The Rudd phenomenon

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Monday, 28 June 2010 07:07 by Ad astra

I have always liked Kevin Rudd.  I still do.  When he first came to prominence as shadow foreign minister I remember being impressed with his grasp of his subject matter and his articulateness.  I enjoyed listening to him on TV and radio, and occasionally in parliament when he hammered the Howard Government.  Back then I found I understood every word he uttered.  I still do.  Yet it is his ‘poor communication’ that is cited as being a major reason for his downfall.  What am I missing?  More of that later.

How might we assess Kevin Rudd’s legacy?  What is the Rudd phenomenon?

Already there have been many thousands of words written about the events of the last six months and this last week.  I do not wish to bore readers with a repetition of what others have written, but instead to explore some other aspects of how it all came to this.

But first let’s accentuate the positive and give great credit to Kevin Rudd where it’s due.  Many here have developed a deep affection for him, which made his sudden and unseemly exit painful.  We felt his hurt and humiliation.  This feeling was so strong that some felt angry at not just what had happened but the way it happened.  Conflicting emotions made it hard to separate the stark reality of the situation facing members of the parliamentary Labor Party and what seemed to many the brutal remedy they applied.

After a few days of reflection it is easier to see where things went wrong, and at the same time what has been achieved since Kevin Rudd came onto the Federal scene.  

He earned his stripes with his exemplary performance in his shadow ministry.  He was forensic in his dissection of the AWB affair and pursued the Government relentlessly.  That he did not succeed in getting some scalps is a tribute to John Howard’s clever terms of reference of the Cole inquiry.

Historical accounts of Rudd’s rise to power insist that he has always had his eye on the prime ministership, so when the factional heavyweights arranged a merging of interests of right and left factions, a Kevin Rudd-Julia Gillard ticket was organized and Kim Beasley was toppled, even at a time when the polls were not too bad for Labor.   This event foreshadowed what would transpire over three years later.  Beasley was considered to be unable to beat Howard at the 2007 election, so he was replaced, just as Rudd has now been, with polls much worse than in 2006.

So what has Kevin Rudd done for which he deserves our eternal gratitude?

First, after over eleven years of Labor in opposition, he challenged and defeated John Howard and his Government.  Whatever the legacy of the Howard era, there was in 2007 a strong desire in the electorate for change and Rudd enabled that to occur.  Thank you Kevin.

Next, he led Labor to do some of the things the Coalition ought to have done – apologize to the Stolen Generations and sign the Kyoto Protocol.  The latter was part of Rudd’s push to tackle global warming, something Howard came to so reluctantly.  His commissioning of the Garnaut Report, the Green and White papers and the subsequent ETS/CPRS legislation were landmark events, all of which came to nothing because of Coalition and Greens’ Senate obstruction, and eventually lead to the removal of Malcolm Turnbull and the rise of Tony Abbott.  Copenhagen, into which Rudd put so much effort, was disappointing, leaving him with almost nothing.  Whatever we feel about the deferment of the CPRS, we thank you Kevin for getting us as far as you did.

All except the most hard-hearted and biased give you and your inner cabinet team great credit and thanks for shielding this nation from the GFC, high unemployment and business failures.  Increasing job opportunities, economic prosperity and consumer confidence resulted.  Thank you.

There are many other things you did for which we are grateful – you insulated a million homes while lessening the chances of fire and injury in the process.  We all know the problems there – the media made sure of that, but thank you for getting so much done.   You have built countless school buildings, but all we heard from the media were the ‘cost-blowouts’, the ‘rip-offs’, the ‘fraud’ that occurred in a few instances, mainly in NSW.  But schools, teachers, parents and their children will be grateful for many years to come.  Thank you.

There are many other things: abolishing WorkChoices, the computers-in-schools programme, the national curriculum, the MySchool website, the increase in funding for education, the health system changes, the tax review, the review of pensions that made life easier for recipients, the PPL scheme, the NBN, the Murray-Darling plan, gaining Australia a place at the G20, and so on it goes in a very, very long list – it would take too much space to record here.  But we are grateful.  Thank you. 

But for many your compassion for the less fortunate, your dedication to making this nation a better place, your passion for getting the job done, your ceaseless devotion to your work, your work ethic sometimes to the detriment of your health and well being, your determination against overwhelming odds, your willingness to stand up against powerful vested interests for the sake of the people, and your decency and fairness will be remembered by a grateful nation, sad that you left us so precipitously after all you had done.  Thank you Kevin – you are a good man.

