Federal Politics


Rudd on hand when times are challenging

Dusk was settling over the laid-back crowd at the reconciliation concert on the grass at Parliament House when Kevin Rudd arrived.

It took him 10 minutes to move 10 metres because he was surrounded by joyful indigenous Australians, "his" people, all wanting to have their picture taken with their hero.

The emotional return came at the end of a big day for Rudd, and Australia.

The sacked PM had only just finished eating cake with press gallery veteran Michelle Grattan at a gathering to mark her departure from The Age to work with the University of Canberra and on a website.

As usual, he attracted all the attention. The cameras zoomed in on his smile, one that is almost as broad as that of Ian Macdonald as the disgraced minister emerges from the ICAC hearings.

During the day, two interrelated dynamics emerged, with Rudd at the centre of both.


One was the historic decision by party leaders to set aside politics to back the process of recognition of indigenous Australians in the constitution.

The other was the dark swirl within the Labor Party about what Rudd is up to. Some MPs are incredulous - and very angry - that even a spark of leadership speculation is emerging again.

Many indigenous people were in Parliament to hear Prime Minister Julia Gillard refer to the "unhealed wound that even now lies open at the heart of our national story".

"No gesture speaks more deeply to the healing of our nation's fabric than amending our nation's founding charter," she said.

"This bill seeks to foster momentum for a referendum for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples."

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott referred to "this stain on our soul".

"We need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears, to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people," he said.

"We have to acknowledge, that pre-1788, this land was Aboriginal then as it is Australian now, and until we have acknowledged that we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people.''

With such bipartisan support, the legislation went through quickly and was greeted with applause from the public gallery and from indigenous leaders, including Patrick Dodson and Lowitja O'Donoghue, who had been seated in the visitors' section on the floor of the chamber for the historic vote.

The date was significant: the fifth anniversary of the apology by Rudd to the stolen generations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to rate among the most disadvantaged in all social indicators in Australia. So what is the significance of the passage of the legislation?

Very few referendums have been successful because any changes to the constitution require the support of the majority of the people in a majority of states.

The bill passed on Wednesday recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first inhabitants of Australia.

It has been a long time coming and is seen as an interim step on the path towards a referendum for constitutional change.

Hence the preamble to the legislation notes that further consultation is necessary to refine plans for a referendum and to boost community support for the change.

The Prime Minister has indicated the referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution is likely to be held next year.

The bipartisan support in Parliament this week should ensure the successful passage of the referendum, regardless of which party is in power after the election.

The warmth in the House of Representatives for the bill was in stark contrast to the thoughts of many Labor MPs who are extremely concerned by continuing speculation surrounding Rudd's ambitions.

Gillard's supporters are circulating an email from a Sydney woman critical of Rudd's "childish" and "disloyal" profile-raising activities.

"You delight in half smiles and non-committal responses," the email tells Rudd.

The email is being sent around to warn Rudd against any leadership destabilisation in an election year.

But, once again, there are reports Rudd is "reaching out" to his colleagues and having dinner with power brokers.

And he's posted 19 videos on his YouTube channel since January 30 when Gillard announced the date of the election.

The Prime Minister is in enough trouble without Rudd popping up with his analysis of the budgetary situation.

All week she has been trying to deny the undeniable - that the mining tax is a flop.

Raising $126 million in six months against a year-long target of $3 billion is a disaster, particularly when you are looking for so much money to fund big ticket items.

The botched introduction of the mining tax killed Rudd's prime ministership.

This week he used a television interview to remind caucus colleagues that the original resource super profits tax had been stronger but had been watered down by Gillard after the leadership coup of mid-2010.

He took particular care to blame his former school mate Wayne Swan for introducing the original tax.

And he noted that Gillard and Swan had effectively weakened it with "significant changes" with the result that the tax "has not collected any real revenue of any significance so far".

Rudd's revenge was delivered with exquisite timing because it came just as Gillard and Swan were battling a chorus of opposition attacks on the tax.

Gillard says she has "no plans" to modify the mining tax but the government is reviewing the GST's distribution and how sharp rises in state royalties may be curbed.

In a diversion from Labor's script, the government's chief whip Joel Fitzgibbon criticised the arrangements for state royalties and called for the government to make changes.

The tension surrounding the operation of the tax is being heightened by the Greens' demands to make it tougher, and the mining industry's preparedness for another brutal round of advertisements just before the election.

The obvious failure of the mining tax, despite the government's denials, is distracting from the messages Gillard wants to tell.

And the tension about Rudd's motivation is an irritant that threatens to continue, unless he can be persuaded to abruptly take up a diplomatic post.

As this is my last regular column, I thank my regular readers for your contribution over the years.

Twitter: @rosspeakeCT