Regulars here will know that my last piece was entitled Is Rudd tying the bootstrappers’ bootlaces for them? I argued that Rudd’s mea culpa had been an unnecessary concession to a media bootstrap campaign, unwisely and retrospectively bestowing validity upon it. Rudd, in my opinion, had stuck his chin out, virtually saying to his enemies, “Come on! Hit me!”
The media dutifully expressed wonder at the mea culpa. We had words like ‘extraordinary’ applied to it by some scribes. A few of the more egregious weasels opined that Rudd’s government wasn’t that bad, they’d done some good things etc. so why apologize? Dark hints that Rudd possessed a guilty conscience were trotted out, or suggestions that he had over-reacted. They all served to shore up the insinuation that the weakling Prime Minister had lost the plot and was therefore unfit to occupy the office, either through his misdeeds or by caving in too quickly to attacks on his character (attacks made by the same scribes that called Rudd’s reaction to them ‘extraordinary’, it should be noted).
Just today (Friday) Dennis Shanahan, in an article titled Spooked government gets down and dirty told us:
”... Rudd, unlike Howard or Beazley, has never been observed under pressure. Now he is under pressure for the first time and many Labor MPs, backbenchers and front benchers, are less than impressed with what they see.”
“Never been observed under pressure”? Is Dennis forgetting the GFC, or the pressure of the forged Utegate email? Well, no matter, let’s leave those to one side for the moment.
According to Shanahan, not only is Rudd spooked, but so is the whole Labor party. And all because Rudd is personally ‘under pressure’... pressure from Shanahan and his pals at News Limited, as well as other sources joining in the feeding frenzy. How convenient.
So, seriously, why is Kevin Rudd so unpopular?
Let's go through some of the latest reasons...
You could say some projects have been stuffed-up, others delayed. That would be one reason. The public might be getting antsy at the lack of performance.
The Coalition and The Australian (aided by the likes of the has-been Michelle Grattan, Fran Kelly and the thankfully now-departed Glenn Milne) are certainly doing their best to drum up an avalanche of scandal from a snowball’s worth of mishaps in both the Insulation and Schools projects.
To read the front pages of the Murdoch and Fairfax rags you’d be forgiven wondering why responsible parents weren’t keeping their moppets at home due to all the over-priced, under-engineered BER libraries and covered study areas that were about to come crashing down around their little pink ears. If these constructions had been insulated, then no doubt this would only double the potential woes of our nation’s little folk.
Thankfully Julia Gillard has been around to absolutely skewer the Coalition’s attack upon her beloved BER scheme. In an outrageously funny QT yesterday (Thursday, the final parliamentary sitting day), she batted away each and every question on fraud and customer complaints with ease, and in excruciating detail, making fools of her inquisitors at the same time. As far as Insulgate is concerned, Greg Combet has taken the project under his wing and is proceeding efficiently towards rectification of any real problems (we’ll have to leave the unreal problems to the eager media to continue on with).
Of course the elephant in the room is the Rudd government’s response to the GFC, which has left Australia the envy of the world, as far as economic performance is concerned. Chalk up another ‘good’ performance there, and of course remember the WorkChoices repeal, a main plank of the 2007 election campaign, and another major promise kept.
Despite some things going awry (as they do in a trillion dollar economy), and the roadblock to progress that was the GFC for about 12 months, it looks like we can cross ‘Performance’ – real performance – mostly off the Christmas list of the causes of Rudd’s huge unpopularity. Sure there have been mistakes, but when viewed objectively they don’t add up to the ‘debacles’ they’re being called for.
As to his personality, you could say that Rudd is too prolix; that he spews out words like confetti, many of them signifying nothing. People have trouble understanding him. He is a classic nerd, and probably a smartarse as well, hiding behind words... unlike his counterpart, Tony Abbott who punches aggressively above his weight in a David and Goliath pugilistic contest: the Straight Talker wears boxing gloves.
I guess there is some truth to some of this criticism. Rudd does come across as wordy. There is a lot of the bureaucrat in him, the kind of person who thinks life is full of ‘stakeholders’ and ‘critical paths’, ‘performance milestones’, ‘best of breed’ options, and that a good plan isn’t worth anything unless it has ‘mission critical benchmarks’, ‘incentivized deliverables’ and most important of all: ‘programmatic specificity’.
But consider that, for the nearly 36 months before, Rudd had been the most consistently popular Prime Minister in Australian political history. He was prolix then. He used big words then. He mixed up his metaphors and switched styles to suit the occasion then. His character flaw (if indeed it was a character flaw) didn’t seem to affect his popularity one little bit. It seems unlikely that the public could turn so viciously against him in such a short space of time as three months. So his unpopularity can’t be all down to his personality. Some, maybe, but not all.
