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REVOLUTION: The Liberals squeeze some vision juice from Rudd’s mandarin

clyons470 Narrative is integral to any detailed form of fact-based mass communication.

What would Gough have been without big ideas, and a similarly big ego? What would Sir David Attenborough be without his love of animals and his ability to convey that passion (I for one would love to see a collaboration with Richard Attenborough on an animal version of A Bridge too Far)? What would Andrew Bolt be without his….Boltism? I’d rather not think about it. Strange bedfellows they may be, but you know where you stand with these communicators three.

I found myself sitting at work on Tuesday with the drone of morning television threatening to deport me to the land of nod faster than you can buy ‘Dr. Haneef’ a new SIM card. Across the morning bulletins, a gaggle of junior Canberra correspondents recycled the standard speculation of the press gallery over Liberal leadership or lack thereof, the requisite recitation of threats to block parts of the budget, a new Senator very much enamoured sounding off on his own xylophone, capped off with the fearless leader and his fearful opposite number accosting athletes alighting a Qantas Boeing 747-400 at Mascot. Rudd and Nelson were reportedly shocked to learn that the airport extended beyond the CityFlyer gates and the holiest of holies, the Chairman’s Lounge.

The long and the short of it is, Circus Parliament of Oz has rolled back into town. The press gallery find themselves liberated from the oppression of intravenous stories and backgrounding fed to them during the weeks of downtime by political hacks and flacks. Having to break one’s own stories whilst competing on the gruelling sitting week latte-sipping circuit is, we are told, something all press gallery denizens strive to do. The Manuka Coles and Kingston IGA provide succour for staffers wishing to buy sparkling mineral water and diet caffeinated drinks en masse, thus avoiding the monopolistic pricing at Ozzie’s and the Trough that have so far escaped the wrath of the supposedly fearsome and forensic Graeme Samuel; by providing EFTPOS, they have secured bipartisan patronage from Parliamentarians and their staff wishing to escape the tyrannical yoke of non-Westpac ATM fees up on the hill. May the shopkeepers inherit the earth.

So the big top is up. The performers are assembled and eager to get on with it- there are some new ones, but ultimately, their inclusion won’t change the show too much. The ringmaster is, as ever, manicured to within an inch of his life. Everything looks OK; but to anyone who has seen this circus perform before, something seems awry. The bloke who was the ringmaster before the last one often passes his verdict on those that have taken the helm since. He thinks it a fine spectacle, an excellent ensemble. He observes that there’s nothing really holding it together, nothing to gel the various acts, nothing to inspire the troupe or the audience. He’s right. What’s more, those performers brought into the circus by the former ringleader are likewise listless. Their would-be ringmaster, Bonnie Prince Brendan of Bradfield, hasn’t come up with a convincing routine. Others might be able to, but they are biding their time, mayhap waiting until the gate takings dwindle before articulating their new or re-worked routines.

Keating is many things to many people- funny, bilious, bitter, but boring, never. At the heart of what he says, there is usually a kernel of truth around which his razor-sharp one liners cleave. His capacity to cut through remains beyond compare. The advice proffered to Rudd was somewhat more incisive than lecturing, more intended as help than an unfavourable comparison to PK’s big picture narrative- always ample enough to accommodate a freshness burst that refreshes your breath. However persuasive he may be, or I parroting him, I’d sooner preside over an armed discussion in the Brimbank badlands over the sovereignty of Cyprus than tell Rudd to figure out what his purpose is in Government. Lawyers, guns and money can’t get him out of this. The sooner he realises this, the better.

It is not simply better for those who subscribe to the views espoused by the ALP. Yes, it makes sense for Rudd to have an overarching narrative. Perhaps today’s National Press Club education focus will be it. To be re-elected, he needs to be a man on a mission in two or three editions; he needs an attractive, marketable agenda that, being both broad-based and ‘important’, can be sold as not being able to be wholly implemented between November 2007 and 2009/10/11, depending on how the psephological tea leaves are read. Liberal voters need Rudd to have an agenda as much as Labor voters do because, otherwise, they will be just as lacking in an overall goal as the current Government appears to be. Else there is no way that such a divided party will find agreement on the future direction of their party other than it being either neo-Liberal, or neo-Howard.