So how has it all come to this?

Commentators point to communication problems, centralization of decision-making, inadequate consultation, poor political judgement, and lack of anticipation as the prime causes.


There are several elements in communication: the message, the messenger, the recipient and the media.

The message 

Too often the message was seen to be confusing.  Personally, as mentioned earlier, I have had no difficulty in understanding Rudd’s messages, but journalists became irritated by the repetitive phrases – ‘working families’, ‘in the national interest’ and so on; annoyed by his use of old-fashioned words such as ‘balderdash’, ‘bunkum’, and worst of all, ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’, which it labeled as ‘fake’ ockerism.  Having lived in Queensland including a stint in Nambour, I know these expressions were used there and at Eumundi where Rudd grew up.  But the media didn’t like them so it revolted, made them the issue and wrote about them endlessly.  There’s no accounting for the mindless infantilism of some journalists.  

Of course the central message was at times unclear to some.   On this blog site some of us have expressed the view that a specialized media unit was needed to craft easily understandable messages the public could and would assimilate, as the Government’s messages were not ‘cutting-through’.  Rudd’s inexperienced staff was not up to the job. On this blog site we suggested how the CPRS might be ‘sold’.  Yet not one journalist who wrote about lack of ‘cut-through’ suggested what messages would ‘cut-through’ – they just kept harping that they weren’t. I’m still wondering what these cut-through messages would look like, and asking if we’re talking about some fictional notion of ‘cut-through’ that nobody has much idea about.  The media is well and truly capable of talking about a non-existent entity as if it was as plain as a pikestaff.  It also had the temerity to say that the messages about the good things the government was doing were being ‘starved of oxygen’ by the Government’s ongoing travails, most recently the RSPT, when IT was deliberately doing the starving.  Talk about media hypocrisy! 

Early on, the media criticized Rudd endlessly for the lack of narrative in his message, but then turned round and criticized him for hyperbole, over promising, setting expectations too high – presumably that was too much narrative.  As argued in another piece on The Political Sword: The folly of putting a politician on a pedestal, we the public placed unrealistically high expectations on Rudd and became disappointed when the sheer weight of partisan politics and self-interested opposition crushed some of them.  It is generally accepted that a turning point for Rudd’s decline in popularity was when he deferred the CPRS until the end of the current Kyoto agreement in late 2012.  This was branded as a serious betrayal of trust after his ‘greatest moral and economic challenge of our time’ rhetoric, a theme the media pounded relentlessly until everyone had been indoctrinated with ‘Rudd’s broken promise’.  There was little mention of Opposition obstruction or that he had been let down at Copenhagen – only trenchant condemnation – it was clearly Rudd’s fault he had not delivered.

The messenger
The media labeled Rudd as robotic, endlessly spouting focus group-generated phrases.  By the time they had indoctrinated the public into thinking likewise, any substantive messages were easily overshadowed by the language Rudd used, language that the public had been programmed to despise and eventually ridicule.  It was a classic instance of media scapegoating which worked brilliantly for them. Every time Rudd spoke, the listener homed in on the language the messenger used, not the message.  Intimidated by shock jocks and the likes of Kerry O’Brien, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophesy, Rudd became even more ‘robotic’, and when he showed some spirit in standing up for himself was accused of a ‘meltdown’.

The recipient

Although much of the repetition was designed to impact the busy homemaker and the tired worker who might catch only a fragment on TV at the end of a long day, because the media made such a noise about it, the repetition became the focus of the recipient, a classic example of media brainwashing and manipulation at work. 

The media

This blog site has as one of its prime aims the exposure of the pernicious influence on public thinking of much of the media, particularly the Murdoch outlets.  The media went out of its way to condition the mind of the electorate that Rudd did nothing but waffle, that he spoke gobbledygook, that he talked spin instead of substance, and that he had become a laughing stock.  That accomplished, is it any wonder that the people stopped listening, the ultimate death-knell for a politician.  And if they hadn’t done so already, the media’s repetition of ‘the voters have stopped listening’ ensured that those still doing so wondered why they were.  

Scapegoating is powerful.  We see it in families.  Once started, it is very hard to stop it escalating, let alone reverse it.  The media’s scapegoating of Rudd has been deplorable.  It would argue that all it did was expose Rudd’s weaknesses and foibles.  That is a cop-out.  No matter what defects Rudd had and still has, the media’s role in Rudd’s downfall cannot be underestimated.  It has been as shameful as it has been successful.  When will it start on Julia Gillard?

