Only last week I wrote here about the Prime Minister's clunking inability to get her message across. Bloody awful, I said.
I thought later that perhaps I'd been a bit hard on her. A few readers thought so, too. But then she did that Four Corners program last Monday, proving the point in spades. It was disastrous. Almost a week later, I still cannot imagine why on earth she agreed to appear. Without her, Four Corners didn't have a story.*
In a newspaper you can report what you learn from anonymous but informed sources. Print journalists do it all the time, quite legitimately. Television, though, must have talking heads on camera. In this case it was obvious that anybody of any consequence had headed for the hills. Apart from the Labor spin doctor Bruce Hawker, who had a few sensible things to say, the best the program could scrape together was a trio of irrelevant nonentities and the inevitable Graham Richardson.
But then Gillard offered herself up, blundering into the trap with eyes wide shut. Surely she and her media flacks must have known that the coup that toppled Kevin Rudd would be given a workout, along with the continuing turmoil over the Labor leadership. But when the questions were duly bowled up she looked as shifty as all get-out.
Cringing on the lounge, I found myself asking how her predecessors, Whitlam, Hawke or Keating, would have handled it. First, of course, they wouldn't have fronted. But if they had, they would have chopped the interviewer into cat's meat. Gillard either couldn't or wouldn't. She saved the show, but destroyed herself in the process.
In short, the government has lost that essential political tool: control of the narrative. It does not shape public debate but reacts to it, often in hapless confusion and sometimes close to panic. Take the $16.2 billion Building the Education Revolution program, to give just one example. Designed as part of the stimulus package to get us through the global financial crisis, it was, by any fair measure, a whopping success.
It rescued the building industry from a catastrophic collapse, exactly as planned. More than 23,670 new classrooms, halls, libraries, science laboratories and playgrounds sprang up around the country, to the benefit of millions of students and teachers. Only 3.5 per cent of schools complained of a dud deal; mostly in NSW, which was not the fault of the feds but of incompetence in the state bureaucracy.
Yet the conventional wisdom, whipped along by right-wing rabble-rousers in the press and on talkback radio, is that the BER was a shambolic waste of billions. And nothing the government does or says has changed that perception - not one whit.
You get the feeling this lot couldn't sell hot pies with sauce on a cold day at a footy game.
ANY day now we will get a report on what to do about a new Sydney airport. It will be the 2469th we have had on the subject in the past 40 years and, I imagine, it will go the same way as the other 2468. After six months of furious controversy, its laboriously compiled plans, recommendations, facts, figures, projections, maps, graphs and spreadsheets will end up gathering dust in some Canberra basement.
Governments of all political colours have wrestled with what to do about the noise and congestion at Sydney Airport. All of them have failed, culpably, to get on with the bleeding obvious, which is to build a new one. Anywhere.
In 1974, the Whitlam Labor government decided that Galston, in Sydney's north-west, would be the ideal site. In the election campaign that year, Gough broke the news to the locals at a public rally at nearby Castle Hill. I was there at the time. The place erupted with rage. ''You're going to get Galston!'' he boomed over the uproar. He was lucky he wasn't lynched.
Since then we have had proposals for Wilton, Badgerys Creek and Gosford, and for expanding either Bankstown or the RAAF base at Richmond. The Hawke government even began buying up land at Badgerys Creek until that fell over for sheer lack of political will. The Howard government stuck its head in the sand and did nothing. Affected residents and councils inevitably scream blue murder, marginal electorates teeter, and the greenies discover that a new runway will be death for the blue-spotted whoop frog.
But the powers-that-be do enjoy announcing projects, even if they don't have a hope in hell of happening. It must be about time for the Sydney City Council to tell us, again, of a noble scheme to turn ugly old William Street into the Champs-Elysees of the south. And who knows - in another 50 years or so we might get the Parramatta to Epping railway, or even a smartcard ticketing system for Sydney public transport.
WITH quiet dignity, a handful of old Diggers turned out to recall the fall of Singapore, 70 years ago last Wednesday. A poignant photo on the front page of Thursday's Herald showed the pain of remembrance etched on their faces as they stood silently at the Kranji war memorial.
That defeat - in effect, the end of Empire - brought out the best and worst in us. It is tragically true that some young Australian soldiers panicked and ran amok on the island in the final days. Hardly surprising. The last reinforcements sent there, most still in their teens, were so badly trained and packed off so hurriedly that they could barely reload a .303 rifle. In all, 14,792 Australian men and women went into Japanese prison camps, many to die on the evil Burma-Siam railway.
Worst was the desertion of their commanding officer, the infamous Major General Gordon Bennett, who abandoned his men at the 11th hour and fled back to Australia. Bennett maintained to his dying day that he needed to bring home valuable information on Japanese tactics. In fact, he was intent on wresting command of the army from his hated rival, Tom Blamey. He was never again to lead troops in action. A post-war inquiry gave him only a thin coating of whitewash. He should have been shot.
* Declaration: My wife is a Four Corners producer. She was not involved in the Gillard program.
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