The media summing up of last week often owed more to explaining themselves out of a mess than how Turnbull got into one. So the Murdoch press, who thought the original charges against Swan were so serious, then had to find a reason why the whole affair swung so sharply the other way (and viciously going by today’s polls). So we have Rudd the political dynamo and a Labor party ‘machine’ that appeared seemingly out of nowhere to steamroll Turnbull.

Indeed Shanahan seems to have discovered a whole new ruthless side to Rudd that he never saw before and neither, according to him, have some Labor MPs, one of whom, despite knowing Rudd for years, said: “Who is this Kevin Rudd? I haven’t seen him before.” Clearly this ‘friend’ of Rudd’s wasn’t in the House when Rudd censured Howard over his attack on Obama as a friend of Al Qaeda. Rudd can be devastating in Parliament, but it has to be on his favourite topic, anti-politics, such as when Howard threatened US relationships for political purposes. On normal policy debate, he is usually not that excited.

Shanahan’s description of what Labor MPs think of Rudd in the article is probably about as clear as his view of what Liberals think of Turnbull, who were apparently not disappointed in Turnbull on Saturday, in sharp contrast to what he was writing about the mood of Liberal MPs after this morning’s shocking poll results. In fact, Rudd wasn’t that especially good for a lot of last week. It was only by Thursday that the government started to get where they wanted and begin to present the whole affair as what it had been all along, an irrelevance.

But first they had to get there. Albanese’s description of Turnbull as the Liberals’ Latham was more about playing with the Liberals heads (and laying down some ghosts on his own side), rather than profound political analysis. But in reality it is Rudd that is more similar to Latham and which explains his behaviour in the first few days after Turnbull made his charge against the PM.

The history of Latham, probably the country’s second most popular opposition leader since polling began (ignoring Hawke’s month-long coronation), has tended to be re-written by both sides over the last few years, as Howard talked up his invincibility and Labor wanted to distance itself from what was revealed by the Latham experience. So in the interests of neither, lets recap.

Since the Hawke/Keating government effectively ended Labor’s political project, the party spent its time through the Howard years going through what the Liberals are facing now, wondering what they are for. Crean started the break with the unions to shrug off an asset that had become a liability but could not replace it with anything new. Each time Labor tried to break from its past, it made some progress before suffering a Relapse, called Beazley.

The solution Labor found to what it stood for came with Latham, and it was not any program, but the values of the leader himself. As a policy, Latham’s focus on reading to kids seemed to the Liberals as trivial and hardly a programme, but as a way of communicating values it was highly effective and completely wrong-footed a party that itself was conning us that it stood for something.

There has always been something hypocritical about the left’s complaining about the right’s personal attacks because often it is the left side of politics that personalised it in the first place. Democrats who complain about the most notorious example in US politics, Bush and Rove’s ‘Swiftboating’ of Kerry in 2004, forget that it was the Democrats who avoided their incoherence on Iraq by making such a deal of Kerry’s military service right up to his cheesy “reporting for duty” welcome to accept his nomination.

Latham’s problem was that the political environment was still pointing the wrong way, especially internationally, and his decline was marked from that radio interview in March 2004 when he promised to bring troops home by that Christmas. The War on Terror had still not been discredited by then, and with the political advantage back with the Coalition, it then laid the basis to deal with him personally.

Roll forward a couple of years and Labor (after another Beazley Relapse) again has a leader who right from the start was talking more about himself and his values, with any political program being presented as just a personal view. Rudd was not only following Latham’s example, but even on the same issue, one that naturally lends itself to such a personal approach, education. This time though, the political environment was moving the right way, Howard’s Obama censure showed the War on Terror had become more the Coalition’s liability than Labor’s, and the Coalition had no political basis to launch a personal attack.

In fact if the Coalition tried, Rudd would get quite adept at turning it against the coalition and portraying the ‘politics of smear’ as just the same old politics. This is an example in which Rudd’s emphasis on personal values is the flip-side to his anti-politics. It is a solution to what to fill the vacuum with after pointing out that the old political framework is finished.

