Kevin Rudd and his Government have had a good year. The catalogue of achievements is vast, from the symbolic to the substantial, from the carefully considered moves to the emergency measures taken in response to the GFC. There’s no need to elaborate; the public can see what the Government is doing and is marking it up in the polls, while opponents continue to mouth the ‘all talk, no action’ mantra, and when acknowledging action is unavoidable, demean it is ‘a blunder’, or inadequate in some grotesque way.
Rudd himself has performed superbly in a variety of situations. He has excelled on the international scene, and has been prepared to travel whenever the country needed to have its voice heard. He has shown appropriate concern, sympathy and dignity in times of personal or national tragedy and at those poignant moments that will go down in our nation’s history. He has shown he has the common touch by mixing with all sectors of society – children, elders, indigenous Australians, people in the street or at community cabinet meetings and the 2020 Summit, workers, farmers, miners and the top end of town. He has performed well with international dignitaries, with live TV audiences, and at media doorstops. Contrary to media opinion, he speaks clearly and convincingly in parliament, and has successfully countered the endless attacks from the Opposition. He has seen off two leaders, John Howard and Brendan Nelson, and has the measure of the third, Malcolm Turnbull.
Idle commentators have focussed on the inconsequential. Rudd uses folksy words like ‘brekkie’ or ‘Brissy’ (the people understand them); or he uses terms like ‘complementarity’ (incomprehensible to some journalists, but not to the boffins to whom he was talking); or he repeats the same terms over and over (some even count how many times he uses words like ‘decisive action’ seemingly unaware of the purpose of repetition); he’s boring in parliament (which means he’s not an entertainer like Costello or Keating); or he’s uninspiring on current affairs TV (which means he’s taking the subject seriously and not intending to be wedged by acerbic interviewers); or he travels too much (which is just what he should be doing in the rapidly changing planet we inhabit). None of these critiques need to be taken seriously. They are simply a reflection of the inadequacy and superficiality of many of our journalists. [more]
Rudd’s team has done well. Julia Gillard is widely acknowledged as a star. Lindsay Tanner gets consistently high ratings. Even Wayne Swan, who has now no need for his ‘training wheels’, is grudgingly acknowledged as competent and hard working, and is well supported by Chris Bowen. Penny Wong belies her rather bland exterior with an impressive display of knowledge and understanding of very complex matters. Jenny Macklin combines a kind heart and a rare determination to improve the lot of indigenous people. Anthony Albanese shows dogged determination and an earthy sense of humour in handling Government business and infrastructure development. Stephen Smith must be one of the most level-headed ever to fill the foreign affairs portfolio. Nicola Roxon has handled the health portfolio with sensitivity, and Tanya Pliberseck has made steady progress with housing. Joel Fitzgibbon has done well in defence, as has Craig Emerson in small business, Robert McClelland as attorney general and Tony Burke in agriculture. Simon Crean always does a workman-like job in trade, as does Martin Ferguson in resources. Steven Conroy is struggling with the difficult job of broadband and has upset some internet users with his threat of blocking undesirable sites. Peter Garrett has not impressed in his environment and arts portfolio, but does speak well in parliament. Belinda Neal and James Bidgood have been negatives for the Government. Greg Combet, Bill Shorten and Maxine McKew have been beavering in the background; we may see more of them next year. Harry Jenkins, like his father, is acknowledged by both sides as a good speaker.
In all, the Government’s plans are on track, except that the fast broadband initiative is lagging, the polls are even better than could be hoped for after a year in Government, the Rudd team has generally performed well and cohesively, the many careful and thorough reviews are beginning to come to fruition, and so far the emergency steps the Reserve Bank and the Government have taken to soften the effect of the GFC seem to be working. Confidence is rising, November’s employment figures show little growth in unemployment, and further compensatory initiatives can be put in place quickly. Getting the CPRS right will be a challenge, the Henry tax review will be a difficult balancing exercise, and rolling out broadband is bound to be beset with problems.
So Kevin Rudd, the nerdy, review-obsessed, control freak who is in perpetual motion, who likes to surround himself with people who have ideas, who consults widely and gets his facts right before reaching decisions, seems to have done quite well, despite many in the media scarifying him for his frenetic approach to government. Whatever the media say, the people like what they see. Few in the media seem to have understood his modus operandi, the people have never tried to; they have judged Rudd on results.
By contrast the Opposition ends the year in disarray. The last week in parliament, the effects of which are still reverberating through the Coalition, the media and the public, will go down as one of its worst. With deteriorating polling, it has lots to do in 2009 to improve its standing. What is the explanation?
To begin, the Coalition seems never to have come to understand why it is in Opposition. During 2007, as the election approached, Tony Abbott repeatedly expressed his amazement that the polls continued to be so bad, as “we’ve been such a good Government”. He saw the electorate as ‘sleepwalking’, and longed for it to awaken, to come to its senses and vote for a continuation of the prosperity gifted by the Howard-Costello partnership. Abbott still can’t understand what happened. Now he’s saying “wait until unemployment soars and the economy slumps”, then see how popular the Rudd Government is, then see how well they’re doing in the polls. So he’s mimicking what Labor did for years, expecting to gain office via the failure of the government. It doesn’t work that way anymore, oppositions don’t gain office by governments falling over.
