Since the anniversary of the election of the Rudd Government is now upon us, a handful of commentators have already attempted an appraisal of Kevin Rudd’s first year. Their focus has been more on Rudd than his Government. The general tenor is that, almost grudgingly, they acknowledge he’s not doing such a bad job, and the people seem to like him, but the commentators have plenty of negatives, and warn of a variety of ‘dangers’ lurking for him in the days ahead, which may reverse his popularity.
This piece attempts an analysis from the starting point of labels applied over the year by the media, most of them uncomplimentary.
All talk and no action
This was a favourite until recently, until the GFC arrived. Since then Rudd and his ministers have been engaged in feverish activity taking steps to minimize its effect on our economy – the $10.6 billion economic stimulus package, the bank guarantee, the $6.2 billion car industry plan, and now the $300 million local government package. Although there has been criticism of some actions, there now seems to be a consensus that the actions were timely and largely correct, apart from ‘a few mistakes around the edges’. Not bad, considering the uniqueness of the situation and the rapidity of its advance. The mantra has now been put to bed, at least for the time being.
Of course reviews, committee deliberations, expert reports and departmental input were never seen as ‘action’ by the commentariat. It was just talk, or if a number of people were involved, a ‘talkfest’. The idea of gathering information and soliciting expert opinion, analysing it, and having stakeholders debate the issues before formulating a plan of action seemed alien. They longed for gung-ho rapid action that all could see. John Howard was their man.
The Howard Years now screening on ABC shows that our last PM was indeed gung-ho, ‘all action and no talk’ when it came to many initiatives. On such major matters as, for example, the GST and the Murray Darling Water initiative, there was virtually no consultation, just unilateral action. If journalists feel this is the way politics should be done, it’s not surprising that Rudd’s careful ‘bureaucratic’ approach is anathema to them. This is the first of several examples in this piece where it seems that it is the mindset of the commentariat, the prism through which it views the world, its idea of how things should be done, that determines how it rates Rudd and his Government. Like an old boys club, it sits in judgement, but never bothers to state its criteria.
All symbolism, no substance
Although the media applauded the signing of the Kyoto Protocol and ‘The Apology’ they were quick to label these nation-changing events as ‘symbolic’, sometimes ‘merely symbolic’. They seemed unable or unwilling to place these ‘symbols’ alongside the substance of the Garnaut Report, commissioned by Rudd while in Opposition, and subsequently the Green Paper, the Treasury modelling, and the soon-to-be-released White Paper, and the continuation of the NT intervention and its recently-completed review. If these studies, reviews, reports and actions are not substance, what on earth are they? Again, the mindset of the commentators allows them to overlook these and continue to mouth the weary ‘all symbolism, no substance’ mantra. Even respected social researcher Hugh Mackay, in an article by Simon Mann in last Saturday’s Age, says Rudd’s symbolism has fuelled the euphoria generated by his election, which he declares is ‘dangerous’ as the “euphoria bubble has to burst”. He too seems oblivious of the substance that has enveloped the symbolism, and given it meaning. The fact that so many reviews and reports, complete with recommendations, will conclude next year has now moved some journalists to predict that the Government will be overwhelmed by them, swamped by too much substance to manage. They seem unable to be satisfied. Wait for the criticism that Rudd has ‘bitten off more than he can chew’. [more]
Rudd is too bureaucratic, too process-driven
Rudd’s bureaucratic, process-driven approach should surprise nobody. He was a bureaucrat for many years, and brings to this job the same cautious, careful, thorough approach. Bureaucrats are trained to look before they leap, to not rely on gut-feelings. Today Barack Obama announced a process identical to Rudd’s in approaching the problems of the US automobile industry. Are the commentators looking for the Howard approach, one in which he seemingly placed great reliance on his gut-instinct, as he concedes he did over the Tasmanian ‘jobs over forests’ decision that gained him Tasmanian seats in the 2004 election? Have commentators become so accustomed to the Howard way of doing things that any other way seems foreign? Journalistic mindset again?
