Fat Thanks from an Ungrateful Nation

June 24, 2010 at 2:49 am (Uncategorized)

Extraordinary scenes here in Australia today, with a swift – though not entirely unexpected – leadership change at the top. It’s been brewing: only last week I heard a program on ABC Radio National in which one commentator (I’m sorry I can’t recall his name) predicted a change of leadership this very week. And in that eerily prescient prediction, I believe we have a way into reading this whole political puzzle.

The media undoubtedly helped Kevin Rudd win in 07, and now the media has largely and very successfully controlled the rapid, truly astonishing change in public sentiment toward the man who – until just after 9 o’clock this morning – was the sitting Prime Minister of Australia. It’s not a sophisticated calculation, but whoever pursued this strategy within the Labor Government – and somebody did – certainly made the most of it. It goes like this: Rudd’s position was secure only so long as the public continued to love him. Rudd enjoyed record approval ratings, which made his leadership seemingly untouchable, so the only way to undermine him was to trouble his popularity among voters. This is especially true because Rudd didn’t have a party base of loyal, factional supporters to begin with, thus didn’t have it to lose – his support was famously outside his party, where it probably should matter most, and that’s with the people. And where do most people get their information? From some media source or sources. So I put it to you that someone within his own party made this deduction some time ago – as I say, it’s a simple conclusion to draw – and went after the all-important media trophy of owning the message.

Owning the message. If you own the message, you control its dissemination, and the message, almost overnight, in every news agency in the country, became this: Kevin Rudd’s public approval is dead.

Things snowballed once this message took hold. He was exposed – his leadership very soon became vulnerable to the attack that was now coming toward him at speed. I’ve wondered before on this blog and I wonder especially now at his curious inability to penetrate the media sphere with a coherent counter attack. One must look to his own people for an explanation of how he came to be so utterly impotent a media presence while Project Brutus was gaining momentum. I would like to hear from Kevin Rudd’s media unit, because I believe they have some serious explaining to do. Are they merely a pack of raging incompetents, or has something much more organised been afoot? I would love the answer to that question – I think much of interest lies in what that media unit knows. As it is, at the very least one could charge them with a gross dereliction of duty to their boss, a man we all know as a taskmaster and someone who is apparently difficult to like. His staffers respect but personally loathe him – this is a very consistent picture leaked from Parliament and naturally passed around to anyone who’ll listen.

One of the reasons he’s apparently such a crashing pill is that he’s a workaholic and expects the same dedication from everyone who works for him; I’ve said it before: I kind of like that in an individual carrying the weight of running the country. I don’t need to be able to buy Kevin Rudd a beer – I’d much rather know he was too busy to drink while he’s on the job. I don’t give a shit if he’s not the life of the party – but boy, did everyone get behind him before the 2007 election once they knew he’d visited a strip club in New York while uncharacteristically enjoying a night on the turps. It was the back slap heard around the world: atta boy, Kev, now we know you’re all right! Now we’re satisfied you’re a regular bloke! Now I’ll vote for ya!

Please.

What a pack of ingrates we are now. Unemployment and inflation are low, the GFC was dodged, the healthcare reforms are significant and positive, and whatever the problems with the schools program, it delivered school halls and has been deemed by the recipients of those facilities a resounding success. The shelving of the ETS was harmful, absolutely, but not enough to sink Rudd’s ship. And as for the tax on mining super profits – you know, I have not heard one regular person from either side of the voting fence say they disagree with the tax, so I don’t really understand – except for this paralysis in Rudd’s media unit and the corresponding feeding frenzy in the press corps – how Rudd’s people so badly lost control of this message: Australians should benefit more from what private interests are doing to our country’s natural resources.

