The weirdest news story of the week has been Kevin Rudd’s promise that, if re-elected this year, he will serve out the full three years of his next term.

Well golly gosh and stuff me up a dead bear’s bum. Did anyone seriously imagine otherwise?

Rudd’s program has always been a long-term one: many of his pet projects will not come to fruition for nearly a decade. Despite of the silly rumours that he sees The Lodge as a mere staging post on his way to the top job with the United Nations, he will be quite as hard to extract from his current position as any of his predecessors. When he does go, it will be kicking and screaming — which was the real point of the question that led to his pledge.

The current upsurge of support for Julia Gillard has been driven at least partly by Rudd’s plunge in the opinion polls, which was in turn a result of his serial retreat from previously held policy positions. No one — well, no one who can count — is seriously suggesting that he will face a challenge before the election, but there is a school of thought developing the idea that he will be eased out shortly thereafter.

This relies on the perception that Rudd’s ascendancy is now irrevocably damaged; he will never regain the public’s confidence, and that it would be smart to make the transition before the voters really turn against him. And given Gillard’s unquestioned popularity — her fan base now encompasses right and left, old and young, rich and poor, gay and straight — it would be sensible to exploit her sooner rather than later.

Her supporters point to the fact that unlike Rudd, Gillard is admired even by the conservative commentariat; Alan Jones is an aficionado, and her weekly TV chats with Tony Abbott resemble those of a long-married couple who may have their disagreements, but would never say anything really nasty to each other.

But the most remarkable confirmation of Gillard’s political saleability is her treatment by that bastion of the right, The Australian. The national daily has conducted a series of campaigns against the Rudd government, but none have been so unremitting as those against its economic stimulus programs, in particular the home insulation scheme and the Building Education Revolution. But there has been a key difference. In the first case, right from the start the paper has demanded the sacking of the responsible minister, Peter Garrett. But in the second case, there has been no suggestion that Gillard should fall on her sword.

The paper’s attack on the BER has been obsessive, at times bordering on the psychotic; even after the audit that said  the BER had largely succeeded in its basic aims of providing employment and improving education infrastructure, The Australian’s hit squad continued its frenzied assaults on every aspect of the scheme, insisting that it was widely loathed and despised by parents and schools alike.

In fact the audit declared that 95% of school principals were happy with the results — 19 in every 20. You’d be lucky to get that sort of consensus about the Pope being a catholic. The malcontents The Australian was trotting out as typical of their group were revealed as an insignificant minority. But this did not, and has not, stopped its commentators from insisting that the whole idea has been an unqualified disaster.

The idea, yes; but not its instigator and administering minister, who is still seen as one of the saving graces in a government to whose destruction the Murdoch press is dedicated. One of them, but not the only one; which is one of the catches.

Unlike the coalition, Labor has a front bench of considerable competence and ambition. Gillard is obviously the front runner, but Wayne Swan, Stephen Smith and Lindsay Tanner wouldn’t mind a crack at the prize, and further back in the field Craig Emerson, Tony Burke, Greg Combet and Bill Shorten have their aspirations. In the case of the latter group, the longer a change of leadership is delayed the better. Rudd will have to fall much further before there is any real risk of rebellion. Alan Jones will just have to wait.

The worries about Rudd’s public standing crystallised around the deferral of the ETS, and last week brought more evidence that this was not only a panicky political overreaction, but a seriously bad idea. As the sceptics, led by the industry-subsidised propagandists of the Institute of Public Affairs and their funereal mouthpiece John Roskam were triumphantly claiming victory for ignorance and apathy, 255 of America’s most reputable scientists published a plea for a return to rational discussion: the problem, they claimed, was too urgent and important to be left to be hijacked by extremists and demagogues. Australia’s own chief scientist, Penny Sackett, issued her own call for the government to show leadership and commitment.

But the most telling criticism of Rudd’s procrastination came from China, where Professor Pan Jiahua, described as a leading adviser to the Politburo, said Rudd’s decision had the effect of discouraging developing nations from implementing measures to contain emissions. Australia was already doing much less than China about the problem, and the message it was sending to the developing world was: “If even an industrialised country like Australia can’t do it, how can we?” Quite.

And to conclude on a more positive note: the formation of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the representative body that will replace the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission as a national indigenous forum, is a sign that the great issue of reconciliation is still on the government’s agenda.

Unlike ATSIC, the new body will be at arm’s length from government and its structure ensures that it cannot be taken over by a political clique; it recognises that individual delegates can only represent their own tribal groups (or nations) and cannot presume to speak for the Aboriginal people as a whole, any more that the President of, say Portugal, can claim to represent the whole of Europe.

But in a concrete and a symbolic sense, NCAFP will fill the vacuum left by the abolition of ATSIC, and return a voice to our indigenous population. That’s the good news.

Peter Fray

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