Is there anything more to Kevin Rudd than style?

I don’t often agree with Mr Hockey, but I thought his description of Kevin Rudd’s National Press Club speech as ‘Guff!’ was spot on. I have said before that the Prime Minister is persuasive and presentable (he would, in contrast to Wayne Swan, be a successful seller of used cars), but what we have been seeing  over the past couple of weeks is pretty empty stuff, and my feeling is that the honeymoon period is about to end.

A political scientist called Jack Grainger published in 1969 a most interesting book called Character and Style in English Politics, and in it he contrasted men of character (Baldwin and others) and men of style (Eden and others). The distinction between style and character in politics has stayed in my mind, and it seems especially relevant at the present time. I think the jury has to be out on whether or not Tony Abbott is a man of character, but — at least in comparison to Kevin Rudd — he is not a man of style.  You can become used to leaders who lack style — John Howard was one. We haven’t seen Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, and until we have seen him there for a year or two it will be hard to decide where he sits.

But in the case of Kevin Rudd, there can be little doubt. He is a man of style, and a lot of people seem to like that style. I’m not one of them. What fascinates me is that he is doing now exactly what he was doing in the past, when he was Prime Minister, which was one of the things that got him into deep trouble. He loves to talk, and he loves to hear himself talking. He loves to think new thoughts and to surprise us all with them. He has a high opinion of himself and a correspondingly low opinion of those with whom he contends, whether within the Parliament or outside it.

And I for one long for some substance. One of the things that I learned, in a long and enjoyable working life in which I was called on to do leadership and management things quite early, is that you need to be coherent and consistent. What you say on Monday ought to remain true for a long time. If the context changes, you can change what you think, but you need to make the reason for the change clear, and it ought not to be a matter of simple convenience.

Moreover, you need to organise what you say so that, in totality, it seems coherent and sensible, and you and your words seem together. I never thought that Mr Rudd pulled that off in his first term. His style is give you a quick summary of the problem, whatever it is, and a quick and confident account of his diagnosis. Then he claps his hands, as though the matter is now settled, and moves on to the next problem. After six, maybe seven, years of Kevin Rudd, I’m not at all sure that I know what he believes in — what his core principles are. I wonder whether he knows what they are himself.

Anyone who has worked in government for any length of time knows that Ministers clapping their hands and dismissing problems is not an effective solution to anything. Problems hang about, and worry people. Any politician, any leader, can have a vision. Implementation of the vision is always the killer. Look at what Mr Rudd has just done about ‘the boats’. A quick trip to Indonesia, a chat with the President, a media conference where he makes clear that the problem requires a multilateral diplomatic solution — and that’s the boats sorted as an issue.

But of course it’s not sorted at all. Any such multilateral diplomatic solution will take several years to bring about. In the meantime the boats are going to keep coming. What then? It’s not enough to wave the hands, or imply that Mr Abbott’s policies mean war. Our society contains two broad camps with respect to the boat people: those who think that our humanitarian duty must have priority, and those who see these refugees as illegal immigrants who should be sent back to where they have come from. Mr Rudd seems to want to please both sides. It can’t be done.

He’s now ‘abolished’ the carbon tax, perhaps thinking that this act will deprive the Opposition of a major electoral weapon. But of course it doesn’t do that. The tax is still there, and has gone up since July 1st. It can’t be undone except by legislation, and it is entirely unclear that any government in the next Parliament will be able to get rid of the carbon tax.

These statements of his have the strength of tissue paper. The Opposition is, in my opinion, entirely wise in letting him go on and on. I wonder how many within the ALP are wondering why they allowed yet another leadership spill. Perhaps they’re all too busy now trying to make sure that they survive in their own electorates. What will happen in those vacated by retiring Ministers and backbenchers is anyone’s guess.











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  • Peter Lang says:

    Is there anything more to Kevin Rudd than style?

    Yes. He’s a narcissist like Hitler and Julian Assange. he’s a potential dictator. H’es also a hopelessly incompetent manager. This article in the Weend Australian (behind a paywall so I’ll post it in full) explains what we get with KRudd:

    Kevin Rudd’s real record as PM speaks for itself

    ON April 20, 2008, 1000 of the “nation’s best and brightest thinkers” rose in
    stage-managed unison to give a triumphant Kevin Rudd a standing ovation. With
    the delegates to the 2020 Summit having agreed that 1 per cent of all public
    spending should be devoted to the arts and that every employer should be obliged to provide 30 minutes of free fitness training a day, the imagination had seized power. And Rudd, who had guided Labor out of the wilderness, was its

    Two years, two months and three days later, the Rudd prime ministership was no more. If his colleagues turned so spectacularly against the man they had hailed as
    their saviour, it was not in a fit of pique. Rather, it was because everything
    he touched turned to dust. And his mistakes not only doomed him but cursed his
    successor, leaving the nation with a trail of broken policies, unrealistic
    promises and crippling financial commitments.

