least when a transfer of loyalty by Burke from Beazley to Rudd would have been, among other things, a personal as well as political treachery. The Burke and Beazley relationship goes back to their fathers and the Split of the 1950s. The image of Rudd, during his 40 days in the desert, succumbing to the blandishments of the Devil is hardly one with which he is comfortable. It shows him to be just another politician.

It ought to be uncomfortable from another perspective altogether. As we have all tut-tutted about the flagrancy of Burke's corruption of Western Australian Government, good old political corruption continues apace in the east. The NSW Party is but a creature of liquor, gambling and development interests, and any number of individuals in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania are obviously abusing power for personal gain.

Rudd projects himself as too pure and holy for all of that, but has hardly ever put his shoulder to the wheel of party reform. Though aloof from factions, he has always known that this is where the favours come from. It is hard to think of any of his work in recreating a party which deserves to be trusted with federal power. Even those who hope that he might earn trust can only pray that he finds the present discomfort character-forming. If the party does not cleanse itself, the voters will do it.



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Existing comments

I like Jack Waterford's analyses - one of the things I look for in "Eureka Street", but Jack, who says people are comfortable with John Howard?

Monica Dennison | 06 March 2007  

It is easy for an outsider to be critical of the way Kevin Rudd handled the situation which in whole picturw is very much a case of much ado about nothing. It was very much a case of I am damned if I do and I am damned if I don't.
Fortunately it seems that the electorate generally speaking see it in that way and and regard the persistent prevarication of the Howard government as far more important,

David Dyer | 07 March 2007  

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