The Howard Years showed how little the Coalition understands its defeat, even to this day. They attribute it largely to Howard staying too long rather than his and the Coalition’s policies, and that if only Peter Costello had taken over in 2006, it would have been a different story. They acknowledge that rejection by the people of WorkChoices was a major factor, but put that down to the union scare campaign, or not selling it well enough. Only Joe Hockey acknowledged that it was the unfairness of the policy that was the problem. They cannot bring themselves to believe that accumulated resentment over a number of Government actions – Iraq, ‘kids overboard’, dog-whistling politics used to justify detention and the ‘Pacific Solution’, and flagrant pork-barrelling, had taken its toll. The Coalition still believes it is the only party equipped to manage the economy, that Labor has no feel for finance, budgeting and managing a ‘trillion dollar economy’, and simply lacks the needed competence. Evidence to the contrary makes no impact on them at all. Perhaps as much as anything else they underestimated Rudd; as Graeme Morris said on The Howard Years: "although Howard saw the train coming at him, he could do nothing about it – the train was Kevin Rudd." He took the centre ground from Howard - 'the Howard battlers', and to date the Coalition has not regained that centre ground.
Until the Coalition acknowledges that its mindset is flawed, until it achieves insight into the reasons for its failure, until it develops a new and attractive alternative policy agenda to regain the lost centre, it will languish.
After Costello’s rejection of leadership, Brendan Nelson was unexpectedly elected. He was doomed from the outset because the media did not want him. He was given deadline after deadline to prove himself, the May budget, the Gippsland by-election, and so on, and as the polls continued to flag, his leadership became terminal. The media smelt blood and went in for the kill. Finally the saviour, Malcolm Turnbull, was elected, albeit with a small margin. At last the media were satisfied; it looked for a boost in the polls and Turnbull ‘taking it up to Rudd’. Almost three months have elapsed since then, and little has changed. After a tiny evanescent ‘bounce’, the polls have reverted to levels experienced during the Nelson era. The only better Turnbull statistic, not unexpectedly, is higher approval than Nelson.
Turnbull looks impressive, Prime Ministerial, and has a fine voice. When he speaks in simple sentences, he sounds convincing. When he indulges in circumlocution, as he often does, he confuses his audience. He does that in parliament and on TV and radio. So he’ll have difficulty informing and convincing the voters, which is what he needs to do to gain traction. If the polls are any guide, they just don’t buy his universal condemnation of Rudd and his Government. Only his rusted-on supporters accept his unsupported assertions.
But his most serious and pressing contemporary problem is his inability to keep his party in line. With both Nationals and some Liberals defying his directions, he looks weak and his party out of control. He does not behave as a politician, his political acumen is questionable, his authority frail; he is no John Howard.
So what will the Coalition do? They will stick with Turnbull hoping the polls will improve. If they don’t, and internal murmurings gather momentum, their options for change are limited. Leaving aside Peter Costello, who sits in the shadows on the back bench, and who has probably irretrievably blotted his copy book, who could replace Turnbull? Julie Bishop is not a plausible contender; she carries too much baggage, and has performed unimpressively. Andrew Robb is sound but lacks any semblance of charisma, without which leadership would be almost impossible. Tony Abbott covets leadership, but suffering as he does with chronic ‘foot-in-mouth’ disease and almost total lack of insight, would be a risky choice. Moreover, he’s a ‘Howard man’, and therefore would look like a return to the past. Peter Dutton and Greg Hunt might one day be mature enough, but not now. Christopher Pyne shows promise if only he could curb his flights of fancy, and stick to facts, figures and logic. Tony Smith, a strong Costello supporter, came across well in The Howard Years, but may not have enough support, and would not contest if Costello was in the field. Nick Minchin is senior, experienced, and has stature, but he’s in the Senate and is a ‘Howard man’. Barnaby Joyce is not eligible as he’s a National and in the Senate, and in any case is too erratic. The rest: the old and bold and the also rans, are forgettable. This leaves just Joe Hockey. We know he has the stench of the albatross WorkChoices still in his nostrils, but he is congenial, well liked, can speak rationally and reasonably as he did on The Howard Years, is young yet senior in the Shadow Cabinet, experienced in several portfolios, and is now Shadow Finance Minister and Manger of Opposition Business. He might be regarded as a good foil for Kevin Rudd, with whom he interacted successfully on Channel Seven’s Sunrise. All in all, it’s not a pretty picture.
It is unlikely that the Rudd Government will look the same or be regarded as highly this time next year, but its performance to date gives hope for more of the same. It is just as unlikely that the Coalition will be in as parlous a state as it is now. There is promise of Coalition policies being unveiled in 2009. Andrew Robb assures us the Coalition will not be a ‘small target’. I can only be hoped that it will take a more positive and collaborative approach and work with the Government to maintain and improve the lot of the Australian people.
It is to be hoped that Kevin Rudd and his team will now take a refreshing break; 2009 will be even more hectic. Hopefully Malcolm Turnbull and his team will also take advantage of the break from hostilities to regroup, rethink, re-orient, and refresh.
For those who read this piece as heavily pro-Rudd, I am unapologetic. It is written as one person’s tiny counter to all the trenchant criticism, unfounded disparagement and unseemly denigration heaped upon Rudd and his Government not just by Coalition supporters, but by a largely unsupportive and at times antagonistic media.