Natasha Cica

KEVIN Rudd has beaten John Howard off the blocks in this key political year by appointing new inner-ring talent. Hawker Britton government relations consultant Walt Secord, previously chief spin doctor to former NSW premier Bob Carr, and prominent media personality Maxine McKew have been handed plum jobs in Rudd’s war room. Just as the same cup can be half full or half empty, so these big-gun appointments represent potential pluses and minuses for Labor.
McKew has been hired as a consultant, her undoubtedly hefty fees paid by the party rather than the taxpayer. This more private arrangement is one part masterstroke, taking McKew a symbolic step away from her strong association — notwithstanding those famous Packer-purse lunches in The Bulletin with our publicly funded national broadcaster. McKew’s ABC record is something the Government’s cheer squad fastens onto like ferrets on a Meatybite, conveniently overlooking the career trajectory of long-time Howard political favourite Pru Goward, another bigger-picture former Aunty star.

Yet the special McKew deal also happens to reinforce the view that mates still count more than merit in the ALP.

At the end of the working day, like Hillary Clinton, the clearly talented McKew comes home to a spouse of enduring political gravitas: Bob Hogg, former national secretary of the Labor Party, who ran successful election campaigns for Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It is hard to imagine Hogg denying McKew the A-list contacts in his little black Palm Pilot, and party insiders were freely circulating rumours of her preselection ambitions long before Mark Latham’s spew-all memoir.

If Maxine’s a little bit Hillary, is Walt a tad Obama? Telegenically, and despite his origins (he’s Canadian-born and raised on a First Nation reservation, the son of an indigenous American father and Anglo-Canadian mother), the answer is no. But on those fronts that matter more behind the news? Walt’s not the standard kind of featureless, boring hack, comments one Labor insider. He can be charming and interesting, but he’s addicted to the cheap-shot intrigue of power politics. If that’s the half-empty take, how about half-full? Internal support for Secord comes from his surprising recent push for Labor to express more vocal and muscular Australian opposition to the death penalty — and naturally for his role in masterminding the Bob Carr makeover, from a slightly too academic sounding, too geeky looking type (sound familiar?) to a kind of Aussie sun king.

Rudd’s new team anchors promise an intriguing mix of conservative and expansive, closed and open. Like it or not, exactly that tension-packed blend is one of the defining features of Australia after 10 years of Howard Government. So if McKew and Secord shake their half-full, half-empty cocktail right, Howard should get a real run for his money. And this pair is more likely to hit the mark than most who’ve clocked up the straight enough credentials to get these gigs — because, like some two-headed Hillary beast, now they’re in, and they’re in to win.

McKew, in particular, is clearly much more volunteer than conscript, with promising real-world career options including offshore prospects — only one of which is entering the discomfort zone of contemporary Labor’s narrow rules of engagement. To make a real difference, she’ll need to draw deeply on her professional experience as a working journalist. Entrenched Labor culture is crying out for a perspective that values asking hard questions and facing confronting truths. If McKew’s not up to that in her new role, let’s at least hope the ABC builds on her performance in her old one to recruit a suitable replacement, to freshen up its flagship sites of televised interrogation in the public interest.

And Secord? Once a spinner maybe always a spinner, in which case he might be sprucing up his notorious truth trolley to wheel into Canberra’s press gallery. But he’s also probably memorised every word uttered by tobacco flack Nick Naylor in last year’s movie Thank You For Smoking, including the memorable comment: if you want an easy job, go and work for the Red Cross.

And remember sexy Nick’s dinner with sultry investigative journalist Heather Hallows, approximately as damaging as John Della Bosca’s lunch with Maxine McKew? Heather: Nick, why do you do this? What motivates you? Nick: You really want to know? Population control. Heather: You’re bad! Nick: Everyone’s got a mortgage to pay. Voiceover: The yuppie Nuremberg defence.

Labor needs that kind of editorial intelligence on its scriptwriting team for election 2007, and beyond.

Natasha Cica is director of management and communications consultancy Periwinkle Projects. She has advised a range of federal parliamentarians. First published in The Age, January 24.