My heart is breaking. With the release of the latest Nielsen Poll a dagger has truly been inserted into my heart, not of the RSPT, politically-opportunistic kind which Tony Abbott squawks about, a sentiment of his that actually runs counter to the national interest when you think about it closely enough, but instead the dagger which has also plunged through the heart of the Rudd government this week as a result of those dreadful poll numbers, and which appears to be causing it to bleed to political death before our very eyes. The knives are out and they are being waved around and thrust at the Rudd government with gay abandon, causing them untold damage.The polls are indicating an electoral bloodbath is on the cards if the Rudd government, and Kevin Rudd in particular, don't figure out how to staunch the flow of political blood, and we'll be going to their political funeral if they don't move quickly and decisively to figure out what to do to save themselves from this poll-based attack, and standing in the electorate's estimation that it represents. They must take pre-emptive action to inoculate themselves from further daggers aimed their way in the future.
So, for what it's worth I'd like to offer them my diagnosis of the problem and my 2c-worth of advice on what the cure should be.
Firstly, the problems as I see them from out here in ConcernedVoterLand.
The nation wants a Prime Minister.
Well, you might say, we've got one, and his name is Kevin Rudd. However, that's not what I mean.
Let me explain it this way. The other afternoon I was listening to the analysis of Mark Shields and David Brooks, on the PBS Newshour, about the issues of the week in American politics. They were discussing the leadership style of President Obama with respect to the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill crisis. David Brooks said he thought the President was doing OK because his quality of being cool in a crisis was coming to the fore. Mark Shields, who is the Democrat-leaning commentator, begged to differ. He said that not only do the people want a Commander-in-Chief at times like this, but they also want a 'Comforter-in-Chief'. That is, they want their leader to emote their fears and frustrations, and articulate their impotent rage in this situation, and their hopes and desires in general. I guess what he was getting at was they want their leader to be the lead actor in the ongoing political play, and to give an Oscar-winning performance.
Which is where Kevin Rudd appears to be falling down. It seems to me that the PM is singularly unable to appropriately emote and empathise convincingly. According to the gist of David Marr's Quarterly Essay, which I heard being discussed on the radio, the emotional trauma that our Prime Minister suffered in his very early life has had the effect of cauterising his ability to display emotion openly and lay himself bare to the public, in public. Hence the bland, a-motional, diplo-babble speaking PM we see before us on a daily basis. It's a sight that doesn't warm the cockles of people's hearts, to be sure, as the polls are suggesting. It may also help to explain that, even though many people recognise that Tony Abbott has a screw loose, they are still warming to him more than Kevin Rudd. He is able to push a cut-through message in a way that the PM cannot. He has the 'Ordinary Joe' shtick down pat, and he knows how to leverage other anti-Rudd government animus to his advantage. Although, to be fair, I don't think that the PM has developed a black heart of darkness, no matter what David Marr says about his 'inner anger', which I perceive in Tony Abbott. On the contrary, I think the PM's demeanour is a function of his essential shyness and the carapace that he has had to build up like an exoskeleton to protect him from the slings and arrows of his life's outrageous misfortunes, with which we are all familiar.
Which is by no means to say that the electorate is going to give him a Leave Pass on that basis and allow him to go to the election unreconstructed. It won't. And they are letting him know in no uncertain terms, via the polls, that they want change from him, and they want it yesterday.
Luckily, the view is out there still that Tony Abbott is a positively 'creepy' alternative to a lot of people (thanks goes to one of the ABC 'Knit In' attendees for that descriptor). Thus the PM and the party have to tip the balance of public opinion more that way and away from a growing accommodation of a politically punch drunk, politically-opportunistic, political pugilist prepared to grasp at any straw in the wind affecting his political antenna, as his running, jumping, standing still political persona careens like a whirling dervish across the Australian political landscape, all colour and movement, but no substance.
However, all is not yet lost for the PM and his government. Though, I must add that from what I heard of the interview that Lyndal Curtis did with the PM on AM on Monday morning, Kevin Rudd may find it hard to pivot and change his verbal style. As he was continuing along his merry prolix way (who would have thought that replacing the similarly loquacious Kim Beazley with Mr Rudd would have seen us where we are today as far as the verbal styling of his successor goes?), he was unable to deviate from his message, recited parrot-fashion into the microphone, with no mental flexibility apparent due to an acknowledgement of external realities manifest to him contemporaneously, as a result of how the interview panned out.
Maybe he was unable to acknowledge the external reality of the polls and what they meant for him, personally, because he would have woken up to them after his standard 3-5 hours of sleep that night, and it was taking him a while to get up to speed strategically. Which is Problem #1 as I see it. He's not getting enough sleep and it shows with respect to how quickly he is able to react to events and think strategically about them and make plans to remedy problems, not just go on in an automatic fashion, which is the way you behave when you are sleep-deprived.
It is a cardinal rule in our house, you have to get your correct amount of sleep at night, or your performance will suffer the next day. There's no two ways about it. It has been scientifically proven, again and again. Or, if he can't get more sleep and break the habit of a lifetime, then he must switch off from doing all that his job entails sooner at night than he does at present. He'll be amazed at the difference it will make to his performance, and his ability to think more clearly and more quickly on his feet, because it's as plain as the nose on his face that he's not doing that at the moment, unlike the nimble weathervane, the 'If You See A Chance, Take It' Man, Tony Abbott.
