How do you sell one of the biggest reforms ever to the Australian economy in a 40 minute Press Club address? You don’t.

Penny Wong took up where she left off in the election campaign and faithfully read the script at 12.30pm on Wednesday and Kevin Rudd was the selective statesman in follow up cameos.

And the media, amazingly, listened with intent, and reported it straight. The debate has been measured and sensible. People are listening.

Australians have worked out that this is a big challenge, and most are showing the maturity to knuckle down and sort the problem, even at a personal cost. All except the Opposition of course.

The government played a remarkably disciplined game this week, from selective leaks through to the announcement and the follow up positioning and detail. They have made Brendan Nelson and Greg Hunt look like irrelevant pissants.

To date, this has been a far superior sell job by the government than this year’s May budget, showing that the government is maturing, can manage issues of substance and complex public debates. This is an approach the nation has struggled with for most of the Howard era, when it was continually polarised by cheap politics.

The gun buyback scheme was probably the last time the nation decisively told the government enough is enough, supporting decisive government action.

Climate change policy presents the biggest structural reform to the Australian economy since the major industry reforms of the 80s and 90s.

Ross Garnaut has done a great job for Kevin Rudd, despite being commissioned by the states. He has painted the purist economists’ position and served his profession well. His is the economic utopia the left craves and in the main, the right thing to do.

But a governments’ job is to ease the pain of structural adjustment to the economy. Here is where the thoughtful finger prints of Tanner, Garrett, Swan, Gillard and Ferguson are also apparent in the detail of the Green Paper.

The Rudd Government has taken the political momentum and engaged the country to take some medium term pain for long term gain. No one will escape some economic pain.

With September as the next stated mile stone in this debate, the government will be sweet talked, cajoled, bullied and bribed with threats of electoral Armageddon. The important thing for Rudd and his ministers to do now is to let the debate rage, stay quiet and listen. They have done that well in the last few months since Garnaut’s first statement. They can do it again.

At the conservative end of the debate, big polluters will threaten to pack their bags and move to China. On the left, the Greens will no doubt be bastards in the Senate. And the average Aussie Joe in the middle, resigned to his pain, will watch the self interest coursing through his daily papers with healthy cynicism.

An intellectually lazy Canberra bureaucracy will try and anticipate its masters’ voice.

And the real decision will be made by the Cabinet as judge and jury which is not a bad thing. It’s the best Cabinet (and outer Ministry) we’ve seen since the late 80’s of the Hawke Government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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