The Rudd effect

Monday, 1 July 2013 

Oh yes, do run more of these.

All we get here is politics, politics, politics.

Kevin Rudd in, er, Parliament 27 June 2013

I don’t understand why people of Australia seem to like Kevin Rudd so much more than Julia Gillard, but it appears they do.

Mike Seccombe, very much Insiders 30 June 2013

No doubt the experts will be poring over the first set of polls since Rudd’s return, but it’s probably not worth making too much effort. To do so would be to treat the Rudd effect as a “sugar hit”, as though Labor has just been taken over by a movie celeb. It may be that the initial jump in the polls will turn out to be the high point, but to automatically assume so would mis-read both the nature of Rudd’s popularity and the state of politics today.

Despite having seen, right in front of our eyes, Labor being forced to undergo a convulsion to bring Rudd back solely due to his popularity, the source of that popularity continues to be an enigma in political circles – to the point where even political journalists, who you would have thought their job was to work it out, can admit without shame that they haven’t a clue.

There have been various attempts to explain Rudd’s popularity that usually imply it will be a short-term phenomenon. Fresh face as opposition leader, Prime Ministerial honeymoon, because he handed out money during the GFC, looked good against Turnbull etc. etc.

The latest reason seems to be down to him being a good campaigner. This is true. Except in a campaign, of course. When Rudd began the 2007 campaign Labor was some 18 pts ahead, which subsequently narrowed to 5 pts by election day. Some may say that the narrowing was because the Australian electorate always revert to the mean (except when they don’t). This blog had its own theory at the time, that Rudd began adopting a more traditional Labor campaign, upping the rhetoric on Workchoices, which was never the one-way benefit that Labor and union die-hards like to think. But whatever, it’s hardly evidence of a master campaigner.

Possibly by campaigning skills they refer to his mobbing in his recent tour of the marginals. But of course this reads everything backwards. Rudd got a good reception on the streets because he is already popular, not because he was creating some magic at the Fairfield shopping centre.

The lack of a convincing reason, or even a discussion, on the source of Rudd’s popularity, is not because political commentators are thick, but because the answer is uncomfortable, both to the political class, and so much of the media that follow them.

The uncomfortable answer is that Rudd is popular because he encapsulates the electorate’s distrust, and even dislike, of the political system.

There has always been a strain of anti-politics in the Australian electorate, reflecting the weakness of the political system, especially on the right. While Australian politics has been very stable, that stability has tended to rest on the conservatism of the left than the strength of the Australian right, which never enjoyed the authority and institutions of their compatriots in the US and Britain.

This has especially been the case in Queensland, where the two party system has been historically weak for several reasons. Politicians like Hanson, Katter, Palmer have all exploited it outside the two party system. But even within it, Bjelke-Peterson ran against Canberra and the Liberals, while Beattie was adept at running against his own Labor government. Now with Labor’s social base long eroded, Queensland-style anti-politics has fully emerged on the national scene over the last few years, and Rudd has been adept at using it.

This is why, despite being ostracised by the Labor leadership, and written off by the journalists, Rudd kept coming back. If anything, being attacked by Ministers who are not exactly flavour of the month, probably helps.

This has several implications. First, Rudd becomes the personification of the yawning gap between the political class and the electorate, which the media, whose job is supposed to be to make the link, continually struggle with. It has resulted in a tedious guilt trip by the media that they are somehow responsible for this gap and that they should talk more about ishoos.

Secondly, the popularity of Rudd does not necessarily come from his personal attributes, but how he is seen to be positioned by the electorate. Again, journalists’ frustration at the gap between their view of Rudd’s personal failings compared to Gillard’s, and the public’s preference for Rudd, leads them to think the problem is that people don’t know the real Rudd and need to be told. But it is not that the public is blind to Rudd’s personal failings (in as much as they care) but that the journalists are blind to the broader dissatisfaction with the political class that Rudd taps into.

Third, it implies that Rudd’s impact on the political system is not due to himself, but his broader ability to use that anti-politics on the current set-up in a way that is known as “messing with their heads”. It suggests instability in the existing state of play even beyond what have seen now.

For the least three years we have had a cosy arrangement where both parties have “recaptured” their respective leaderships and run their parties as though we are back in the faux left-right of the Howard years. Yet while both sides propped each other up, the result was unstable because, of course, the public liked neither. Now that Labor is on the painful road to accepting political reality, there is the potential for it to be the Coalition’s turn.

