Nostalgia for Kevin 07 does not a mandate make

A political week that promised high drama ended in low farce. That's the popular conclusion being drawn about the non-existent Rudd challenge. But there's more to this story than a miscalculation by Simon Crean.

A political week that promised high drama ended in low farce. That's the popular conclusion being drawn about the non-existent Rudd challenge. But there's more to this story than a miscalculation by Simon Crean.

No doubt there were many members of the Labor caucus, including Crean, who thought they could persuade Kevin Rudd to break his promise not to challenge Julia Gillard; no doubt Rudd encouraged them to believe it.

But what Rudd really wanted was to be borne to the Lodge on the shoulders of an adoring caucus who had done all his dirty work for him by persuading the Prime Minister to step aside in favour of the man of destiny. He had wanted a Second Coming with messianic overtones. The debacle of the non-challenge is not really about any of that. It's really a story about the meaning of political popularity.

Consider Rudd's history. If you accept the conventional wisdom that "oppositions don't win elections; governments lose them", then we don't actually know whether Rudd can win an election. All we know is that he appealed to the electorate in 2007 as a credible alternative to a mortally wounded John Howard and a dispirited Coalition riven by internal conflict about the leadership.

How did he achieve that? First, by implementing a sustained strategy for burying his leader, Kim Beazley. Then by projecting an improbable blend of policy wonkery and political hoopla. On the one hand, he talked as if he were the intellectual superior of all around him, uniquely equipped to handle everything from relations with China to the problem of global warming. On the other hand, he was the grinning face of "Kevin 07".

That slogan said a lot about the Rudd style. Leave the hard policy work to me; just accept me as that man of destiny you all dream of. While talking us into the ground on issues ("let me just make seven points ... "), he went further than any previous Australian leader in projecting himself as a brand.

"Kevin 07" represented a huge step towards Australia's wildly inappropriate embrace of presidential-style politics. If we want an elected president, we'll need to make the necessary changes to the constitution. In the meantime, there's no way we can elect the head of the government. The suggestion that "the elected prime minister" was removed from office is true only in the narrowest sense: Rudd was elected as leader by his caucus colleagues; never by us.

Rudd fell from favour in the electorate and, more emphatically, among his colleagues, for many reasons. Over-promise is as much a hazard for leaders as for brands.

Look at Howard as the counter-example: knowing he was facing a defeated government in 1996, he offered the classic "small target": virtually nothing beyond that famous "safe pair of hands". That he remained prime minister for 11 years was a testament to grit and dependability, not vision, and certainly not glitz.

Rudd offered the precise opposite: a huge target comprising many explicit and implicit promises with connotations of a lush "new era" in politics. But his rapid fall from grace was not only due to the voters' inevitable disappointment in any leader who promises too much; it was also due to his colleagues' frustration with his poor performance as a leader. We're told he ran a dysfunctional office; that decisions were held up for months; that his cabinet was intimidated by him; that he was contemptuous of public servants who, predictably, reciprocated.

Even his personal popularity began to fade quite quickly. Qualitative research was showing that, by the middle of 2008, voter disenchantment was setting in - partly as a reaction to his increasingly windy rhetorical style (fed by a misplaced belief in his own ability as a speechwriter), but mainly as a reaction to the total lack of any evidence suggesting urgency in the "war on warming".

The rest of the Rudd prime ministerial story is well known: his removal by his colleagues; his period as foreign minister; his burning desire to return to the Lodge; his failure to seize the prize in 2012; his promise to mount no further challenges; his smouldering unwillingness to accept his fate.

Yet, in spite of all that history, his personal popularity remained high in the opinion polls - so high, that some worried members of the Labor caucus felt that was reason enough to consider installing him again. Forget the past: just look at those poll figures!

All right then, let's look at those poll figures. What was the meaning of the resurgent "popularity" of Rudd as an alternative to either Gillard or Tony Abbott?

Very simply, this: when voters are bewildered, disenchanted or even disgusted by the state of politics, they tend to lapse into nostalgic visions of what might have been. Rudd stood - perhaps still stands - as a symbol of the political excitement and energy of 2007, not the disarray and disappointment of 2010 that brought his prime ministership to an end.

In the same way, Labor's true believers still focus on the glory days of early Whitlam, rather than the chaos and disintegration of late-Whitlam. Who doesn't prefer to stay with the memory of triumphant early Hawke, rather than the decline and fall of late Hawke?

If the polls (pointlessly) asked voters whether they'd prefer Abbott or Howard as prime minister, they'd go for Howard. That's the significance of Rudd's "popularity": it's about the idea of Rudd, not Rudd himself.

So Rudd's resurgence has been a symptom - not of his popularity, per se, but of Gillard and Abbott's deep unpopularity and a sickening sense in the electorate that things are unlikely to improve in the short term, whoever wins. (If Abbott finds himself prime minister in September, most voters will be as surprised as he by the twists of fate that put him in the job.)

Simon Crean thought he had discerned "a changed Kevin", but perhaps the change was not in the direction assumed by Crean. By Friday, it looked as if Rudd had sensibly, if belatedly, done us all a favour by ditching the dream.

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