First wives: plus ca change

Friday, May 25, 2007

Christian Kerr writes:

Susan Peacock and the Sheridan sheets, Sonia McMahon and that dress — and now Therese Rein and her company with a $175 million turnover and 1300 plus staff in four countries. Plus ca change! The circumstances may be very different, but our political leaders’ wives are still media magnets — and easy targets for a cheap shot.

The Rudd-Rein business issue is not new at all. It had been identified before Rudd challenged Kim Beazley as a sleeping dog that would wake up one day — and need tethering.

The solution isn’t anything new, either, although it will be a financial cost to Rein. She should establish a blind trust or trusts, depending on the commercial and legal advice about the most appropriate structure.

This would do two things. It would create total disconnect between Rein and any of the operations of the company while maintaining the investment that she has built up over many years and remove the political problem of any perceived or actual conflict of interest.

Rein should act now, particularly as it will take some time to establish the structures needed. Indeed, it’s poor politics on Rudd’s behalf that he and his wife haven’t already acted — and that he’s still being so coy.

Rudd has been playing a dead bat on this issue. Questions about the potential for problems have been raised since he became leader. His response “we will seek the best advice after I get elected” has always carried a potential political cost.

The answer has always been there, but because Rudd failed to act on an issue that should never have been available to use against him, it now has been. That issue has nothing to do with his wife and her business interests — but instead has everything to do with him.

Rudd should not only be embarrassed by the situation with his wife’s business —  once again doubt has been raised about his judgement over managing political issues and his failure to seek advice, or, perhaps, his failure to act appropriately on the advice he’s been given.

Still, this isn’t a win for the government. They’ve had a shocker of a week. Wheeling out some dated gender stereotypes hasn’t helped.

Rudd’s management of that side of this matter has been excellent. He presents as an equal in a loving, longstanding marriage, respectful of his partner and able to joke about their relationship.

He is seen by working women as being wonderfully supportive and exactly what they would wish for in a thoroughly modern male.

We already know that women voters have been warming to the Labor leadership team.

This affair will do no damage to the female vote that turned away in droves from Latham and Labor in 2004. Indeed, it is likely to improve many women voters’ impression of the Labor leader.

And we have to ask that if Rein was the politician and Rudd the businessperson if this same fuss would even be made?

The hypocrisy of the conservatism — read sexism — of the government response is evident in the reporting too.

Look across at the government benches. One of the most appealing things about Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull is the way in which they are so clearly a partnership of equals. Lucy Turnbull has a hands-on role in her husband’s business affairs, as well as interests of her own.

That attracts very little comment — even though Malcolm Turnbull is not just a putative PM but a minister.

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