This is a referendum on Rudd

Labor scientists got more than they bargained for when they began the great Kevin Rudd experiment. Now voters will have their deciding say.

No experiment is ever a complete failure, as Thomas Edison liked to say, because if the results aren’t what you expected, at least you’ve learned more about the way things really are.

On the other hand, some experiments get out of hand and end up destroying the lab. In the early 1990s, UK scientists Fleischmann and Pons blew a hole in their workbench, and controversially decided they’d unlocked the unlimited, clean energy supply the world needs – cold fusion.

That turned out to be rubbish, but it is strangely reminiscent of Labor’s six-year experiment with Kevin Rudd. 

How excited ALP HQ must have been in 2005/06 to see the nerdy policy wonk Kevin Rudd crossing swords with Joe Hockey on prime-time TV. Their lively, humorous debates on Channel Seven’s Sunrise program did much for both men’s careers.

Labor’s party elders saw the flash in the test-tube, and with great excitement decided that past generations of stale ALP men – true believers who put in the hard years as union officials, wore holes in their shoes to win council or state seats and earn their stripes – were something the party no longer needed. 

Like Fleischmann and Pons, they felt the heat of Kevin from Queensland, and decided he was their inexhaustible source of clean power. 

And they were just as wrong. 

What they had found was a consummate media performer – a once in a generation actor who could make the worst kind of policy quagmire look like the road to Nirvana. 

And to be fair to Rudd, Labor almost immediately began stumbling into quagmires that were not of its making. The GFC was actually underway, via the early stages of the sub-prime crisis, when Rudd moved into the lodge in late November 2007. 

(As an aside, Business Spectator was born just two months before the 2007 election – and for my colleagues and I was probably the most exhilarating, and terrifying ride of our journalistic lives.)

Rudd’s extraordinary selling ability worked up to a point. But having committed to two enormous stimulus programs in 2008 and 2009, Rudd really stumbled with the tax measure he hoped would repair the budget and start to pay down that stimulus debt – the resource super profits tax. 

The design of that tax was flawed and media commentators and the opposition, backed by a powerful ad campaign by big miners, tore the policy, and Rudd, to shreds.

That’s when the Labor scientists realised they’d been wrong. They discovered that Rudd’s wonderful showmanship masked a capricious, egocentric, non-consultative style of governing that allowed Rudd and Wayne Swan to rush out a policy that, had it been in place in the past year, would have had seen billions flowing from the federal coffers back to the miners. 

Coming so soon after Rudd’s backdown on the CPRS carbon pricing legislation, which had already lowered Labor’s primary vote, the Labor elders decided the experiment was over. 

Julia Gillard was ruthlessly installed to replace Rudd, and the scene was set for the acrimony and chaos of the 43rd parliament. 

On June 7 of this year, this columnist grossly over-estimated the intelligence of Labor backbenchers by writing: “It’s the fantasy that will not die – Kevin Rudd will come back and restore order to a Labor Party that really, really has lost its way this time. Well, no he really, really won’t.”

I was dead wrong about the return of Rudd – but, sad to say, right that he could not restore order.

But it’s even worse than that. From the start this election campaign has been a farce, and it has allowed the Abbott Coalition to get away with murder. The ‘costings’ documents released by Joe Hockey yesterday were a two-fold joke: first, they were not costings, as they mostly did not include the assumptions on which they were based. 

A $1 billion dividend from stopping the boats, for instance, is a wild assumption – particularly when the Indonesians have warned from the highest levels of government that they will not support the old Howard-era tow-back policy upon which Abbott’s promise to ‘stop the boats’ rests. 

Second, the Coalition will go to the polls with voters imagining it to be somehow  more responsible on fiscal policy than Rudd and Gillard were. 

In reality, the $9 billion (which most media outlets first reported, and in many cases are still reporting as $6 billion) net saving to the budget over four years is so small as to be insignificant. 

The Coalition has managed to get away with effectively saying the Kyoto-II target for carbon emissions reduction will be torn up if their Direct Action plan does not deliver the cuts for $3.2 billion over four years. No scientist or economist of note thinks the policy will do that – in fact, recent studies show it would cost well over twice that. 

