Rudd and Gillard enjoy the bounce

Rudd and Gillard enjoy the bounceKevin Rudd and Julia Gillard are enjoying their bounce, and their honeymoon, as John Howard predicted they would. Early polls suggest a marked upsurge in the Labor vote, in approval for the Labor leadership change, and in comparisons between the performance of Rudd and the Prime Minister. Were an election to be held now, one might think Labor would romp it in.

But there's no election being held now, and none in prospect for at least 10 months. John Howard, and the Liberals, would not be worried yet. The timing of an election (almost certainly after the late-August APEC meeting in Brisbane) is in their hands. There is another budget, and set of carefully meted-out goodies for marginal voters to be arranged. There will also be a steady chipping away, with all of the benefits of incumbency, at the issues they believe to be working for them.

Of course, there is also time and the scope to work on perceived weaknesses of Rudd, of Gillard, of Labor. The Liberal party will hope that a man they believe to be inexperienced, brittle and none too personable implodes, and for the public to come to 'know' Rudd and to 'realise' that there's not much salvation from him on offer.

It worked last time with Mark Latham. He won the leadership (also from Kim Beazley) about the same time out from an election. The public welcomed the change and the polls blipped for Labor. Latham's different style foxed John Howard for a while, and Labor had some tactical successes on issues it created. For the first time in a long time, it seemed to be setting the agenda rather than carping about what the Government was doing. Ultimately, attempts to hang L-plates on him, plus a monster spending campaign worked, and Latham imploded.

Well, not quite. Latham, contrary to the now current wisdom, did not implode until after the election. Many observers, who knew well how fundamentally ratty he was and who had been predicting that he might lose his calm, his cool and his tight control, were astounded at the discipline, the strategy and self-belief which he exhibited up to the election. Sure, he lost the election, but he did not 'lose it' while doing so.
Latham's chief weakness, the lack of a coherent economic policy and a coherent economic message, went against his instincts. He was pushed hard by his advisers – political geniuses and personal enemies such as Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan, who seem to have an incredible capacity to become indispensable to any leader in the trench warfare of an actual election campaign. And Simon Crean, not a Latham enemy, but perhaps, with the best will in the world, in no great position to help.

The campaign professionals have the appearance of knowing all about campaigning, and can manage, fix and arrange things such as meetings with party central, keeping everyone else 'on-message', keeping oneself as a 'small target' and not being 'distracted' by the ruses and diversions of the other ide.

But their tactics – not least their attempts to distract voters from issues the voters think are important towards issues they think will work for Labor do not seem to work. In each of their campaigns, moreover, they have commenced the 12-month lead-up to an election with the polls pointing towards a Labor win, and squandered it by election's end, or, at the least been outfoxed in vital marginals.

Rudd's retention of Wayne Swan in the Treasury, and his shift of Stephen Smith to education, is being interpreted as a conciliatroy gesture to the Beazley forces. Smith's loss of industrial relations was probably inevitable once Gillard wanted it, but in any event, he was not demonstrating it to be the single top issue for Labor that Beazley had proclaimed it to be. Yet Smith, earlier, had demonstrated some capacity in making social welfare an issue – and education ought to be working far more effectively for Labor than it has been under Jenny Macklin.

Labor has been virtually unheard in the school values and school standards debate, and higher education, where Labor ought to be scoring, is almost entirely off the political radar. The question, for sceptics of Smith, is whether he can come up with more than tricks to put the minister (Julie Bishop) on the hop. He must shape policies which he (and Kevin Rudd) can sell to the constituencies and the wider electorate, and make education – and training generally – the vital issue that Labor always claims it to be. It is time for a tactician with no great record of success to show some substance.

Some will think that putting Peter Garrett into environmental policy is intrinsically dangerous, not least with a looming argument about nuclear policy which will almost inevitably have Garrett at loggerheads with a Labor leadership which may understand the power of the issue in Labor heads, but which is actually disgusted by the apocalyptic fear and loathing which occurs in some Labor constituencies whenever the word 'nuclear' is uttered.

In fact it never does Labor any harm for there to be evidence of a debate within its ranks – a point usually missed by those who have sought to turn Labor's internal parliaments into public relations affairs at which all of the pressure is for consensus, unity and ever longer bouts of applause for the leaders. Rather than being showpieces for a united, determined opposition, such bashes serve only to emphasise how complacent, inbred and undemocratic the party has become – and how little it can these days appeal to the emotional, the visceral and the idealistic voters out there. The party has little standing now in the academy of ideas.

Perhaps this is at the very core of the problem. Kevin Rudd is very different, in personality, background and experience, from Kim Beazley. But he is also very similar, not least in the way that he has been a non-combatant in the battle of ideas about Labor and its future, and in the way in which he is almost completely detached from the romantic and emotional side of Labor.

Rudd has a formidable intellect and keen political sense, but he is first and foremost rational, and he has little time for, or truck with, the nostalgic and the sentimental, the myths of Labor history, the old language of class warfare, soft or mawkish feelings about underclasses, real or self-declined, or the whole host of what he might well describe as party's baggage, not least the Whitlamite social vision which cost it government, and later kept it out of it.

He's a 'new' Labor man, clear thinking and clear-headed, economic. He may well have a strong moral base, and an instinctive sympathy for how society looks after those less able to compete, but these are secondary to the main game, which is about power, winning it, and holding it, and wielding the levers.

He has never demonstrated, in his writings or his speeches, much interest in why that power is sought, or for what, and only ever demonstrated incidental pious and ritual interest in Aborigines, in refugees, in the welfare underclass. Even his shadow backbench disquisitions suggest that he regards these issues as secondary, unimportant, perhaps as distractions.

Does anyone know where Labor stands on Aboriginal affairs? Or welfare to work? Does anyone imagine that such issues are likely to acquire a higher profile under Jenny Macklin, given her electric capacity with education?

There is a vital Labor constituency for whom Labor's repudiation of such issues – not least by Kim Beazley on Tampa and refugees in 2001 – cut the umbilical cord to the party. A good many were actually party members – the party has lost more than 50 per cent of its branch membership in five years. Since most now vote Green and preference Labor, and since many are of what the Labor hard-men regard as the wet latte-drinking inner suburbanite wankers – or Canberra people – the party, officially, does not care much. What the hard men fail to realise is that this loss has deprived the party of much of its moral, emotional and even physical energy – not things which can be replaced by focus groups, clever slogans or contracted leaflet distributors.

A Rudd who cannot 'connect' with such constituencies will not, in my opinion, connect very well with the electorate at large. John Howard, decent or cynical, knows more about connecting with what people are feeling, as well as thinking, than Labor has forgotten.



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