The opinion polls show that Kevin Rudd’s honeymoon with voters is stretching on into the distance far further than your average newlyweds have any right to expect. The man’s popularity seems to be as impermeable as his hair. Peter Costello just put up a humdinger of a budget, which remarkably delivered both tax cuts and massive spending increases targeted at Labor’s pet policy areas like education and child care, and it made virtually no difference to the poll numbers. Despite being almost universally applauded by the pundits – heck, Costello even slung money at the film industry, of all people – the man from Queensland still has a lock on the Lodge.
But while I’m now eagerly anticipating the election – especially compared to the total flatliner that was that last NSW poll – my hopes of a bright new future under Cap’n Kevvy are quickly waning. The sense that we might finally have a leader who wasn’t afraid to throw a bit of vision into the political mix was an exciting thing. Well, at least relative to Beazley, Crean and Howard. And Rudd’s talk of education as the source of competitive advantage for our nation rather than the begrudging, ever-dwindling afterthought it’s been under the Coalition really made sense.
Folks, I fear we’ve got a federal version of Bob Carr on our hands. A hyper-intelligent man with strong values, who instead of figuring out how to achieve the most good, is hell-bent on figuring out how to achieve the most votes. A politician who uses his unusual gifts not to transform society, but to hang onto power. In his decade in charge, Carr displayed a mastery of the media unseen in Australian politics – and certainly lost on the hapless Morris Iemma. It’s no coincidence that Carr’s media svengali, Walt Seccord, is now working for Rudd.
It’s happening time and time again. Instead of doing the right thing, instead of keeping with principles he’s previously backed, Rudd hedges his bets with his eyes firmly on the polls. His changes to industrial relations, which the unions have only begrudgingly accepted because of Rudd’s popularity and their total lack of alternatives, have traded away more rights than any Labor leader ever. And his treatment of the Dalai Lama issue, where he looked like a hypocrite for refusing to meet His Holiness and then had to reverse his stance after the PM caught him out, was far removed from the principled stance he took at the time of the Tibetan leader’s last visit. Whereas it seemed at first that we had a philosopher-king of sorts, who would transport us to a brighter future through the sheer compellingness of his ideas, it now seems we have the most populist Labor politician since Bob Hawke. Or, in many respects, a Labor John Howard.
It’s probably not surprising that the man is being so cautious after eleven years of Opposition, and after he’s sat watching successive Labor leaders implode for being either too bold or not bold enough. As the left had to concede at the party’s conference, while it’s working, there’s reason to believe that the man can do no wrong. Many in the party have taken the position that he can say whatever he likes as long as he wins, and that the time to judge him will be once he’s in office.
But just because you don’t put a foot wrong doesn’t mean you necessarily go the extra mile to do what’s right, and that’s where we will see if Kevin Rudd really does live up to the hype. If his leadership is like that of Bob Carr or Tony Blair, and outstanding only in his ability to manipulate the media, the nation will be left with an equally bad taste in its mouth. And a crucial opportunity to remake Australia as a globally competitive knowledge economy will have been wasted forever.