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Kevin Rudd's political cowardice

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Scott Stephens |  17 October 2007

Kevin 07On Sunday afternoon, Kevin Rudd confirmed that his official election campaign will be the vanity exercise, the gutless appeal to a shallow and disaffected electorate, that most of us suspected it would be.

Positioned against the ubiquitous sky-blue billboard — which now bears the rather pretentious slogan 'New Leadership' — Rudd could have cashed in a little of his electoral capital and kicked off the campaign with a 'vision for Australia' that is so generous, so expansive and morally engaging that any residual concern over his federal inexperience would have evaporated amid the heat of his fidelity to such an ideal. He could have lifted his listeners out of their prosperity-induced lethargy and directed them, much like Paul Keating did in his 1993 campaign launch, toward 'a great Australian social democracy, a proud and independent country, united and cohesive — and able to deliver to all our people living standards and a way of life unequalled in the world'.

Instead, the launch was everything we’ve come to associate with the 'Kevin Rudd Show' to date. He presented as relaxed, vaguely affable, and completely sterile. The actual content of his speech was inconsequential, because its overall intention was to give the public nothing to object to, and John Howard no ammunition to fire back at him. Rudd is clearly convinced that this election is the Coalition’s to lose, and that popular discontent with the government has finally reached critical mass — as it had in 1996, the election that saw Howard defeat Keating. The political pendulum is swinging. The time for change is nigh. All Rudd has to do to win is play it safe, avoid any issue or matter of principle that Howard could use to drive a wedge between voters, and, above all, keep playing the media dandy.

There’s no doubt that this has been a remarkably successful strategy, one that will more than likely carry Rudd through to victory on 24 November. If it does, the media will have played a crucial role in determining a candidate’s fate: it would seem that years of whoring himself to journalists (Latham once described him as 'a fanatical media networker … he is addicted to it, worse than heroin') has finally paid off. And yet one cannot shake the feeling that Rudd has sold his soul in the process — presuming, of course, that bureaucrats have souls in the first place. Rudd’s new slogan is thus only half true. For while he has embraced the aura of glitzy political novelty, one looks in vain to find anything resembling the virtues that define genuine leadership.

Rudd’s diminished political capacity is thrown into sharp relief in an unexpected juxtaposition in Don Watson’s outstanding memoire, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. In the first vignette, Watson describes how it was reported by the ABC’s Jim Middleton that, 'on the flight from Pusan to Beijing, in a conversation about Mabo and the premiers, [Keating] made unflattering remarks about Wayne Goss and called his adviser, Kevin Rudd, a "menace".'

On the same page, as if providing the ultimate foil to Rudd’s soulless brand of politics, Watson describes a moment during the 1994 H. V. Evatt lecture, in which Keating spoke of the chief among the political virtues: 'Between the conception and the execution there is faith, hope — and courage.' Keating went on to say that 'it is never the people who let their countries down, but governments that 'lack heart', politicians who 'imagine things but don’t do them', bureaucrats who 'thwart initiative'.'

Such courage — which Watson later describes as 'Keating’s hallmark and his stock in trade … the prime element in the Keating mythos' — is defined by a leader’s willingness to wage war against the people’s baser instincts, to expand the public’s moral imagination rather than simply pander to avarice, to stare electoral oblivion in the face by defying popular opinion, to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a larger cause. In his justly famous address to the National Press Club on 7 December 1990, Keating lamented the absence of this kind of courageous leadership from Australian politics.

'We’ve got to be led, and politics is about leading people … The United States had three great leaders, Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt, and at times in their history that leadership pushed them on to become the great country that they are. We’ve never had one such person, not one.'

It was his commitment to this political virtue (which is the subject of Michael Beschloss’ stunning new book, Presidential Courage) that motivated Keating’s blistering attack on Kevin Rudd in June this year. Keating complained that Rudd had surrounded himself with 'conservative tea-leaf-reading focus group driven polling types' who lack 'the creativity or the passion or the belief to go and grab the prize'. Rudd was thus adopting a craven, unprincipled brand of politics that had lost sight of what political leadership was all about. As if this diagnosis of Rudd’s cowardice needed any further proof, one cannot help but be sickened by his recent rebuke of Robert McClelland — the only shadow minister to demonstrate any moral insight or political courage all year — over his opposition to the practice of capital punishment in Indonesia.

