The fear during the latter part of last year was that Kevin Rudd was becoming just too much like John Howard.

The conservatives accused him of “Me-too” ism while his own side complained that he was following the government line so closely that even if he won the election, nothing would be different. With the instant ratification of Kyoto, the apology to the stolen generation and the speedy dismantling of WorkChoices, such illusions have been dissipated: the government has changed and the country is changing with it.

But there is an aspect of Rudd which is disturbingly Howardish, and it has become more obvious in recent days. This is a tendency to meddle in social issues which in the past have been the province of state governments. Howard did it with drug laws and made at least a feint in the direction of childhood obesity. Rudd has targeted gambling and binge drinking, especially among teenagers.

Now these are all serious problems, and there is something to be said for the national government taking an overview. But it is stretching things a bit to suggest that they come under the broad umbrella of Rudd’s mantra about ending the blame game and adopting a new, co-operative federal system.

This was supposed to be about eliminating waste and overlap, leading to greater efficiency and uniformity in crisis areas like hospital management and skill shortages, and the idea was eagerly, if slightly sceptically, embraced by the electorate. It is unlikely that the punters believed they were actually voting for yet another God-botherer to lecture them about their personal vices and weaknesses and propose yet another panacea to eliminate them from society.

Don’t get me wrong: personally I loathe poker machines and I certainly hold no brief for getting children legless. But I don’t want to see them used as distractions from pressing national issues either. We have state and local governments, not to mention a plethora of non-government organizations already working in the area, and if we don’t like what they’re doing, we can punish them appropriately.

There is a case for a total reform of the federal system leading to the elimination of state governments and sharing their responsibilities between national and local, but at present this is a pipe dream. Until it happens, national governments should avoid blundering into areas where they have no mandate and little expertise. We didn’t like it when Howard did it and we’re not exactly showering Rudd with applause either.

So John Hewson thinks we’re not giving Brendan Nelson a fair go.

Writing in the Financial Review he complains of a partisan and activist press coverage which would not have spared Nelson Mandela in the same position. Well, hang on a minute. Apart from the fact that Nelson is no Mandela, Hewson is missing the point.

The media are certainly showing a tendency to write Nelson off, but this is no more than realism. Whatever you may think of the man and his abilities, his chances of ever becoming Prime Minister are statistically zero. Opposition leaders who take over after a long period in government invariably disappear down the political gurgler.

Think Billy Snedden, Bill Hayden, Andrew Peacock, Kim Beazley. All were serious politicians (some would say more serious than Nelson, whom the conservative John Stone devastatingly described as “Andrew Peacock without the substance”). All did hard and constructive work in pulling their parties back together after the shock of defeat. But not one was able to persuade the electorate to install him in the Lodge.

The problem is that by the time the public gets tired enough of the new government to start considering a change, it has usually got even more tired of the new opposition leader, who is inevitably seen as generally negative and something of a loser. The party accepts the need for a new face and it is the second, third or even fourth person in the job who gets the reward. Unfair, but true, and Hewson should recognise it. He was, after all, part of the process.

Hewson’s complaint about journalists becoming players on the political stage rather than mere observers was enthusiastically endorsed in, of all places, The Australian, which ran an enthusiastic editorial deploring the idea that the hacks should ever consider themselves as insiders rather than outsiders.

Talk about chutzpah. This is the newspaper that last year placed its political coverage in the hands of Paul Kelly, Dennis Shanahan, Greg Sheridan and Glenn Milne, among other balanced and unobtrusive models of objectivity. It’s the flagship of an organisation that gives space to such shrinking violets as Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen, Terry McCrann and Christopher Pearson, among others. It is by far the most committed media player in the culture wars, vigorously and frequently viciously opinionated from cover to cover, making no discernible difference between news and comment.

Of course this has been the trend in newspaper journalism for some fifty years, since television forced the print media to rethink its place in the information network; it’s just that Hewson has apparently been slow to identify it. Like it or not (and on the whole I do – it makes for livelier reading, even if the cost is sometimes high blood pressure) it is the simple reality.

It is also a reality which The Australian was the first to recognise, and in which it has led the way since its inception in 1964. Which makes the editorial deploring it all not only arrant humbug, but also deeply masochistic. It’s a difficult time for the right.

Peter Fray

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