Rudd in rut over national reforms

Kevin RuddThe appearance in recent weeks of several media reports critical of the Prime Minister's demanding work ethic and skeptical of the new government's policy agenda may reflect the residual influence of attitudes prevalent during the Howard era.

The electorate has given the Rudd Government a clear mandate for major national reform. The government has a unique opportunity to capitalise on a high level of community goodwill, and widespread expectations for positive change.

However, aspects of the political environment that evolved during the Howard era have the potential to thwart reforms, and will need to be overcome if the government is to successfully advance a progressive agenda.

The last years of the Howard era were typified by reactive short-term politics, adversarial confrontation, polarisation and a resistance to transparency. In the end the level of cynicism within the community was high, and the integrity of publicly elected representatives was diminished.

The Howard era saw an unprecedented concentration of power and political authority at the apex of government. The politics of personality and the intense focus on key individuals can undoubtedly have great political benefits in terms of maintaining control and communicating a single message. But in a complex and rapidly evolving world the level of pressure on an individual to perform flawlessly is unrealistic and ultimately unsustainable.

Apart from being incompatible with democratic principles and proper checks and balances, the centralisation of authority is invariably at the cost of organisational growth and modernisation, capacity-building and succession.

There are more viable, sustainable and contemporary models of political authority than the present Australian focus on relentlessly undermining individuals. Labor has expressed a desire to move beyond a rancorous political environment to place greater emphasis on shared goals and the development of collaborative solutions.

The government has a unique opportunity to engender an ongoing dialogue about the sorts of ideals, values, principles and practices that underpin an effective and contemporary democracy and an inclusive society.

In addition to redefining the broader political and policy context, the Prime Minister needs to devolve authority (and accountability) to a wide range of talented representatives, in particular ministers, senior public service representatives and co-opted partners in the public and private sectors.

The development of independent and diverse perspectives can be a virtue and central to transparent evidence-based decision making. The Prime Minister is then free to play a genuine leadership role as a facilitator and catalyst to inspire the efforts of others, not as the initiator and the focus of all attention.

One of the other beneficiaries of the concentration of power during the Howard era was the media. An authority figure needs direct access to the electorate through the media. As the arbiter of what is reported and how, the media grew to play a powerful role in both shaping public opinion and exerting pressure on the Government to modify decisions.

The change of Government and the new political dynamics have necessitated some adjustments in the role and expectations of the media. This was inevitable given the media's diminished influence on, and unfamiliarity with, those who had assumed power. The absence of sensational crises and the constant intrigue and speculation that surrounded the final period of the Howard era may make generating 'interesting' stories more difficult.

The media's negative response to the 2020 Summit suggests a degree of resentment and frustration at being effectively marginalised in a new national dialogue. The danger for a reforming Government is that a cynical and contemptuous media struggling for relevance will seek to influence the community's perceptions of the Government's competence and motivation through constant criticism, dissipating existing support and goodwill and making each new policy initiative a Herculean task.

A possible response to the negative influence of the media is to broaden and diversify Government channels of communication with the community, and to continue to build a broader inclusive national agenda.

Thousands of citizens took the time to make detailed online submissions on important national issues prior to the 2020 Summit, and there is no reason why this sort of opportunity/facility should not be established and expanded as a permanent and direct conduit from the community to the Government.

Priorities for the New Australian Government (Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, speech at the Australian and New Zealand Leadership Forum)

Bill CalcuttBill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the National Crime Authority for more than 20 years. He now works in regional development and retains a strong interest in governance and public accountability.

Topic tags: Bill Calcutt, political reform, kevin rudd, kevin 07, australian labor party, labor government



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Existing comments

Why wouldn't the media be negative about the 2020 Summit? After a theatrical build-up, it produced nothing of substance.

Bill Barry | 17 June 2008  

How true Bill! When I listen or read, TV is a joke, the media these days I get headlines not even punny, reports of the witless interviewing the brainless, except for the more professional old journalists, and propaganda dressed up in threadbare logic.

John McQualter | 18 June 2008  

This commentary on the Rudd Government and the community reform is spot on. They have a complex task and the Murdoch media, in particular, is controlling national critical assessment.

The hope that they initially brought to the fore will dissipate unless they provide clearer direction on critical policies and programs.

The intervention in the Northern Territory, as commented upon by the ABC, seems to be a classic and immediate response which suggests that the Labor Party lost the opportunity for collective policy options during the Howard era.

Frank Hornby | 19 June 2008  

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