Speaking of the ravishing redhead, the latest story has her poised to flick her little finger, whereby the Hard Men of the Labor Right will put on their suit coats and march off to Rudd’s office. Rudd will be heaved out the window into the courtyard below and Julia will move into the PM’s suite over the weekend. It’s a pity that Julia Gillard is of the Left side of the party, otherwise this concoction might have some ephemeral credibility.
But for the moment let’s rule out the Gillard Factor from our calculations, especially as it involves an unconvincing surge of gushing approval from the likes of Alan Jones and the rest of the right wing hate squad just waiting to tear her apart if it ever happened (as they tore Rudd apart, or tried and failed to, in 2006-2007 after he replaced Beazley). No, the Gillard Factor is just too silly to seriously consider as a reason for Rudd’s unpopularity.
Tony Abbott is put to us by the media as a force of nature. He is permanently angry, pugnacious, simmering, lean-and-hungry-looking. Abbott is portrayed as a shock to the system, an Exocet missle that will come crashing through the thin skinned government battleship to wipe it out in a catastrophic one-off hit. All the government’s fancy ways and high-falutin’ airs will be obliterated with just a single direct hit from the Abbott aerial torpedo, coming from out of nowhere to wipe the "shit-eating grins" off Labor faces..
Once again, there is a certain amount of truth here. Abbott does have a superficial appeal to a certain edgy element that hates Labor and which, for two years, has been wandering in the wilderness, aimlessly following the previous two incumbent leaders, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull as they walked around in circles, trying not to bump into John Howard.
An emaciated Liberal Party, running low on food, water and numbers, needs a truly biblical figure to show them the way back to the oasis of the government benches. Howard's gone to the cricket. He is out of "currency" big time. So bring on Howard's dark angel, Tony Abbott. Abbott seems to know where he is going. He certainly breathes enough fire and brimstone to be classified as ‘biblical’. So why not follow him? What other choice do the Coalition parties have? Jolly Joe Hockey? Julie Bishop? Peter Dutton? Chris Pyne? I don’t think so.
The Media's Parallel Universe: The Icarus Syndrome
We turn again to the Shanahan article:
With his SES training, Abbott can supply the rallying point, rekindle the almost spent hopes of his party and at least do something that looks useful. He's been lost and found in the desert recently, so he's in training for the Big Walk Home. Following Abbott is better than standing still and perishing on the spot, or getting run down by a B-Double at a photo-op. Better to die trying than not to have tried at all. It’s about time the Coalition got themselves a leader with a little bit of get-up-and-go, and who cuts a dash in red Speedos and blue lycra for the ladies. Naturally, those Coalition voters who thought Rudd was a better Prime Minister than either Turnbull or Nelson, and who disapproved of those two duds, would defect back towards the general direction of home territory when someone half-decent turned up and made belligerent, honking noises. That should be enough to put Abbott at, say 30% in the PPM stakes, shouldn’t it?
But there is still a yawning chasm between observable flaws, foibles, character idiosyncracies, Julia's little finger, Tony Abbott’s provision of an emergency assembly point for the lost Coalition, and the meme of a failed Rudd Prime Ministership.
There must be more to Rudd’s extreme unpopularity than the above.
There is: the Bootstrapper.
” Labor MPs fear they are about to witness the fulfilment of their own prophetic nightmare of the personal failure of Rudd much sooner than they expected. It's the internal version of the public's concerns about failing to meet high expectations.
"...Rudd has ... been a frontrunner and has no track record of being behind or fighting back since he entered parliament.
"This vision of Rudd and the lack of evidence of an ability to recover from a rebuff is frightening Labor MPs.”
Once again Dennis has forgotten the GFC response and the comprehensive demolition of Malcolm Turnbull over Utegate. If they were not fight backs, then I don’t know what was. Rudd's surge in the polls after seeing off Turnbull had to be seen to be believed.
Labor is on 52/48 2PP, and has been either there or 53/47 in Newspoll for two months. Essential Research has Labor at 56/44, Morgan at 55.5/44.5. Rudd’s Labor government leads the Coalition on just about every metric, according to Essential, and is seen as more connected, more trustworthy, looking after the interests of working families, has a good team of leaders, more moderate, understanding the problems facing Australia, keeping its promises, and as being professional in its approach, way out in front of the Coalition on all of these standards.
Only on negative metrics does Laborfall behind Abbott’s band of wilderness wanderers: voters think the Coalition will promise to do anything to win votes, is out of touch with ordinary people, is extreme and divided.
On ‘too dominated by its leader’ the scores are within one per cent of each other.