The ordinary people give Rudd credit for having ‘brains behind the facade’ as one put it. Could it be that they prefer a PM who uses well-tried investigatory processes prior to making decisions? Or would they prefer one that roars into battle without a well thought through strategy?
Rudd uses ‘bureaucratese’, and repeats himself too much
Simon Mann in Saturday’s Age asserts that Australians have “grown accustomed to cliché and ‘bureaucratese’” from Rudd. He says Rudd is “a man who would use 2000 words when 200 would do”. Does Mann really believe thinking people would swallow such a gross exaggeration? Perhaps he hopes the unthinking will. Mann describes Rudd’s language as ’leaden’ and compares his oratory with Barack Obama’s, forgetting that Obama’s oratory was during campaign speeches; it might drop back a notch or two in office when he’s speaking about what he intends to do.
Some say Rudd needs a speech writer; Don Watson, Paul Keating’s, thinks so. Rudd wrote his ‘Apology’ speech, which attracted universal acclaim, so maybe he doesn’t need a speechwriter; Churchill didn’t. Rudd seems to fashion his speech to suit the audience If he’s talking to folk sitting around the kitchen table, he uses, for example, words like ‘working families’, ‘doing it tough’, ‘decisive action’, ‘things are going to get tough, ugly and hard’, and ‘global financial crisis’. People understand what he means. But political journalists become irritated, even bored by the way Rudd repeats these words over and over. He does so because he estimates that the average punter will hear them but infrequently, unlike journalists and political tragics who hang on every word politicians utter. Some journalists have even gone to the ridiculous extreme of counting and even charting the use of these words; it’s amazing they haven’t got something better to do. Their mindset has prevented them from accepting the fact that Rudd is speaking to the electorate that voted him in, not journalists.
Rudd is not a good parliamentary performer
The Canberra press gallery has complained that some of Rudd’s statements in parliament are unintelligible, a sentiment echoed loudly by the Opposition. Having often watched Question Time, it’s hard to discern their problem. Rudd’s utterances seem quite lucid. If the press can’t understand them, maybe they’re not listening or concentrating, or they’re bored, or they’re not up to the job.
Rudd’s performance in parliament is competent if not exciting when giving information to the House, and telling when countering Opposition attacks. He also shows a sense of humour, as he did recently when responding to Joe Hockey’s question about Rudd’s ‘war on everything’. He performs at least on a par with John Howard, although does not reach the heights, or depths, of Peter Costello, for which we should be thankful. Malcolm Turnbull is rated by the press gallery as ‘the best parliamentary performer’. They miss Costello, who seemed to brighten up their otherwise dull days. Again it seems to be their mindset which causes them to long for a little theatre, which persuades them to the view that Rudd doesn’t rate.
Rudd works his staff too hard, yet is a ‘one man band’
Glenn Milne has been running the line that Rudd is exhausting his staff, which are leaving in droves, never see their kids, and need to be young and unmarried to survive. He calls Rudd’s office dysfunctional. That Rudd is capable of protracted frenetic activity is a fact; that he expects his staff to keep up with him is hardly surprising or unique. In the first episode of The Howard Years a Costello staffer told of 16 hour days, seven days a week for months, way back in the days when the GST tax reform was being formulated. Costello himself talked frequently about these long hours. So why is Rudd pilloried for doing what seems to be the norm? Ask Milne.
The ‘one man band’ mantra seems out of place. Journalists admonish Rudd for ‘speaking for his ministers’. Yet we hear from them day after day. It is expected that the PM will be across all portfolios and be able to speak informatively about them, as indeed was John Howard. How many times did we see Howard lead press conferences before handing the microphone to the relevant minister? Why do journalists expect Rudd to behave differently? You’d have to ask them, but don’t expect a convincing answer.