Of course the media would counter that Rudd did not show them due deference, but exploited them to his own advantage.  That has an element of truth but Rudd has found out the hard way that the media is powerful and punishing, and has contributed substantially to his political demise.

The media message was so persuasive that Labor members found that people in their electorates had stopping listening to Rudd, and had turned away from him so profoundly that they were no longer prepared to vote Labor.  They fled to the Greens, the Labor primary vote in the marginals as well as federally fell to levels incompatible with re-election.  A rout was looming, and no sign of it reversing was to be seen.  The only solution these members could see was to replace the one identified with this desperate situation – the Prime Minister.  This is what they did with clinical precision.

It is seen by many as ruthless and unfair – those responsible were convinced that to do nothing would have given Australia an Abbott-led Government, an alternative too horrifying to contemplate.

Centralization of decision-making

It is now established that Rudd’s modus operandi was control of all aspects of Government.  Although ministers did their work individually and have acknowledged that they were allowed to do so, the requirement was that every move had to be signed off in Rudd’s office even if it was going to Cabinet, and often that process was inadequate.  There was not enough sharing of responsibility, enough delegation, enough sharing of information and decision-making.

How did this occur?  Studies of Rudd’s past show that he has formidable intelligence and an uncommon capacity to assimilate vast amounts of information and come to a reasoned conclusion and a plan of action.  He has unbridled faith in his ability and brainpower.  So he sees no need to consult with others, as he believes he has the answers.  The matters which a Prime Minister has to deal with are so profoundly complex that no one person can possibly encompass all the facts, figures, wisdom, experience and foresight needed to fashion a rational plan and achieve a successful outcome.  This defect in Rudd seems to be longstanding, going back to his days as chief of staff for Wayne Goss.  It may not be remediable.  Rudd’s reaction to failure in any policy area was simply to ‘work harder’.

The upshot of this approach was alienation from colleagues who felt their work was not valued.  They felt anger at being overlooked, ignored or exploited.  The end result was the slowing of the process of governance.  There have been many media reports of the torpid process in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, something aptly described recently as chronic constipation of governance.

The same self-belief, coupled with disdain for Labor’s factional system, led Rudd to insist on selecting his own Cabinet ministers, and subsequently paying little attention to his backbench who found it difficult to engage with him.  It was those backbenchers, even more than factional heavyweights, who toppled Rudd, although the latter were involved in organizing the coup.  He found himself friendless among the wider parliamentary party.  The Abbott attempt to raise the spectre of ‘faceless’ men in Sussex Street running the show – who will forget the ‘36 faceless men’ mantra of forty years ago – will not succeed.  It is not the case; only we oldies remember that era.

Another outcome of centralization of decision-making, especially if the staff involved is inexperienced, is that anticipatory actions are stultified.  There are many who assert that many of the problems Rudd encountered in selling his policies resulted from lack of anticipation of the reaction of those affected.  The CPRS is quoted as a classic example. In his piece Thank you, Kevin, Bushfire Bill makes the telling analogy of ‘Rudd as engineer’ – if you make your product well enough, it will sell itself – but that is a delusion.  He also suggests that Kevin Rudd is an example of The Peter Principle: namely that: “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."  There seems to be much evidence to support that.

In his Quarterly Essay: Power Trip, David Marr asserts that anger is Rudd’s most powerful motivating force.  This psychoanalysis is suspect, based partly as it seems to be on Rudd’s explosive reaction to what Marr had written about him.  If he had written that about me, I think my reaction might have been the same!  Therese Rein corrected Marr when she said, with tears in her eyes on that awful 60 Minutes interview by Tara Brown, that the one thing that motivated her husband was compassion.

So there is my assessment.  Many thousand words more could be written, but enough is enough.

So what do we say now?

What is the Rudd phenomenon?  

Although difficulty in communicating messages the Government wanted the people to hear was a major problem, and the centralization of power and control in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was debilitating, the role of the media in bringing about the downfall of our Prime Minister was as ugly as it was overpowering.  We shall never forget the disgraceful role of the Murdoch media and particularly The Australian, the paper that nominated Kevin Rudd as its Australian of the Year in January and then proceeded to relentlessly and shamelessly tear him down thereafter.  

While acknowledging his shortcomings, those of us who admire his many attributes and achievements, his passion and his compassion, pay tribute to him for all he has done for the people of Australia.  

To me, that encapsulates the real Rudd phenomenon.  Thank you, Kevin.

What do you think?