Does this sound like a recipe for Kevin Rudd’s alleged ‘personal failure’ to you?
Shanahan has moved beyond Rudd’s ‘personal failure’ and has turned it into a Labor party full of Nervous Nellies, too used to being supreme in the polls to be of any use in a real fight, once the polls tank. Of course the polls haven’t tanked, but ‘tanking polls’ are an essential part of the story. So the bootstrappers simply readjust their interpretations.
A few Newspolls (as distinguished from other organizations’ polls) have shown Labor’s electoral lead to be steady-as-she-goes for the past two months. True, the Prime Minister, mainly in Newspoll, had seen his "Approve" metric fall below the conveniently defined “benchmark” of 50% (funny, it used to be PPM that was all-important). Newspoll's famous skew towards the Coalition comes in handy when a measure of approvel jumps a per cent or two below a newly discovered benchmark, while the other polls remain above it. Although he is still far, far ahead of Abbott on Preferred Prime Minister and his government is way ahead on most positive aspects of performance, including an election-winning lead in the crucial 2PP calculation. To counter the facts Shanahan has turned to Greek mythology to help promote another myth. He has invented, and he and his brother bootstrappers are promoting The Icarus Syndrome.
Simply put, The Icarus Syndrome says:
“Rudd must fly higher than anyone else or he is a failure and his party will crumble before our eyes. But if he ascends too close to the sun he will crash and burn."
Once his waxed wings melt, Rudd will plummet to Earth and die a painful political death, taking his party with him. Amen. So says The Icarus Syndrome.
Absent an Icarus Syndrome – the artificial construction dreamt up by Rudd’s media critics to explain why such good polling results are really a disaster – Rudd’s and his government’s performance, at this stage of the electoral cycle, just looking at the figures and the history, are streets ahead of any other government or opposition from the last quarter of a century.
You can see the figures here Redoubtable ‘Aristotle’, psephy blogger par excellence, provides side by side comparisons on political polling in third year of term of governments going back to the mid-1980s. His conclusion, devastatingly backed up by a comprehensive listing of polls since 1987, is as follows:
” In 2010, compared to these previous elections, Tony Abbott's Coalition is in the poorest position of all previous oppositions, both on voting intentions and better prime minister ratings.”
Aristotle adds this caution:
”When we undertake analysis through the prism of the intellectual probabilities rather than the emotional possibilities, we often find that the conclusions may not be consistent with our pre-conceived notions or, indeed, the conventional wisdom.”
Postscript: if any readers think I'm being overly melodramatic or inventive with my "Icarus Syndrome" explanation, read this, from a Shanahan article, circa March 2008: Nelson's hopes lie in Icarus Rudd... and Abbott's hopes too, it seems. The Icarus Syndrome is a Shanahan invention, 100%, scribbled out on one of his little pieces of paper, ready to be dusted off and used against Rudd for some time now.
For ‘pre-conceived notions’ read ‘bootstrapped fairy stories’: memes put about by the media to make it look like there's a close contest out there. For Rudd’s government to defy the numerical wisdom of decades and fail in its first term, the Icarus Syndrome had to be invented. The Icarus Syndrome explains the credibility gap between wishful thinking (perhaps too whimsical-sounding a term for the improperly reported political polling that has been applied to the Rudd government) and... Hellooo! Anyone there?... reality.
While not all the Rudd government's promises have been kept, or kept as per the original schedule, and while Rudd the man has personality foibles and annoying traits, and while Julia is the next in line but is making no move to do anything about it, and while Tony Abbott is blustering around shouting challenges, thumping tables and throwing haymakers for the fans in the cheap seats, at the moment it appears to be inconceivable that having survived Utegate, Hostiegate, Insulgate, School Gate, the GFC, and all the other ‘scandals’ that have been trumped up against it, the Rudd government and its leader are headed anywhere but the Gold Medal ceremony at the next election.
So why is Kevin Rudd so unpopular?
The answer is... he isn’t... except if you subscribe to the bootstrapped fantasies of half-a-dozen senior journalists working out of a boiler room in Holt St, Surry Hills. Add in a few mates at the ABC and Fairfax, plus a couple of shock jocks on the Singleton network and you have the full rogue's gallery. Sprinkle a dash of Icarus Syndrome blarney and stir. These sociopaths in the media have one aim in mind: to nobble democracy in this country whatever the price in good governance and common sense. This is unsurprising, as neither of these has ever been of high priority to their boss (or for the ABC and Fairfax bootstrappers, possibly, even hopefully their future boss), the wrinkled old man in New York with the dyed hair, a genuinely fake Australian, who pulls the strings down-under for his own devious purposes, but never for ours.