On the Labor side of the political divide, many get defensive at the accusation of a party lacking in narrative. They point to an ambitious legislative agenda, unpalatable Howard-era policies cast aside, or about to be happily disposed of. The slaying of the dragon-cum-shibboleth, WorkChoices, is of itself an important achievement for the Labor party and the Labor movement as a whole, which capably marshalled support for such a stance through the Your Rights at Work campaign. Beyond this, unfashionably late ratification of the Kyoto protocol, and a handful of mooted initiatives such as the ‘Education Revolution’ chimera, Rudd appears not just to lack a legacy, rather, the momentum to construct one. Legislative agenda does not a narrative make.

If Brendan Nelson were both popular and had a story to tell, then federal politics at the moment wouldn’t seem so indescribably awkward- it has all the mock violence and wooden acting of professional wrestling. Lacking any semblance of the spleen of his naval namesake, Nelson’s criticisms of the Government as being overly given to establishing Committees, Reviews and Reports wear a bit then when one considers the Opposition has done so little to check the Rudd ascendancy that Centrelink may soon be called in to render some work to the Commonwealth in return for their not inconsiderable stipends. At least Rudd looks busy. One can’t say that for Brendan.

When Bomber became Leader upon the election of the Howard Government, he performed quite well considering the magnitude of the defeat, comparatively uninhibited by allegations of being arrogant and out-of-touch levelled against PK with great effect. Sure, he’d held several great offices of state that tended to suggest he was in on Keating’s visionary if not electorally irrelevant policy initiatives. Even if you didn’t vote for him, you had time for the bloke. However convoluted his grabs, however ill-disciplined he was with rhetorical flourish or restorative hamburger, you knew that with him at the helm, (at least during Beazley Mk I) you could for the most part point, Babe Ruth like, at the direction of the ALP. The direction may have been to a MICA paramedic to fix the lack of ticker, but there was direction, there was narrative, nevertheless. Even one of his successors, odious Latham, had a story to tell, even if it did leave the reader with nightmarish thoughts.

Like many in the chattering classes, I stupefied myself with liquor during the evening of the election this year past. Rather the worse for wear after several days sans sleep, I found myself making an Oracle-like prediction in a rare moment of lucidity (sobriety, like cucumbers, could not be bought for ready money), that Costello didn’t have the cojones to succeed Howard. My prize for making this prediction was either vestal virgins as befitting an Oracle, or a DIY T-Bone on offer at Canberra’s answer to Rockpool; the Kingston Hotel. Having hitherto subsided on a treasure trove of tremendous tipple ranging from Coolabah to the malfeasant Melbourne Bitter, I was in need of foodstuffs.

As I continued my crusade against vegetarianism everywhere, I contemplated the future of said politician who had just forsaken himself three times at Melbourne’s resplendent CPO. Whereas Beazley had the profile and demeanour to embark on the arduous trek that the ‘worst job in Australia’ appears to be, he wasn’t over the baggage limit. Costello, at the time, was. Contemporary polling at the time tended to suggest he remained as popular as compulsory Collingwood supporting. Costello, in contrast to Nelson, has a narrative, even if it is largely spun on the loom of great historical injustices with his eunuch, Glenn Milne. Costello has so much to offer and yet, even as the leadership of a proud party sits there, largely undefended, he refuses to take it. In fairness to the Liberals, they could come up with a magnificent manifesto tomorrow and it would barely raise an eyebrow- it remains the case that many voters will not contemplate entrusting government to a party that cannot govern itself. Costello’s blatant theft of the iconic Clash question robs him of dignity and his party of it, too.

Without narratives, both parties consign themselves to fighting opportunistic, issue-by-issue skirmishes, at best fighting each other to a standstill. Even in what some readers may consider the dark days of 2001, with the Tampa debacle dominated the political scene, both parties had a narrative. Howard’s was dark and dreary, Beazley’s, seemingly indecisive and only marginally less bleak. Even first term, pre-GST Howard lacked a purpose as PM, other than not being Keating, until he crafted a narrative of urgent, if not unpopular reform in the guise of the GST. You need to develop a narrative before you’ve been elected to get there; but you also need a narrative in Government. You can’t just wait for election time to roll around, because the punters won’t much care what your splendid new tax on condensate means for the bottom line. Once Howard did this, he looked statesmanlike, able to make tough decisions, able to lead.