    That Rudd would come unstuck was inherent in his approach, which was an imitation of Peter Beattie’s in Queensland: a headline a day, the impression of a problem fixed, and then rapidly move on before appearance and reality could collide.

    But what may succeed, at least for a while, in state government is hardly sufficient
    to cope with the challenges of running the country; and the problems were
    compounded by Rudd’s inability to work with his colleagues, his chaotic approach
    to decision-making and his lack of any stable, internally coherent, intellectual

    He would demand advice and then ignore it; refusing to set priorities, he would
    leap from issue to issue, resolving none; and veering between indecision and
    excess, he could never steer a moderate course that allowed for adaptation as
    circumstances changed. Unwilling to rise above partisanship, his constant
    attempts to wedge opponents precluded building consensus on difficult issues,
    depriving him of political cover when it was most needed; insecure in his
    convictions, his preferred strategy was invariably the ambush, undermining the
    prospects of gaining agreement.

    The result was a sequence of ever more poorly judged decisions interlaced with
    erratic, poorly explained changes in stance.

    Although no single policy could possibly capture all of Rudd’s flaws, the response to illegal boat arrivals must come close. It is impossible to say what, if
    anything, he now believes, or has ever believed, about this issue. Alternating
    between hawk and dove, he campaigned in 2007 on a tough, “turn back the boats” line; but once in office, he made a virtue of dismantling the Howard
    government’s Pacific Solution, describing it as “just wrong” and inconsistent
    with “the humanity of the situation”.

    As boat arrivals picked up, he disregarded departmental advice and repeatedly
    denied there was any relation whatsoever between that increase and his scrapping of Howard’s policies. With detention centres overflowing, a de facto toughening was under way; but Rudd nonetheless went into the 2010 leadership challenge vowing that he would not “be lurching to the Right” on asylum-seekers.

    Lost in those U-turns was any understanding of why Howard’s approach had succeeded: his steadfast commitment to its implementation, which signalled to the
    people-smugglers that the government would do whatever it legitimately could to
    undermine their trade. Indeed, the most careful academic study of boat arrivals,
    by migration specialist Tim Hatton of the Australian National University,
    attributes more than half the fall in boat arrivals to the staunchness of
    Howard’s resolve and the clarity of the message it sent.

    But, craving approval, Rudd needed to be all things to all people: a humanitarian for those who advocated for refugees; tough-minded for the swinging voters in
    western Sydney. With their fine antennas, the people-smugglers saw through his
    inconsistencies; and by 2010, immense damage had been done. As the report of
    Julia Gillard’s expert panel on asylum-seekers noted, the people-smuggling
    networks had become deeply entrenched in the region. Gillard’s efforts were
    hardly up to the task of reversing that harm, which has imposed more than $10
    billion in unnecessary public spending and will plague any future

    The same alternation between lofty rhetoric and indecisive, confused implementation destroyed Rudd’s climate change policy. Central to his 2007 campaign, it should have brought out the best in the man; instead, it brought out the worst.

    He could easily have secured broad-ranging agreement with Malcolm Turnbull on an emissions trading system early in 2009; his prolonged refusal to do so helped
    destroy Turnbull’s leadership and made Rudd dependent on the ever-intransigent
    Greens for Senate approval. But having insisted that an ETS had to be legislated
    before the December 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, he then suddenly resiled from his commitment to press ahead with the scheme.

    Faced with a double dissolution he would likely have won, he clearly lacked the
    courage to push “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”
    to the electoral test. As well as casting doubt on the sincerity of what he
    repeatedly portrayed as his most deeply held conviction, that meant postponing
    the issue’s resolution until long after the window of opportunity to build a
    consensus had shut; Gillard’s ham-fisted attempts to cope with that legacy
    contributed greatly to her eventual demise.

    But the fallout from the reversal on the ETS went further than that. For, having
    abandoned his flagship policy, Rudd tried to divert public attention by pledging
    to solve, once and for all, the funding of public hospitals.

    The proposed policy, which stripped the states of one-third of their GST revenues
    and of their primary role in channelling funds to hospitals, had been sprung on
    the premiers with little warning and even less consultation; it bore only the
    loosest relation to the analysis Rudd had commissioned from the National Health
    and Hospitals Reform Commission, and had never been mentioned in the discussions that followed the release of the commission’s final report.

