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Danger lies in PM'S call to action
Leader article published in The Australian 11 April 2009

The alternative to doing something is to do it better.

KEVIN Rudd's knack of reducing every decision to a choice between doing something, as the Government intends, or doing nothing, as the Opposition proposes, is a powerful political weapon. As a basis for setting public policy, however, it is dangerous and divisive. The Prime Minister delivered his now familiar call to action again this week to justify his multi-billion-dollar plan to deliver high-speed broadband to 90 per cent of homes. A government-owned and operated $43 billion network was the right solution, Mr Rudd told us. Why? "Because the alternative is to sit back and do nothing," he told the ABC's 7.30 Report.

Since the election, Mr Rudd has used the same reasoning to justify a range of policies from laptop computers in schools to regional security agreements. This time last year he was telling us the Government had to do something fiscally responsible to keep inflation in check. Now he argues that the Government must do something fiscally expansionary to stimulate the economy.

The prime ministerial call to action has an appealing ring that resonates with the resilient, can-do spirit that built this nation. If the fence is broke, we fix it. We don't sit on the porch criticising the thickness of the posts or the cost of the barbed wire. Mr Rudd wields the rhetoric frequently and deliberately, using the law of the excluded middle ground to push Malcolm Turnbull towards territory no smart Opposition leader wants to occupy. Mr Turnbull is reduced to whining, whingeing and complaining while the Prime Minister is out there in his RM Williams boots looking busy on the six o'clock news. It matters not that Mr Turnbull has been grievously misrepresented (he does not advocate that the Government should do nothing about the financial crisis, just that it should do something different and less damaging to the budget bottom line). The impression is left that Mr Rudd is the worker, while Mr Turnbull is framed as the shirker.

Frenzied activity is a particularly effective way of spinning a crisis, particularly one so complicated that no one, not even the world's best economists, has a firm grasp of what is going wrong, let alone how to deal with it. A prime minister who gives a credible impression that he knows what he's doing and can speak in acronyms is worth every point of his 68 per cent approval rating.

Our action man Prime Minister is arguably a natural evolution in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. It would be a brave leader who was prepared to front parliament or the press and admit that he was still trying to get his head around the collapse in the global financial system or that he genuinely doesn't have a clue. Mr Rudd's default preference to do something, however, betrays much more than political spin. It demonstrates the interventionist instincts of a career public servant turned politician who believes in broad government and prefers the bureaucratic fist to the invisible hand.

By presenting every issue as a choice between action and inaction, Mr Rudd polarises the debate and marginalises dissent. It is an apagogical argument, one that tries to prove something by contrasting it with a ridiculous alternative, Aristotle's reductio ad adsurdum. It's action or inaction, my way or the highway, build or bulldoze. In reality, however, few if any policy decisions can be reduced to such a stark choice. There are almost always other, and usually better, alternatives to frenzied activity. Doing nothing for a start.

Just because laissez-faire is a French word doesn't make it dirty talk, despite Mr Rudd's attempts to make it so in his lengthy treatise against neo-liberalism. British Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who became a YouTube star with a piercing attack on Gordon Brown's stimulatory approach to the financial crisis, told Lateline's Leigh Sales two weeks ago that the most pernicious phrase in politics is "doing nothing is not an option".

"It's almost never true, by the way. It's almost never true. But, it's sort of taken on a momentum of its own. And so, it happened in Britain, it happened in the US, it happened in Europe. In the immediate aftermath of these banking collapses, there was a rush towards frenzied activity. And voters initially warmed to it, for very understandable reasons. If you've got two people and one of them is saying, "I know! I've got the answer!", and the other one's going, "Well, you know, I don't think there's very much we can do", your instinct, very naturally, is to give the first fellow his chance, you know, to see if he's right. The trouble is that when it turns out that he was wrong, it's too late to do anything about it because the additional spending and the additional intervention takes on a momentum of its own."

Mr Rudd is fond of portraying himself as a centrist leader who steers a course equidistant between the extremes of Left and Right. It's a nonsense that is neatly exposed every time he presents us with a false choice between doing something and doing nothing. As a well-travelled VIP, the Prime Minister should know that a good air hostess has more in her trolley than just the beef or the chicken.

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