During the 2007 election campaign Kevin Rudd announced that he planned to have a bit of fun messing with John Howard’s mind.

As became clear on polling day, few voters begrudged Kevin07 this harmless diversion; indeed, the majority laughed along with him.

But two years later they could be forgiven for having their doubts; perhaps they should have stopped him while there was still time. The Prime Minister now seems to enjoy messing with the collective mind of the entire electorate.

It was never going to be easy to explain that the best way to deal with a downturn caused at least partly by profligate spending and lack of saving and investment was by handing out money. Orthodox economists applauded the prompt stimulus, but it still defied commonsense, especially after Treasurer Wayne Swan started talking about the need for a harsh and unpopular budget.

The problem was compounded when Rudd followed up by announcing the biggest infrastructure program in history, $43 billion for a broadband network. Doubters were quickly directed to the fine print: this was not all going to be government spending, the private sector was to be involved as well. In fact the government might be up for a mere $22 billion or so.

In any case once the network was up and running the government would sell its share, so in a sense it shouldn’t be counted as public spending at all. But if it was public spending, it was good public spending because it created infrastructure and therefore jobs.

Not entirely convinced, the punters resumed listening to Swan and Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner warning of the hard times ahead and the need for swingeing cuts and draconian discipline. Then Rudd unveiled a defence program which involved spending squillions on imported weaponry to deal with a situation which might or might not occur some 20 years in the future.

In the meantime, Swan explained, there would not be enough small change to pay for intravenous cancer treatments, dole payments for the growing numbers of unemployed would remain well below the poverty line and even the promised tax cuts, already enshrined in legislation could not be guaranteed.

Faced with this seemingly unfathomable paradox, the voters sat down to wait for next Tuesday, when all will presumably be made clear. It better be; Malcolm Turnbull has already latched on to what he calls Rudd’s Jekyll and Hyde approach and, while it has so far failed to stick, Rudd just keeps on giving him ammunition. The electorate remains on side, but it could be forgiven for feeling a tad confused and confusion can only lead to dismay and thence to rejection. Australians don’t like having their minds messed with.

Of course, some are pretty mixed up already. Australians have a habit of making martyrs out of some pretty grim people — Kerry Packer and Steve Irwin spring instantly to mind. But has there ever been a less likely candidate for popular acclaim than the late unlamented Richard Pratt?

This is a man who stole — yes, stole — hundreds of millions from ordinary Australians to finance one of the most self-indulgent life styles of the century. And he admitted it: when he died he was facing criminal charges which the prosecution was sure would be proven and were withdrawn purely because there was no point in pursuing them when his death was imminent.

He and his packaging company presided over the worst case of price fixing in Australian history; he was a crook on a scale far exceeding Christopher Skase, or even Alan Bond. But while those two were rightly considered public enemies, there is a powerful movement to rehabilitate Pratt as a hero of the people, a movement that includes show biz stars, business moguls, religious leaders and two former prime ministers.

This attempt at not just forgiveness but canonisation apparently stems from two ideas. The first is that from humble beginnings, Pratt rose to become very rich and powerful. Yes, and so did Attila the Hun, but he remains unloved. The second is that Pratt was a philanthropist and indeed he gave a small fraction of his loot to various charities. In this he followed the Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar, but while Escobar gave to the poor, Pratt was more inclined to subsidise the hobbies of the rich. It must be doubted that too many of those who paid extra for the cardboard around their cornflakes were regular patrons of Opera Australia.

It should be noted that, when finally sprung, Pratt returned his Order of Australia; now his claque of devotees want it back, to cancel any shred of remorse the corporate criminal might have exhibited. This is in sharp contrast to their eagerness to strip the honours from another fallen idol, the former Judge Marcus Einfeld.

Einfeld was rightly jailed for perjury and other offences, but in material terms the damage he inflicted on the public was very small; compared to the depredations of Pratt it was unnoticeable. Einfeld, too did a great many praiseworthy things in his life; he was formerly regarded as a living national treasure. But none of the famous and powerful who gave him the accolade want to know him today. In particular the Jewish establishment, so unstinting in its embrace of Pratt, has dumped Einfeld like a stale pork sausage.

Perhaps it is because he was not as enthusiastic and generous a supporter of the Zionist cause as Pratt and he was less charismatic in other ways; his mistress was not as glamorous as Pratt’s and of course, he didn’t die of cancer. But it is hard not to suspect that the real difference is simply that he didn’t have as much money, even if a lot of Pratt’s really belonged to other people. Wealth may not buy happiness, or even votes, but you can’t beat it if you’re after instant adulation.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off