One of the curiosities of recent political debate in this country has been the persistent quest for the real identity of Kevin Rudd. We have known him for many years from the days when he was opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, yet columnists still scratch their heads. Even the ever-reliable George Megalogenis said at the end of one of his recent pieces in The Australian, “Rudd remains a work in progress. His second anniversary as Prime Minister is a couple of months away. But recent private polling suggests that voters still don’t really know him.
What more do commentators and the public want to know? [more]
For what it’s worth, this piece puts together one person’s observations made from the viewpoint of an ordinary citizen with no more access to information about our PM than anyone else, who relies solely on the media and publically available information. It’s rather long. I thought of breaking into two posts, but decided against that as it would break the piece inappropriately. Instead, I’ve added subheadings to break it up into bite-sized bits that I trust will make the piece more assimilable.
I can recall that when Rudd was foreign affairs spokesman he was clearly very well informed, smart, and articulate, even if at times long-winded. I could always understand what he was saying. And he answered questions openly. Nobody seemed to be saying then ‘Who is Kevin Rudd?’
But when he was elected Opposition leader the clamour for his identity began. It stepped up a notch at the moment he stood at the podium at the 2007 ALP Conference and said ‘I’m Kevin, I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help’.
However it was not until elected PM that it heightened into a persistent cry for his ‘narrative’, that which would identify his philosophy, his aims and his approach. Just over a year ago I wrote In search of the political Holy Grail – the Rudd Government narrative. It was rather long, but it may be worth your time reading it again. What strikes me is the similarity between the then unending quest by journalists for a narrative, (which now seems to have gone out of fashion), and the contemporary quest for ‘Who is Kevin Rudd?’ As was the case with the narrative, I believe the answer is already before us.
So let’s try to compose a picture of Kevin Rudd from what we already know.
In his maiden speech to parliament in 1998 Rudd talked of “...the creation of a competitive economy while advancing the overriding imperative of a just society.” That seems to encapsulate in a very few words what Rudd believes in. In an article in The Weekend Australian of September 6-7, 2008, Telling it like we’d prefer, Nick Dyrenfurth, a political historian at Monash University, spelt Rudd’s narrative out in more detail: “…Rudd Labor clearly has a plan and a potentially good narrative to tell about ensuring Australia’s long-term economic prosperity: improving productivity by addressing skills, education and infrastructure; targeting spending to lock in low-inflation growth; crafting a responsible climate change policy; fixing federal-state relations; and planning a whole-of-government approach to reforming taxation and transfer systems.” This was elaborated in my piece on TPS; there is no need to do so here.
During the election campaign Rudd described himself as an ‘economic conservative’, little different from John Howard – he represented himself as a younger version of Howard but just as safe. Although some journalists now portray that as a charade and that Rudd was at heart just a big spending socialist with little regard for the budget bottom-line, is there any evidence that at the time his was not a genuine claim? Journalists write as if global financial circumstances had not changed since Rudd made that claim.
Rudd seems intensely aware of context. At election time the context was one of economic stability, unparalleled prosperity, and growth in wealth. While it could be argued that economic conservatism was appropriate for that context, was it appropriate to manage the fallout from the GFC? Hardly – that called for a radically different approach, a program to stimulate a threatened economy and reduce the risk of sharply rising unemployment, a program portrayed as ‘Go early, Go hard, Go households.’ This has been successful. But that has not stopped critics from asking: ‘How can Rudd be an economic conservative yet spend so much money and rack up so much debt’, concluding that he is a dishonest chameleon. The answer seems obvious - there is a time and place to be economically conservative, and a time to spend what’s necessary to save the country from financial calamity. It’s not all that difficult to understand.
Once the crisis has passed, as it now seems to be doing, will Rudd revert to economic conservatism? He has stated his determination to reduce the size of the budget deficits and debt as soon as possible, even if that means a period of hardship for the country. Sceptics believe he won’t or can’t. They believe they can foresee the future despite their lamentable record predicting the economic environment. Ordinary people know they can’t predict any better than we can. So let’s see.
Commentators seem confused about Rudd’s orientation. The confusion seems to arise from their attempts to place him in a conventional left, centre, or right box. Some see him as a lefty at heart while others see him rightist. The fact is that these distinctions are unimportant to Rudd – he operates within a different paradigm that does not make those distinctions. His approach both nationally and globally is eclectic, selecting what works without rigid adherence to any single political philosophy. He seems to believe that a balance between socialism and capitalism can create a stable, caring society that embraces sound economics and avoids excess greed and elitist privilege. His willingness to be economically conservative at one time, entrepreneurial and prepared to take a calculated risk at another as he did in response to the GFC, and socially and culturally sensitive on other occasions, such as with the ‘Apology’, is a manifestation of his ideological flexibility that continues to amaze critics, who would prefer him to be one thing or the other, not all of them.
