Rudd becomes the “clever politician” he once mocked
Remember not so long ago when an aspiring prime minister, one K Rudd, adopted the practice of referring to John Howard PM, as ``a clever politician’‘?
He uttered the phrase at every opportunity. It was no throw-away line. At face value, it seemed positive but closer scrutiny revealed a focus-group crafted pseudo-compliment designed to have the opposite effect. Namely, to reinforce a perception bubbling away just under the surface of voter consciousness, that John Howard was somehow tricky. Sure, he’d been ironically dubbed ``honest John’’ before.
And equally true, Labor had seized on the embarrassing warning from then Liberal Party president, Shane Stone, that voters saw the Howard government as ``mean and tricky’‘. But these were old insults and had lost any real impact.
The ``clever politician’’ tag, however, was something else - more smart bomb than cannon. It only detonated once inside the heads of voters.
It worked because Howard’s reputation as fatherly, polite, and reliable, remained his best asset but was beginning to wear thin after a decade of U-turns and back-flips. Labor’s research showed that as time wore on, the ageing PM’s positive image had built up some scar tissue.
There was it seemed, a nascent recognition that John Howard was prepared to do almost anything to stay in The Lodge. The endless Costello soap opera and Howard’s transparently self-serving words about ``his party’s best interests,’’ had morphed in the public mind, from being seen as the steely determination of a strong leader, to something else: a man who could not let go, and who relied on clever words to justify that refusal.
Thus, ``John Howard is a very clever politician’‘. Once you get that tag to stick, nothing your opponent does is above suspicion. The alchemy between the words ``clever’’ and ``politician’’ was also very deliberate making the whole seem even more sinister than the sum of its parts.
Kevin Rudd by contrast, likes to use phrases that suggest the opposite of cleverness. Words like ``I just believe in being honest with people,’’ or ``I just think it’s better to be frank and open with people’‘.
Even the use of the word ``just’’ is deliberate, implying that others might be engaged in some sort of complex subterfuge whereas he, Kevin Rudd, simply believes in telling it as it is. You, the voter, have just been levelled with. You may even feel grateful. Pretty clever huh?
It doesn’t end there. This week, Kevin Rudd took cleverness to a whole new level with his great health debate ambush of Tony Abbott.
Prime ministers normally resist debates. The orthodox view is that you do not give your opponent a platform and certainly not one which elevates him to your level. Opposition leaders call for as many debates as they can get and incumbents resist.
It’s a familiar pantomime. All kinds of tricks are used to get out of them and to minimise their impact. The most common is to concede to what amounts to a Clayton’s debate in the first week of an election campaign.
This you do before either side has all their policies out, before the voters are really listening, and most importantly, before any costings are available for promises rendering most of the discussion largely meaningless.
Yet Kevin Rudd, who rarely does anything for no reason, this week decided to turn all of this on its head.
Why? Was it crazy-brave? No.
First, he figured Tony Abbott would not be able to resist his own nature and would come out swinging thus reinforcing perceptions of him as aggressive.
Labor learned a valuable lesson from its humiliating defeat under Mark Latham in 2004. Journalists, and political belt-way operators tend to like straight-talkers and head-kickers. They are exciting and interesting. If they are on your side, they say the things others are to afraid to utter. And for reporters, they are colourful and make good copy. But voters hate them.
The second, not unrelated reason is that Mr Abbott is in the uncomfortable and inherently unsustainable position of not having a health policy of his own with which to answer the inevitable ``what would you do?’’ question. Thus, by definition, he could only attack.
What Mr Rudd wanted to do was lure his new opponent into the trap of being negative so that voters would have a clear contrast - a PM with a plan and an Opposition without one. Even Liberals were muttering afterwards that the one tool you need in a health debate is a health policy and without it, you’re stuffed.
If the Rudd strategy worked, the take-out for partially engaged voters who would probably get just a glimpse of the debate on their nightly news, would be a polite prime minister with a hospital plan, calling for progress and an end to bickering, compared to an aggressive, finger-pointing alternative.
This was a fake debate in many ways and in that sense, it was cleverness par-excellence. It turned the orthodoxy about such razz-a-matazz debates on its head by making the PM look open and accountable, and the Opposition leader, defensive and aggressive.
And if the Nine network’s infamous worm was any guide, the strategy worked a treat. The one hundred strong focus group controlling the meter, repeatedly rewarded Mr Rudd’s faux invitations to Mr Abbott lay down his arms and work with the Government.
It also registered strongly in the negative when Mr Abbott attacked the PM, when he appeared evasive on his own policy, and when he joked about the PM being boring.
Tactically, there is little doubt the debate was a triumph for Labor but Mr Abbott will presumably not make the same mistakes twice. The next debate whenever that is, will be on more even ground with both sides having policies out there. Otherwise, voters may quickly come to realise that Mr Rudd is every bit as wily as his predecessor.
Who’s a clever boy now?
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