The popularity of Kevin Rudd and the Labor Government appears to be boundless. According to the most recent survey the Morgan Poll published online last Friday Rudd has an approval rating of 63 per cent and is regarded as the preferred prime minister by 70 per cent of voters. How telling, then, that this was the week in which the Prime Minister showed considerable sensitivity to media criticism in particular, the OzCar affair.
The claim that Rudd may have misled Parliament concerning this matter was a legitimate journalistic story which was reported at various levels of intensity by virtually all sections of the media. The News Limited metropolitan papers led on the issue because they had what was purported to be an email from the Prime Minister’s office to a Treasury official. As soon as the email was demonstrated to be false, the Canberra press gallery focused its criticism on Malcolm Turnbull who had given the fake email unintentional credibility. As the polls quickly established, the unintended consequence of the saga was to discredit the Opposition Leader and enhance the credibility of the Prime Minister.
So what is Rudd’s problem? It seems he does not like criticism and, consequently, does not see any reason to be gracious in victory. The Prime Minister dealt obsessively with News Limited’s handling of the issue when interviewed on ABC metropolitan radio in Brisbane on June 30 and he returned to his theme at a media conference in Darwin last Thursday. Meanwhile, following her return from overseas, Julia Gillard ran an almost identical line in interviews on Radio National’s Breakfast on Wednesday and ABC2 News Breakfast on Friday.
From the time he entered Parliament at the 1998 election, Rudd modelled himself on how Howard had handled the media when he was Liberal Party deputy leader or an Opposition frontbencher. Howard understood that, when in opposition, there was little time for a frontbencher on television and little room in newspapers. But radio had numerous hours to fill and Howard rarely said no to a radio invitation.
Rudd adopted a similar approach in his early years in opposition, accepting most radio invitations. He worked extremely hard and managed to get a better run on television and in newspapers. The AWB’s involvement in the abuses of the Iraqi oil-for-food program brought about a situation where Rudd received many invitations on the Lateline program. Also, he convinced Channel Seven to give him along with Joe Hockey a weekly slot on Sunrise. So, when Rudd became Labor leader in December 2006, he was a public figure. Moreover, due to the fact that so many journalists were critical of the Howard government’s foreign, industrial relations and social policies, Rudd was rarely subjected to a tough cross-examination on Sunrise or anywhere else. It was all so easy.
As prime minister, Rudd has had a dream run in the Australian media, almost equalling that experienced by Barack Obama in the United States over the past five months. It is no secret that the Western media prefers social democrats to conservatives. In addition, Rudd and Obama have had the political advantage of leading a nation at a time of global financial crisis. Rudd looks like a near certain victor in the next election, which is due in late 2010.
Even so, Rudd is concerned about the coverage of his Government by News Limited. For all his many strengths, Rudd has one significant weakness. He genuinely wants to be loved and he does not hold the view that critics can have sound judgment along with good intentions. I noticed this when Rudd addressed The Sydney Institute in July 2007. As would be expected, he put in a good performance and there was an expectation in the room that he would soon prevail over Howard. But I was surprised when Rudd reacted with some anger to two courteous, albeit searching, questions on tax and superannuation. It seemed an overreaction.
Such long-serving prime ministers as Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Howard have been good at handling criticism. During his relatively short time as prime minister, Rudd has frequently looked offended when criticised and he has tended to avoid programs when the questioning might be at all rigorous. For example, the Prime Minister has appeared only once on Insiders since Labor came to office last July. Presenter Barrie Cassidy was professional and asked questions rather than arguing a case. But Rudd was less than impressive in explaining just what an emissions trading scheme is or in documenting precisely what tough decisions his Government had taken. Yet Rudd is articulate and has a good head for detail. He should feel at home on programs like Insiders.
Rudd Labor is experiencing criticism over its borrowing and spending program and its commitment to introduce an emissions trading scheme (which could have a deleterious effect on Victoria and South Australia). However, in the future, the Prime Minister could face sustained criticism from those on the left who believe he has not done enough on climate change.
Over time political spin loses its clout. The democratic leaders who make an impact are rarely loved while in office and demonstrate little sensitivity to criticism. In the past, Rudd had adapted his persona to meet new challenges. There is unfinished business here.