Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is a most unusual political leader – both in government and when he is in opposition.
Political office in Australia has changed between parties only six times since the end of the Second World War – in 1949, 1972, 1975, 1983, 1996 and 2007. On each occasion, except in 2007, opposition leaders have stressed the difference between themselves and the incumbent prime minister.
In 1949, Robert Menzies campaigned against Labor’s socialist agenda. In 1972 Gough Whitlam declared it was time for change. In 1975, Malcolm Fraser (caretaker prime minister at the time of the election) promised to get the economy under control after the flamboyant Whitlam years. In 1983, Bob Hawke advocated a new approach embodying consensus. In 1996, John Howard offered a comfortable and relaxed alternative to Paul Keating and was identified with an agenda to reform taxation and industrial relations and to put the budget into surplus.
Then came Rudd. In the lead-up to the 2007 election, he attempted to occupy Howard’s ground – new tactics from an opposition leader in Australia. Rudd declared he was an economic conservative (just like Howard). And he promised to turn back asylum seeker boats (just like Howard). The stratagem worked – and Labor achieved one of its greatest victories. Then, ensconced in The Lodge, Rudd engaged in big spending programs and junked the Coalition’s border security policies which had seen the virtual end of unlawful boat arrivals.
Having lost the prime ministership to Julia Gillard in June 2010, Rudd has returned to the Labor leadership with very similar tactics to those which worked six years ago. Tony Abbott had made substantial inroads against Labor by promising to junk the carbon tax. So Rudd has announced he will end the carbon tax by transitioning it into an emissions trading scheme a year earlier than expected.
He has also promised to implement a Papua New Guinea solution for asylum seekers. If implemented, it would be tougher than anything which Howard introduced or which Abbott has promised. If Labor is returned at this election, it remains to be seen whether Rudd would continue with this approach or do what he did after 2007 and change direction.
Rudd’s strengths lie in campaigning. He did extremely well against Howard the moment he assumed the Labor leadership in December 2006. Moreover, the evidence suggests Rudd has made Labor very competitive since he resumed the Labor leadership a month ago.
You don’t have to believe the Liberals or the Nationals to come to the conclusion that Rudd’s style of frenetic action, with much travel and little sleep, does not translate well into government. We have it on the combined authority of Gillard herself, Wayne Swan, Stephen Smith, Tony Burke, Nicola Roxon, Stephen Conroy and many more that Rudd was an inefficient prime minister.
That was the first time around. Since his return, Rudd seems to have resorted to frenetic policy-making again on such matters as asylum seekers and the fringe benefits tax as it relates to salary-sacrifice leased vehicles.
Australia’s two best performing prime ministers were Hawke (supported by Keating) and Howard (supported by Peter Costello). Both the Hawke and Howard administrations practised cabinet government in its established format, with all the governmental and bureaucratic constraints which this entails. The same is broadly true for the governments headed by Fraser and Gillard.
The Rudd government, on the other hand, most resembles Whitlam’s. The Prime Minister is a big fan of Whitlam – unlike Hawke and Keating, who witnessed Whitlamism first hand. But there is one difference between Whitlam and Rudd. The former always proclaimed his dissent from his political opponents – Harold Holt, John Gorton, William McMahon, Bill Snedden and Fraser. Whitlam was not inclined to feign conservatism. He was a conviction politician.
It is foolish to make predictions. However, the evidence suggests that commentators speculating on a Liberal Party leadership change are either into wish-fulfilment or are ill-informed. The reason turns on something lacking in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd changes of recent memory. Namely, policy.
As Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged on Q&A earlier this month, the leadership change from Turnbull to Abbott “wasn’t about personality, it was an issue about policy and it was resolved”. In short, Turnbull supported Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme and Abbott did not. It is the past policy differences between Abbott and Turnbull which have given the Coalition its leadership stability over the past four years.
Rudd’s tactic of fighting an election on his opponent’s chosen ground may or may not work. But, win or lose, this makes it harder to understand what contemporary Labor stands for.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.