From stratospheric, even unrealistic heights, Kevin Rudd’s popularity has rather suddenly become much less, according to opinion polls. Why is this so? There is any number of journalists who are willing, even eager to offer their opinions, attributing it to this or that – the conventional wisdom, which may be yet another manifestation of groupthink, identifies the deferment of the ETS as the most significant reason. The temptation is to look for a simplistic direct cause-effect relationship, but life is never, never so simple.
This piece suggests that the problem boils down to the pedestal. A natural human trait is to seek to elevate some of our number to positions of authority and trust. We seek leaders who will guide us to the promised-land. So we place them on a pedestal and hope they will fulfil our dreams and their promise of vision, leadership, courage and strength. But unless they are mythical god-like creatures from a parallel universe, they can never live up to our dreams and their promises – life is too complicated, variables so numerous, fate so unpredictable, circumstances so changeable. So why do we put some, but certainly not all politicians on a pedestal? We know that we are likely to be disappointed, yet we do it over and again.
Just about every poll that asks people to rate groups of citizens on a scale of respectability lists politicians near the bottom, down there with journalists and car salesmen. So why put any politician on a pedestal; why not stay in touch with reality and accept that doing so will lead to disappointment? Because it seems to be an inner human yearning to elevate just a few above the masses, to admire them and follow their lead. So we go on doing so with a tiny handful of politicians despite our poor opinion of them as a group.
This piece maintains that many in the electorate, not just Labor-leaning folk, placed Kevin Rudd on a pedestal and many are now disappointed that he has not lived up to all of their expectations of him. Who is to blame – we do like blaming don’t we?
Many would say Kevin Rudd himself is to blame. The Abbott Party and many in the MSM insist he set expectations that were too high – he would do something about petrol and grocery prices, he would ‘fix’ the hospital system to ‘stop the blame game’ and most of all would take ‘decisive action’ about global warming, ‘the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our time’. Thus the slogan ‘Rudd has over-promised and under-delivered’. So why did he do what he did, especially pre-election, but also since then?
Politicians are salesmen – they need to sell their credentials, their vision, their ambition for the nation to a sceptical electorate that already has its political leaders, already has a party in power. Those seeking power have to convince the voters they can do better than the incumbents. So we shouldn’t be surprised when they make promises without qualification. How would the public react to: “I will fix the hospital system and stop the blame game, but that will require fighting vested interests and negotiating with the states, and that might be messy and even inconclusive – there may have to be compromises; I may not get all I want.”? Honest you say, but how many voters would buy such a qualified promise? Not many swinging voters I suggest. So politicians are almost forced to make unqualified claims about what they can and will do. Just take a look at the Abbott Party’s first election ad.
It’s no good blaming politicians and crying for this elusive thing called ‘honesty’ in political campaigning when the political system under which we work makes this virtually impossible. There is no virtue in now crying about Rudd, or for that matter any other politician, overpromising – that is the nature of politics and campaigning – just watch for a barrage over the next few months. It is just too cute for journalists to simulate anger and disappointment about Rudd’s overpromising, just as they did about Howard’s, and every leader before him. All political leaders overpromise and under-deliver. We live in a political system of our own creation – we had better get used to it or take some drastic action as a community to change it so that we swap our current batch of politicians for ‘honest’, straight-shooting, say-it-the-way-it-is pollies that we can love and admire, always knowing that what they promise is what they will deliver, 100% guaranteed. We might as well summon up the fairies at the end of the garden.
So we the citizens have to accept some of the responsibility for promises not fulfilled, because many placed Kevin Rudd on a pedestal, albeit with encouragement from him, and now are somewhat disappointed. Not about all the promises made, as many have been kept, but about some of them that certain people, especially Labour-leaning folk, have held sacred, notably those related to global warming.
Recall the clamour for a Rudd ‘narrative’, both before the election, and more stridently after. So intense was the insistence of journalists that Rudd must have a narrative, something they asserted he lacked, that I wrote a piece back in September 2008, In search of the political Holy Grail – the Rudd Government narrative. As that piece asserted, Rudd had already obliged with a narrative that included promises about a variety of matters that he addressed in his campaigning and after election. The journalists, from Paul Kelly downwards, took ages to recognize that narrative for what it was. They no longer call for a narrative from Rudd; instead they castigate him for not keeping the promises encapsulated in his slow-to-be-recognized narrative. Ironically, as the 2010 budget approaches, one the Government chooses to describe as ‘no frills’, even ‘boring’, journalists chide it for taking that low-key, low-promise approach.
As Howard tired and ran short of new ideas, as his Government became languid, the people yearned for an exciting fresh new leader to inspire them. Kevin Rudd obliged, met the people’s expectations for a new vision, a new start, and new set of aspirations, new promises. Maybe he should have been more circumspect, but would we have elected a hesitant, cautious leader unwilling to commit to change, to fixing problems that affected the lives of the people, one whose rhetoric was qualified by the difficulties inherent in keeping promises? You know the answer.
Another thing – the cult of personality. In his article The politics of delusion in The Drum, Josh Fear, writing about the UK election, says: “Absurdly, one journalist asked 'Is Nick Clegg Britain's Barack Obama?'. This reflected the common view that it was not the issues that are important in this election, but the individuals involved and the incentives they act upon. But the very fact that an Obama reference was raised is testament to the longing that many people have for a more inspirational form of politics, in which it is possible to be swept away by force of argument and personality, rather than persuaded by economic self-interest or (more commonly) fear of the other options on offer.”
We need to ask ourselves whether the cult of personality is operating here. In my opinion it did when so many put Rudd on a pedestal. We put him there as an appealing authentic personality, but of course many now deride his personality.
So to all who bemoan broken promises, especially fervent Labor supporters, I would say - take some responsibility yourself for placing Kevin Rudd on such a high pedestal, for embracing expectations unrealistic for any politician working in our adversarial system of politics that so constrains good governance. Like parents disappointed that our kids that we put on a pedestal as uncommonly brilliant turned out not to be so, we need to ‘get real’.
And as Grog points out in his fine piece last week on Grogs’ Gamut: Memo to Kev – what’s the story Kev and the Government should be proud of their achievements and shout them from the rooftops. Those who share Grog’s view that this Government had accomplished a lot should do the same. Take Kev off the pedestal where he never should have been placed, accept that despite his foibles which journos like to accentuate, he is a genuine and very smart guy who is busting a gut to improve this nation for you and me, and has made commendable progress in the short time he has had in Government.
Join the counterinsurgency that the Fifth Estate is mounting against the spiteful guerrilla war the Fourth Estate is waging against Rudd and his Government, the effects of which are now being reflected in the polls.