    Yet Rudd gave the premiers merely five weeks to agree to his proposals, which
    entailed a fundamental change in the allocation of responsibilities in the
    Federation and a drastic revision to the GST. In the chaos that followed,
    neither Rudd nor any of his ministers had even bothered to speak to Colin
    Barnett; that failure, combined with the inherent deficiencies of the Rudd
    scheme, doomed the proposal, which required the unanimous approval of the

    This area too was therefore left almost completely bereft of achievements. Rudd had placed improved healthcare at the heart of his 2007 commitments; and he had even promised a constitutional amendment to “take over” the state systems if his proposals were rejected. As it turned out, however, he ignored the NHHRC’s
    sensible recommendations about long-term funding structures, while the
    ill-conceived spending programs he implemented proved inefficient and
    ineffectual, with waiting times for elective surgery actually rising.

    As a result, the task of securing an outcome with the states on health reform also
    fell into Gillard’s lap, leading to an agreement whose steps forward were bought
    at the cost of commonwealth financial obligations so large and open-ended as to
    be potentially ruinous.

    But the collapse of Rudd’s hospital funding proposal was trifling compared to the
    debacle of the resource super-profits tax.

    Rudd had wanted to go to the 2010 election with solid credentials on tax reform;
    additionally, the RSPT had the potential to wedge the Coalition while delivering
    a large revenue stream that could fund election promises. And coming a mere
    fortnight after the failure of his hospital reforms, the RSPT yet again served
    to shift the focus of attention from the latest fiasco.

    However, every aspect of the process that led to the RSPT was comprehensively mismanaged. Instead of releasing the Henry tax report for public discussion, thus giving time for its proposals to gain community acceptance and for glitches to be
    identified and addressed, Rudd sat on it for four months, unable to decide which
    of its recommendations would be worth pursuing.

    He did hold some discussion with the miners, who had been broadly supportive of a move towards a profits-based tax, assuring them no decisions would be taken
    without full consultation; but those assurances proved entirely false.

    Rather, in the worst error of political judgment since when Ben Chifley, without having adequately consulted his colleagues or worked through the consequences, told the press he would nationalise the banks, Rudd announced the RSPT as a fait accompli. But the mining tax he announced was little more than a theorist’s
    concept sketch; it was entirely unclear how it would be implemented.

    What was clear, however, was that it threatened to expropriate existing assets,
    bankrupt the industry’s more heavily indebted players and do serious damage to
    future investment. And it was also clear that Rudd didn’t understand the tax,
    was incapable of explaining it and was hopelessly confused about its
    implications. Faced with the predictable onslaught, his days were numbered,
    while the cause of tax reform was durably set back.

    Any account of Rudd’s record, however, would be incomplete without consideration of national defence. This area, too, had been central to the conservative image he sought to project in 2007; and yet again, promises that were barely credible when they were made were soon reduced to rubble.

    That is not to deny the valuable work done by the audit of the defence budget, which the Rudd government commissioned from George Pappas and McKinsey in 2008. And the goals of the defence Strategic Reform Program that came out of that review were feasible and desirable.

    But Rudd injected into the 2009 defence white paper future equipment purchases that dwarfed previous defence build-ups: the RAN alone was to acquire 12 conventional submarines, eight frigates and 20 multi-role offshore patrol vessels during the next 20 years. In each instance, the vessels were to be substantially larger and more sophisticated than those they replaced, and in the case of the submarines more numerous by a factor of two. Even if defence expenditure had increased as programmed in the white paper, the promised acquisitions would have been underfunded by close to 60 per cent.

    That programmed funding, however, never materialised. Merely eight days after seizing the headlines with the release of his “think big” defence strategy, Rudd slashed defence outlays in the 2009-10 budget, deferring 80 per cent of the much-touted increases into the never-never land beyond forward estimates.

    It is inconceivable that Rudd, when he appeared on talk shows promoting a “massive boost for Australian defence industry”, was unaware of the expenditure cuts that would be announced within a week. But even putting questions of simple honesty aside, the result was to throw defence planning into the complete disarray from which it is still struggling to recover.

    By most standards, failure in all these areas, which were the core of his 2007
    campaign, would be a damning indictment. In Rudd’s mind, however, they are minor caveats on his success in responding to the global financial crisis: the froth,
    in Lenin’s phrase, on the tidal wave of history. And there can be no doubt that
    the GFC, which began in mid-2007 but only reached a crescendo in late 2008 and
    early 2009, posed significant risks to the Australian economy.

