Brown Study

Brown study

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

I see that Kevin Rudd has been appointed to a teaching job in international politics at Harvard University, specialising in China-US relations. The appointment reminded me of the remark of the conservative wit, William Buckley Jr, that it would be better to be governed by the first 100 people in the Boston telephone directory than the entire faculty of Harvard. So I have been struggling to understand just what those qualities might be that led to Rudd’s appointment, and I think I have been able to identify some of them. The first — his shy and retiring nature — was conveniently set out by Mr Rudd himself in the press release announcing his appointment: the colliding worlds of China and the US’s economic and military power can be assessed only by the pivotal work he is about to undertake and, even then, only if personal responsibility for its progress is assumed by one man — him. Then there is his recognition as a past master of the nuances of international conferences, a skill he demonstrated so ably at the climate conference in Copenhagen by his delicate use of refined diplomatic language, particularly when deployed against the Chinese.

Moreover, he is highly skilled at managing our close relationship with the US, shown when explaining the G20 to President Bush in a private conversation, sharing with his staff his hilarity at the President’s contribution and then leaking it to the press. But his firmest commitment to international relations must surely come from his unshakeable belief in the importance of national sovereignty and border security; not for him the open door to anyone minded to get into designer clothes, buy a smartphone, burn their passport and sail to Christmas Island in a rotting fishing boat. Nor can domestic politics be forgotten in enumerating these manifold qualities, for Mr Rudd was renowned for the cautious appraisal of every proposal that came before him. Where, for example, would the National Broadband Network be today without the historic plan for its roll-out first conceived on the back of an envelope with Senator Conroy? And who, other than our hero, could have seen the wisdom of stimulating the economy by simply giving money away to spend on plasma TVs sets, alcohol and gambling; why, this single act of generosity led directly to the rise of both the tattoo and the tattoo removal industries.

Moreover, his pink batts programme became a precedent for how a government scheme can be implemented overnight with no legislation, bureaucratic obstructions, red tape, bothersome quality control or time-wasting training and certainly no concern for safety, budgets, waste of money or national debt. And all of these qualities were on show in the convivial atmosphere created by the man himself and characterised by his playful joshing of junior staff who might have forgotten a hairdryer here or a specific meal there and the love and affection generated among his colleagues by the collegiate relationship, team spirit and boyish banter played out in the cabinet room. Harvard’s gain is our loss.

For what Sir Humphrey would call a courageous decision and I would call an innovative and ground-breaking approach to running a newspaper company, it would be hard to go beyond Fairfax boss Greg Hywood’s description at the AGM of his company’s new tactical approach. For several years Fairfax’s circulation figures had been, how shall I say, coloured by the fact that its newspapers were frequently not sold, but given away. It was impossible to go to the Melbourne Museum or any cultural event subsidised by the poor for the rich without being given a copy of the Age. Nor could you have the ritualistic Melbourne café latte without having a free Age at your elbow. But at the AGM it was revealed that the demeaning practice of ‘pushing circulation’ was a relic of the decadent past and would be abandoned in favour of ‘strategic portfolio repositioning’, ‘events’, ‘data’ and a few other concepts that will usher in a new era of riches for the shareholders.

A newspaper company that shuns circulation is certainly novel. He may be right. What worries me is this spreading pessimism and defeatism in business: as you will not take our newspapers even if we give them away, we will no longer try to sell them to you; too many people refuse to buy our cars, alfoil or tinned peaches or fly in our aircraft, so the government will have to bail us out or we will just shut down.

I have been brushing up my lecture on Machiavelli and came upon one of his principles of government that I am passing on to Joe Hockey as he comes to assess the report of the Commission of Audit. The master observed in The Prince that there is no sliding scale of reward or punishment for government decisions; you get the same abuse for reducing a pension by $10 as if you reduced it by $20; you get the same praise (i.e. none) if you increase a pension by $10 as if you increased it by $20 and threw in a free copy of the Age. In any event, most people will forget either decision in three weeks. My message: cut government spending; do it now and do it substantially. In a week it will seem like a disaster; in six months it will seem like genius.

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