Labor’s being personal, the Libs can’t

Monday, 24 September 2007 

There was a real sense that both parties wanted to distance themselves quickly from the uproar of what was probably the last day of sitting last week.

At first sight this second order ‘smear’ debate (a smear about running a smear unit leaking a smear that Rudd was happy to allude to a few months earlier) seems to have nothing in it. However, it exposed important weaknesses about both sides.

There is no doubt that Labor is running a highly personal campaign this election. Maybe memory fails but it is hard to recall seeing childhood pics of Howard, Keating or Fraser in the run up to their election. Even Hawke, arguably the most self-absorbed PM, couldn’t top the personal backgrounding we have had on Rudd. Partly this is for positive reasons; the emphasis on Rudd’s conservative personal values reflects Labor’s current inroads into traditional coalition supporters. But it is also for negative reasons. Rudd leads a party that is still organised around a union movement that has little relevance in Australian society today. As in 2004, Labor needs to run a campaign centred on the personal attributes of its leader and separated from the party’s normal decision-making process on policy. But Rudd’s detachment goes even further than Latham with Rudd having no formal union sponsorship and no longer attending right faction meetings since taking up the leadership.

Given the nature of Labor’s campaign, the Liberals would clearly love to launch a personal attack on Rudd, but there are several problems. The first is that unlike their attack on Latham in 2004, they have little policy basis to do so this time. There has been a lot of re-writing of history since Latham’s loss and drop out from the leadership, but Latham’s character was not a problem until it was linked to policy, especially his antipathy to the US alliance (one good thing of APEC was to remind how much the US government intervened in the last campaign). Even attacking a leader for a lack of policy is now much harder for a government whose own policy vacuum is there for all to see.

In fact, the problem for the Liberals is that by making Rudd the issue, it threatens to play directly into Labor’s hands by focussing attention on Rudd rather than Labor’s redundant organisation. For example, while the attack on Rein’s business caused troubles for Labor internally, revealing that Rudd was married to a millionaire businesswoman running a privatised job placement agency would probably have gone down OK in Toorak. Even embarrassments like the strip club visit gives more opportunities for the voters to meet Rudd and hear about how sorry he is, how he feels, how his wife feels etc. etc.

There is a more fundamental problem for the government that makes them especially sensitive to charges of running a ‘smear unit’. This campaign is being conducted in an anti-politician environment, basically because politicians of either side clearly don’t stand for very much these days. The last thing the government needs is to have Rudd posed as the ordinary guy with a heart condition being attacked by a ruthless mysterious arm of the state apparatus. This anti-politics sentiment has been used effectively by Rudd all year, and the government has been slow to pick it up, although the eagerness to get away from the perception of taking advantage of Rudd’s health suggests Howard is finally starting to catch on to the depth of that sentiment.

That Labor needs to run a personal campaign and the difficulties the Liberals have in tackling it, will be something both parties will wish to avoid coming out as it did in the last sitting. It is possible that the campaign will be more positive than commentators are expecting. The government is likely to rely on its record (but attacking Labor’s union base) and Labor will personalise the mood for change in a new leader.

However, there is one wild card in this campaign, which has been behind most of the personal attacks all year. Both leaders are going into this campaign with parties internally weakened, the Liberals with fragile morale at their imminent clean sweep from government and Labor with its redundant internal structure. The tension within both parties, the fragmentation in the Liberals and a union movement that is being pushed aside in Labor, appears to be the real source of smears against both leaderships. Liberal faction fighting was the source of the leak that led to the fall of Howard’s mate Santoro earlier this year and appears to be the source of the latest gossip about a minister. For Labor, it was a union official who reportedly exposed the financial donations of Rudd’s brother to the media and the latest comments by CFMEU bureaucrat Reynolds that he has a ‘shit’ sheet on Rudd and Gillard shows the bitterness of a movement that is losing its grip on its own party. As the leaderships ride out the upheavals underway in their respective parties, it would be convenient for them if the problem was the smear units of their opponents, but the uncomfortable fact is that their real personal enemies are probably behind them.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 24 September 2007.

Filed under Political figures

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