Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 12:50 | SYDNEY
Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 12:50 | SYDNEY

The Kevin writes for the masses


Graeme Dobell

9 November 2011 14:57

One of the many fascinating elements of having Kevin Rudd as foreign minister is how he has blossomed into a prolific producer of opinion pieces. Not for The Kevin that hollow old political cop-out that he is not going to act as a commentator. Not only does the foreign minister often pose his own questions at doorstops, he has shown a real flair for churning out opinion pieces. 

As Australia's media inquiry cranks up, this is one response to the wonderful question-and-answer posed by the Greens' leader, Bob Brown: 'What is the difference between an Australian abattoir, an Australian brothel and an Australian newspaper? You don't need a licence for an Australian newspaper.' Well,  politics might be a bloody business, but anyone can try to write for the newspapers — even the foreign minister. And write he has!

Last year, feeling his way into the new job allotted him by the Labor caucus, the foreign minister managed just one opinion piece. But this year he has been churning them out at an average of three a month.

You might say that, as the head of a mighty department of state that devotes much of its endeavours to producing words on subjects innumerable, churning out a few op-eds doesn't add much to the work load. But doing an opinion piece is a bit different to marshaling the facts for a PPQ (Possible Parliamentary Questions).

In a lecture nearly a century ago on Politics as a Vocation, Max Weber offered a marvellous observation about the task: 'Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.' Weber also had some thoughts on the problems of the chap who writes for the opinion pages:

The inner demands that are directed precisely at the successful journalist are especially difficult. It is, indeed, no small matter to frequent the salons of the powerful on this earth on a seemingly equal footing and often to be flattered by all because one is feared, yet knowing all the time that having hardly closed the door the host has perhaps to justify before his guests his association with the 'scavengers from the press.' Moreover, it is no small matter that one must express oneself promptly and convincingly about this and that, on all conceivable problems of life — whatever the 'market' happens to demand — and this without becoming absolutely shallow and above all without losing one's dignity by baring oneself, a thing which has merciless results. It is not astonishing that there are many journalists who have become human failures and worthless men.

Ah, Kevin, be careful where you venture.

In taking to the opinion pages, Rudd is attending to one of the growing tasks of the modern Australian foreign minister: the media role of commentator-in-chief. As a previous column noted, the duty statement for the commentator-in-chief has grown over the past two decades to the point where it has acquired some structural or institutional status. The foreign minister fronts the microphones continually to announce, comment and predict. 

In his op-eds, Rudd ranges widely: NATO, Burma, G20, North Korea, the Commonwealth. When Rudd puts himself on the page, though, there can be moments of personal reporting. Take this from March:

The Saturday before last, I sat down in Cairo with some of the young people who led the popular revolution in Egypt. Among the many remarkable things about this group, I noticed that a good third of them were women; very diverse women, from human rights activists to modern secularists to members of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Egypt's revolution was diverse in many ways, not least because it was a movement of women as much as of men.

Most of the time, the op-ed tone is direct and upbeat, as you'd expect from the commentator-in-chief. And like any good freelance, Rudd spreads his work. His musings have popped up with Fairfax, Murdoch, the West Australian and the ABC. But he certainly does seem partial to writing for the Daily Telegraph and the Australian; no doubt just the opportunity to talk to both the tabloid and the broadsheet audiences. As Weber would have observed, so much to do, so many boards to bore.

Photo courtesy of DFAT.