Is it unreasonable to suggest that mining giants should pay Australians more for systematically stripping this country of its natural resources for company profit (in many cases primarily serving overseas interests, because we seem to just love giving it away)? I don’t think so – and more to the point, I can’t find anyone who does think so. Not even faithful Liberal voters I’ve spoken to think the tax is unfair; what I’ve heard most of all is, “A tax on mining super profits is long overdue.” But Rudd’s media unit did a spectacularly botched job of selling the tax where the message most needed to be heard: in the media. Not behind closed doors with mining fat cats (who, incidentally, have done a truly hats-off superior job of controlling their message, which quickly, crucially became, “This tax will hurt everyday Australians,” instead of, “Boohoo, my personal fortune of billions will take a hit, and shareholder dividends will suffer”- flawless strategy from a media management point of view), but out here in front of cameras and in newspaper column inches and online, where people actually live. We spend all our time saturated up to our eyeballs in media, so where were they? Where were the spin-doctors selling this tax? Where was the reiteration of everything Rudd’s government has achieved in just two and a half years in office? Two and a half years – after eleven years in Opposition – it’s extraordinary to me that I’ve recently been reading predictions that history will remember Rudd unfavourably. I find that astonishing. But see how the record is already being decided? Say it often enough, and it becomes the truth.

All of this notwithstanding, I’m excited by the prospect of our first female PM. Julia Gillard is as sharp as a tack and has proven to be a pleasant surprise for many people who perhaps underestimated her intelligence and dedication. She’s also really not Tony Abbott, so from an election point of view, this makes the contest much more interesting. Kevin Rudd VS Tony Abbott was never going to rock the foundations because unfortunately they have a few superficial things in common. Gillard, well, she’s taken on Abbott before, back when she was the shadow counterpart to his Health Minister, and Abbott was such a freak that they had to revoke certain of his ministerial powers to stop him being able to make decisions about women’s bodies. Yep. I think she can take him. And she’d better.

So. It’s an historic day, but I feel sad and angry about the way it’s come about. Labor’s punished Rudd for this (I believe cunningly engineered) fall in popularity with the ultimate fall from grace: he’s lost his job without even seeing out a first term in office. It’s humiliating, it seems more than a little unjust, and frankly I truly believe the man deserved better, from his party, from the media, and from the people of Australia.

I believe we need to examine ourselves. I’m terribly afraid we’re becoming a nation of passive receptacles, a population too complacent to form our own opinion and examine the way our information arrives and of what it entails. So many things currently dominating Australian media and therefore preoccupying the Australian population are simply not news, while critically important issues of national and international import are passing us by. It’s like our critical faculties have been hypnotised, lulled into inaction by those who understand how best to control the message, and know just where to repeat it.

Strange days indeed. Kevin Rudd, thanks for breaking your balls around the clock for this staggeringly ungrateful nation.

(For Kevin Rudd’s press conference as outgoing PM, please click here.)

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20 Comments

  1. socksinmypocket said,

    Pretty much my sentiments exactly! Well said.

    • doctordi said,

      I must say, socksinmypocket, it’s a real relief to me that at least one other person feels similarly (actually, make it two, since Darkling JB and I have been flabbergasted all day in near identical terms), because I do wonder sometimes if I’ve gone insane or completely lost touch with reality. It’s reassuring to think that perhaps the madness isn’t ours.

  2. Pete said,

    I’m very interested to hear more on this in due course. Are the Aussies following the British example and sacking their own leader? (We did the same here with Mbeki). And the points on owning the message are spot-on. It’s a sad state of affairs when you stand and fall on your media skills.

    • doctordi said,

      Well, the Australian people didn’t sack Rudd, Pete, his own party did. And it’s amazing, it’s really, really incredible given what his government has managed to do in such a short time. It’s got to be unprecedented that in this phew-that-was-close economic climate, with things going pretty smoothly here while countries around the world are tanking, that a sitting PM has been thrown out by the party.

      I think it’s pathetic that his media image and not his record has both generated and decided this whole drama. Okay, so he’s wooden in press conferences and seemed unable or unwilling to court the press – any idiot could see that from the start, so WHERE WAS THE BACK UP? The reinforcements never arrived, and the big question for me is why not? Why didn’t he get the help he needed managing the media and his public image from within the ranks of his advisers?

      • Pete said,

        Yes sorry that’s what I meant. First Labour sack Tony Blair. Then the ANC here fires Mbeki. Now the ALP ousts Rudd. Will be interesting to see how Gillard survives.

      • Marty said,

        Sooooooooo spot on Di, the majority voted Kevin07 into the leadership, and ..”7 or 8 factional leaders” (Lateline 24/6)… decided he’s a liability!!!!

        Un-bloody-believable!!!

        So much for the “fair chance” society we used to be!!!

        Aussies wake up, do we really think a strong woman can lead such a gang of jackalls?

        There will be many, many repercussions and it all could backfire in their faces.