Another example of Rudd’s ‘new politics’ or as The Piping Shrike might put it, ‘anti-politics’, is his unwillingness to embrace the factions in his party that have been so dominant in the past, or the union movement, as Labor governments have done for many decades. The Piping Shrike spells this out well in his August piece Realignment.
Rudd would feel at ease with the ‘social democrat’ tag. As a political ideology of the political left and centre-left on the classic political spectrum, modern social democracy allows for a democratic welfare state which includes elements of both socialism and capitalism, resulting in a mixed economy combined with an inclusive welfare state. Commentators who have a conventional understanding of social democracy cannot comprehend how Rudd can encompass being a social democrat, an economic conservative, and a risk-taking entrepreneur.
This has been spelt out over the last two years. His Government’s economic agenda for prosperity and productivity, its plans for education, skills training and infrastructure, its environmental agenda, its plans for the health system, its IR changes, its intent to improve federal-state relations, its indigenous affairs agenda and its ambitions for regional and global relations and national security have all been clarified. One has only to look at the last two budget papers, and the plethora of policy announcements all recorded on the ALP website, to see what agenda the Government has. There might be disagreement with it, but there can be no argument that it is there for all to see. Perhaps that is why we don’t now hear much about Rudd’s ‘narrative’.
There was much criticism in the first year of the Rudd Government of what was seen as its preoccupation with reviews and committee deliberations. It’s always mystified me why taking a measured, cautious approach to policy determination, getting the best information from the widest variety of contributors, carefully analysing the data and formulating rational conclusions and recommendations, is to be so condemned. It led to the oft-repeated mantra ‘all talk, no action’, or ‘all spin, no substance’, something we don’t much hear now. In fact Lenore Taylor suggested that to the contrary there may be too much substance for the Government to manage and for the public to assimilate. Would the critics have preferred the back-of-the-envelope approach we saw John Howard take over his $10 billion water plan?
Rudd is a past bureaucrat, and even as far back as his school days, he has taken a methodical, painstaking approach to every endeavour. That is his modus operandi. It has served him well; we should not expect him to change, unless the urgency of a situation demands, as indeed he did when faced with the unfolding GFC. He then consulted with expert advisors urgently, and made a rapid decision.
Rudd is not Howard – commentators need to get used to that, and stop using Howard as the benchmark against which to judge Rudd,
From the time he assumed leadership of the Labor Party, Rudd’s political strategy has been to diminish, even destroy the heritage of the Howard Government. Before the election he vowed to ‘play with Howard’s mind’, and pursued that relentlessly. His attack on neo-liberalism and his oblique association of it with the Liberal Party seemed like an attempt to sheet home some of the ignominy of the financial crisis to the Liberals, an attack that evoked an angry reaction from Liberals and the conservative media.
Rudd had shown a disinclination to give credit for the reforms introduced by the Howard Government and the sound state of the economy he inherited. Instead he has labelled the Howard Government as indolent for not pursuing higher productivity, and wasting its plethora of wealth. That seems to be part of his strategy to destroy the Liberal brand and enshrine the Labor brand for the decade ahead.
He seems to have set on a course of discrediting Malcolm Turnbull, even more determinedly after Turnbull’s ferocious but unsuccessful attempt to upend him over the OzCar affair. We can expect that he will give Turnbull no respite.
Whether or not that sort of behaviour is acceptable to the general public is uncertain; present polling indicates that the public regard Rudd well, and Turnbull as poorly as does Rudd.
Rudd is a multilateralist. His long experience in foreign affairs has persuaded him that Australia must engage with the world and avoid isolation and protectionism. He has high ambitions for Australia as middle-power diplomacy. He wants a seat for Australia on the UN Security Council, and he has been active in promoting the G20, on which Australia has a seat, as the prime global economic forum, something that is now the reality. He has travelled widely to countries central to Australia’s interests, and to many international forums. Increasingly his contributions are being lauded by the international community. Some local commentators though paint Rudd as ‘too big for his boots’ and question whether Australia’s small population warrants the place in the sun Rudd is promoting.
Back home of course we have had repeated Kevin 747 jibes and articles by lesser journalists about Rudd’s travels, the miles traversed, the cost, even the carbon footprint he’s created. We even had Tony Abbott a couple of days ago blogging to the effect that Rudd had plenty of problems at home to solve, which was code for ‘he should be here’. Do these people expect Australia’s PM to sit at home in the midst of a global financial upheaval; do they expect him to stay put in his office and ignore crucial international meetings, our trading partners and our overseas allies? They criticize his ‘tripping off to 'strut' the world stage’, but never spell out what he should more usefully be doing at home instead.
