Can Kevin outdo Uncle Ben in spin-to-win?

Many years ago, a famous pet food company discovered one of its products was killing pet cats.

Many years ago, a famous pet food company discovered one of its products was killing pet cats. The media hadn't quite got their claws into the story, but the company, Uncle Ben's, decided it better do something pronto, before the fur really started flying.

The managing director, a fellow named Henry Nowick, called a press conference at the company's headquarters in Wodonga and, surrounded by suitably grave-faced executives, confessed. It appeared, he declared, that one of Uncle Ben's cat foods had been implicated in the poisoning of moggies.

The story, clearly, would have been a sensation and so dreadfully damaging to Uncle Ben's that it might have taken years for the company to recover ... if it had stopped there. You don't get off easily for poisoning cuddly pets.

Ah, but Dr Nowick advised, scientists and forensic vets had been thrown at the problem, the product had been removed from supermarket shelves and the investigation had gone international.

The suspected problem, Nowick related, had been traced to a shipment of fish from a particular bay somewhere in Africa. Local farming practices, it seemed, had polluted the bay and its fish with run-off containing excessive amounts of fertiliser and pesticides.

Fish imports from the area had ceased. And the pet food chief offered a master stroke. Lest the African fisherfolk were unduly penalised, Uncle Ben's would be looking at offering compensation and investigating useful assistance for the local farmers to change their agricultural practices so the sea and its fish stocks could recover.

The media reports that followed concentrated less on poisoned felines than on how a responsible Australian-based company was helping a distant tribe of farmers and fishers deal with their environment. It was a triumph of damage control, studied, you'd imagine, by generations of public relations students and freaked-out executives.

Volkswagen Australia, perhaps, should have taken note. It took a recent Fairfax investigation and subsequent alarm among motorists about VWs mysteriously losing power before the company recalled thousands of vehicles. All too late. Sales of VWs in Australia have taken a serious dive.

Damage control isn't the sole preserve of businesses in trouble. It's the great art of politics. Julia Gillard wasn't able to perfect her approach to such necessary business, having mixed her message early by offering a curious and inexplicable new persona she called the "real Julia" in the middle of the election no one quite won. She used her much-lauded negotiation skills to form a government and held it together for an unexpected term, but not enough voters and, in the end, too few of her own colleagues had confidence in her ability to dig her party out of damage that kept being inflicted from without and within.

Kevin Rudd is now immersed in one of the great damage control exercises in modern Australian political history. He hasn't quite served up such a cack-handed phrase as "the new Kevin", but it's hard to miss the depth, breadth and haste of his reinvention.

His sudden rush to offer personal apologies to the families of young men electrocuted during the home insulation scheme of his last administration is worth examining. While the poorly administered scheme was falling apart and houses were going up in flames, Prime Minister Rudd Mark I made himself scarce, leaving the unfortunate Peter Garrett to cop most of the blame.

By April 2010, with Rudd elsewhere on urgent business, another minister, Greg Combet, was sent out to deliver the message that, although Rudd's government had promised to get the program running again by July, properly this time, it, ahem, was being placed in cold storage. Forever.

Now Rudd is back in charge and a coroner from his own state of Queensland has found that three young men died in part because his old government had placed the haste for economic stimulation ahead of concern for human life, the reborn Prime Minister is very nearly falling over himself to offer personal apologies.

Peter Garrett and Greg Combet, of course, have already quit the ministry and are about to walk out of politics. Kevin Rudd has little choice but to accept responsibility and to try to present it as a decent, upfront gesture.

The question, unanswerable just yet, is whether he's left it too late.

As he rushes about, ruefully conceding here that his old policies on asylum seekers were a failure; suggesting there that the carbon tax ought to evolve rapidly to a more saleable emissions trading scheme; offering all over the place that he is no longer a control freak but a leader wedded to the spirit of collegiate consultation, he is really asking us to permit him to airbrush the other Kevin (and certainly the unfortunate three years of Julia Gillard's administration) out of existence.

It is an audacious, postmodern form of damage control. The past, pretty largely, doesn't exist, and those parts that float back, threatening to haunt, have to be dealt with swiftly as if they were new.

The wonder of it is that it may just work. Three years may as well be three hundred in politics. Who properly remembers old history when more recent history is judged all but unbearable?

Tony Abbott and his colleagues must be seized with the private terror that Kevin Rudd's years in the wilderness were spent in a philosophical discussion with himself about how to make the past disappear and to switch his story to that of a new, responsible and trustworthy leader willing to own up to fault, move on and assist all around to prosper.

Abbott, of course, helped destroy Kevin Rudd's last prime ministership and then went on - with the help of Kevin himself - to destroy Julia Gillard's leadership. He can hardly be underestimated.

But if Kevin Rudd's new incarnation - the one crafted to present him as a modest nerd with glasses who Abbott the bruiser is too afraid to debate; a leader who can fly off to Indonesia to explore new solutions to the asylum seeker argument and mend the damage over live cattle exports - were to alter the narrative that Labor was lost?

Why, generations of students of public relations, strategy and damage control would remain in awe.

It would leave in the shade the brilliance of a cat-poisoning pet food company that, in its darkest hour, spun its way to shining corporate light.

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