        Let’s see what the hon. Ms Gillard has to offer and what Tony ‘Towbar’ Abbott’s next attack will be.

        cheers

      • doctordi said,

        Pete, gotcha. And yes, the ‘knife in the back’ metaphor is getting such a workout you’d think we were on a Hitchcock set.

        Welcome, Marty! Yes, I also think it could backfire HORRIBLY. Gillard is no slouch, and the prospect of Abbott terrifies every woman I know, but I do think Labor will take a hit because it really does look a bit thuggish right now, and no one likes a bully. It’s going to be a pretty fascinating contest, I agree. The parallels with the NSW State Govt are uncomfortable.

  3. James said,

    I would go further and say that the rolling of Turnbull and Rudd are part of the same phenomena.

    Rudd and Turnbull are both political outsiders. They are not professional politicians.

    It is almost as though our experiment with a new type of politician is over and we have returned to the norm of union bosses, apparatchiks and student politicians running the country.

    While Julia was a partner at a law firm and I wouldn’t want to detract from this as an achievement, it was a highly politicised firm and she dealt in industrial relations law.

    Rudd is a policy wonk – a massive one. Turnbull was a banker (amongst other things). Both highly successful people from outside of politics and logically should be great national leaders. Yet both failed.

    We now have a return to the professionals – for better or worse. We will now see two very political animals squaring off.

    • doctordi said,

      Well, hello there, James, and a very warm welcome to DoctorDi! How are you? How many years has it been?! Now, I expect you have some particularly intriguing insights into all this, what with your own firsthand experience down there in the nation’s capital, and yes, I think you’re spot on in that assessment of the same mechanics of failure around Turnbull’s ousting.

      I liked Turnbull for the Libs; again, it was tiresome in the extreme to me that the focus was always on the size of his ego rather than his ability to do the job. And I VERY MUCH liked the fact that neither Rudd nor Turnbull were career politicians. If the experiment is over, then personally I’m damn sorry to see it go. Professional politicians so often leave a tremendous amount to be desired, and I think both parties turned the gun on their leaders for reasons that have NOTHING to do with successful national leadership, and everything to do with fears for their own continued relevance and influence should this new type of “late bloomer” politician succeed.

      • James said,

        Hello Di. Yes, its been a long time since we last spoke at Calypso coffee lounge. I think you were espousing a theory to solve the problems of society by giving all men breast implants. At the time, I could find no argument against your well thought out policy proposal. However, after reflecting on the matter for 17 years, I now have a reason why this reform would devastate society. We should discuss this at another time.

        Unfortunately the blow-ins to politics in the recent past have all been failures and it is usually because they are too honest, too trusting and not brutal enough. The punters love it when a straight talker who doesn’t oppose everything the other side says comes along. However, it is these things that bring them undone. Nelson and Garrett are two more good examples.

        Want to see something really scary? Look-up the CVs of some members of parliament. You’ll note some political dynasties. Here is an excerpt from the CV of one mp which sums up his pre Parliament experience:

        Automotive electrician 1978-90.
        Electorate officer to EJ Fitzgibbon, MP 1990-96.
        Part-time TAFE lecturer.
        Small business operator.

        This bloke, who inherited his father’s seat in Parliament, was responsible for managing a Department with expenditure of $24 billion.

        Oh and I may have been an advisor to a couple of senior ALP Ministers, but I live in the electorate of Wentworth now. I like Turnbull – its going to be a tough decision on election day. Then again, if people like me are thinking of voting for him, its no wonder the Libs rolled him.

      • doctordi said,

        Breast implants…? Good grief, I didn’t, did I?! There goes that last lingering fantasy of my university days being full of spirited analysis and deep philosophical debate… perhaps I’d popped into the Uni Bar on my way to Calypso…

        Yes, that CV is terrifying. I don’t know whether to thank you for sharing it or beg you to take it away and never speak of it again. Ugh. It’s TOO GRIM – there are so many talented Australians who would make fantastic later-career additions to the political scene, but boy, they must be feeling pretty jaundiced just thinking about it after recent events. I think Turnbull and Rudd’s two heads spinning on matching posts in front of Parliament House will really be effective deterrents to anyone out there with similar aspirations.

