Opinion

Kevin Rudd
What Murdoch does to new governments

As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s new ministers settle in to their portfolios, efforts are already under way by the Murdoch media to undermine the government.

Take, for example, their complete beat-up about Tanya Plibersek being “sidelined” through her “relegation” to minister for the Environment and Water. In the Murdoch vernacular, being appointed to a high-profile, multibillion-dollar cabinet portfolio tackling some of the biggest challenges facing our nation is being “toppled”. It is patently ludicrous. Yet this narrative spawned more than a dozen print articles, still more online, and countless Sky News segments probing it for higher meaning.

A second narrative emerging in the alternate universe that is Rupert Murdoch’s empire is related to the new government’s alleged culpability for the macroeconomic problems it inherited from the Morrison–Frydenberg regime. After a long absence from the Murdoch front pages, debt and deficit are back at the top of Murdoch news. Over the past nine years, net debt has quadrupled and is on track to rise above $1 trillion. Inflation and interest rate rises, which were blamed on global factors while Morrison was in office, are now sheeted home to the domestic policy responsibilities of the new government.

Another subtle change in Murdoch’s coverage of Albanese compared with Scott Morrison is the use of formal titles. Irrespective of what atrocities Morrison was responsible for on a given day, Murdoch routinely referred to him respectfully in the headlines as “PM”. Far more rarely was he “Morrison”. Even more rarely were “Liberals” to blame. With Anthony Albanese, it’s routinely just “Labor”. With me it was either “Rudd” or “Labor” but far less frequently “PM”. It’s part of a longstanding editorial strategy to incrementally legitimise Liberal prime ministers and delegitimise their Labor counterparts.

The Murdoch papers are pushing another line, which reheats their coverage of my government. Multiple commentators have written pieces asking whether Albanese has learnt the lessons of the “chaotic” and “dysfunctional” Rudd years.

 

The truth is new governments always take time to settle in. This fact is often forgotten after long periods of opposition. By the time we took over in 2007, for example, Howard’s first-term pains had already become political ancient history and the Murdoch memory machine ensured they stayed that way.

Forgotten was the fact Howard’s first term had been utterly shambolic. He lost seven ministers through an unending series of ethical scandals. He also lost his own chief of staff, Grahame Morris, whose resignation he was forced to accept after the so-called “travelgate” rorts.

By contrast, I lost one minister in my first term for mistakes Howard or Morrison would have regarded as utterly trivial. Still, barely six months into my government Murdoch’s The Australian kicked off its campaign to delegitimise us with the blaring front page “Anger builds around Rudd as chaos reigns at the top”. It accompanied a long feature, “Captain Chaos and the workings of the inner circle”, and a breathless editorial featuring the same nickname.

The backstory was that The Australian’s then editor, Chris Mitchell, was incandescent with rage at my refusal to provide cabinet leaks in deference to his self-defined position at the centre of the political universe. He had expected we would brief out each week’s major cabinet submissions to The Australian, which the Howard government had done so Murdoch could set the week’s political agenda.

When we did not offer these briefings, Mitchell warned he would retaliate, and he did. It continued for years to come, with daily personal smears against me, our ministers, our internal processes and our policy programs. It became a systematic campaign of political delegitimisation.

Any incoming Labor government needs to be deeply mindful of the games Murdoch plays. What set earlier first-term governments apart from mine was that, despite their internal eccentricities, their teams stuck together. In my case, five faceless factional war lords weaponised Murdoch’s “Captain Chaos” narrative to stage an internal political coup. The faceless men did not support my policies on climate action and the economy. More importantly, they sought the political opportunity for promotion under a new leader.

This enduring political damage was compounded by those five men giving succour to the Murdoch-sponsored chaos narrative, citing it as the ex post facto justification for their actions. By their own subsequent admission, the campaign to sow this justification among the wider political class was centrally organised and co-ordinated by them.

The Murdoch narrative was built around the accusation of cabinet dysfunction. It’s worth considering the documentary record on this for the simple reason that the truth never slows down a Murdoch story. The concentration of his ownership, his ability to financially sustain loss-making papers such as The Australian, and the way in which broadcast media relies on his titles for their content still enables Murdoch to set the country’s agenda.

I have already acknowledged on the record that our cabinet process was not perfect – none ever is – but it was strong by any standard. Cabinet met regularly and every member was given the opportunity to speak. Practically all discussions were conducted in a spirit of good humour, orderly debate, policy contribution and based on agendas circulated well in advance. We held strategic planning days every six months, where the whole cabinet developed and maintained a plan with colour-coded annotations indicating whether key programs were on track.

These were good systems. They were maintained despite dealing with the global financial crisis, which saw major banks and sharemarkets crash around the world. We also dealt with the complexity of the Defence White Paper of 2009, the Fair Work Act, the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, the National Health and Hospitals Reform Agreement, National Water Reform, the National Curriculum, the initiation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and national aged and disability pension reform, among others.

There was one extra element of our cabinet process that was novel. We flung open the doors to Professor Patrick Weller – the nationally recognised authority on cabinet history – to evaluate our processes, giving him virtually full access and inviting ministers to speak fearlessly. Weller concluded our cabinet meetings were “civilised, ordered and restrained”, where all options were welcome, decisions were taken without divisive votes, and nobody was made to feel humiliated for their contribution.

As with any job, some days as prime minister are uplifting and others are gruelling. Governments have great days when things go to plan, and bad ones, too. But the convenient Murdoch meme of “chaos and dysfunction” associated with the previous Labor government should be seen for the politically and ideologically self-serving spin-line that it is and was. Their objective then, as now, is to prevent Labor governments from being elected. If they fail at that, their focus turns to get Labor out of office as rapidly as possible. Delegitimising the leader is where they always start.

The challenge for Prime Minister Albanese and his team is that growing pains are inevitable, especially after a long period of lethargic, incompetent and frankly corrupt governance that has degraded the public service and many of our other public institutions.

The new government’s enemies – led by Murdoch and his Coalition partner Peter Dutton – will seize on any opportunity to manufacture the appearance of chaos, disunity and dysfunction. I believe that this time, the cabinet and caucus will see it for what it is. And drawing on the lessons of 2010, and the rule changes I introduced in 2013, I believe they will hold their nerve once the inevitable political assault unfolds.

There is nothing that delights Murdoch more than removing Labor leaders – premiers and prime ministers – or destabilising them. There are two reasons for this: first, Murdoch is personally addicted to power; second, he always wants governments to do his policy and financial bidding. Look at what he got Morrison and Josh Frydenberg to do on the digital media bargaining code and the cash it so handsomely delivered to the News Corp balance sheet.

In 23 of the past 23 federal and state elections, Murdoch has viciously campaigned against the Labor Party. He has also done this between elections. He will do the same in Victoria later this year and in New South Wales early next. Just as he will do, once again, federally in 2025. Most MPs, Labor and Liberal, are terrified of Murdoch. That’s why the party, the nation and what’s left of the independent media must remain vigilant.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "What Murdoch does to new governments".

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Kevin Rudd is a former Labor prime minister and the chair of Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission.

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