Dedicated Labor supporters should by now be queuing up to give their leader the traditional Labor message: Kevin, it’s time. Time to pull your bloody finger out and get on with the job you were elected to do.

The three weeks since the new government’s first budget have been devoted to an orgy of navel-gazing; an apparently endless obsessing over the intricacies of saving a couple of cents a litre on the price of petrol. Not only has this been a total waste of time and a craven capitulation to the demagoguery of the opposition on the part of Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan — they have almost achieved the hitherto impossible task of making Brendan Nelson look credible — but it has built up a lot of trouble for them in the not-too distant future.

Quite soon Professor Ross Garnaut will bring down his next paper on climate change policy, and this will presumably include at least some of the hard bits: like how much Australia should aim to limit its greenhouse gas emissions and the most efficient and painless way to do it. His recommendation will certainly include some form of carbon trading scheme.

This has already led to every significant contributor of carbon emissions pleading that they, and only they, should be exempted from the scheme because of the special, indeed unique circumstances in which they happen to find themselves. Industry, for instance, says that it cannot afford any extra cost whatsoever if it is to remain competitive in these troubled times.

In sharp contrast agriculture is pleading for inclusion, as it sees several ways farmers can make a buck or two out of the system. In other words, even before the scheme is even announced, everyone is demanding special treatment. The problem, as always, belongs elsewhere.

This, of course, is to fail to recognise the nature of the problem, which is to limit carbon emissions. If everyone who contributes to them is to be exempted or subsidised, then clearly nothing — or at least not enough — is going to happen.

That’s why the government should already be talking tough and softening us all up for what is to come, because it is not going to be pleasant. And this applies in spades to the price of petrol.

Of course, the fuel industry has already joined the rush for an exemption. But to give it one would be preposterous: all up, transport accounts for nearly half of all Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. To leave it out of any scheme whose stated aim was their reduction would be an act of political cowardice no government — let alone one elected on a promise of real action on climate change — could hope to survive.

Rudd has already shown a disturbing tendency to react to the opinion polls and the tabloids, and the opposition has had no compunction in exploiting it. The prospect of a government-mandated rise of between 10 and 17 cents a litre in petrol must have them slavering.

Rather than fiddling with Fuelwatch and bickering over who can be trusted over whether it will make a couple of cents difference either way, Rudd should be making it very clear that the days of cheap petrol are well and truly over; not only will there be no significant reductions in the foreseeable future, but the only responsible course is for further rises, and big ones at that.

Kevin Rudd promised us an end to short-term expediency but for three weeks he has given us little else. Please Kevin, extract that digit.

Certainly, our softly-spoken Prime Minister is prepared to play it tough when it suits him. He may be trying to be Mr Nice Guy for the petrolheads, but for the shinybums of the public service he has only bad news.

Under the Rudd regime, they can look forward to a Churchillian future of blood and toil, sweat and tears, and that’s just for the weekends. This is, after all, the workload that Rudd sets for himself and always has: his reasoning, presumably, is that if he could handle it as a public servant in the wilds of Queensland, so can the new generation in the comforts of Canberra.

This may not be quite the family-friendly approach he took when lambasting the excesses of WorkChoices, but apparently he feels that unlike normal Australian working families, the bureaucrats have signed up for some form of civilian conscription and will just have to cop it.

The more dedicated will do so for a while, but only while they believe they are playing a vital role in the new government. If they find they are being ignored and sidelined, they are quite capable of making trouble. With two major leaks in a week, one obviously from a very senior level, Rudd has been warned.

When he came to office he deliberately avoided the kind of mass sackings at the top in which John Howard indulged: there would, he promised, be no night of the long knives. This was very noble, but it rather overlooked the fact that Howard had, over many years, stacked the top end of the service to the extent that it was seen by many of Rudd’s colleagues as little more than a fully paid up branch of the Liberal Party.

While some of Howard’s appointees will probably have had little compunction in changing loyalties, it would be naïve to think that there are not still a few who regard Labor as the lifelong enemy. If Rudd cannot bring himself to purge them, he should at least try to avoid antagonising them further.

As Lyndon Johnson pointed out, it is always better to have such people inside the tent p-ssing out than outside the tent p-ssing in. There are already quite enough malcontents doing that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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