Rudd attracted criticism for on the one hand criticizing China’s human rights record in his lecture to students in Beijing, then for ‘cosying-up’ to them, then for not sitting next to the Chinese ambassador to Britain in a London TV interview, then for upsetting China with the Defence White Paper that acknowledged China’s increasing military strength, then for not being tough enough with China over the Stern Hu affair. Which every way he jumps, some in the media and in the Opposition say he’s wrong, and contradictory in his responses. The critics might like to consider the proposition that different situations require different responses. Rudd has shown that he will respond in the national interest, and not just to keep the peace with individual nations no matter what they do or say. Flexibility in international relations seems essential; sycophantic attraction to individual nations seems inadvisable.
We citizens have to decide whether we would prefer to leave international relations to Rudd and his Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, or take the advice of the armchair critics who regularly try to second-guess Rudd.
The Rudd essays
The first extolled Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian who defied the Nazis and was executed just before the end of WW II. Rudd saw him as a role model. That brought forth sceptical comment, particularly from Tony Abbott, who saw Rudd wearing his religion on his sleeve, something Abbott would never do. Abbott has consistently questioned Rudd’s sincerity, and likes to paint him as a fraud, willing to wear any garb that suited his political purpose.
The next was Rudd’s account of the genesis of the GFC. This was analysed on The Political Sword in Kevin Rudd’s essay on the global financial crisis. There were many critics of Rudd’s thesis that the crisis was the result of rampant neo-liberalism, unregulated markets, and a “particular brand of free market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed.” Much of the criticism seemed to be centred on the descriptive words Rudd used and their meaning, and some jumped on what they saw as a conflict between Rudd’s declaration that he was an ‘economic conservative’ and his condemnation of unfettered free markets, which the critics asserted were incompatible concepts. That was always a debateable argument, but now the G20 ministers seem to be echoing many of Rudd’s sentiments, and have set about to better regulate financial markets, and to curb disproportionate risk taking for excessive reward. Whether they will succeed is not the issue; the fact that they largely go along with Rudd’s thesis, is.
In July Rudd wrote another essay The road to recovery, about which he said “The purpose of this essay is threefold: to review progress in dealing with the immediate crisis; to look beyond the immediate crisis to outline challenges likely to arise during recovery; and to define the core economic challenge for the decade ahead, the ‘Building Decade’, as we embrace a bold strategy to boost Australia's long-term global competitiveness.” It drew such acerbic criticism from Ross Gittins, who saw it as all spin, that I penned Is the latest Rudd essay all spin? Turnbull agreed with Gittins, but several commentators didn’t and made no mention of spin.
If you had to choose between a PM who said in print what he thought about world issues and what action should be taken, even if you disagreed, and one who made no attempt to expose his thinking, which would you choose?
Rudd and the media
Rudd has not had an easy time with the media. Even allowing for the inevitable political bias we all have, many of us believe News Limited papers and specifically The Australian has an anti-Rudd bias, so much so that some bloggers have given it the tag ‘OO’. Dennis Shanahan was one who exhibited this bias during the dying Howard years, but now writes more balanced pieces that amusingly now attract the accusation that he’s pro-Government. Glenn Milne often writes material that is malevolently anti-Rudd, so much so that Rudd now calls him ‘the Coalition’s journalist of choice’. His Sunday tabloid scuttlebutt seems designed to embarrass Rudd, especially if he’s overseas. Look back and you’ll see Milne has written most of the nasty pieces; I won’t catalogue them here – you know them well. Recently Rudd has drawn supportive pieces from Paul Kelly and Greg Sheridan and from several Fairfax journalists.
Barrie Cassidy is piqued that Rudd has appeared only once on the ABC’s Insiders. Alan Jones is annoyed Rudd won’t appear on his show. Rudd and Julia Gillard have not shrunk from criticizing The Australian’s campaign against the Government’s schools program. They have shown they will not be intimidated by the media.
Rudd has had regular jousts with Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones, both of whom seek the gotcha moment. Rudd is always cautious during these interviews and as a result he is not as forthcoming as he might otherwise be, and is therefore accused of not answering questions. If they desisted from laying traps for him, or for that matter for other politicians, they might achieve more informative interviews.
A regular assertion from those inside and outside the media is that Rudd and his media team are obsessed with the 24 hour media cycle, looking for an item to fill every slot on TV and radio. That seems to be the case. Why is it so? As far back as the Menzies era, RG undertook ‘fireside chats’ on radio with his ‘forgotten people’. Since then technology has provided steadily increasing opportunities for media exposure. Howard used talkback to great advantage. Rudd has extended that. It is a mystery to me why the media, which so desperately craves news, any news, to fill its multiple outlets, complain about Rudd and his Government filling them.
Why do journalists complain? Is it that Rudd does not fit their concept of how a PM should relate to the media? Is it that the leisurely pace they once enjoyed is being rudely replaced by fast tempo action?
