The unpopular Mr Rudd

Monday, 15 June 2009 

Kevin Rudd has woken to the reality of incumbency after six months in office, bringing to an end one of the longest honeymoons for a new government in memory.

Gerard McManus 29 May 2008

… the worst parliamentary performer as Prime Minister since Billy McMahon

Tony Abbott 25 February 2009

We’re talking about this because we don’t really know who Kevin Rudd is. We’re trying to come to grips with who is the real man here, and we’re having difficulties.

Glenn Milne Insiders 14 June 2009

A few weeks ago, Lateline had a slot where it brought two advertising experts together to discuss the factors behind Rudd’s popularity. It was extraordinary, not especially for what was said, but because even this politically light segment was one of the few times the media has tried to explain Rudd’s popularity.

Rudd’s enduring popularity is one of the most striking political phenomenons of recent times yet seemingly the most mysterious. Almost from the day Rudd walked down the corridor with Gillard after winning the leadership ballot in December 2006, the media has been calling an end to Rudd’s popularity. It is almost as if the media’s constant eagerness to call time on Rudd’s ‘honeymoon’ with the public is so as to relieve them of the need to think of a reason to explain it. All the media seem to do is to parrot the coalition’s line of ever-changing excuses, strung together like a limp daisy chain: a fresh face as opposition leader, because people want something new, because people want a younger Howard, a fresh face as a new Prime Minister, because he’s handing out money etc. etc.

In fact, given Rudd’s recent shit-storm of ockersims, it seems even he isn’t wholly sure of the reason either. So let’s just remind ourselves of the factors that underpin Rudd’s popularity and how they have changed over the last two years.

Rudd’s popularity rests on his ability to reflect the current reality of Australian politics far better than any of his peers. To recap, Rudd does this in three ways; being more up front about Australia’s reliance on global politics, the New Sensitivity and discrediting the old political process.

The coalition’s attempts to make something of Rudd’s globe-trotting have been a flop. The problem is that the hollowing out of the political process and the coalition’s weakness has forced it to go along with Rudd’s internationalising of the political agenda. Even before it lost power, the need to keep the climate change sceptics and those supporting action in the same party has forced the coalition to hide behind the international agenda, with Turnbull’s waiting to see what comes out of Copenhagen simply being the latest ruse to hold the party together. Similarly, the coalition’s lack of an economic program to meet the economic crisis has meant that Labor’s internationalising of it has met with little challenge.

However, while Rudd has succeeded in internationalising Australian political life even more than Howard did, at the end of the day he is even more reliant on it for his popularity. It is the international agenda that gives this government, with little domestic agenda of its own, its real direction. The problem is that the driver of the international agenda, the US, has been losing its grip on it and the economic crisis has made it even worse. In the first few months, there was some global pretence of coordinated action to solve the crisis (rather than the reality of every government simply propping up their financial system to suit national interest). But that pretence effectively ended with the London G20 Summit turning into little more than the opportunity for world leaders to get their photos taken with Obama. It is for this reason that the Summit probably marked the high point of Rudd’s standing, although by no means the end of Rudd’s popularity.

The second plank to Rudd’s agenda, the New Sensitivity, is probably the most recognised by the media, especially since the downturn, although often seen in a one-sided way. It is mainly seen through the cash handouts, and this government’s difficulty in making unpopular decisions, such as horror Budgets that never materialise. But as Howard found out, a more important part of the New Sensitivity, than just handing out cash, is empathy. Howard’s ‘working families have never been better off’ was used ruthlessly against the last government as a sign of being out of touch, almost irrespective of whether it was true or not. To avoid that charge being made against them is why Gillard and Rudd have gone out of their way to highlight unemployment figures and personalise them. What helps them to do this is the fact that for the first time, this government is not being held responsible for this unemployment. The result of this use of this New Sensitivity is that the government’s popularity has risen as the economy slowed, which the media seems to regard as natural, but which of course is unprecedented.

