If you’re halfway effective as a democratically elected political leader, you’re guaranteed to be called a dictator. It comes with the territory. You don’t have to search too far on blog sites and in comments on mainstream media sites to find Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd being labelled dictators, although not nearly as much as George W. Bush and John Howard, respectively, were so labelled before them.

Not to mention that it’s not so long since Guy Rundle compared Rupert Murdoch to Stalin in Crikey, albeit with a smirk that most critics missed.

Conservative broadcast media commentators in the US have been labelling Obama a dictator virtually since he was inaugurated, which is par for the course. But some thought it more effective to compare him directly to Kim Jong Il.

Not merely is the North Korean psychopath a communist tyrant, but he’s more than a little laughable — at least to those who live outside his nightmare of a country — which makes him all the better as a point of comparison. He’s also more threatening. Cuba and Venezuela are more irritants than threats, and don’t come armed with nukes.

The Kim Jong-Il line began before the election. The Right’s village idiot, Mark Steyn, called Michelle Obama “Kim Jong-Il dressed up with a bit of Oprah Winfrey dressing” while talking with Glenn Beck. When Kim issued a statement saying relations would be better with an Obama-led US than a McCain-led US, the “endorsement” prompted hilarity from the right in the US.

“A communist is supporting a communist,” declared one conservative. Once Obama was actually in power, Fox’s Sean Hannity directly compared him to Kim Jong Il in February. Earlier this month, Rush Limbaugh called Obama’s speech to schoolchildren “right out of the pages of pot-bellied dictator Kim Jong Il”.

Now the idea has spread to Australia. Malcolm Turnbull has described Rudd as a socialist and compared him to a Communist Party general secretary but it was Christopher Pyne who kicked off the North Korean thing, calling Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard “Dear Leader and Madam Dear Leader”.

Liberal apologist Glenn Milne has since been pushing it hard. “North Korea might even think about adopting a similar program name,” said Milne yesterday about the government’s Building the Education Revolution, “if it hasn’t got one already”. Milne went on to rail about the government’s “conduct of question time” and ended on the hilarious note “if the Parliament becomes a rubber stamp for the executive, you’re headed well down the road of authoritarian government. If you don’t believe that, take a visit to Pyongyang.”

Witless even by Milne’s standards, especially given how much of a rubber stamp Parliament became in the last term of the Howard government. Glenn, incidentally, didn’t have a good weekend. He recycled a weeks-old Misha Schubert story about the Prime Minister rejecting an effort by factional leaders to retain MPs’ printing allowance, emphasising that Rudd had sworn at the delegation that had come to see him. The only result from Milne’s efforts was the impression Rudd had told a bunch of MPs demanding more perks where to go.

The “communist dictator” meme is useful given the government’s successful efforts to avert recession by replacing collapsing private demand with public spending (just as, 70 years later, FDR is still labelled a socialist for trying to save capitalism from itself in the 1930s). But the government’s telecommunications policy is also grist to this particular mill — and you may recall that the Howard government used to attack Labor on the basis that North Korea was the only country that hadn’t privatised its telephone system.

Glenn Milne was at it again today, arguing that the government wanted a “command economy” and the decision to split up Telstra showed it.

Milne also threw in greater regulation of superannuation as further evidence that the red tide of socialism was rising in Australia. Perhaps he ought to talk to some Storm investors about that.

Last week right-wing academic Peter Swan in (where else?) The Australian compared the government’s Telstra decision to “Latin-American dictatorships and the failed Soviet Union”.

What’s funniest about the argument that the government is somehow violating the purity of the market in breaking up Telstra is that it conveniently ignores that Telstra is entirely a government creation. It is the legacy of the old “command economy” approach to infrastructure, corporatised by Kim Beazley in a deal cooked up with trade unions, and privatised by John Howard. Telstra in its current forum is the ultimate government-created market distortion.

That’s why there remain some old-style lefties, such as  Ken Davidson, who continue to insist that Telstra should be given carte blanche in its operations and that its competitors (“basically marketing and billing organisations”) are parasites in a protection racket.

When pressed, Telstra’s defenders, such as  Liberal-aligned commentators Michael Stutchbury or Henry Ergas, and the discredited Phil Burgess, can’t really explain why the laws of economics don’t apply to Telstra. Their defences ultimate boil down to the simple assertion that telecommunications is, well, different.

It’s the line trotted out by every rent seeker, every special interest, that has ever pleaded for continued protection by government. We’re special. Our sector is different. Normal rules don’t apply to us.

Dressing that up as free market orthodoxy somehow under assault from a socialist government is laughable. About as laughable as comparing Kevin Rudd to a mass-murdering psychopath such as  Kim Jong Il.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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