Just to keep us guessing, the Prime Minister has repeatedly demonstrated this week that beneath the sub-Blair, centrist automaton of a leader beats the heart of an actual real-life, Labor politician.
Rudd has settled on a response to the ongoing and potentially debilitating political problem of rising prices and the perception – however much it is a News Ltd invention – that he promised to do something about them. It is to emphasise that the Government seeks to empower consumers – and that the Opposition is on the side of business. He told caucus about this on Tuesday and it repeatedly came out in Question Time during the week.
It complements the Government’s actual response, which is to maximise competitive pressures, but not to do anything stupid, like cut excise.
And whether settled on by design or accident by the Government, this potentially will have significant benefits if pursued properly. With only 21 million people, we’re a country of monopolies, duopolies and cosy oligopolies. Despite the TPA and the ACCC, “consolidation” has gradually reduced competition in key markets to the point where we can only look at the dominance of, say, Coles and Woolies, and wonder how much we’re being gouged. If Rudd and co are serious about strengthening competition, that should send a signal to the ACCC to take a more aggressive stance against mergers. Gaoling some executives under new criminal anti-cartel laws should just be a start.
Whether the Government-consumer/Opposition-business dichotomy gets traction is another matter. But it won’t be for lack of Chris Bowen trying.
Incidentally, Chris Bowen’s chief of staff is Brett Gale, a former Corporate Affairs head with NRMA. Which one of the two big motoring organisations is supporting Fuelwatch?
Rudd also got stuck into the Howard Government over Iraq in his statement on Monday about bring Australian troops home. Alexander Downer was disgusted – few people do disgust so well – and repeatedly interjected, only to get plenty in turn back from Labor backbenchers. “You’re a disgrace,” shouted Julia Irwin vehemently back at him.
And yesterday Rudd tipped his hand on the future of the car industry. His Ministerial Statement on World Environment Day concentrated heavily on Australia “creating a new generation of fuel-efficient cars” that “not only make motoring more affordable and reduce our carbon footprint. It may also revitalise the Australian automotive industry.”
This is very much the Prime Minister who doesn’t want to lead a country that doesn’t make things – apparently regardless of the protectionism and business welfare that goes with looking after the car industry. Given Brendan Nelson said in reply that he supports a domestic car industry, hybrids and electric cars, it’s possible the only opposition the Government will have to its protectionist agenda is from the PC and the AFR.
Now Rudd’s off to Japan and Indonesia, spruiking a sort of super-APEC. Paul Keating might object that it’s unworkable but, by god, that’s what they said about APEC, and Labor wonks love nothing more than to dream dreams of regional multilateralist architecture.
A couple of weeks ago Brendan Nelson was telling his own party room that Labor was “reverting to type” under Rudd. He meant reverting to the Coalition’s caricature of Labor as spendthrift lefties. But perhaps he was more correct than he realised.
One more thing. Rudd fielded the last question in Question Time yesterday, about World Environment Day. It was the last Question Time for a week, because MPs get a break next week. Everyone was restive and began chattering as Rudd began reading a rather boring answer about the Government’s environmental strategy. Alexander Downer got up and held a long conversation with the outer shadow ministry until repeatedly told to sit down by the Speaker, except that Veteran’s Affairs Minister Alan Griffin was also doing the same, despite trying to hide from the Speaker by crouching.
Rudd noticed he’d lost the chamber, and decided to change the tenor of his answer rapidly, turning into an elegant attack on John Howard, Alexander Downer and the shadow Cabinet.
We had the former Prime Minister, Mr Howard, stand up here and say that he did not believe in the human causes of global warming. Do you remember that? It was less than 18 months ago. The same Mr Howard stood up in the parliament and said that if Senator Obama or the Democrats won the presidential election in the United States it would be a victory for al-Qaeda. Those opposite stood behind those comments. They stood behind the comments of Mr Howard when he denied any link between human activity and climate change. It is time that those opposite got real.
Everyone started paying attention quicksmart. Rudd is very, very good in Parliament when he can be bothered.