The public seems to have adapted better than the media; it has realized that Rudd is a new-age leader who has redefined the way the media is used; it is now an integral part of his political process. The media’s criticism of Rudd’s approach is inexplicable. It should get used to it; the pace is not going to slow.
An attribute that has become increasingly apparent is Rudd’s pragmatism. Politics is said to be the art of the possible, a lesson Rudd has learned well. The CPRS is a classic example. Realizing that implementing it according to his original schedule was not practical, he delayed it for a year. He has also made provision for substantial compensation for affected industries aware of the fact that coal and related industries provide employment for hundreds of thousands and generate a large chunk of Australia’s revenue. This has attracted strong criticism from the Greens who see the CPRS as a weak plan that is a ‘sell-out’ to polluters, while the polluters cry foul that their compensation is inadequate. Rudd has taken the pragmatic middle course, and has angered both sides. Those who criticize want to push the CPRS radically one way or the opposite; both cannot occur; both cannot be right.
Most successful politicians are pragmatic, most are prepared to compromise; Rudd is no exception.
Tony Abbott is convinced that Kevin Rudd will do anything to enhance his popularity, that he is ‘poll driven’, and that he shrinks from making hard decisions that may upset the electorate. In fact Abbott insists that Rudd has never made a ‘hard decision’, fearful of a backlash from the voters. Abbott still believes the electorate is sleep-walking, so besotted with Rudd that they keep giving him high ratings. He longs for the awakening and the long-anticipated end of the Rudd honeymoon.
There seems little doubt Rudd enjoys his popularity, which is reflected month after month in the opinion polls. Whether he sacrifices good policy on the altar of populism is debatable. The anti-Rudd bloggers are adamant that this is so; increasingly, thoughtful columnists incline to the view that many of his policies have been accepted by the pundits and the people. Just one example is the widespread acceptance of the efficacy of the stimulus package, which attracted so much initial criticism from economists and the Coalition. While the Coalition cannot bring itself to give credit for that move, the public has; two thirds believe the stimulus has been about right and even more that the Government has managed the GFC well.
This has been the subject of endless debate. His opponents paint him as a chameleon, a fraud, a hollow man, with a smooth facade that hides a nasty streak. They see his appearances at church each Sunday, even when overseas, as a cover for his less-than-pleasant inner self, and the doorstops at the church as a ‘look at me’ self-righteous exercise. The possibility of him being a committed Christian is discounted, although he reportedly reads the Bible regularly.
The fact that he sometimes does his block, that he demands much of his staff, that he refuses to be intimidated by factional heavies and tells them so using the f-word, is advanced as an argument that he is not a committed Christian at all; how could he be if he swears? Milne has written ad nauseam about this and his other misdemeanours.
Rudd is often the subject of adverse comment because of his use of old fashioned language. Remember what a fuss was created over his use of ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’ – three times in the one interview! That expression was common in Queensland when I was a kid, but now it’s considered passé by the media, as are other expressions Rudd uses. The media labels his use of them as a confection designed by his spin doctors to make him sound ocker – one of the boys. The length to which the media goes to press this case is astonishing; it seems part of the ‘Rudd is a sham’ campaign. But the language Rudd uses in public seems to be simply a reflection of the way he speaks. He uses expressions that suit the circumstances. When sombreness is required he provides it, such as at the time of national or international tragedy. He is a man for all seasons.
That he seems congenial, able to converse with people in supermarkets and workplaces as easily as those in high office, seems a worthy attribute.
He has ego-strength, confidence, and a positive attitude.
Some in the media sees the display of his indisputable intelligence, his extensive knowledge and his considerable accomplishments as boastful and his appearances overseas as ‘strutting the world stage’. There was even a disparaging piece recently in The Punch about how much he smiled at the G20 meeting. Good grief.
Whether the likes of Milne, or whether the Abbott’s and Turnbull’s of this world find him congenial, matters not at all. The public does, if the record high satisfaction and the low dissatisfaction ratings he enjoys are any indication; many Liberals also rating him highly.
So who is this man called Kevin?
When it’s all said and done, there’s a mountain of evidence that enables a judgement about Kevin Rudd. George Megalogenis sees him as ‘a work in progress’, which of course he is. But why some still insist they don’t know him is a mystery. While it’s impossible for one human being to fully know another, and although you may disagree with my account of him, surely there’s enough around about him in the public domain for anyone to make a reasonable assessment of who Kevin Rudd is.
Those who can’t make up their mind after three years of his being leader of the Labor Party, should ask themselves what information they still need. It may be that their concept of leadership, their notion of what a latter day PM should be, do and say, need radical updating.
In politics perception is more important than reality. The media try to create a perception of Rudd, but it is the reality that should be the basis for judging him. This piece is an attempt to paint that reality, at least as I see it, so that you might more readily answer “Who is this man called Kevin?”
What do you think?