But it is a contradictory one. After all, it is a politician making a virtue out of not being one. This is what makes Rudd so sensitive to his integrity being questioned, as it was a week ago on even such a trivial matter. The trouble for Rudd was not only that initially he was acting very much like a politician but there was almost a danger by mid-week that they were gong to take it too far and appearing like the political machine the media thought they could see. Fortunately for the government, by Thursday they were laughing it off and Rudd was smiling on anti-political shows like Rove by the weekend.

Of course, what the media was seeing last week was less Labor’s political machine in action than the implosion of the Liberals’. The Liberals’ had usually centred on the leader and it has been almost impossible for Turnbull to act like one, let alone as autonomously as Latham. Unlike Rudd, Turnbull does not lead a technocratic shell that is happy to leave its policies to its leader, but Australia’s last political party that is still desperately thrashing around on what it stands for.

This has left Turnbull, probably more than any former Liberal leader, barely able to talk about what he believes in. So we have someone who believes in a republic, climate change action and liberal social policies who can hardly talk about any of them. Without a political way to break out of this stalemate, it is no surprise that Turnbull was so ready to grasp a chance without looking at the political dangers. As was clear when he took the leadership, this dilemma would be too much for any leader, not least as one as politically naïve as Turnbull. So it now looks to be.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 29 June 2009.

Filed under Political figures

Tags: , , , , ,


4 responses to “Rudd’s more like Latham than Turnbull is”

  1. RalphC on 30th June 2009 11:29 am

    Another excellent summary, PS. The way I see it, people don’t really want left or right anymore – they just want services that work. The middle class has expanded so much that there really isn’t a large poor working class needing the representation of unions and the need to cling to left wing ideals anymore. I think Labor’s problem, once all this utegate stuff washes away, will be that they’re not very good at delivering what they said they’d deliver. Anti-political gimmicks like Grocery Choice and Fuel Watch are dead ducks, and the ETS as it stands is untenable. And soon, I suspect there will be general unease in the community about the level of debt and handouts being thrown around. The Liberals don’t really seem to have a constructive alternative message, so I reckon Labor wins by default.

    It will also be really interesting to see how Turnbull handles the next stage. I’ve just finished reading the Quarterly Essay in which Annabel Crabb points out that Malcolm usually gets what Malcolm wants. For a guy that is used to getting his way, it’ll be interesting to see how he deals with being publicly humiliated.

  2. thewetmale on 30th June 2009 11:31 pm

    I think that some Labor members probably feel that making fun of Latham in that way indicates to the electorate and/or the media that they have learned the ‘mistake’ of Latham.

    I would be surprised if this actually matters for the electorate but i think it is particularly important for the media. It would be sacrilegious in media circles to label Latham as anything but a crazed loon. Hence Labor scores brownie points for using Latham as an insult.

    These kind of things, while not picked up on by the electorate, are important as it shapes how the media perceive the contest, and therefore how they frame the contest for the punters.

  3. RalphC on 1st July 2009 11:01 am

    Agree. Latham was seen as such a disaster, both by the public and consequently the ALP itself, that Labor is scarred by it. Like a drug addiction, they probably feel that they must face up to and admit to their sins as part of the process of putting it behind them. Sure, it’s really of no great relevance now, but I think they perhaps just want to reassure the public that everyone in the party recognises what a grave tactical error it was and that they won’t go making a similar error anytime soon.

  4. RalphC on 1st July 2009 11:07 am

    Oh, and now that climate change legislation has been passed by the US congress and is now before the senate, I think we’ll see more agitation within the Liberals. All of a sudden, they run the risk of being on the wrong side of the international debate and it’s pretty clear they realise that is not the place to be. Then again, the US legislation probably won’t get past the senate, so Turnbull and his gang are probably safe for the time being.

Comments are closed.