When a new government comes to power, there is usually a close focus on the first 100 days. This is the time when premiers and prime ministers lay down their stamp, setting up policy and making statements that define the way they will govern in the months and years ahead. It gives us a sense of both the priorities and the style of a new leadership.
Kevin Rudd and his team have shown a greater than usual fascination with the first 100 days since he was elected prime minister. It is not just that booklet he released (under the Government’s seal but funded by the Labor Party). Almost since he was sworn in, Rudd has been mentioning it. In meetings and briefings, he has been pointedly counting the days. He wants the public to understand and share his mission of establishing this new government.
More than share his mission, Rudd also wants us to feel the drama as it unfolds. He is a gifted storyteller, which he has consistently played to his own advantage along his rise to power. Just like his success in taking the Labor leadership and winning the 2007 election, Rudd has used this talent for narration to embed his government in the imagination of the Australian electorate.
This point about imagination is important. When it comes to war, for example, politics only works if people accept that their government has the right to decide on behalf of the country. Rudd is getting us used to the idea that his government is our government, that we turn to him in a crisis - not to John Howard and his team any more.
People “wear” language like clothes. We use the words, the accent, the body language that reflects how we want other people to see us. Politicians do this more intensely than most people, because their success depends entirely on how voters see them.
In other words, Rudd’s language in the first 100 days tells us a lot about him and his team. Some of it is what he wants us to think, but some of it is unintentional.
One obvious point of difference from his predecessor is that Rudd is more script-bound. Whether speaking in parliament or sitting in a radio booth, Howard usually talked off the cuff. Rudd is much more often seen reading the page in front of him.
This does not make much of a difference to the home viewer, because Rudd often looks up at the camera when delivering his sound bites, but it gets noticed by his colleagues and by the press gallery. To some, he comes across as less self-assured than Howard. Consequently, one negative line of reporting on this new government has been its “nervousness”.
Compare the American example. George W. Bush has been an electorally successful candidate because he offers voters moral and intellectual certainty. He talks in short sentences, with no dithering or qualification. His message is both immediate and to-the-point. His opponents have looked long-winded and “wordy” by contrast. In Australian politics from 1996 to 2006, Howard achieved something similar against a succession of Labor leaders.
But being bookish can have its advantages too, as Rudd has shown. There is a trade-off between self-assurance and attention to detail. Politicians who shoot from the lip can occasionally say dumb things. More importantly, as we found with Bush, Blair and Howard, they can make dumb decisions but dress them up with slick message control. Invading Iraq was the standout example.
Rudd’s decidedly earnest approach to governing suggests that he is thinking things through. The dangers and complexities of climate change, international security, and unstable world markets are serious, Rudd is saying, and it is worth paying closer attention to the details than the previous government did.
The difference in approach to the national apology to the stolen generations showed up another distinctive feature of Rudd’s rhetoric. He uses personal pronouns very differently from the Liberal Party.
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