The Prime Minister’s first week back from holidays has been given over to his Things Are Seriously Bad tour, involving gigs in all state capitals, to give Australians the lowdown on how bad things are and what he’s doing about it.

But even in the space of four days, things have got markedly worse.

In a week featuring one of the traditional set pieces of American political oratory, the contrast between Rudd and that American guy when it comes to speechifying has been fairly stark. Still, no one ever accused the Prime Minister of being a great speaker, least of all the man himself.

Rudd has abandoned a lot of last year’s rhetoric and keywords. “Working families” have been banished. “Decisive action” has been abandoned. “Tough decisions” are forgotten. Instead, day after day this week, he has hammered the same messages:

This is awesomely bad and it’s come from the US

Market fundamentalism is at fault

Barack Obama is the big hope of the world and he believes the same things as me

The Government has made an unprecedented response

Jobs matter the most

We’re all in this together

There’s occasional stumble. Yesterday in Melbourne the Prime Minister declared there were four key dimensions to the Government’s response, and then reeled off five. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition. But the key message is about being in this together. It’s the Prime Minister’s new catchphrase. Expect to hear it a lot more.

Each day this week, though, his tone has got darker as more bad news emerges overseas. By Tuesday, Rudd was talking about contingency arrangements to cover the retreat of foreign capital. Yesterday he was citing the latest British banking rescue package and Chinese growth, or lack thereof.

News of China’s anaemic growth rate yesterday must have sent a shiver through the Government. That will feed directly into the remaining success stories of the Australian economy, WA and Queensland. It came out just after lunchtime, and Lindsay Tanner, filling in for Wayne Swan who is travelling to the US, rapidly called a press conference in Melbourne. His very first words were

Today’s growth figures from China are bad news for jobs in Australia and bad news for economic growth. They’re worse than market expectations and they confirm that the Chinese boom that has supercharged the Australian economy over the past five to seven years, is receding rapidly. That’s a big problem for Australia.

No mucking around. There’s something reassuring about Tanner’s preference for plain speaking and unwillingness to run the rhetorical lines devised in the Prime Minister’s Office. He also avoids Wayne Swan’s appearance of having rehearsed his talking points extensively beforehand — and saying certainly every second word — instead giving the impression that, you know, he’s actually telling you what he thinks.

He also displayed a refreshing honesty about the ACTU’s call for a jobs summit. “Bear in mind that ultimately summits are about talking,” he said. “The primary thing that the Australian people want here is action.”

Ouch. Cop that Sharan Burrow.

While we’re on the Government’s rhetoric, it may be insignificant, but over the break first Julia Gillard, and now the Prime Minister, have stopped referring to the commencement of the ETS in 2010, instead preferring to emphasise how the scheme proposed in the White Paper “gets the balance right”.

A commencement in July next year has been the mainstay of the Government’s attempts to demonstrate it is serious about climate change. Now that employment is the Government’s priority, and industry is ramping up their claims that the ineffectual paper chase proposed by the Government will cost jobs, a twelve-month delay might suddenly look a politically attractive option. The Coalition persists in talking about delaying the scheme to 2011 or beyond, and it might be the price of getting it through the Senate.

Blaming the financial crisis and declaring that the Government will delay its unilateral 5% target for a year in the event nothing emerges from Copenhagen later this year would be a backflip, but a politically useful one as unemployment rises. It’s not like the Government has much climate change credibility left to lose.

Don’t think it could happen? These are, as the Prime Minister has explained all week, tough times, and each day they seem to get tougher.

Peter Fray

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