I’ll try to write posts this week on some underlying themes of the approaching elections— not on party policies, which haven’t been announced and are predictable, but on the themes underlying these policies. But let me start with a theme that has run through Australian politics for the past six years: the role of Kevin Rudd. I’ve said in several earlier posts that Kevin Rudd’s personal victory in 2007 was to a degree unexpected within the Labor Party, and that the ALP gained office without having dealt seriously with the issues of what it would do when in power, a question that had occupied its senior people for three years after 1980, and greatly assisted the Hawke Governments from 1983 onwards.
Watching Rudd on the 7.30 Report last week reminded me of his formidable political strengths. He speaks to camera fluently and reasonably. He looks sincere, serious, and knowledgeable. He speaks calmly and with authority. You are reassured: here is a man who knows what he is talking about. The Prime Minister, in contrast, can be passionate, and emotional, and aggressive, and is her own woman. But she doesn’t have anything like Dr Rudd’s armoury of persuasion. It is not surprising, then, that Labor MPs are queuing up to have Kevin 07 campaigning for them when the election campaign kicks off, whenever that is. We seem to have been having a sort of campaign all year. And there is even talk, once more, that he will replace Julia Gillard in some last-minute desperate bid to save the game.
Opinion polling suggests that Kevin Rudd enjoys a lot of popular support. Part of it must come from those strengths, and part probably comes from a feeling that he was done down, and that wasn’t fair. And it is this outside support, I think, that keeps up his postional strength within the Labor Party: he is a proven election-winner. Perhaps he could be again. But I doubt that such strength will be enough to displace Julia Gillard, and the reason is most probably that once in office he proved quickly that he was not a government-winner, and the majority don’t ever want him back in the top job.
Government is difficult, not easy. I’ve mentioned before David Butler’s great piece on ‘the tragedy of gaining office’ written not long before Gough Whitlam led the ALP to victory in 1972. It greatly helps not to have made too many promises to too many groups. It greatly helps to have a good sense of continuity. It greatly helps to be modest in your ambition. Despite the impression that they like to give, governments in democratic societies are not really very powerful. To get anything major done requires immense amount of work from a great many people, and over considerable time. Governments can make life difficult for some people here and some there, usually through regulations empowered under existing legislation. But big deal changes are hell.
Kevin Rudd is a quick read, and has a quick mind. He can see an idea, internalise it, and see how to reproduce it to his party’s advantage later that day. That is a great skill in Opposition. It is not quite irrelevant in Government, where you are running a vast and somewhat uncoordinated machine that is trying to do a million things all at the same time, and in a million places, and at varying speeds. If you possibly can, you don’t give it more to do. If you possibly can, you try to make it run a bit more smoothly.
A splendid example of all this was Kevin Rudd’s whole approach to ‘climate change’. In Opposition he saw an opportunity to score off John Howard’s stubborn resistance to Australia’s signing the Kyoto Protocol (now dead and buried), and campaigned vigorously on that theme. In electoral terms it was the right time to do so, since 2007 was arguably the high point of the AGW scare. He won office, signed the Protocol, and told the world’s leaders, among whom he loved to be, that ‘climate change’ was ‘the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation’. Then came the Emissions Trading Scheme, that became in time the ”carbon tax’. This was heavy hitting.
Somebody must have told him that whatever Australia did was not going to change the carbon dioxide proportions in the atmosphere in any discernible way, and would upset the punters. No matter. It was the idea that was important. But in 2009 the whole AGW scare began to collapse, first with the release of the ‘Climategate’ emails, and then the almost comical farce of the Copenhagen climate conference. The AGW scare could never be the same again, as the pause in the rise in temperature continued, floods replaced droughts, and winter freezes recurred in the Northern hemisphere.
But Kevin had got too deeply into it, and his back-tracking in 2010 both infuriated the faithful, uninterested in what was actually happened in climate, and irritated those colleagues who had never wanted the Government to get into anything as serious as a carbon tax anyway. He lost caste, his standing in the opinion polls dived, and the parliamentary party, who found his style as Leader unacceptable, got rid of him. He hasn’t forgiven them.
Watching him the other night I felt that if our political system operated like an American football team Kevin Rudd would always be in the offensive team, but he would never get a guernsey in the defensive team. I think his day is done, and he should find something else to do with his life. But I would have to say that in the last fifty years I can’t think of any Australian politician like him, in his mix of strengths and weaknesses. Gough Whitlam, perhaps, but Gough is a bigger person in every way.