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.