We need to talk about Kevin

I’m extremely glad he’s no longer the leader of the ALP, but you have to feel sorry for Kim Beazley. He loses the leadership, effectively ending two-and-a-half decades in politics, and then walks out of the room to hear his brother has died. I just watched the press conference, where he was too overcome by emotion to say much. It couldn’t have been more painful, unfortunately, but now his time is over, and it’s time to talk about what’s new.

John Howard has just given a press conference that was extremely generous, probably the warmest I’ve ever seen him. But then he moved onto what is clearly going to be the plank of the Liberals’ attack on Rudd, saying that it was a new face for the same old backwards machine. And surprise, surprise – Crikey reports that the Liberals already have a cheeky web cartoon making this point. And John Howard’s other point was that Rudd kept talking about style – but the substance was the same. What a fantastic attack machine they have.

So who is Kevin Rudd, other than a very intelligent, quite smug man? He’ll face in many respects an opposite challenge from Mark Latham, a straight-talking natural communicator who could be incredibly erratic – but was very much an ordinary Australian, and presented himself as such. Rudd is ultra-controlled, but clearly a member of the intellectual elite that John Howard has done so much to harness the resentment of. It could be hard for him to win over the “relaxed and comfortable” majority he needs.

But just looking at Rudd’s initial press conference showed why he’s going to be a very serious contender in the next election. He is so much better a communicator than Kim Beazley ever was – he’s very clear, calm and very confident. It’s going to play very well on TV over the next year, far better than Beazley did. With Peter Garrett almost certainly stepping to the environment portfolio (or at least to the frontbench), it’ll be a far more voter-friendly package.

It’s worth also bidding farewell to Jenny Macklin, the great survivor in the recent ALP leadership contests, but not in much detail. She has served under three leaders – Crean, Latham and Beazley, and it’s been a testament to her general ineffectiveness that she has never been mentioned in any of the endless speculation over the top job. Today, she didn’t even nominate, in keeping with what has essentially been five years of flying under the radar – I can’t remember a senior politician with a lower profile. Her departure is no loss, and we can expect to see far more of Julia Gillard in the public eye.

It’s also interesting that this team has been emphatically presented as Rudd-Gillard, whereas we never saw much talk of Latham-Macklin or Beazley-Macklin. So Labor has a pair of new leaders, both of whom are smart, with a strong command of policy detail, and also excellent communicators. Finally Labor may be a team that might be able to match the strength of Howard-Costello.

But convincing the voters to trust you in just a year is hard, as Mark Latham found. The strong appeal to middle Australia of John Howard is unlikely to be diminished. One thing, though, is for certain. Rudd and Gillard will be a much tougher proposition for the Liberals than Beazley and Macklin. Then again, it wouldn’t be difficult.

Dominic Knight

Photo: Andrew Taylor

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