Thursday, June 24, 2010

New Boss: Same As The Old Boss?

There’s a well known line in the old song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, a hit for The Who back in 1971, which goes “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”. After today’s extraordinary change of leadership in the Federal Labor Party, giving Australia our first woman Prime Minister, there will no doubt be some people who will say that no matter whether it is Julia or Kevin in charge of the Labor Party, it is still the same party that ran into so much trouble with a string of controversies. Whether it’s the school building program, the home insulation program or the decision to abandon the proposed emissions trading scheme, Julia Gillard was on board with every decision along the way. So is the new boss really the same as the old boss, or is there likely to be a genuine change in the way the Government?

The first point has to be that Kevin Rudd is a little different from your average politician. Obviously intelligent and hardworking, he nevertheless seemed to have some difficulty connecting with ordinary everyday people. Famously referred to as the “Ruddbot” by many, he seemed to be driven by a relentless logic which often left others in its wake. When he made the decision to delay the emissions trading scheme it was for purely pragmatic reasons but it was done in such a passionless way that it left many wondering if he had any principles at all. Stories of his workaholic habits, his relentless demands of staff, and what seemed to be a deficiency in people skills, along with his particular way of speaking, all added up to the perception that he was, well a bit of a control freak.

The second point is one that I made more than a week ago (see my blog entry “Mixed Messages…” on Wednesday June 16). In recent weeks, there had been a growing disconnect between what the then Prime Minister was saying on the proposed mining tax and the statements of many of his senior colleagues. At a time when Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Craig Emmerson, and even Wayne Swan were all talking up the possibility of negotiating a resolution with the mining industry, Kevin Rudd was saying such things as “no retreat”, and “no backdown”, indicating something at odds with any normally accepted concept of negotiation. It was clear even then that there was a growing gap between Mr. Rudd and a significant number of his senior colleagues. For those reasons, the events of today are not entirely surprising, notwithstanding their exceedingly dramatic nature.

The challenge for Julia Gillard now is to make it clear that as the new boss, she is not just the same as the old boss. Her first step in that direction was taken when she announced that she was opening the doors of the government to the mining industry for real negotiation. As part of the deal she announced the immediate withdrawal of the government’s advertising for the tax, and called upon the mining industry to do the same to demonstrate their good faith. It was a decisive strategic step which will go a long way towards breaking the circuit. If the mining companies go along with the proposal it represents a win for the new Prime Minister. If they refuse, then it is still a win for the Prime Minister because it would simply leave the mining companies looking desperate and greedy. Will it work? Well, it already has, with BHP having suspended its advertising this afternoon.

Perhaps, the new boss is not really the same as the old boss at all, but either way, that doesn’t mean that the government has changed it’s stripes.

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