Hounds baying for Rudd

The press pack is starting to tire of savaging only John Howard.

Senior political journalists are about to apply the blowtorch to Kevin Rudd -- though modern day campaigning techniques might insulate him from much of the heat.
With increasing dismay, journalists have watched John Howard reeling under the sustained pressure of an election campaign crippled by his own history.

Few have missed the opportunity to do what they have to do. Punch, and punch again as the issues mount against him.

The past weekend was the bloodiest of them all.

Already under pressure over the prospect of an unprecedented increase in interest rates during an election campaign, the Prime Minister had to deal on the Sunday program with a transcript of a three year old ABC radio interview in which he pledged to keep the rates at "30 year lows". That proved to be even more damaging than the Liberal Party advertisements circa 2004 promising to keep the rates at record lows.

And then, compounding the difficulties, Malcolm Turnbull's desperate pitch to Cabinet six weeks ago to do a policy backflip and ratify Kyoto, was leaked. John Howard again, had nowhere to hide, though he reduced the size of the target by appearing just once in public in 48 hours.

But all this has simply served to steel the resolve in the minds of many key political journalists to see to it that Kevin Rudd feels the heat as well.

There is a mounting feeling that they are not doing enough to test him under pressure, that he has been allowed to stay on message and that the media as a whole has not been demanding answers to key questions.

The Australian's political commentator, Paul Kelly, touched on this on the ABC’s Insiders at the weekend when he said it was "untenable" for the media not to do more.

"Labor's spin is very good," he said, "but there are many questions based on what we know of Labor's policies and what we don't know of Labor's policies."

High on the journalists’ "to do" list is the government's intervention in the Northern Territory. So far, Kevin Rudd has managed to skate by with unqualified but broadbrush support for what the minister, Mal Brough, has done. But in the meantime, Labor's Chief Minister in the Northern Territory, Clare Martin, and Labor's federal member for Lingiari in the NT, Warren Snowden, have been far less enthusiastic.

The abolition of the permits system and selective bans on alcohol and pornography trouble many Labor supporters.

When the NT cabinet minister, Marion Scrymgour, accused the federal government of concocting a "black kids Tampa", she struck a chord with many of them, but the closeness of election day has muted their responses.

Kevin Rudd will be questioned too on the economy and, in particular, on how an industrial relations policy that is more accommodating to workers can hope to match the government's anti-inflationary measures.

There’s also what he will do in a practical sense to ensure there is no transfer of power to the unions after the election. Bob Hawke won their co-operation with a prices and incomes accord. What will Kevin Rudd do?

Tax policy too, demands more questions, according to the journalists.

Some analysts argue that Labor is promising to make the tax scales less progressive than the coalition. The argument being put - by Brian Toohey in the Financial Review among others - is that many people on the existing 30 per cent marginal rate will pay an effective rate of 34 per cent because of the gradual withdrawal of the increased low-income tax offset promised by both major parties.

There are many unanswered questions on climate change too, with the longer term approach beyond the signing of Kyoto still to be spelled out.

And quite frankly, some of the journalists are anxious to become more aggressive, more assertive and more demanding simply to see whether Rudd can handle it.

And so the blow torch will come out. But here's the problem. Modern day campaigning is now so top-secret and last-minute that access is difficult for all those who don't sign up for what is known as the magical mystery tour. And this applies to both Labor and Liberal.

The night before an event, the travelling media often don't even know what city they are going to be in. And even on the day itself, they board buses without knowing the destination. It is all designed to keep the other side guessing and to minimise organised attempts to disrupt events.

So the select few who are prepared to sacrifice most of the day to see the leaders on the stump first hand, get to ask a few questions during the obligitary "doorstop" event, a few minutes set aside in a paddock or a factory. Invariably, those doorstops focus on the news of the day. The travelling media in particular are the very ones who need to follow the 24-hour news cycle. Follow up questions are difficult, given that you are competing with your colleagues to get any question answered.

News conferences in the major cities - the type when the leader fronts the lectern and the media take a seat - are virtually a thing of the past. And it's really only in that forum that policies can be adequately explored. And so it is against that background that the media will attempt to build the pressure on Kevin Rudd, even if just to free themselves of a mounting sense of duty. Rudd after all, has already bothered many of them because of his preference for FM radio against AM. He does far more interviews on radio with people who rarely discuss politics than he does with the traditional talkback hosts.

Having said all that, by all accounts, those travelling with Rudd have at least enjoyed some private time with him. On Friday night, for example, he set aside some hours to have drinks with them.

Howard on the other hand, hasn't been able to socialise.

The demands of Bennelong and the contributions from errant ministers is sapping his time, his energies and surely his patience.

Barrie Cassidy is host of Insiders on ABC TV, a former correspondent in Brussels and Washington and a former adviser to prime minister Bob Hawke.

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