The gathering media assault on Rudd-speak

The call for Kevin Rudd to use his speechwriter seems to be gathering momentum.  There have been calls for this from Bob Hawke, Paul Keating’s speech-writer, Don Watson, Bob Ellis and sundry columnists, most recently Samantha Maiden, online political editor for The Australian in a piece on 19 November, He does exist - Rudd's speechwriterShe reveals that Tim Dixon, a lawyer and economist, is Kevin Rudd's speechwriter, that he "writes perfectly good speeches for Rudd before the PM gets to them".  She then gives Rudd both barrels: "But do not blame him for the Prime Minister's mangled message in his jargon-filled orations and attempts at homespun schtick.”  She continues "According to Labor insiders, Mr Dixon writes a perfectly lovely speech, as do other colleagues in the PM's office.  Until Mr Rudd gets his clunky control mitts on it."  I’m sure we’d all love to read Dixon’s ‘perfectly lovely speeches’.  If Maiden had done so, she would have had some basis for her assertion that Rudd ‘mangles’ them.

The call for Rudd to use a speechwriter results from the view that Rudd’s oratory is not up to scratch.  In reaching that judgement, it’s uncommon for the critics to state their criteria for acceptable public speaking, or a role model that Rudd might emulate.  Speechwriter to Labor politicians, Bob Ellis, attempted to do so this morning on ABC 774 radio when, referring to speeches for which a speechwriter would be appropriate, said that they needed ‘muscular’ emotion, and rhythm that reinforced the message.  That was as far as he got.

The Canberra press gallery are among the most critical of Rudd’s oratory.  They miss what they considered to be the outstanding debating talent of Peter Costello, and acknowledge Paul Keating had a clever turn of phrase.  I can’t recall them extolling John Howard’s performances, in or out of parliament, nor can I recall any of his other ministers being granted their seal of approval.  They rate Malcolm Turnbull as a good parliamentary performer, so perhaps he is the one Rudd should copy.

Bob Hawke feels that Rudd "... may have spent a little too much time on writing his own speeches...You can see that he wants to be sure that he's across everything. You can call that a control freak, but it's not a bad thing of itself."  No, not a bad thing to know what you’re talking about.  Howard also gave the impression that he did; I can’t recall him being criticized for that.

What Maiden accuses Rudd of is that “He loves to back up the truck and dump facts, figures, details and acronyms into his speeches as his own special personal touch.”  Are you getting the drift?  Presumably she thinks facts, figures and details are not de rigueur. Presumably soaring oratory, devoid of these ‘distractions’, will do.   Acronyms of course are ‘uncool’.  But how many times do we want to hear the same longhand phrase in the one speech, when an acronym would be a reasonable substitute?  Acronyms that are not generally understood confuse, but surely we can cope with the common ones.  For example, do we want ASIC and APRA spelt out each time these bodies are mentioned?  More...

The Rudd Report Card one year in

Since the anniversary of the election of the Rudd Government is now upon us, a handful of commentators have already attempted an appraisal of Kevin Rudd’s first year.  Their focus has been more on Rudd than his Government.  The general tenor is that, almost grudgingly, they acknowledge he’s not doing such a bad job, and the people seem to like him, but the commentators have plenty of negatives, and warn of a variety of ‘dangers’ lurking for him in the days ahead, which may reverse his popularity.

This piece attempts an analysis from the starting point of labels applied over the year by the media, most of them uncomplimentary.

All talk and no action

This was a favourite until recently, until the GFC arrived.  Since then Rudd and his ministers have been engaged in feverish activity taking steps to minimize its effect on our economy – the $10.6 billion economic stimulus package, the bank guarantee, the $6.2 billion car industry plan, and now the $300 million local government package.  Although there has been criticism of some actions, there now seems to be a consensus that the actions were timely and largely correct, apart from ‘a few mistakes around the edges’.  Not bad, considering the uniqueness of the situation and the rapidity of its advance.  The mantra has now been put to bed, at least for the time being.

Of course reviews, committee deliberations, expert reports and departmental input were never seen as ‘action’ by the commentariat.  It was just talk, or if a number of people were involved, a ‘talkfest’.  The idea of gathering information and soliciting expert opinion, analysing it, and having stakeholders debate the issues before formulating a plan of action seemed alien.  They longed for gung-ho rapid action that all could see.  John Howard was their man.

The Howard Years now screening on ABC shows that our last PM was indeed gung-ho, ‘all action and no talk’ when it came to many initiatives.  On such major matters as, for example, the GST and the Murray Darling Water initiative, there was virtually no consultation, just unilateral action.  If journalists feel this is the way politics should be done, it’s not surprising that Rudd’s careful ‘bureaucratic’ approach is anathema to them.  This is the first of several examples in this piece where it seems that it is the mindset of the commentariat, the prism through which it views the world, its idea of how things should be done, that determines how it rates Rudd and his Government.  Like an old boys club, it sits in judgement, but never bothers to state its criteria.