The great hypocrisy of Rudd’s style of politics is that he launched his challenge for the Labor leadership 12 months ago with an appeal to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s courageous opposition to National Socialism in the name of robust Christian commitment. But it was this same Bonhoeffer who urged Christians not to fear 'being publicly disgraced, having to suffer and being put to death for the sake of Christ', for it is by such courageous discipleship 'that Christ himself attains visible form within his community'.

Perhaps it is time for Rudd to consider Christ’s warning, which had seared itself into Bonhoeffer’s conscience: 'What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?'


Scott StephensScott Stephens is an author and theologian who lives in Brisbane, Queensland. He is the co-editor (with Rex Butler) and translator of two volumes of the selected writings of Slavoj Žižek, Interrogating the Real and The Universal Exception.

 



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An excellent article. People are longing for leadership, for someone to articulate a higher vision. At first I thought Rudd might provide this but I have been increasingly disgusted by his sycophancy. Scott's last paragraph says it all. Paul Collins

Paul Collins 18 October 2007

'Me-toism' and pragmatism have not done Rudd's image any good. I do hope the young will start to be engaged in politics. It may be time for a change (of new leadership) but not if Rudd does not have the courage to stand for principles rather than simply focus on getting elected. Bonhoeffer to the rescue!

Deborah Wall 18 October 2007

Does he really have any choice?

Any "mistake" or minor slip in language or terminology by Rudd or anyone from the Labour Party will be blown up completely out of proportion by the shrieking harpies of the "right"---"right" wing political correctness rules.

But then again a significant number of the voting populace may be completely sick of the "right" wing shrieking?



John 18 October 2007

Scott Stephens omits a crucial point that Rudd's is also a Me-Too Cowardice that echoes the moral cowardice of Howard and we've seen over a decade of Howard's poverty of Spirit. It is odd that Stephens draws on Keating's model vision of a courageous leader. For me, the moral litmus test of all three, Rudd, Howard and Keating is their soulless immunity to the suffering of the East Timorese.

Keating called one of the worst war criminals, Suharto- "Bapa"'ie 'Father .

Both Howard and Rudd worked strenuously and despicably to prevent peacekeepers going to East Timor in 1999. "According to members of the committee, Crouch supported Rudd, expressing the view that Brereton's call for peacekeepers was unsound. Rudd's activities did not go unnoticed; a few months later, the Indonesian government invited him to visit East Timor while once again preventing Laurie Brereton from doing so. Rudd coordinated his visit to East Timor with the Indonesian government, the Australian embassy in Jakarta, and Downer's office. Just hours before getting on the plane, Rudd called Brereton to inform him of the trip." (Fernandes; Reluctant Saviour)

Stephens could have made a greater statement on leadership courage by contrasting Rudd et al to Bob Brown's immovable integrity on all social justice issues.

Dr Vacy Vlazna 18 October 2007

Scott Stephens omits a crucial point that Rudd's is also a Me-Too Cowardice that echoes the moral cowardice of Howard and we've seen over a decade of Howard's poverrty of Spirit. It is odd that Stephens draws on Keating's model vision of a courageous leader. For me, the moral litmus test of all three, Rudd, Howard and Keating is their soulless immunity to the suffering of the East Timorese.

Keating called one of the worst war criminals, Suharto, 'Bapa' ie 'Father'.

Both Howard and Rudd worked strenuously and despicably to prevent peacekeepers going to East Timor in 1999. "According to members of the committee, Crouch supported Rudd, expressing the view that Brereton's call for peacekeepers was unsound. Rudd's activities did not go unnoticed; a few months later, the Indonesian government invited him to visit East Timor while once again preventing Laurie Brereton from doing so. Rudd coordinated his visit to East Timor with the Indonesian government, the Australian embassy in Jakarta, and Downer's office. Just hours before getting on the plane, Rudd called Brereton to inform him of the trip." (Fernandes; Reluctant Saviour)

Stephens could have made a greater statement on leaderhip courage by contrasting Rudd et al to Bob Brown's immovable integrity on all social justice issues.