        Ha, I’m sure they’d be happy to have you. Yes, I like Malcolm too – perhaps he could revive the Dems…? God knows I could use a viable alternative (thanks Cheryl, nice work sinking an entire party back there). Just not if its name is Tony Abbott.

  4. Fugitive Pieces said,

    I left the country a WEEK ago, for heaven’s sake. What the…?
    A friend texted me the news yesterday, while I was adrift in a haberdashery department (don’t ask), and I wandered unseeing among the bobbins, entirely confused. The disparity between Rudd’s public image and the actual presence of the man has long been a source of disquiet; he’s always felt vulnerable to misrepresentation. But this?

    Like you, I would so much rather have someone in charge who’s demanding, intelligent, and dare I say it? sophisticated. I don’t want a clubbable lifelong politico, and I’m sick of back-room dealing and putsches. Julia Gillard is good news, but it’s a lousy way to get the top job; not even my feminist tendencies are cheering.

    It’s only taken a week (and an emergency budget) in the UK to reinforce my sense of how lucky we’ve been recently. I hope Whitlam’s volunteered to give Rudd a big ole hug. He deserves one.

    • doctordi said,

      Fugitive, we’re clearly in ‘Pieces’ without you! Yep, you leave the country and it all falls apart.

      Yes, it’s all hugely unpalatable, and really takes the sheen off the first female PM advance. It’s all a bit grubby, and the only reason it’s being described as ‘bloodless’ is because Rudd had the style and strength of character to make it so. That certainly doesn’t mean the Labor Party comes out looking and smelling like roses – on the contrary, I think a lot of Australians think this stinks.

  5. plumbean said,

    i love your writing. i have an award for you at the plum bean!

    • doctordi said,

      Priya, lovely to see you back here – and you seem never to arrive empty handed! You’re like the perfect house guest, thank you so much!

  6. Grad said,

    I don’t know a thing about Australian politics. And American politics gets my blood pressure so dangerously high I dare not dwell on it. But one thing is for certain sure – it seems to be all about the media image no matter where you live. What do fact have to do with anything? Apparently it’s all about making the sale. You’re correct: say it often enough and it must be true. That rankles me to no end.

    • doctordi said,

      Graddikins, I think we’re probably much, much more interested in your politics than you are in ours, and that’s as it should be. Australia is a tinsy tiny bit player, whereas America is the star of the show. But yes, media being the ultimate ruler of us all seems to be a universal phenomenon, and all the more frightening for it. Orwell, where are you now?

  7. Lilian Nattel said,

    The same thing happens here, Di, in terms of media and I don’t get it. Stephan Dion (Liberal leader) got crucified and humiliated a couple of years ago because his English isn’t great, though he is an intelligent and surprisingly (for a politician) decent guy. The Liberals got rid of him and without even a leadership race, put Michael Ignattief in his place, a man who changes his mind every 2 minutes in perfect English. Dion on the other hand nearly brought down the Conservatives by forming a coaltion, and only the fact that the minority PM dissolved parliament saved his butt. Why can’t news be smart and analytical instead of smart-assed?

    • doctordi said,

      Llew and I were talking about it last week, Lilian, when I was saying I’m afraid I sound like a ‘back in my day’ fogey, but it wasn’t always like this, was it? And we concluded it wasn’t, because ownership of news didn’t used to be so completely and utterly compromised by the corporate agenda. Media in Australia today is all about cross-promotion, there’s Yahoo and Channel 7 and Who magazine and on and on it goes, all owned by the same outfit – take your pick, this model is in operation right across the board – all promoting each other at the expense of what’s happening in the world, so instead of news you get Master Chef updates and the latest feed on Lady Gaga. It is so cynical and I think borderline corrupt, particularly as they cry for the sacred right to a free press but aren’t transparent AT ALL about their own dodgy dealings. It makes me CRAZY ANGRY.

  8. Norwichrocks said,

    Di – I’ve only just been able to raise my eyes above my desk for long enough to visit and read this EXCELLENT post (“I’ve been working like a Rudd” is my new favourite phrase) and I could not agree more.

    *resounding applause and loud shouts of “hear! hear!”*

    I have long felt that, since it takes a public vote to put a Prime Minister into office, it should take a public vote to remove them. Otherwise we will continue to be at the mercy of the behind-the-scenes pollies and business interests who have just demonstrated that they really control our ‘democratic’ government.

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