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It’s easy to support the PM if you’ve never met him

30 October 2009 1,173 views No Comment

THE great mystery of Australian politics is why Kevin Rudd’s approval rating remains so high.

It seems that the only people who don’t like him are those who actually know him: journalists like Annabel Crabb, for example, who has just called him a ‘faux-moralist fraud’ and colleagues like Mark Latham (no slouch at nastiness himself) who once called him a ‘real piece of work’. For everyone who’s never had to deal with the Prime Minister, though, it seems that he’s the slightly nerdy, deeply Christian magician who’s saved Australia from the global financial crisis by sending large cheques to more than half of the population.

St Kevin’s public persona is not just a function of his regular Sunday press conferences outside church. It’s a credit to his personal discipline while in the public spotlight, the ineptitude of his opponents in holding him to account, and the extraordinary power of the Labor Party’s spin machine in dictating the media agenda. The saintly image is not real, and it can’t last.

But more of the Rudd reality seems to be seeping under the door. Three recent developments have drawn attention to the contradictions in the Prime Ministerial character.

In media circles, it’s well known that Rudd spent years cultivating Chris Mitchell, now editor-in-chief of The Australian, when they were both in Queensland. In fact from 1996 to 1998, when he was not in politics, Rudd attended Tuesday conferences at the Courier- Mail when Mitchell was the editor of the Queensland daily. So close was the relationship that Rudd was later made godfather of one of Mitchell’s sons, Riley, although how much communication there has been between them in recent years is unclear. However, as recently as September last year, Mitchell was still sufficiently in favour to be a prized Rudd invitee at Kirribilli House,

Since then, however, The Australian’s scepticism about the high costs of the stimulus package, hostility to the government’s workplace relations changes, openness to argument against policies to counter climate change and, perhaps most of all, derision towards pseudo-academic Prime Ministerial essays, seem to have brought out the PM’s thin-skin. Two weeks ago, asked at a community cabinet meeting a question he didn’t like based on a report in The Australian, Rudd accused it of being an un-objective ‘right-wing’ newspaper.

Moreover last week in a speech in the Mural Hall at Parliament House in Canberra to launch Professor Ross Garnaut’s book about the global financial crisis, Rudd deliberately took a swipe at Mitchell and The Australian. That this was not just an off-the-cuff remark but a real dig at Mitchell is demonstrated by the fact that it was included in the distributed text of Rudd’s speech.

Recounting the time he and Garnaut spent in the Embassy in Beijing when Garnaut was ambassador to China, and Rudd was first secretary ‘tasked with the critical responsibility of doing the embassy photocopying’, the PM concluded by talking about exhibiting great enthusiasm for the game of cricket in which he rarely troubled the scorers. Rudd’s speech stated, ‘The Peking Cricket Club wasn’t exactly like the Gabba , instead of bowling from the Stanley Street end or the Vulture Street end, we’d be bowling from either the Temple of Heaven end, or the Long Live Marxism Leninism Mao Zedong Thought end.’

Rudd’s distributed speech concluded: “My preference was the latter , but I say that by way of self-disclosure in case a journalist from The Australian happens upon it in a further expose of my Chinese communist connections.”

Even though I cannot remember The Australian actually canvassing Rudd’s ‘Chinese communist connections’, why would the PM engage in such a consistent and petty attack on Chris Mitchell? My guess is that, on one hand, Rudd sees is as some sort of boys’ own battle between himself and his erstwhile friend. But more importantly his attack on Mitchell and The Australian is to send a warning shot to other newspaper editors and media figures who might have the temerity to meaningfully criticise Kevin Rudd and his ultra- controlled and ultra-controlling government.

As the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann has just reminded us, in the 2006 essay crafted to position himself as a ‘better version of John Howard’, Rudd called asylum-seekers one of the great moral challenges of our time. What’s more, according to Rudd last week, by highlighting the resurgence of unauthorised boat arrivals, Malcolm Turnbull was playing to the ‘dark side’ of Australian politics. Yet this is the same person who has recently described people smugglers as ‘vile’, ‘vermin’ and the lowest form of ‘scum’. The sanctimonious critic of John Howard’s ‘Pacific solution’ is now trying to cobble together an  ‘Indonesian solution’ of his own.

In fact, as John Howard found, there is no easy way to stop desperate people risking their lives to get to Australia in leaky boats. The former federal government only stopped them by turning boats around, housing unauthorised arrivals on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and introducing temporary protection visas that meant even refugees had no guarantee of permanent residency. Above all, there were no mixed messages from the then prime minister and his senior colleagues.

When Rudd’s immigration minister hailed policy changes made last year as heralding a more ‘humane’ approach, many high-minded Australians would have welcomed the end of an ignoble chapter in Australia’s history. Unfortunately, being more humane to boat people means that more of them are tempted to come. Rudd’s problem, as always, is his desire to be all things to everyone: wanting to be ruthless against the people smugglers, whom Australian voters despise, but compassionate towards their customers, whom people tend to pity. Perhaps Rudd has managed to embody the confusion of the Australian public. In just about any other politician, though, this kind of logic, akin to crucifying brothel-keepers but canonising their customers, would be attacked as a form of intellectual dishonesty.

One of the best tests of a politician’s character is the ability to retain staff. Advisers, researchers and, above all, personal assistants and diary secretaries see their bosses at very close quarters and quickly become familiar with how they deal with triumph and disaster. If victories are taken for granted while reverses are always someone else’s fault, if a politician is all smiles while people are watching but quite different without an audience, staff soon conclude that their boss is not the real deal. Good people don’t normally dump on their employer. They just leave.

News Ltd publications have recently reported that in just over 18 months, the Prime Minister has lost 23 of an original 39 staff. This rate of turnover is more typical of demoralised institutions under great pressure like Queensland public hospitals than a senior politician’s office. One former staffer described the prime minister as ‘manic’. Another said that he ‘gives little in the way of constructive feedback and doesn’t listen to anybody’.

The public’s greater interest in whether Rudd is a good Prime Minister than a good bloke explains his ‘better PM’ ratings, but not his personal approval ones. Perhaps voters take for granted a prime minister’s personal vendettas, double standards and self-absorption. It may be only when borrowed money can no longer be handed out to favoured constituencies, when there’s official evidence of waste and mismanagement, when the pace of announcements far outstrips the pace of beneficial change and when the promises to fix problems like public hospitals go unfulfilled, that people start to resent their leaders.

Still, when governments have to ask for understanding and perhaps even forgiveness, voters’ assessment of their leaders’ personal qualities then becomes crucial. The great Australian public may tolerate leaders who are unlikeable, but not those who are incompetent and who cannot listen in order to lead.

Ross Fitzgerald, SPECTATOR AUSTRALIA, October 30, 2009