And finally, Australian voters are so disillusioned with Labor that they’re happy to vote in a Coalition government with a mandate to review just about everything, and tell us what its real policies are after the election.  

That may be a positive in a way – Abbott is a stickler for strict mandates, but having kept his plans so vague he will be able to argue, when he makes drastic policy choices, that voters never said he couldn’t do what he’s doing. 

As the last election campaign closed, in August 2010, I wrote: “This election has been constantly derided as politically homogenised and interminably dull by pretty well everyone save The Economist, which found the ‘leaks affair’ titillating enough to liken the campaign to "yet another antipodean soap-opera”.”

But compared with this election campaign, 2010 was full of substantive debate on the NBN, carbon pricing, population, infrastructure, the Murray Darling, workforce participation and real fiscal alternatives. 

As the ‘Ruddbath’ gathers pace, and both sides count the dozens of seats that may change hands, Kevin Rudd himself must take much of the blame for the dire political situation the country finds itself in. 

Where a normal politician would have resigned parliament after being so coldly dispatched by his colleagues in 2010, Rudd crept away for a few days, healed himself, and came back to launch a three year campaign against Gillard and the men who had put her in power.

‘Justice’ might have been served by this vengeful campaign, but Labor and Australia’s best interests were not. Key policies that Rudd began or would support – the NBN, carbon pricing, the Gonski reforms, Murray-Darling plan and Disability Care – will be picked apart because a weakened Labor party could do nothing to defend them. 

Opinions vary widely as to what damage Rudd did through the leaks that so badly hurt Gillard’s 2010 election campaign, and forced her into minority government, plus the leaks and leadership speculation that dogged every step her goverment took. For my money, the impact was huge.

Gillard made many mistakes politically, and some policy blunders. Hiring a communications chief from the UK, John McTernan, had everything to do with ALP culture, and nothing to do with a shortage of talented advisers here – sitting at the feet of UK or US political gurus is a rite of passage for young ALP staffers. Surely they will get over this cultural cringe in future?

But to return to the events of June 26 this year, I could not believe that the ALP caucus members who so cynically swung their support behind Kevin Rudd would make the same mistake again that their party elders had made in 2007. 

But they did. They did.

I have championed a number of Labor policies in the past three years and stick by those arguments – on the NBN, carbon pricing, stimulatory fiscal policy (though I have made criticisms here too) and so on. 

But there is no defence for the lunacy of re-installing Kevin Rudd to somehow pull back the voters who so loved his Sunrise performances in 2005-06. 

History has moved on. The experiment was not a complete failure as it told us something about the way things really are. 

Kevin Rudd was a media sensation that took the party of the unions, Labor, and thought he had carte blanche to turn it into whatever kind of party suited his needs best. 

What a grand delusion. If voters don’t want a party of the unions, they can vote for other parties. Rudd’s history is a wonderful example of the ‘marketing orientation’ that grips contemporary culture – if your brand is known for selling chips and hamburgers, you can remake yourself overnight as a purveyor of health foods, and the consumers will keep on buying. 

That might work for McDonalds (though they still mostly sell hamburgers and chips), but it did not work for the Labor Party. This is a referendum on Rudd, and if Labor spend many terms in the wilderness because of the election result he brings, the blame will lie just as much with short-sighted caucus members who voted to bring him back.

Finally, a note about Julia Gillard. When she lost the leadership on June 26, the Essential Media poll – the poll that got closest to the actual result in 2010 – had her on a primary vote of 34 per cent. Today, it puts Rudd’s primary vote at 35 per cent. 

In the same period, the Greens have gone from 8 per cent, up to 10 per cent. 

In June, Essential thought the Coalition would win the two-party-preferred vote 55/45 whereas under Rudd that figure has moderated to 52/48. However with 15 per cent of voters saying they’re highly like to change their votes at the last minute, the actual result could be a couple of points either way. 

There is little doubt that Gillard would have made up ground from her low point in June – polls almost always tighten towards election day. 

So one question will haunt the Labor MPs who brought Rudd back from the political grave: was it worth it? And what damage has been done to Labor, and to the Australian political climate, and the Australian people along the way?

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