    Yet it was also apparent that we were relatively well placed to weather the storm:
    the banking system was fundamentally sound; labour market flexibility had not
    yet been undermined by the Fair Work Act; and China seemed likely to ensure its
    rapid growth continued, fuelling strong demand for our resource exports.
    Moreover, a flexible exchange rate, the very considerable scope for monetary
    easing provided by high real interest rates and the strength of the
    commonwealth’s fiscal position meant that should conditions deteriorate, there
    was every capacity to respond.

    All that ought to have encouraged an approach that was cautious and incremental, allowing policy adjustments as circumstances changed. Strengthening the case for such an approach were the risks highlighted in the recessions of the 1970s and 80s, when stimulus packages undermined the quality of public expenditure, locked in wasteful programs that proved difficult to eliminate and led to spiralling public debt.

    But a careful, deliberate response was not in Rudd’s DNA, much less in his perceived political interests. And, perhaps mindful of the long history of conflicts
    between prime ministers and treasurers, Rudd had chosen in Wayne Swan an adviser who was unlikely to displace his master, but whose understanding of economic policy was scarcely better than Rudd’s.

    After mounting the scare campaign to end all scare campaigns as to the severity of the crisis the economy faced, the second stimulus package Rudd and Swan devised committed public spending of unparalleled scale and duration. Filled with
    programs whose design would have disgraced a Third World government, the flaws in measures such as the home insulation scheme and Building the Education
    Revolution were obvious from the start. And the excuse of the GFC was used to
    justify a growing list of questionable interventions, stretching from Rudd’s
    $500 million Green Car fund to the infamous “Rudd bank” (with its potential
    liabilities of up to $26bn).

    It was not only the quality of public spending that suffered in the rush to
    distribute taxpayers’ money; it was also the integrity of public processes. The
    decision to bypass the Productivity Commission and instead rely on handpicked
    panels to recommend assistance to the car and textiles industries, and the
    spectacular rise in the number of exemptions granted from the requirement to
    file regulation impact statements, were symptoms of Rudd’s contempt for
    accountability mechanisms that had been respected by both sides of politics. But
    that disregard for proper process reached a peak with the $43bn National
    Broadband Network. In 2008, Rudd had solemnly promised “infrastructure
    decision-making based on rigorous cost-benefit analysis”. But the decision to
    proceed with the NBN, the largest infrastructure project in Australia’s history,
    was made on the back of an envelope during a flight between Melbourne and
    Brisbane, with technical information gleaned from Wikipedia and costings based
    on rough (and seriously inaccurate) estimates for Britain.

    Given the failure to undertake even the most elementary of assessments, the missed milestones and cost blowouts that have plagued the NBN’s deployment could hardly be surprising.

    The process that led to the NBN was itself emblematic of Rudd’s style. In the
    lead-up to the 2007 election, Rudd and communications minister Stephen Conroy,
    in talks with Telstra, had given firm assurances, on a confidential basis, that
    Labor would proceed with Telstra’s planned fibre-to-the-node network; and Labor
    in fact campaigned on the basis of delivering such a network, at a cost to
    taxpayers of $4.7bn. Once in office, however, all bets were off, and a bungled
    tender process led to Telstra’s bid being disqualified and the other proposals
    judged inadequate.

    Good sense at that point would have suggested going back to basics; but incapable of admitting mistakes, much less correcting them, Rudd and Conroy chose to square the error, covering up the fiasco by mandating the most grandiose option available, imposing costs on taxpayers up to 10 times those of the FTTN.

    The excuse Rudd and Conroy gave was that building a government-owned NBN would avoid the need to make up to $20bn in payments to Telstra, which an FTTN, they claimed, would have required. But it was obvious that the alternative they had
    chosen did not avoid those payments, which ultimately have proved nearly as
    large as those envisaged for the FTTN (and which Telstra’s initial bid would
    have avoided entirely).

    Australia therefore was burdened with a venture that, whatever its technical attractions, competed with more worthwhile private-sector projects for scarce capital and skilled labour and was poorly planned, badly managed and massively costly.

    It would consequently be an understatement to say Rudd wasted a good crisis;
    rather, he used the crisis to wreak further harm. Quantifying the losses that
    has imposed on future taxpayers is not easy, but even ignoring the NBN, it is
    clear that stimulus-related expenditure decisions worth about $64bn since the
    2008-09 budget were completely unnecessary, as they involved outlays after the
    economy had returned to trend growth.

    Taking account of the inefficiencies caused by the taxes needed to ultimately finance that amount, the reduction in private sector income is between $76.5bn and $95.6bn, while even with interest rates of 3 to 5 per cent the debt-servicing
    cost approaches $3bn a year.

