Tony Abbott knows that perception is everything in politics. So he has embarked on a campaign to label Kevin Rudd a ‘bore’, and just too add a splash of colour, no matter how meaningless, he adds the prefix ‘toxic’. Would he have ever selected such an adjective had it not been for all the contemporary talk about ‘toxic assets’ on bank balance sheets? Why toxic? In my dictionary ‘toxic’ means ‘poisonous’. Did he really mean to call Rudd poisonous? We’ll never know as he’ll never explain his thinking. The ill-chosen word is more a reflection of Abbott’s intense disdain for Rudd than an attempt at an accurate descriptor. [more]
So his object is not to formulate an accurate description of Rudd, but to create an obnoxious tag, however implausible, in the hope that, like mud thrown at a wall, it will be catchy enough to stick, and thereby take some of the shine off Rudd’s persona.
From pre-election days to the present, Abbott continues to be amazed at Rudd’s consistent popularity, and is resentful of it. He still thinks the electorate is sleepwalking and longs for its awakening, when the scales will fall from everyone’s eyes and the true character of Rudd will be exposed for all to see – a hollow man who is all boring talk and who never makes a hard decision. In the meantime he feels the need to mount a campaign to stain Rudd’s reputation by raising doubts about his character
Leaving the ‘toxic’ tag aside as inapplicable and irrelevant, let’s look at the ‘bore’ tag. A ‘bore’ is ‘a dull and uninteresting person’; ‘one that causes boredom’; ‘a tiresome person’; ‘someone that is devoid of interest’. How can such descriptors apply to our hyperactive, highly intelligent, impressively informed PM who appears almost daily in the media? I suspect when he uses the word ‘boring’ he’s referring to Rudd’s TV and radio appearances when he’s under intense questioning by political journalists, and also to his replies to questions in parliament. So let’s look at them.
Kevin Rudd is a cautious person. He knows that at every public appearance cameras and microphones are poised to catch his every expression, his every word. He knows that these can be drawn from the archives at any time as evidence, and a false word will be replayed endlessly to his discomfort. Understandably he’s cautious, and this is most evident in TV and radio interviews with political journalists such as Kerry O’Brien, Tony Jones, Chris Uhlmann and Neil Mitchell. Because he thinks carefully before answering and avoids ‘can you give me the exact figure’ and the ‘will you guarantee’ questions that are fishing for a ‘gotcha’ moment, he often looks or sounds pensive, reflective, and at times deep in thought, and as a result is often slow speaking. It is possibly this that upsets Abbott, and evokes the toxic bore appellation. For my part I would prefer Rudd to be careful and thoughtful in his responses. I’m not looking for vaudeville in such interviews.
Look at Barack Obama’s responses to similar questions from the media and you will see the same careful, cautious, even hesitant response. He does not exhibit the soaring rhetoric heard during the election campaign now he’s in the world’s most powerful office. He knows every word is watched and a slip-up can be dynamite. Even the tiniest slip, such as when he began to refer to Kevin Rudd after their White House conversation as ‘Secretary’ but quickly corrected to “Prime Minister’, was reported on ABC TV with the preface ‘nobody is perfect’. The similarity between Rudd and Obama in answering media questions is striking, but I don’t hear Abbott or anyone else referring to Obama as ‘a toxic bore’.
In parliament Rudd is much more animated, yet it is his performance there that brings Abbott to fever pitch. He claims that Rudd is incomprehensible and that his words are empty and meaningless. I have watched Question Time many times, and cannot comprehend what Abbott is on about. To me Rudd is articulate, lucid, penetrating, acerbic, animated and very effective. I suspect that his potency in demolishing Opposition questions is the reason for Abbott’s angst. Now he’s not a clown, as Costello can be, or as acerbic as Keating was, or as angry as Howard could be, he’s just Kevin Rudd telling it how he sees it and attacking the Opposition for what he sees as hypocrisy, ever-changing positions, disingenuousness, negativity, opportunism, and mindless opposition to almost everything the Government does.
Can anyone forget Rudd’s apology to indigenous people, which he wrote himself, his words of sympathy when solders have died, his emotion-laden words when visiting bushfire areas and speaking with victims, his address in Mandarin to students at the Peking University, his addresses to numerous national and overseas bodies? Did Abbott hear the words of commendation from US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at a business forum in Washington this week organised by The Wall Street Journal where he gave Rudd A-plus on issues related to the global financial crisis, and added "If we did what he advised we'd all be in a better place.”? Presumably Rudd was not seen as a toxic bore there.
His addresses on light-hearted occasions, such as the recent St Patrick’s Day celebrations, were humorous and well received, and in his appearances on commercial TV, whether discussing serious matters with the audience or on jocular shows such a Rove Live, he comes across as personable, understandable, good humoured and at times funny. He is popular with his audiences. Those with whom he mixes report him as having a good sense of humour.
So from whence does the ‘toxic bore’ label come? The answer seems obvious – out of Tony Abbott’s fevered imagination. His anger about being turfed out of office by an ungrateful electorate, displaced by someone for whom he has nothing but disdain, someone he regards as unworthy of his position and lacking the ability to fill it, is so all-pervading that, like an angry teenager, he is lashing out spitefully at his object of contempt.
As so often happens in interpersonal relations, the flaws people see in others are the same they themselves manifestly display. So if there was a ‘toxic bore’ stakes, who would the winner? Not Kevin Rudd, not even Peter Costello or Malcolm Turnbull; no, it would be Tony Abbott himself. In the world of federal politics is there a duller speaker, is there one more poisonous (read ‘toxic’), is there one more hesitant, is there one more difficult to follow, is there one more hide-bound by his belief system, is there one more prone to put his foot in it, than Tony Abbott. No. Tony, you’d win hands-down.
So Tony, to preserve whatever little credibility you still have with the electorate, do give up on this one. Spare us your anger, and hope the voters will have forgotten all this ‘toxic bore’ nonsense before you have to front them again.