Labor leader Kevin Rudd’s media minders have been leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to make him appear all things to all people. Before the corks start popping, it may be prudent for Team Rudd to leave the headlines alone for a while and spend some time defining federal Labor’s policies and vision for the nation. This lack of substance and some poor strategic decisions by Rudd reek of an opposition which is taking the electorate for granted.
Rudd’s defining error was his decision to appoint Queenslander Wayne Swan as shadow treasurer over the more widely respected Melbourne MP, Lindsay Tanner. Swan’s previous performance in the portfolio had been utterly lacklustre compared with Tanner’s far-reaching economic policy agenda. In ignoring Tanner’s sophisticated policy architecture, Rudd bowed to factionalism instead of the national interest.
Rudd then hired Bob Carr’s former spin doctor, Walt Secord, as his director of communications. Secord was widely recognised for his media cunning during Carr’s decade as New South Wales premier in a period where style was always the priority over substance. Rudd has apparently accepted the corresponding cost of a government lulled into policy paralysis for which NSW is now paying the price.
Installing celebrity broadcaster Maxine McKew to stand against the Prime Minister in his Sydney seat of Bennelong was also a breathtaking display of hubris. With all the marginal seats available to McKew, the decision to pit her against the serving PM is a wilting display of leadership egotism. In addition to blanching at the odds, Rudd might have considered Victorian Labor’s disastrous experiment with another former ABC celebrity, Mary Delahunty.
Bolstering Wayne Swan’s background in the Queensland Labor organisation Rudd has also lured policy director Pradeep Phillip from his most recent gig with the Beattie Government. If these misjudgements weren’t enough, the putative first lady has added fuel to the fire by ruling out divestment of her multimillion-dollar business interests if a Rudd government comes to fruition.
The Australian business activities of Rudd’s wife, Therese Rein, have a heavy dependence on funding from federal government employment programs. Rudd has acknowledged he will need to excuse himself from cabinet meetings during consideration of employment policy decisions if he becomes prime minister.
The indelible linkages between employment programs and social welfare benefits and associated training policy mean that Rudd may have to absent himself from policy discussion affecting up to a quarter of government outlays.
As if to distance himself from his family’s wealth, Rudd has unsuccessfully tried to shed the clothes of a fundamentally secure childhood in favour of the rather ill-fitting rags of victimhood.
While all of this makes excellent breakfast reading, people are now scouring the morning papers for insight into meaningful policy plans.
If Rudd and his media machine genuinely expect to lure away the swinging voters who underpin John Howard’s reign, then it would be wise to start focusing on how he will improve health and education systems, how he will improve export performance, infrastructure development and ecological health. Rather than maintaining his silence, he must also outline specific policy detail on mental health, industrial relations, refugees and foreign policy. Gimmicks like the Anzac Day charade just won’t cut the mustard.
Of course most of the Australian Labor leaders, including Rudd, have adopted UK Prime Minister Tony Blair as their model of electoral success. Sadly, they have replicated none of his success in health, education or technology; instead they have been transfixed by what British author Peter Riddell describes as the Blair Government’s perpetual state of campaign mode.
Labor’s current lack of policy substance reflects Rudd’s reluctance to share personal philosophical leanings that aren’t all that far away from those of the incumbent government. Of course it would be pointless to ask an electorate to choose between populist clones when it knows that John Howard wrote the book.
If Rudd wants to consolidate Labor’s popularity then he had better resist the blandishments of the one-trick ponies who are running his machinery.
Australians need to understand and share Rudd’s convictions in order to follow him any further. Rudd has the same generational opportunity Gough Whitlam enjoyed in 1972. Whether he has the skill to grasp the opportunity is certainly far from clear.
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