    Adding just the predictable losses on the NBN, which are in the order of $18bn, those costs rise to between $94.5bn and $113.6bn, yielding an average reduction in private income under Rudd of about $785m for each and every week he was in

    Those costs will weigh on the Australian economy for years to come. Already
    unemployment is higher than it was during the worst period of the GFC; but the
    fiscal hole Rudd left means there is far less scope for boosting public spending
    than there was five years ago. And with interest rates at historic lows, so that
    monetary policy has little room to move, we are more vulnerable to global
    economic risks than at any time since the late 90s.

    The messiah of the 2020 Summit therefore proved a very inferior prophet. And most of all, he failed dismally as a leader.

    That is not because of any shortage of ability; on the contrary, his resources of
    energy, endurance and determination are second to none. But leadership requires more than an unusually elevated dose of political vitamins: it requires a
    disciplined intellectual framework that can shape an understanding of the past,
    underpin mastery of the present and guide the search to enlarge the future.
    Lacking that, no number of resurrections can transform persistent failure into
    enduring success. To believe otherwise is to court ultimate disaster, with
    nothing but disappointment along the way.

    • Charles Barley says:

      Behind a paywall and you paste it in full!

      Is that not theft?

      Are you a fit person to question the character of others?

  • margaret says:

    As you are a Geraline Doogue fan, there is this – to give some substance to this man my father described as prissy – from an interview on Compass Kevin Rudd: the God Factor – ” “I come
    from a long history of people who have spoken about the relevance of
    their faith to their political beliefs, on our side of politics going
    back. I mean here in Queensland Andrew Fisher was the Labor Prime
    Minister from this State. Andrew Fisher was a Christian Socialist. He
    taught Presbyterian Sunday School. He in turn came out of the stable of
    Keir Hardie who was himself a Presbyterian Sunday School teacher who
    founded the British Labour Party in the 1890s and was the first British
    Labour member of parliament. There’s a long tradition associated with
    this; currently called the Christian Socialist Movement. And it’s a
    worldwide network of people. The fact that you don’t often hear from us
    in this country, well it’s open for others to answer. I’m a relatively
    recent arrival. But I think, I think given what’s happening on the
    political right in this country, what’s happening on the political right
    in America, it’s important that people on the centre-left of politics
    begin to argue a different perspective from within the Christian

  • John Morland says:

    I asked myself who, Rudd or Gillard, would more likely (highly unlikely mind you) convince me to vote Labor at the next election. After seeing Rudd 2.0 in action the last fortninght, it would be Julia Gillard! At least she achieved a working hung Parliament for 3 years.

  • […] back to Kevin Rudd. Writing about him last week I said that he lacked both coherence and consistency, and that he tended to overdo whatever it was […]

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Peter, I too thought that Henry Ergas piece in the Oz was first class, though I’m not sure the paper would have wanted the whole of it reprinted here! Paywalls are becoming a problem. Without them we’ll have no papers, but to pay the fee for a good piece now and then seems a bit steep.

    Margaret, I also have my doubts about the real relevance of his faith to anything he does.

    John, she showed that she was a good manager when Rudd was PM before, but she’s no leader. He is neither a good leader nor a good manager.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Rudd’s lack of substance is clear to any who look beyond the “sound bites”. I hope you are right, Don, that the honeymoon may soon be over. Perhaps people need time to think about what Rudd is saying now, and remember that the style is just as before, and then remember what followed.

    You’re right about the Coalition’s approach; let Rudd dig his own mud-hole. All they should do is respond that it is “guff”, pointing out briefly and simply the costs of an ETS as a re-badged carbon dioxide tax, the contrast between the rhetoric and the reality of sinkings at sea and economic migration and criminal people smuggling . . .

    As for Rudd’s Christian principles, I am no longer convinced of his sincerity. I think he is an empty man. Around 2006 my first impression of him as shadow foreign minister was that he didn’t have the substance to become a PM. Later, as he emerged further into the limelight, I became more impressed by what he said. At that time I had not read any comment from people who had worked with him in Queensland. Being a swinging voter, I did vote for the Labor Party in 2007.

    Witin six months of his ascendancy to prime ministership, I was becoming quite disappointed.

    Abbott seemed to me initially to be one of Howard’s rather brutal “head-kickers”. My view has changed considerably. I am now satisfied that he is genuine, and while I don’t agree with his theological views (but then, I haven’t yet found any theological position with which I can agree), I think his humanist outlook is supported by his community actions, such as his regular work as a teachers’ aid among the indigenous. We’ll have to see whether more people come to agree with that view.

  • […] wrote a piece three years ago on character and style in politics, though my focus then was on Kevin Rudd. I thought Tony Abbott did not have style, but that he […]

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