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!
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.)