Rudd travels overseas too much
David Crowe, chief political correspondent to the AFR, writes of “Rudd’s fondness for his 737 executive jet” and asserts that this is “a first impression that voters are unlikely to forget”. It’s hard to believe that a serious journalist thinks Rudd likes his jet so much that he just keeps flying, anywhere, so long as it’s in his executive jet. Really? He goes on to say that it took John Howard six months to venture overseas. Again a mindset that compares Rudd with Howard. Has Crowe contemplated that the world has changed over the last twelve years? Could it be that there have been more reasons for an Australian PM to travel overseas in Rudd’s first twelve months than ever before? Does he really believe that the Australian people expected their PM to stay at home and ignore the rest of the world? Crowe might be insular, but the thinking public is not.
Rudd has too many big ideas on the international front
This is a subtle cringe. That Australia could become an influential middle order nation with a place on the UN Security Council, that Australia has anything useful to say internationally, that Australia should dare to take the initiative and suggest new regional arrangements, or contribute to the world scene as it is now doing during the GFC, is anathema to many journalists and commentators, even to some Opposition members. This cringe mentality is a serious affliction; we should be thankful our PM is not so afflicted. The international initiatives that attracted so much initial ridicule now seem to be gaining traction, and in the fullness of time will bear fruit. The criticism that some of these initiatives were ‘not properly worked through’ overlooks Rudd’s modus operandi in such instances, namely to float an idea and then appoint an envoy to flesh it out in consultation with the stake holders. Again, as this was not Howard’s way, commentators have not yet adjusted their mindset.
So how do the commentators rate Rudd and his Government?
Here’s one not very edifying attempt at objective appraisal. David Crowe in the November 15-16 issue of the AFR starts his assessment of Rudd with a headline “Works hard but talks too much” and a subhead “The report card on the Prime Minister’s first year in office shows how his summit agenda may be diminishing progress at home”. There you have it – a diagnosis in a few words. Then, using garish illustrations, Crowe begins with the view that Rudd is ‘star-struck’ with Cate Blanchett; asserts his oratory is ‘rare’ but concedes ‘The Apology’ was one occasion; accuses him of being ‘an occasional sycophant’ because of his ‘salute’ to George Bush; says he’s a ‘bit of a braggart’ because of the ‘leaked’ Bush telephone call; finds him guilty of ‘dipplo-babble’ because he told Washington ‘boffins’ that his idea for Asia is a “complementarity that could be developed further in the direction of some form of conceptual synthesis”, admittedly convoluted but understandable to the boffins; says he was too complacent too soon because of his statement that he had done as much physically as could be done to help the family budget; and portrayed him as tangled in a rainforest of committees. Pretty negative stuff all round, tempered by the concession that Rudd was ‘cool’ at the Bali Kyoto meeting and talked ‘tough’ about Tibet in China. He then spends half his piece pointing to the negatives, before conceding a few positives. Again Crowe seems to be yet another journalist with a set of expectations of a PM, possibly based on Rudd’s predecessor, that leaves him disappointed with Rudd, certainly not understanding how and why Rudd is so different from Howard.
Simon Mann’s effort in Saturday’s Age was marginally better, but any positives were qualified by warnings by extensively quoted experts that if the people don’t get to know Rudd better, unless he gets the ‘next door touch’, if he doesn’t ‘develop a rhetoric and a discourse that uplifts people, and explains, and even inspires them, then he has a problem’.
The thing that confounds them all is that Rudd is doing so well in the polls, that people say nice things about him, that he seems so popular, something they find easier to attribute to chance, circumstance, and of course his very first year. They refrained from using ‘honeymoon’.
It seems to me that these appraisals have been made in the absence of carefully crafted criteria for judging a new PM. They seem to be judging Rudd against what they expected of his predecessor. They seem to have a mindset derived from the past, against which they judge the present. They need to update, but don’t hold your breath. And don’t expect too much from the rest when they get round to writing about ‘Rudd’s first year’.
Rudd is doing a commendable job, is improving all the while, has a large agenda and reform programme, is thorough and careful in planning, can handle emergencies and act quickly, and to date has the majority of the people on side. His ministers are performing well, even those said to have on their training wheels early on. We’re in good hands.