Australia now effectively has three Prime Ministers; the populist, the pragmatist and the politician. All three were hard at work last week, beavering away in front of the TV cameras as they sought to lead the nation in their three unique ways. One wants to be loved, one wants to be listened to, and one craves respect and legitimacy.
In some ways, we should be grateful. Who says you only need one leader? Plenty of European countries have run on troikas, including the USSR briefly after Stalin croaked and it didn’t do the Russians any harm (comparatively), so why should it bother us?
Our populist leader – the one recognized as Australia’s PM by everyone overseas - returned to his favorite haunt this week, a schoolyard on the Gold Coast hinterland where, surrounded by adoring Aryan-looking sun-bleached Aussie school kids in peaked hats and bright tee shirts, he was able to show off his brilliant PR and diplomatic skills. Sounding nicer and more reasonable than any human being should ever have to, Kevin slid the knife ever so gently out of his own back, and with the greatest of aplomb, popped it squarely back where it belongs - between the shoulder blades of Simon Crean. "Can I just say this..?" began Mr Ever-so-humble-and-exceedingly-reasonable, and we knew we were in for a doozy. He didn't disappoint. As the kiddies gazed up at him, with expressions normally reserved for a Bono, a Federer or a Justin Bieber, Kevin neatly countered Crean’s ambush attack and turned his graceless criticism that he was "a prima donna" and "not a team player" abruptly on it's head: "I am proud to be a member of this ministerial team, which is very strong, very dedicated, very hard-working and in which Simon himself plays a very positive role,'' said the foreign minister; humility, sincerity and Prime Ministerial magnanimity oozing out of every pore. The kiddies, the journalists and the Queensland hinterland swooned as one.
Meanwhile, in the nation's capitol, suitably attired in a smart suit and the same tie he wore to the Lobby punch up on Australia Day, our pragmatic leader – the one who has dictated the government’s agenda this year and says what most people outside the beltway think - set out to prove to a sceptical audience of hardened journos that he’s more than just a fluro vest and a pair of tight fitting togs. Having spent most of the year telling the government what not to do and how not to do it, it was time for a bit of overdue 'positivity.' Telling it like it is came easy to Abbott, but utterly confounded the press gallery, so conditioned as they are to a daily diet of deception and spin. Pragmatically - and honestly - Abbott pointed out that there wasn't a great deal any Prime Minister can readily commit to until the budget is back in strong surplus. In other words, in a world that is being brought to it's knees by mountains of government-generated debt, wouldn't it be a smart idea to sit tight and hold off on the overblown spending commitments, grandiose projects and novelty taxes that risk tipping our own perilously-poised economy over the edge? Explaining his aspirations, principles and priorities - practical measures he intends to see achieved on dental health, aboriginal welfare, disability care and so on - clearly left the nation's top journalists confounded and more than a little frustrated. They'd far rather have a 'core promise' to jot down in the cynical hope that they can string him up with it further down the track.
And finally, way down south, our nuts and bolts political leader – the one who gets to have all the fun doing backroom deals and backflips - went to work, mouthing carefully scripted words to sell us something nobody asked for and almost certainly nobody will ever see: her new economy. Taken straight out of the mouths of focus group groupies, the "new economy" is a soundbite phrase carefully selected by the same mob who gave us "we are us" and "moving forward." it sounds thrilling and enticing but on closer inspection is devoid of meaning. Attempting to steal credit from Howard and Costello for the rivers of gold that Labor found sloshing around in the vaults under Parliament house and promptly spent, at best the "new economy" is jargon for a robust mining boom being pilfered by a punitive couple of wealth redistribution measures; one a straight out envy tax, the other disingenuously presented as "saving the planet."
All three speeches received the appropriate media coverage and varying degrees of acclaim. We are blessed to have three such gifted Prime Ministers. At some point, however, we might actually have to choose between them.