Westminster dispelled: President Kevin Rudd?

The tenor of the mainstream media’s election banter has changed dramatically since Julia Gillard was evicted from Yarralumla by her colleagues close to a fortnight ago. Kevin Rudd has returned to lead Labor armed not with a fistful of changes in party policy, but simply with a different image, and the easy confidence that comes from knowing that a significant number of people out there in suburbia australianus still fancy him as a leader. He knows this not just because he (ahem) rates himself or that the pollsters tell him so , but because of his assiduous use of social media and his typically amicable interactions with ordinary Australians across the country. We know this because if the polls (and particularly the inimitable Poll Bludger) are to be believed, Labor is now looking seriously competitive with the Coalition for the first time in 3 years. What seemed to be inevitable – Tony Abbott moving into The Lodge in September – no longer feels inevitable.

Little wonder then that the so-called Cabinet-elect is becoming a little restive; Malcolm Turnbull used a remarkable proportion of his Sir John Monash Oration at the Jewish Museum last week to have a dig at the leadership style of Labor’s revived Prime Minister:

I observed the Rudd government from close range, but from the outside, but there are important lessons in political leadership to be drawn from it. There is no doubt that concentrating too much authority in the Prime Minister and his office, the micro-management of policy from that office clearly resulted both in ill-considered decisions (NBN, pink batts, school halls) and inexplicable delays.

Turnbull goes on to argue that Rudd’s controlling nature and the inexperience of his front bench team will compel him to run a presidential campaign, and if elected, a somewhat dysfunctional presidential-style government, just as he did before the knives of his colleagues came out for him in 2010. By way of contrast, he harks back to the Howard years as a golden age of “traditional cabinet government”, during which the Prime Minister consulted generously with colleagues, and allowed ministers to get on with their portfolios with a measure of independence, free of prime ministerial diktats. It is this sort of “traditional cabinet government” that Turnbull argues Tony Abbott and his team will deliver if he leads the Coalition to victory in September.

I don’t take issue with the Member for Wentworth’s assertion that “traditional cabinet government” is in Australia’s interests; I might even be prepared to wave through the notion that the Howard Government – at least during the zenith of its effectiveness – operated as much or more in the spirit of this style of governance than the Rudd or Gillard Governments have managed since 2007. On the other hand surely only the most one-eyed 2UE listener would contend that the Coalition’s performance in Opposition under Tony Abbott suggests they are on track to restore the “noble glories” of Westminster decision-making to Canberra. The Opposition Leader’s relentless negativity has dominated his tenure as the nation’s alternative Prime Minister, and what little in the way of coherent policy the Coalition has communicated so far this year has been funneled through him. He has, thus far, astonishingly refused to debate Kevin Rudd, even though the Prime Minister has allowed him the luxury of choosing the debate topic.

Normally, an Opposition Leader would jump at the chance to get him or herself on the same platform as the Prime Minister in a direct personal confrontation; normally the more bites an Opposition Leader gets at the cherry, the better. Not for Tony. Abbott has not run and is not running a presidential campaign – he is running an anti-presidential campaign, shouting the loudest sound bites, tearing at Julia Gillard (at times without a shred of civility) and appealing to the lowest common denominator, whilst carefully avoiding any substantive confrontations that might expose him to undue risk. Which now, evidently, includes any event that puts he and Rudd in the same room before the dreaded Worm and the nation’s television viewing hordes. Clearly, he fears that in the eyes of the voting public, he might not be able to help coming off second-best to the Sunrise kid. This is a game of chicken he doesn’t want any part of.

There is another more significant systemic problem with Turnbull’s pitch for “traditional cabinet government”. Recent events have given further credence to what most of us accepted sometime back – in the eyes of the public, Australia’s system is essentially a presidential one tarted up in Westminster system silk. A significant slice of voters who were not planning to vote for Gillard Labor are apparently prepared to vote for Rudd Labor. These folks haven’t changed their mind because of anything substantive Rudd has offered in a policy sense, and they certainly don’t prefer Rudd’s proposed ministerial team. In short, they prefer Rudd as a person, as a leader; as president. Pollsters are fond of telling us it is the two-party preferred numbers that matter on polling day. They are right, as a matter of fact, but when pure personality has the power to toggle the two-party preferred numbers by somewhere in the vicinity of of 10% (larger than the margin of most recent elections), the question of what really is the most decisive factor on polling day becomes a lot muddier.

So sorry, Malcolm. The sorts of voters that the Coalition needs to convince in September could hardly care less about the Westminster tradition and the seductively archaic charms of “traditional cabinet government”. If the Coalition are indeed to win, they now need to sell Tony Abbott as a convincing president. If they fail to do this, they risk losing what seemed very recently to be an unlosable election.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

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