Consistent with the Rudd tradition, the Prime Minister wasted no time on his return from London. He flew to Melbourne and led the Government’s three-part economic announcement yesterday. Presumably he got a good feed on the plane.

Rudd’s tendency never to let a gap in the media cycle pass unfilled was established last year but in recent months the Government has got better at deciding when to keep a low profile. When the Opposition is having one of its periodic debacles the Government now stays out of sight, giving their opponents’ division clear air.

Yesterday, however, was all about consolidating the impression of Government action in the face of the recession after the London talkfest.

Rudd spoke at a Brotherhood of St Laurence Jobs Forum in Casey, in south-east Melbourne. Coincidentally or otherwise, on Friday the Brotherhood had distanced itself from the rest of the church employment service sector and said a review of the Job Services Australia tender – which unsuccessful tenderers had called for — would be a “waste of resources”. Rudd used his speech to launch an employment and training package with Julia Gillard and local member Anthony Byrne in attendance. Much of package was a reannouncement of existing programs or further details on funding agreed as part of stimulus package deals with the Greens and Steve Fielding. But there were three new bits.

  • Julia Gillard’s focus on improving Year 12 retention rates will be accelerated and folded into a new commitment that all Australians under 25 will have a school, tertiary education or training place. The Government will be pushing this through COAG later in the month.
  • Lindsay Fox and Bill Kelty will reprise their jobs-finding double act from the last recession, although Rudd was keener to emphasise that it was Fox who would “advise employers in disadvantaged communities on practical ways they can keep on their workers.”
  • The Government is also appointing “senior, experienced people” as Regional Job Coordinators in 7 high unemployment regions – nearly all Labor seats – to work with local governments, businesses and community groups and act as “local jobs champions”. What the coordinators will specifically do is unclear but presumably Rudd envisages another, miniature version of his favoured model of individuals who can link, think strategically and overcome bureaucratic obstacles to projects.

Earlier that morning, Julia Gillard had already announced the 6,000 schools receiving $800-odd million dollars in stimulus package funding, including $0.2m each for most of the country’s richest private schools. The shade sail industry, in particular, looks set for a boom.

Wayne Swan also launched the “principles for assisting borrowers facing financial hardship” which had been agreed with the big four banks to deal with borrowers who become unemployed. The banks’ handling of the announcement was somewhat strange. The Commonwealth jumped the gun three weeks ago in announcing its principles – which Rudd acknowledged when he discussed it in his speech. And the Australian Bankers’ Association in announcing the principles insisted on noting that “ABA member banks…already had an obligation to assist customers overcome any financial difficulties.” This appears to confirm the idea that the banks are keen to avoid any suggestion that they owe the government and the community for the banking guarantee, which they pay for.

In fact, the banks owe the Government, and the rest of us, in a big way. In addition to the guarantee, which no one is forcing them to use, the Government has allowed significant consolidation in the banking sector in favour of the Big Four, further reinforcing the big banks’ dominant market position and ability, in the absence of competition, to gouge households and businesses.

Naturally, much media focus was on those who would miss out rather than those who would benefit, despite Swan explicitly saying negotiations were continuing with smaller lenders. So the Government was attacked both for not announcing anything new, and for failing to extend it to non-bank borrowers. They’re hard to please round these parts, but the Government had already got its desired goal of a splash in the Sunday papers.

Rudd is fond of explaining the Government’s response to the recession as composed of different components aimed at addressing different aspects of the financial crisis and its impact on growth. In recent months he has been discussing a five point plan – about the twelfth five-point plan of his Prime Ministership – of stability, stimulus, training, long-term fiscal discipline and global cooperation. Now he has switched to a simpler model, one likely to dominate the Government’s narrative about its response to the recession from hereon in. It’s now all about global action, national action and local action, with Rudd himself the common factor in all three as he works out financial regulation with President Obama, provides economic stimulus and financial stability from Canberra, and works with local communities, NGOs and local councils at the street level.

In fact, this government talks more about local councils than any of its predecessors.

The global-national-local narrative complements Rudd’s continuing message. Yesterday’s speech was called “We’re All In This Together”. According to Rudd, this includes all nations, all levels of government, business and unions, and the community itself.

Of course there’s one group missing from that list: the Opposition. They’re left out of the golden circle of community, business and government, quite deliberately. Rudd’s inclusiveness is in part a political weapon to isolate the Coalition from the mainstream.

Except, the Coalition are doing a fine job of that themselves. Yesterday Joe Hockey was asked whether the Coalition would block the Budget. Yep, said Hockey, “if there’s waste, mismanagement.”

The only message coming out of the Opposition currently is negativity and hostility to the Government. And now Hockey has handed the Government an opportunity to talk about blocking supply.

In 1985, on the tenth anniversary of the Dismissal, John Howard was asked if he would ever block supply. He refused to answer, knowing full well that, even if he thought it was a legitimate political tactic, to talk about it was not helpful for the Opposition. Even back then, Howard had more political smarts than all of his successors put together do now.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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