One-term leaders rarely achieve raving reviews from historians. Jimmy Carter … James Scullin … and now, in all likelihood, Kevin Rudd. But it takes a fairly cold-hearted individual to not feel some amount of sympathy for a man who guided Australia through a global recession, yet who is unlikely to receive the deserved credit once we are well and truly into the golden reign of Queen Elizabeth Gillard.
When caucus come together this morning, in Kevin Rudd’s “pro column” they will find a resolute display of financial management that left Australia as the black swan of positive growth in a global recession, an apology to the Stolen Generations, signing of the Kyoto protocol, something that looks like a workable platform for a national health plan, greater transparency for the public education system, a very slow but sure rollout of a national broadband network and various other non insignificant achievements. One would have to think that leading the campaign to defeat John Howard, the arch-nemesis of the ALP for over a decade, would also rate reasonably highly.
In the “con column”, billions of dollars lost to pink batts installers and builders who openly rorted the stimulus handout payments, the collapse of the ALP’s environmental credibility after delaying an introduction of the ETS until after the next election, the growth in asylum seekers, stubborn persistence with internet censorship, a failing attempt to tax the extremely profitable mining industry and above all, his public persona as the king of spin.
There are obviously more pros and cons than those listed above but I think these capture the broad gist of the Rudd Government’s policy agenda/challenges. It really is a very big agenda for less than three full years in government. It would seem to be an understatement that he really hasn’t had a fair chance to launch into this agenda with the necessary gusto, what with a GFC that knocked several hundred billion dollars out of government revenue and all.
And whatever you feel, you can’t deny that he’s busting his guts on the job - famously getting no more than five hours sleep a night. He is across every minute detail of government policy and he likes to take on as much responsibility as he can. Rudd is regarded by Barack Obama as the international statesman with the best coverage of global and regional affairs, the go-to man on a global emissions protocol and by many overseas as one of the most effective participants in fora such as the newly crucial G20. Indeed, Rudd’s overseas reputation is possibly higher than his immediate post-election popularity in Australia. It’s a gap that Gillard would struggle to fill, no matter how talented.
You can already see which way I’m leaning, even though I realise its hopeless - I would argue that based on the above pros, cons and realities, Rudd’s performance is by no means exceptionally bad to the point of early ejection. On a two-party preferred basis, the ALP would still win an election held tomorrow - almost comfortably. The current levels are normal for just about every election year - they are only relatively horrible when contrasted with the stratospheric highs that Rudd initially attracted after winning the ALP leadership. Yes, there have been some fairly major policy blips and blaps but nothing which is rationally as concerning as the conga line of Ministers who collapsed in the first term of John Howard under revelations of corruption, rorting and general incompetence.
Before I explain my main problem with the elimination of the Ruddbot and the rise of the ranga, I think its helpful to defer to another one-termer in James Buchanan, regarded by some as one of America’s worst ever presidents. Buchanan fell to Abraham Lincoln for a variety of reasons - not least the onset of southern secessionism and his feckless response - but among his many foes was the newly invented telegraph machine. Telegrams revolutionised the speed at which information could be relayed from Washington to the American public. Consigning the romance of the pony express to the glue factory of history, newspapers - depending on the distance - no longer needed to hang out for daily, weekly or monthly dispatches from Washington. The public’s sudden interest in politics hit Buchanan like a bomb:
I do not know whether the great commercial and social advantages of the telegraph are not counterbalanced by its political evils. The public mind … is kept in a constant state of excitement by what are called “telegrams”… Many of them are sheer falsehoods and especially those concerning myself.
And therein lies the rub - constant and readily available information, the exponential growth in uninformed opinion pieces (yes, I realise the irony) does not equate to an intake of critical or analytical information. Much less so when the focus of the media revolves around an individual’s personality. Does he deserve to go? Or do we just think that because of what we’re told, and therefore, our representatives are merely fulfilling our erroneous bidding?
I’ll be happy to see a female Prime Minister. I think Gillard will do a good job. But is Kevin Rudd really so bad that he deserves a fate which has only ever struck down two prime ministers in the history of Australia in John Gorton and Bob Hawke?
Gorton is actually an interesting reference point for Rudd, he too was initially popular, a poor media performer and similarly only had a few years on the job (unlike Rudd though, Gorton was riding out the tail end of a very long conservative government of over 15 years). However, of the Gorton experience, it is the increasingly poor rapport with the media that is the most translatable for Rudd.
As the Rudd publicity flame gently flickers, the media’s one hundred megawatt spotlight has shifted leftward over the last few weeks, pounding Gillard day after day with (then) completely unfounded questions with regards to a potential leadership challenge. But, you throw enough mud, some of it will stick - in her and caucus’ brains. Discussion in op-eds and generally speculative news stories over a Gillard challenge has exploded in the last few weeks, averaging about four to eight a week during March, a few more in April, a spike up to 50 or so during May, and then well into the hundreds come June. Mind impregnation by the media much?