But if there is one aspect of Rudd’s agenda that both sets him apart from his peers but causes the most anguish with the media is Rudd’s disdain of the political class and, to a degree, of the political process itself. The media is never comfortable with the anti-politics thread that runs through Australian public life. Witness how they almost wholly focussed on the racial aspect of One Nation’s appeal while downplaying what really gave it momentum, its ability to key into dissatisfaction with the major parties. One of the advertising executives on the Lateline program highlighted Rudd’s anti-political agenda, but it is rarely noted by the mainstream political commentary. Nor do they recognise the damage it has done to the old political process.

The latest example is the reshuffle of the Ministry. Once again, the media refuses to believe Rudd when he claims to be free of the factional system in choosing the front-bench, insisting that nothing has really changed. But even ignoring the unusual influence that figures from the left like Gillard, Tanner, Wong and Faulkner have at the top levels of this government or the unprecedented boycott of factional meetings by Gillard and Rudd, or even the equally unprecedented presence of a Minister in the Cabinet who has never been in a faction, Garrett, the most striking sign of the decline of the faction system is that Rudd can make such a claim at all. Whatever the power the faction bosses have is directly challenged by Rudd’s declaration that being in a faction is unnecessary for progress through this government.

The media tolerated Rudd’s disdain of the parliamentary process while opposition leader when it was viewed as just a tactic to rattle Howard. The media regards it as less cute since he has become PM. It is not that the media are necessarily great upholders of parliamentary tradition as such, but rather what they don’t like is the way it undermines the political arena that only they can access and interpret for the rest of us. What Rudd can do, without parallel in the Australian political scene, is use the type of non-political media outlets like Rove and FM stations to get his message across. It is this disregard for what had been the political channels by which power is communicated that the media will never feel comfortable with.

Rudd’s bypassing of the normal channels mirrors his detachment from the political process itself. Here is a Labor leader detached from the party that he leads and especially the union movement that sponsors it. It’s not that Rudd is anti-union but simply bears no relation to it and treats it like the largely irrelevant social force it has become.

This is all highly contradictory. A leader of a political system who is not only not part of it, but campaigns against it, and a media that relies on the continuation of the political process but cannot address why the leader of it has done so well breaking away from it. This leads to the subject of the next post, the counterpoint to Rudd’s unpopularity with the media, its strange love affair with his deputy.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 15 June 2009.

Filed under Political figures

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4 responses to “The unpopular Mr Rudd”

  1. Lucy Thompson on 15th June 2009 9:35 am

    Maybe our Kevin should look at how he is being perceived abroad. He seems to think they don’t have an insight into his shallowness in Oz. They do.

    Look at this:

    When he watches a sick Australian woman dragged from her hospital bed, at NIGHT, without ANY warning, in her pajamas… and does zip all, what does he expect? The world is sickened. Yet she is an Aussie and he hides.

    When Americans sing about his betrayal, and Brits make videos about it, doesn’t that say something? Other than that the anti-Corby media fest the public have been blinded with is damaging the nation of course, and not just her.

  2. Ad astra on 15th June 2009 10:54 am

    An insightful piece TPS. To date Rudd remains popular with the public, but seems to be becoming increasingly unpopular with the media, for the reasons you state.

    Along the same lines, a satirical piece on the media’s disenchantment with Rudd was posted on The Political Sword at the weekend ‘The media to the PM – we have a problem’

  3. Ozymandias on 15th June 2009 1:41 pm

    Well-argued, TPS, and timely. The Glenn Milne quote shows how, after two and a half years as ALP leader, the commentariat is still unable to pin Rudd down and find a single place for him in their political taxonomy. The truth is, Rudd is a hybrid: diplomat, bureaucrat and politician, with strongly-expressed human genes. His appearances on Rove and FM radio are more likely linked to their ratings (when compared to Insiders or Radio National)than to any fear of closer scrutiny.

  4. Scott on 15th June 2009 4:32 pm

    Elements of the mainstream media continue to display Howard withdrawal symptoms. It’s as if they can accept that he lost but struggle to cope with the fact that he’s gone. Rudd has defied historical trends but much of that is about how times have changed. During Howard’s eleven and a half years in power, many journalistic careers thrived by developing close relationships with the Howard Government. Certain journalists basically became part of the Howard Government spin machine and are now frustrated that they don’t have the same cosy relationship with Rudd.

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