Rudd has to get out of the weekly agenda, legislation-specific, inert rut that he is in if he and his charges are to be re-elected with their rather wafer-thin hold on the Treasury benches; riding high in the polls at this point in the cycle means nought, and isn’t exactly disaggregated across Labor’s huge number of marginal seats. At present, it feels like we’ve a Parliamentary ‘phoney war’. Rudd has a strong mandate but appears to be expending his political capital piecemeal, in a manner not unlike vintage 1997 Tony Blair. To be fair to Rudd, he’s been primus inter pares – first among equals – for less than a year. Climate change, the long kiss goodnight to WorkChoices, and the Budget are all policy priorities or political imperatives, however important, rather than narrative. Rudd doesn’t so much need a grand design as a strategy, a framework within which his Blair-esque drive and initiative can be put to good use. But he needs to figure it out soon- particularly if he plans on holding an election as many still expect, sooner rather than later. Both parties need to decide what story they’re to tell- because the unfinished and unrelated chapters (in the case of the Libs, lacking a protagonist) they’re giving us at present have been distinctly unimpressive.

I liked their earlier work.

No doubt all of this is why Rudd has only today tried to elucidate a narrative at the National Press Club promising to commit large sums of new money while also measuring and publishing data on the effectiveness of individual schools and other useful sounding education reforms that might even rise to the level of ‘revolutionary’. Without vision, the people perish, Rudd will be hoping he’s managed to extend his own use-by date with a healthy dose today.


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  1. Christian Lyons that was indeed an erudite explanation of the current situation. I howled with laughter at the description of Milne.

    I look forward to reading more of your prose.

    Posted by Jaspanator | August 27, 2008, 16:36
  2. Choice:

    ‘Forsaken himself three times’.

    ‘Canberra’s answer to Rockpool- the Kingston hotel’.

    ‘Rhetorical flourish or restorative hamburger’.

    ‘[PK] freshness burst that refreshens your breath’.

    Embedding Elvis Costello, the Clash and Warren Zevon in one piece: priceless.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 28, 2008, 10:07
  3. Love the Importance of Being Earnest reference also. Delightful.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 28, 2008, 11:52
  4. Who is Christian Lyons ? Is he a Hollowman ?>

    Posted by PMO | August 28, 2008, 11:56
  5. Are Christian Lyons and James Boag the same man?

    Posted by Anonymous | August 28, 2008, 11:57
  6. No but from the way he holds his cigar he looks camp as a row of tents.

    Posted by Ootraayjus | August 28, 2008, 12:06
  7. That’s only because you can’t see the femme kneeling nearby.

    Posted by Hilarious Bray | August 28, 2008, 12:15
  8. Yeh, it’s Jessica Sumich.

    Posted by curry favour | August 28, 2008, 12:18
  9. Adelan is preferred.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 28, 2008, 12:20
  10. PMO- doubt he’s one of the hollowmen. The capacity to write amusingly in the English language tends to suggest otherwise.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 28, 2008, 12:36
  11. Nice article Christian. Sounds like you have a great job. But what you failed to mention was that Krudd has a vision if you haven’t noticed. He’s planning on “Bailing out” every Australian man women and child by late 2010. He started with “the Banksters and Shysters” and quickly followed that up with property owners and used car salesmen. The “Ute-Men” followed with “No School Playground will be left behind” and “Bridges to Nowhere”,”Water for all at any cost” and “Pink Bats” initiatives and the Pensioners,unemployed and underemployed got their “For Gods Sake keep the Retailers in business” Stimulus packages. Commercial Property owners and developers have “RuddBank” to keep them stumbling along into 2010 and the “We will fight them on the beaches if we can only get these damn subs to bloody submerge” and “Bury all CO2 in the ground and it won’t leach back out crowd” have more dollars than you can throw Wayne Swan at. In fact there are so many “Bail-Out” initiatives and packages that a list of them would give the yellow pages a run for its money. So many in fact that some will likely never be used because of Australians inability to read the “fine print”. So no vision i’m reading. I beg to differ. Who can we “Bailout” now?

    Posted by johhny warren | August 25, 2009, 16:15


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