Will Rudd's 'adios' threaten NBN funding?

As the knee-jerk defensive responses to Rudd's "adios" subside and Australia moves on, has Rudd made Australia that little less appealing to the overseas investors he desperately needs to fund his NBN?

Of all the things one might have expected to happen in the wake of Sol Trujillo's departure, a public furore over claims about his racist treatment would have been one of the least likely.

But that's exactly what our illustrious Prime Minister brought onto himself with a single word uttered on hearing news that Trujillo had left the country.

As happens with just about everything these days, allegations that Rudd's "adios" comment was racist quickly became political fodder. Victoria's Premier John Brumby — Labor, of course — joined everyone from the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) to Irish-born Qantas CEO Alan Joyce attacking Trujillo's comments as sour grapes. And, as if on cue, Nick Minchin offered his own opinion, labelling Rudd "contemptuous, rude, sneering and entirely inappropriate for an Australian Prime Minister and former diplomat."

All were reacting to the somewhat spurious conclusion that observers quickly reached — that Trujillo, in reacting to Rudd's claims, was calling all Australians racist. In fact, it's ridiculous to say that all Australians are anything, since as we all know Australia is a culturally rich and diverse country with a huge variety of philosophies.

Was Rudd's comment racist? You bet it was. Consider whether he would have used the same word if [Irish-born] Joyce had been leaving.

Yet was Rudd's comment racist? You bet it was.

Consider whether he would have used the same word if Joyce, for example, had been leaving. I think not. Rudd's choice of a Spanish word — an unfittingly contemptuous, wisecracked choice that belittled him and ceded the moral upper hand — reflected his underlying perceptions about both Trujillo and his ethnicity. By treating Trujillo in a different way than he would anybody else, just because of his ethnicity, Rudd was speaking in a racist way.

Trujillo, meanwhile, returned to a country where 11 per cent of the population are native Spanish speakers and a much larger percentage speaks the language; where a person being of Hispanic origin is as unremarkable as an Australian being of English stock; and where a Hispanic American, Puerto Rico-born Sonia Sotomayor, was just named as Barack Obama's nomination to the country's Supreme Court.

By contrast, Trujillo — who, by the way, was born not in Mexico but in Wyoming, the home of big skies and big cattle (just think of the scenery, if not the plot, of Brokeback Mountain) — was labelled as a Mexican throughout his tenure at Telstra. It was there in the constant news coverage of his "three amigos"; there in the chronic mispronunciations of his name (it's "true-hee-yo", folks, not "true-jill-o"); there in news headlines like "Mexican stand-off on Sol" and "Adios, amigo, to the man who enfeebled Telstra".

It's there, perhaps most worryingly, in the embarrassing political cartoons (like this and this) marking Trujillo's departure. The tone of public portrayals of Trujillo soured so much in the days before his departure that I'm surprised nobody found a way to blame him for the Mexico-originated swine flu.

Perhaps much of this can be explained away by Australia's tradition of irreverence, as can the constant harping on Trujillo's salary be explained by our well-acknowledged endemic case of tall poppy syndrome. Yet the media should perhaps take a moment to seriously consider the unnecessarily racist brush with which it painted Trujillo. We may not have agreed with his policies, but his character or ethnicity were never germane to the discussion.

After all, do we refer to Rudd as being an Irish Prime Minister? And does he make a point of it, at least any time other than when he can score political points on St Patrick's Day?

Rudd needs to have his charm offensive in top form to garner overseas investment in the NBN

That Trujillo was being paid a healthy salary doesn't make racist overtones any more right, and it doesn't minimise the potential consequences of such treatment. After all, with just one word, Kevin Rudd shaped the public discourse about Sol Trujillo — but more importantly, he presented a dangerous precedent for investment in Australian telecoms going forward.

Rudd needs to have his charm offensive in top form to garner overseas investment in the NBN, if he is to deliver on his grand vision without the government having to foot the entire bill. Perceptions that Australia wants overseas money but will not tolerate overseas CEOs, or outside perspectives, will not go down with the foreign investors that will be necessary to fill out the balance of the $21 billion or so in private investment that Rudd is hoping to attract.

Those who think that much investment can be found from exclusively Australian sources may need to reconsider: the only way to raise that much locally would be to give Telstra a disproportionate stake in the new NBN company, which would be a disastrous and backwards step.

Of course, new Telstra CEO David Thodey — who would seemingly be more acceptable to rabid anti-Americans but won't necessarily be paid any less — will likely be more used to the Australian way (and likely be embraced by Australians just like the Finn brothers, Russell Crowe, and others before him). He's also likely to have already heard most of the New Zealander jokes likely to be thrown his way by an Australian media contingent that has never been afraid to throw sensitivity and tact out the window in the name of a good poke in the ribs. And that, of course, will make it all OK.

Won't it?

Was Rudd out of line, or is a little bit of racism OK? Did Trujillo have it coming? And what lessons can we take from this furore?


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