I know the PM is a thoughtful and considered man, with a heart of gold, who wants the best for each and every Australian. That is a given, and the electorate knows that. That's not the problem. No, what he needs to do is stop, and smell the coffee (not keep drinking it!), and thoughtfully, and in a considered fashion, take stock of his personal inventory and resolve to change those parts of him that aren't selling well. For his own good, for the good of the Labor Party, and for the good of the nation. The polls are saying that the electorate doesn't yet think 'It's Time' for Tony Abbott the cynical populist, and his Conservative Christian Coalition to run the country. They are instead willing the ALP and Kevin Rudd to change tack and lift their game in order to win their affections back.
Maybe this might involve a change of leader, as Michael Pascoe postulated in the SMH think piece he wrote after the Budget: Julia for PM.
However, it's my considered opinion that, while that idea might have its merits, to do such a thing now would be akin to throwing the election baby out with the bathwater when it comes to solving the polling slump that the government are in right now. Maybe it's an option for further down the track, after the election, and I think it would be contingent on the fact of the PM suffering a huge swing against him in his own electorate of Griffith. So, let us put that idea to one side for the moment and concentrate instead on other options that might help plug the leaks in the Rudd Ship of State.
Throw open the doors of the Prime Minister's Office to all comers from the government, at least one day per week, or have an 'Open Mic' session whenever Caucus meets, from now until the election. Be all ears and let your guard down and be open to substantial suggestions about ways to do things better, which can be achieved simply and quickly. (If you've had enough sleep you'll be able to sort the wheat from the chaff easily and quickly...OK, OK, that's the last time I'll mention it)
It's also obvious to me, and others, that the political neophytes, such as Lachlan Harris and Karl Bitar that are running the show now for the PM, just aren't cutting it against the political veterans such as Brian Loughnane, Tony Abbott, Phillip Ruddock and Andrew Robb from the Coalition; worthy as the ALP's aims are, and as unworthy as the Coalition's manufactured persona is. Old political warhorses from a bygone era they may be, but successful campaigners they also are, and their tactics must be dissected, countered, and neutralised more forcefully by the government. So, swallow your pride Kevin, get on the phone to Labor's Elder Statesmen for advice, pronto! As Andrew Forrest has suggested, maybe you need to get Bob Hawke into the room with you and the Miners to hammer out an 'Accord' over the RSPT. However, most pointedly, get Paul Keating into the bunker with you. He could, I firmly believe, in the same way that John Howard appears to be doing with Tony Abbott, give you sage political advice, and a few memorable one-liners that would take the wind out of the Coalition's sails. What's more, he could teach you how to look like you were demolishing the Opposition with one hand tied behind your back, a look that is always productive electorally, you just have to cast your mind back to the political success that Peter Costello also had with this tactic to see that.
Which leads me to my second to last morsel of advice: Delegate! Delegate! Delegate!
It's not too late to let slip all of the ALP's dogs of political war, and we all know who they are beyond the 'Kitchen Cabinet', which I pleasantly note has been sidelined in favour of more fulsome consultation with the greater Cabinet. The ALP has some great campaigners, who are able to rally the electorate, if only given more than half a chance by the PM. Rabble-rousers like Craig Emerson. Cut-through communicators like Chris Bowen. Let Peter Garrett and Maxine McKew loose in the media more, they are both consummate media professionals. Simon Crean possesses the warmth that the PM and even the Deputy PM, don't, in a casual, fireside-chatty way.
It's worth a try anyway, as there is one thing I know for certain about John Howard, when the chips were down and he was down in the polls, there was no change to his political personality that was too out of character for him to make, in order to get back on the front foot politically and to the other side of the election successfully. No political horse that he wouldn't change midstream, without seeming to even get his feet wet, in order to freshen his appeal going into an election campaign. He even adopted the mantle of a politician prepared to do something about Climate Change in order to try to get himself over the line again, even as his political death was nigh and obvious to all and sundry. The electorate was always prepared to accept it, what's more, because the people believed he was 'a conviction politician', who once he had decided to do something would move political heaven and earth to make it happen, whether he believed in it or not, as his political antenna had picked up that that's what the electorate wanted.
So, at the very least, let's just say that, except for a few well-considered changes at the extremities, Kevin Rudd should stick with the RSPT and see it through to the end of the line, come hell or high political water. Engage better salesmen than him to sell it, which I am also pleased to see happening with the release this week of the RSPT ads, and use the issue to give him and his government some much-needed political momentum, and the courage to call the election and fight for the people's votes, with passion! He has to remember he is no longer a diplomat, but a politician, so he better start acting like one. Shrug off the carapace that is shielding shy Kevin from empathetically connecting to the electorate, and give the people some sugar! As it was 'Sunrise' Kevin that won the 2007 election, not the First Secretary at Australia's Embassy in China.
I mean, that's all Tony Abbott has got. He 'flicked the switch to vaudeville' the day he was elected Opposition Leader, and look how far it's got him in a very short space of time, paucity of policies and lack of compassion for his fellow human beings that aren't electorally advantageous to his cause.
So, my final word to the PM and Julia can been encapsulated in the song How to dance.
'Dance!' Ask the electorate to come dancing with you again. I'm sure they'll say yes if you ask them the right way!