Rudd's personality is bigger than policy

Kevin Rudd's campaign is a popularity contest in the style of US presidential politics. But with so little time to act, his tasks of electioneering and governing – including party reform – have been conflated.

It was a three or four second moment that will enter the history of Australian politics, and change it.

It was Julia Gillard’s pointed and sharp live television condition that the loser of the contest for the prime ministership gets out of politics, immediately. She committed to her own call – and an hour later so did her opponent.

No doubt, it was dramatic, seminal – and essential.

Labor has been at war with itself for three years. It wasn’t really about policy. It was about vengeance. It was tearing its being and its brand to shreds. It was handing the next three to four elections to its conservative opponents.

 So here was the big moment. We can’t afford to go on pretending.

Now, with the Messiah back as prime minister and party leader the real test will apply. Is Labor a party of values, conviction and long held reforming zeal? Or is it merely a party of Tony Abbott’s “sensible centre” where most Australian abide?

Through its history Labor has done some big things – in health, universities, foreign policy (think Whitlam and China) economic policy (think Hawke and Keating). It has also fatally conceded the economic management ground to its opponents in recent years. Just ask Australians the “who’s best” question.

Is it also a party prepared to reform itself?  Its brand is shot to ribbons. The name and alleged deeds of someone called Obeid say it all, along with Craig Thomson. The faceless men and the so called power brokers add to the reality and perception of brawling and deals.

Kevin Rudd says he is appalled and “revolted” by what’s going on in his party in New South Wales. He said he wanted to take “head on” the issue of factions.

But there is a problem for Rudd. He has so little time to do so much and convince his colleagues and the voters that he is changed. For him the issue of governing and electioneering has been rolled into one.

It’s been a frenetic start from briefings by bureaucrats on the state of the nations’ finances, to recasting the collapsing ministry (it never seems to stop as more is revealed today), holding an hour long press conference with the senior scribes in Canberra (rather than with the microphone wielding shrieking juniors), appointing staff, visiting the Northern Territory for a memorial service for the great Dr Yunupingu to the camera posing and smiling campaigner in some marginal western Sydney seat.

The commercial pollsters have inevitably hit the ground, and the media. It seems that the resurrection has done wonders in some safe seats that were predicted to fall. Rudd even made a comment about a poll.

Of course, the astute Liberal campaign boss Brian Loughnane has long had his Plan B ready to roll.  It started within minutes of the switch on YouTube with a ripper ad.  It was all in the searing and personal words of Gillard ministers.

 It was effective because it went to the core of Labor’s dysfunction – the bitter raging internals. It was reminiscent of the classic Guilty Party campaign run by the Victorian Liberals when Jeff Kennett swept to power over a reeling Joan Kirner-led ALP in 1992.

And other old memories were rekindled when John Howard entered the political fray, addressing the party faithful on Saturday and calling Rudd the “great chameleon of Australian politics”. Yes, the same John Howard who lost his job and his seat in the Rudd-swing a long six years ago. Who said there’s nothing new in politics?

 In the coming weeks, the re-badged prime minister will keep a cracking pace. There’s also no doubt he will have learnt his lesson about consulting colleagues and not acting as though he running the White House.

He’s appealing to voters to cast aside dirty politics, and the negativity game.  He’s trying to elevate himself above the political fray, just like Obama’s campaign mantra in 2008 of running against a “broken Washington”, or another Queenslander, Peter Beattie who ran a campaign against his own party in 2001, and won.

Of course, all this is a reminder – in my view – that what we are really facing is not a contest between competing ideas or vastly divergent policy, but a popularity contest in the style of a US presidential campaign.

There aren’t the “rusted ons” that there used to be in politics when the task was to move about 10 per cent of the undecided. The fight now is over the 20 to 25 per cent who are not wedded to either brand. It’s a fight for the centre.

 Do you want Howard or Beazley, or Rudd or Howard, or Gillard or Abbott? It’s increasingly about the individual and that’s why the opinion polls on leadership and preferred prime minister won the day inside caucus – policy was irrelevant, largely.

Rudd and his team will have been buoyed by public (and media) response thus far. They will know that Labor is back in the contest.

The election date is now a guess, but the result – still a likely comfortable win to Tony Abbott – is now more dependent on unknown events. Will the Gillard supporter’s rat, as Rudd’s did in the 2010 campaign? Can Rudd pull off a ‘boats’ solution that’s acceptable to voters? Can he convince his new cabinet to move the ETS timetable by 12 months, despite budget implications?

Julia Gillard was one tough operator. History will be much kinder than running contemporary commentary. But, when required, she did the right thing in saying “all or nothing”.

It’s a blood sport, and voluntary. And – for all sides – it’s about one thing only: winning.

Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.