Education not the real test. A very good comeback yesterday from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd when the Opposition suggested he was simply stealing one of Brendan Nelson’s policies when the good doctor was Education Minister. Instead of just talking about making schools accountable this government intends to actually do it. We shall, of course, see if the Rudd words end up counting for more than the Nelson words. Not that this talk will be cheap. The state governments know how important it will be to Mr Rudd to actually deliver on his education promise and will exact a high price for allowing that to happen. They should be worrying about that over in the Department of Finance.

Not that education will end up being the really defining thing about this first Rudd Government. The PM’s real test will be whether he will deliver the promised improvements to the public hospital system. Here we are going through the 12 months of co-operative federalism where the State Governments are being given the chance to show they are up to the job and if they are not then the Rudd commitment is that the blame game will be ended by the federal government taking over. There’s not long to go before the deadline for the states is reached and some of the headlines this morning indicate the magnitude of the task ahead. Up in Brisbane a ban on elective surgery is being called for “as a desperate solution to the chronic shortages of public hospital beds in Queensland’s health system.” Down in Melbourne it is the State Government promising immediate action to ease the cardiac crisis at the Royal Children’s Hospital although Premier John Brumby is unable to say what the short-term solution to the state’s overflowing pediatric intensive care units actually is.

Rating the maiden speeches. A new Senate with new Senators means maiden speeches and at Crikey we examine them looking for clues as to what the future might bring us. Yesterday saw three with two of them delivered by Senators who previously served in the Upper House of their respective State Parliaments.

The very independent Nick Xenophon from South Australia attracted some attention in the mainstream press this morning because his vote will be important on many occasions as Labor tries to get its legislation passed. But it was the former Legislative Councillor from Western Australia, new Labor Senator Louise Pratt, whose first words in the new chamber suggest she will be a feisty and intriguing contributor to political debate in Canberra.

Senator Louise Pratt, Labor, Western Australia – From the traditional trade union background that marked so many of the new Labor lower house MPs elected last November Senator Pratt describes herself as “a very proud member” of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union – “a union of great courage and strong values, a union that can be found wherever its members need support but also wherever injustice and indifference threaten people’s wellbeing.” The AMWU got a mention before the thank you to “my beloved partner, Aram Hosie” who she described as “a constant source of inspiration and support in both the personal and political parts of my life.”

That Ms Pratt is no cowering “yes person” was clear from the force with which she committed herself to continuing to work with the union movement from within government to hasten the demise of the Howard government’s unjust industrial relations laws. For her, despite the views on this subject expressed by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister this week, that includes getting rid of the “arbitrary and extreme powers” of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. There are not many new MPs prepared to make their disagreement with the party hierarchy in their first speech.

We can expect Senator Pratt, who spoke approvingly of labour feminists, to be a vocal supporter of paid maternity leave and the removal at a federal level of “all discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexuality.” In her speech she also declared herself to be a staunch opponent of uranium exports believing the world should not” continue to expand the use of nuclear technologies when we face the continued proliferation of weapons and a growing worldwide nuclear waste problem.”

Rating – 6 out of 10.

Senator Nick Xenophon, Independent, South Australia – There’s perhaps a clue to this balance-of-power man in the thank you he gave yesterday to Tim Costello, who for the last 11 years has been a mentor and a great friend. He was one of the few people singled out by Senator Xenophon for a special thank you. The friendship of a former supporter of the Democrats seems appropriate for a man who describes himself as being, apart from a youthful indiscretion while at uni where he flirted briefly with the Young Libs, for most of my life and in his political career, a person who tends not to see things in terms of Left or Right. “Instead, I try to think about,” he told the Senate, “what is right and what is wrong.”

Top of the list of things that are wrong is clearly poker machines, the opposition to which was responsible for his entry into state politics 11 years ago. He still sees poker machines as a litmus test of good government.

If governments are willing to sacrifice their own citizens for gambling taxes, what else are they getting wrong?

Not that Senator Xenophon intends to be a single issue campaigner. While the pokies remain important it is the state of the Murray Darling Basin that is the biggest crisis facing Australia and his home state in particular. This he described as too big and too important to be treated as a partisan issue. This crisis not only reflected environmental failures but also represented a failure of Federation.

He clearly sees the Senate as having an important role as a watchdog on the executive and journalists will surely applaud his belief that good governance “is also about the freedom to speak out when it is in the national interest.” In his maiden speech Senator Xenophon specifically referred to the 2007 News Ltd journalists Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus being convicted of contempt of court. The journalists and any source, he said, should not have been charged as the public clearly had a right to know.

Rating – 8 out of 10.

Senator Catryna Bilyk, Labor, Tasmania – Senator Bilyk might not have been a member of parliament previously, but she has worked for one as well as once being a trade union official. That just about makes her an identikit Labor member! Employment and training will be her main interests. Hers was a very conventional maiden speech. I’ll be stunned if she ever makes the ministry.

Rating 5 out of 10

A strange definition of free trade. “I’m a free trader,” the Prime Minister said yesterday. “Always have been, always will be.” This was Kevin Rudd’s way of showing how strong he is in resisting pressure from the motor vehicle industry for tariff protection to be continued at the existing level.

“And the reason I am,” Mr Rudd went on to explain, “is because protection like that ultimately doesn’t help consumers, particularly working families who are struggling to get the best deal possible with a very large purchase.”

But don’t worry. Instead of lumbering buyers of motor vehicles with the extra 10% on prices caused by a tariff, the free trading PM will happily give great big bundles of tax payers money to the local car makers. That way everyone shares in paying the extra cost, but those working families struggling to get buy won’t notice it.