Dr Vacy Vlazna 18 October 2007

Spot on... I was disgusted last week when he cut McClelland loose. Even the pragmatic approach would be that he has so much poll surpluss, he could have positioned himself as morally different from Howard. But as Eddie Perfect sang last Saturday night on the ABC... Rudd is just Howard 2.0.

Bill Jennings 18 October 2007

Chameleon-like is the word that best described Kevin Rudd to me, when I first experienced him on TV. According to the Macquarie dictionary chameleons are 'characterised by by the greatly developed power of changing the colour of the skin, very slow locomotion, and a projectile tongue'.

Claude Rigney 22 October 2007

Scott, what unreal world do you exist in. Follow your advice and Rudd would never be elected - Howard would have a field day with wedge politics. I don't like it either but something must be done to get rid of the worst Prime Minister in my living memory - this man has changed Australia to becoming a selfish, frightened, non caring country. You praise Paul Keating and rightly so because the Hawke/Keating Governments were the most far sighted probably in our short history and their economic/labour market reforms were a significant factor along with the rise of China in the success of our economy over the past 16 years. But Keating is regarded with derision by probably the majority of the population, wrongly I know but not a good example to quote.

ron hill 23 October 2007

I'm surprised by the depth of the hostility in some ES correspondents here to Kevin Rudd. "Crusader, not just a God-botherer" - Phillip Adams, in the Australian of 23 October 2007 offers an interesting perspective on Rudd's political morality:

"Back in the ALP, the comrades and brothers had to overcome their hostility to God-bothering and elect a leader who takes his religion seriously. Apart from tribal Catholicism, the ALP is defiantly secular and it has been a long time since a leader has declared, even emphasised, his faith.

"For years I've argued that Kev's Christianity is a plus in that it confirms his conservatism for nervous voters and gives Labor a chance of undermining the Libs' "done deal" with people of faith, particularly among the Pentecostals. Rudd can help prevent the religious gridlock we've seen in the US that has given Bush so much traction.

"Moreover, I'm convinced that Rudd's admiration for Bonhoeffer will kick in whenever the nation faces a substantial moral issue. I cannot believe that Rudd would manipulate bigotry, exploit fears of refugees or toss kids overboard. And when social justice issues arrive, as they do on a daily basis, the Rudd I know is likelier to take an ethical stand than the incumbent. Thus Rudd's religion is a two-edged sword. It makes him conservative on many issues. It should make him a crusader on others."

I pray that Phillip's last paragraph turns out to be a true forecast. In any case, I have bought my champagne for 24 November.

We should make allowances for the fact that it will take years to turn Australia around to a better moral direction. The Howard years have deeply corrupted the Australian soul. One does not turn that moral decline around overnight. Rudd had to craft a winning strategy in the electorate that is, not the electorate we would like to see rebuilt.

tony kevin 24 October 2007

I would like to thank Scott Stephens for articulating the disappointment many of us feel about the micro-management of Kevin Rudd, reflected in his lack of courage, avoidance of political risk, and silencing of his ministers. The recent appearance of former PMs, Hawke and Keating, has been the highlight of both the cold campaign and the real cold campaign. One suspects they too are so bored by the phoney con-test that they have found it necessary to come out of retirement and stir things up a little. I have always felt uneasy about nostalgic appeals to the past, but give me those old dogs any day if Rudd's approach is any indication of the new tricks required to safely sail ones way into The Lodge.

david akenson 30 October 2007

The intellectual validity of this article is lost with the last paragraph. Our leaders should not look to religion to provide them with moral or practical inspiration. Religion muddies political waters, and clouds political vision until the leader sees himself as having a 'duty to God' to act 'morally' (of course this is in the Christian 'moral' sense)..
I reference the example of (obviously) George Bush in America. Theology, Im afraid, has no place in Australian politics.

Declan 06 June 2008

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