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Kevin’s heart and Julia’s passion

By Carol Johnson - posted Wednesday, 30 June 2010

In his harrowing farewell speech on losing the Prime Ministership, Kevin Rudd’s long list of the achievements that made him proud included establishing a National Organ Transplant Authority. He claimed that the fact he himself “had borrowed someone else’s aortic valve” had focused his mind “and in my case also focuses the heart”.

But in fact Rudd’s heart had not been focused for a very long time. One of the reasons for Rudd losing the Prime Ministership was that he had previously lost his emotional connection with the Australian people. It was a far cry from 2007 when Arthur Sinodinos, one of John Howard’s canniest advisers, argued that Rudd had won because he was more successful than Howard in “crafting … a narrative” that established “a personal and emotional connection” with the electorate. In particular Rudd had argued that he would be a compassionate and caring politician who would save us all from Howard’s “Brutopia”. He would protect ordinary Australians from WorkChoices and the ravages of free market policies. He would also look after the most vulnerable in society.

Yet, over the last three years Rudd had changed from the engaging and caring nerd we once saw on Sunrise. The bureaucratic and control-freak sides of Rudd had won out as he lost sight of his government’s narrative, never mind the need to communicate it, in a mass of policy detail.


Social researcher Rebecca Huntley told David Marr that while “people warmed to Rudd” initially “the affection hasn’t deepened” because people felt they hadn’t got to know him: “The feeling is: we’ve been on lots of dates, but we haven’t got to the next level.”

The apparent backflips over the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, asylum seekers and government-funded advertising helped to weaken the public’s feelings of trust in Rudd. The debacle of the mining super profits tax added to the electorate’s anxieties about the man they had elected and also to a long list of scare campaigns that the Opposition had used in its own attempts to connect emotionally with the electorate.

Furthermore, the major discussion of Rudd and emotion immediately prior to his loss of office had focused on David Marr’s argument that Rudd was fundamentally driven not by compassion but by anger - hardly a helpful image for a politician already on the nose with the electorate. No wonder that in his farewell speech Rudd gestured so longingly towards the memory of his strongest emotional connection with the Australian people while PM - his inspired apology to the Stolen Generations.

As the mood of the public shifted so did the polls. Rudd’s position had always relied on his popularity given his lack of a clear support base within the party and the widespread unease about his poor political judgment, disappearing communication skills and dictatorial management style. His date with not just the electorate, but also with his own party, was well and truly over. After all, as Cheryl Kernot once said of Labor machine men such as Wayne Swan: “These guys wouldn’t tell their wives they loved them unless they’d checked the polling first.”

However, if Rudd partly lost the Prime Ministership because of his emotional disengagement, Julia Gillard won it partly because of her success at emotionally connecting with the Australian people. Her formidable communication skills rely not just on clear expression but also on addressing and evoking emotion. Perhaps it is no coincidence that she once participated in a light-hearted Australian Institute of Management debate on the topic of “Women Lead with Emotional Intelligence”.

In her statements after her win she acknowledged not only the values but also the emotions that motivated her political career. She affirmed that she was passionate about changing Australian society for the better. She depicted herself as caring and compassionate. She would look after ordinary people and protect them from Liberal attacks on their wages and conditions. She would care for the environment. She would do a deal with the miners and remove the economic anxiety that the public felt as a result of the battle over the super profits tax. She would also address the anxiety that voters felt about boat loads of asylum seekers coming to our shores while rejecting Liberal fear campaigns.


Julia became the (bossy but so capable) older sister that one turns to to soothe one’s fears - and also to protect you from an overly boisterous and bullying older brother, called Tony.

Whether women may be more inclined to lead with emotional intelligence or not, it should be noted that Gillard has a number of gender dilemmas when attempting to mobilise emotion. She has to walk the tightrope of conventional gender expectations in a way that was not such a problem for previous Labor PMs who were good emotional communicators, such as Bob Hawke. Gillard is trying to reassure the Australian electorate that she is tough enough to protect our borders without seeming so strong that her femininity is in question. Similarly she is trying to depict herself as caring but not so womanly that she risks being depicted as weak.

So, Gillard’s increasing conservatism, very real policy dilemmas, electoral pragmatism and debts to the right are not the only reasons for her caution on some issues. She can express empathy for ordinary Australians concerned about border protection but remains much less forthcoming about expressing empathy for Tamils fleeing oppression in Sri Lanka or ethnic Hazaras fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan. She finds expressing motherly concern for the innocent children they brought with them a much safer bet.

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About the Author

Carol Johnson is a Professor in Politics at the University of Adelaide and has written extensively on Labor governments and also on politics and gender. She has a particular interest in the politics of emotion. She is the author of The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1989) and Governing Change: From Keating to Howard (Network Books, Nedlands WA, 2007).

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