Rudd has wasted no time by beginning it on the one issue that sums up the “dead contract” between the two parties over the last three years, asylum seekers.

There appears to be a twin track approach occurring at the moment. Carr and Burke are carrying on with the typical approach of the NSW Right, stemming from their distorted view of the electorate’s priorities, by talking up tough on asylum seekers as economic not political refugees.

However, so far, Rudd’s emphasis has been different. Indeed in his first parliamentary confrontation with the Liberals on the issue he never mentioned the economic status of refugees. Rather he picked from the tree the low hanging fruit that has been swaying in the breeze for the last month – the Indonesian intervention at the end of May that blocked the Coalition’s “Turn back the boats” policy. At his first press conference as PM, he upped the ante further by making a link between the diplomatic conflict and a possible military conflict.

The result has been uproar. Even some Labor commentators were trying to claim that Rudd never made the connection and it was all Coalition/meeja lies, or simply a mistake. But he did, and mentioned the word Konfrontasi to drive it home. It is unlikely that it would be in diplomatic areas that Rudd would make his first mistake.

Sheridan and Kelly wrote in The Australian that it was an outrageous break of convention. It was. But it was mainly because Rudd simply stated the obvious from what was an extraordinary intervention in the domestic affairs by the Indonesians. But it was nevertheless understandable. For years the Coalition had been broadcasting a policy, as though the Indonesian government had been going along with it, which was actually unpopular with the Indonesian public.

But it was still extraordinary to have an intervention by an Asian neighbour in such a delicate area of Australian internal affairs. Politicians love talking about the wonders of the coming Asian century, but if it is going to mean uppity Asian neighbours throwing their weight around with Australia that might be something else. Sure it’s OK for Australia, even as late as 1998, to interfere with Indonesian internal affairs in a highly disruptive way, but for the favour to be returned is very naughty indeed! In this context, Rudd’s use of Konfrontasi was especially provocative as it referred to a time when Australia helped Britain intervene militarily in Indonesian affairs in the 1960s with the support of what was then the British client state of Malaysia to carve a chunk out of Borneo (oh, happy days!)

The Coalition response has been all over the place. Bishop’s response was to say that of course there was no conflict because Australia would just tow the boats back to neutral waters. But Indonesia would know, like the rest of the planet, that from there, there was only one place that the boats could then go, an Indonesian port. There is of course one other destination, the bottom of the ocean, but given that the Coalition said they would only do so safely, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

Interventions from the old guard have been almost as productive. Downer rushed to tell us that when he was Foreign Minister, the Howard government had no problem because when they cooperated with Indonesia to turn back boats, they did it in secret so the Indonesian public didn’t find out – so helpfully putting his finger on the precise problem with the Coalition banging on about it now. Finally we had Howard himself, carried away in a US-style rally that Labor must be hoping the Liberals run on a weekly basis, who painted Rudd as a dangerous risk by bringing up Konfrontasi.

This would have been a splendid tactic if Howard was running against an unknown Rudd in 2007, not quite so effective now. Of course, it is Abbott that is the unknown quantity, who was appointed by the Liberals not because he would win an election, but because he would at least restore the brand. Now let’s see if they are right.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 1 July 2013.

Filed under Media analysis, Political figures, Tactics

Tags: , , , ,


53 responses to “The Rudd effect”

  1. Dianne on 12th July 2013 12:02 pm

    You tell me. Go on. You want to.

  2. atomou on 12th July 2013 12:14 pm

    If only the idiot journos didn’t go chasing after him outside his church every bloody Sundee, we wouldn’t be talking about his religiosity.
    We know about Abbott’s so why aren’t the journos doing the same thing with him? I’d shove a mic in the confessional (wikileaks-like), if I could.
    Now THAT stuff would be newsworthy!
    Bloody mics! Look what they’ve done to Ireland! Murder by divine intervention to this poor woman. Totally certain Rudd won’t bring us down that path but totally uncertain that Abbott won’t. If not by direct legislation, then by other, indirect means, like those they have in the USA.
    Alas, the jackboots of the right are marching on, unhindered!

  3. Austin 3:16 on 12th July 2013 6:51 pm

    Hi Dianne,

    Tell you what ?

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