All symbolism, no substance

Although the media applauded the signing of the Kyoto Protocol and ‘The Apology’ they were quick to label these nation-changing events as ‘symbolic’, sometimes ‘merely symbolic’.  They seemed unable or unwilling to place these ‘symbols’ alongside the substance of the Garnaut Report, commissioned by Rudd while in Opposition, and subsequently the Green Paper, the Treasury modelling, and the soon-to-be-released White Paper, and the continuation of the NT intervention and its recently-completed review.  If these studies, reviews, reports and actions are not substance, what on earth are they?  Again, the mindset of the commentators allows them to overlook these and continue to mouth the weary ‘all symbolism, no substance’ mantra.  Even respected social researcher Hugh Mackay, in an article by Simon Mann in last Saturday’s Age, says Rudd’s symbolism has fuelled the euphoria generated by his election, which he declares is ‘dangerous’ as the “euphoria bubble has to burst”. He too seems oblivious of the substance that has enveloped the symbolism, and given it meaning.  The fact that so many reviews and reports, complete with recommendations, will conclude next year has now moved some journalists to predict that the Government will be overwhelmed by them, swamped by too much substance to manage.  They seem unable to be satisfied.  Wait for the criticism that Rudd has ‘bitten off more than he can chew’. More...

Will world leaders do a climate change Nero?

Last week, two young women, concerned about the environment, made the telling comment on TV that those who will make decisions about climate change mitigation will be dead by the time their efforts at mitigation will be felt; they will not have to live with their decisions, good or bad.

The Government’s White Paper on its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is due soon, and after debate, legislation will be introduced.  How do the various stakeholders line up as decision day for Australia approaches? 

The majority of climate scientists are showing increasing concern, at times almost panic, as more and more adverse data accumulates that suggests climate change, CO2 accumulation and global warming are accelerating much faster than expected, and the outward signs of this, such as the threat to polar ice caps, permafrost and natural icons, are accumulating more rapidly than predicted.  Conservationists warn that ten of Australia's iconic places will be lost without a commitment to reduce carbon pollution by a third by 2020.  Don Henry of the Australian Conservation Foundation says this may be our last chance to get Australia into a strong leadership position on climate change so we can get a good international agreement that can save icons such as the Kakadu Wetlands, the Murray-Darling Basin, the Australian Alps and the Great Barrier Reef.  A Barrier Reef expert, University of Queensland marine biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, confidently asserts that sea temperatures are likely to rise 2 degrees C over the next three decades which would kill the reef.  Others, such as Tim Flannery, have strongly supported the need for urgent action.  He too exhibits the same deep apprehension that climate scientists are increasingly feeling. Some scientists say that in a worst case scenario the temperature rise may even be as much as a 6 degrees C, with catastrophic consequences for sea levels.

Ross Garnaut’s final paper pulls no punches in describing the effects that climate change is likely to produce, and what radical action is needed to mitigate them.  Although some have said that his recommendations are not tough enough, he denies this, saying that Australia should make a ‘proportionate response’ and aim for targets as high as can be achieved within the global community.  He is trying to balance optimal mitigation with what is achievable.  Garnaut prefers a 450 ppm target for atmospheric CO2, but concedes that 550 ppm may be all that is achievable, which Barrier Reef scientists say will destroy all but the northern part of the reef.  He recommends Australia aims for a reduction in emissions of 10 per cent by 2020, a carbon permit price of $34.50 by the same date, and a cut in emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.  He says the 10 per cent cut in emissions would be conditional on achieving an international agreement to stabilise carbon emissions at 550 ppm, and although this may not be achievable at the Copenhagen conference at the end of next year because it would be too soon after the new United States president is inaugurated, he is optimistic about the chances of a global agreement not too long after that. More...

The emerging Opposition strategy

Malcolm Turnbull believes the Coalition can win the next federal election.  To do so he has to reverse the stubbornly persistent opinion polls that show the Coalition is around ten points behind the Government on a two-party preferred basis, and he is now 40 points behind Kevin Rudd as preferred PM.  Although the polls showed a gradual narrowing of the gap between the parties from a record gap in March, the narrowest it ever came was the week after Turnbull became Opposition leader, when we saw the so-called ‘Turnbull bounce’.  It dissipated soon after and the gap widened to around a steady 55/45.  So Turnbull cannot, at least at present, rely on the gradual erosion that often occurs as Governments moves through their term.  This may occur later, but Turnbull feels he can’t wait.  Nor does he seem prepared to wait for the global financial crisis to wear away support for the incumbent Government, as so often occurs in such circumstances.  So far the electorate has applauded the actions of the Government in handling the crisis. 

So what is Turnbull’s and the Coalition’s strategy to gain traction?  The following suggests a strategy and an array of tactics that seem to be in play, if not formally, at least in daily practice.

The well-tried strategy of proposing policies alternative to those of the Government that might prove to be more attractive to the electorate has not been evident, but might be so nearer to the election.  The broad strategy to date has been to criticize, attack and sometimes ridicule Government moves, both policy and action plans.  It seems as if it is following Tony Abbott’s admonition to follow Randolph Churchill’s dictum: Oppositions should oppose, propose nothing and kick the Government out.  In doing so, another dictum has been applied: truth is irrelevant; all that counts is perception.

Turnbull’s first tactic seems to be to make a comment on every subject.  This gives him headlines and radio and TV grabs – the exposure all leaders crave.  His supposition seems to be that the more he’s exposed, the more erudite he’ll appear, and the more people will like him.

The next seems to be to try to anticipate Government moves and pre-empt them by stating what should be done, and occasionally what he would do.  The former is preferable because several options can be offered, some of which might hit the mark and make him look prescient, whereas the latter is more risky as it commits him.

Then criticize everything the Government does.  The criticism does not have to be immediate; endorsement can morph into trenchant opposition in a day or two.  Inconsistency is not a problem; people soon forget.  This tactic was seen with the economic stimulus package and the bank guarantee.  In both instances, Turnbull promised bipartisan support but later said that he would have done things differently.  The trick is to support measures that are likely to be, or in fact are proving to be popular, but suggest he could have done them better. More...