WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
It was easily overlooked in a night of politics that the independent senator Nick Xenophon described as "so weird here it makes Alice in Wonderland look like a documentary that's been fact-checked".
But as Australia experienced a slightly surreal moment of national deja vu, a telling phrase came up in Kevin Rudd's very first comments on the night he was returned to the Labor leadership - "old politics".
Even before winning the ballot in the party room, he dismissed the idea of exacting revenge on his enemies in the Labor caucus: "No retributions, no paybacks, none of that stuff. It's pointless, it's old politics."
Once might have been mere chance. But then it featured again the next day in his first parliamentary question time: "It's time for the old politics of negativity to be dead and buried." And he used it not once but six times. In response to a question from Tony Abbott, Rudd didn't just reject the question but the entire foundation of its assumptions, premise and tone: "Once again we see on parade the old politics whereby we scream at each other, we do not work with each other, we try and scare people rather than make them think, and then on top of that we engage in politics which divides ordinary Australians rather than unites them."
Rudd is calling for a "new politics".
This is more than a detail. It is central to the Rudd recrudescence. It is the rubric for his new approach to his old job. It is what might be called the "meta-message".
He is reaching for a more positive, less confrontational style, trying to elevate politics, to create a feel-good climate. Even Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens felt obliged to acknowledge in a 2011 speech that the "increasingly bitter political debates" were damaging consumer confidence.
Rudd is not only seeking to transcend the angry pre-existing political debate but also its two leading figures - Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard. Each is deeply unpopular; taken together, they were the most unpopular leadership offering that Australia has had in nearly 20 years.
"They are the least popular pair since Paul Keating was prime minister and Alexander Downer was opposition leader," says the Fairfax pollster, Nielsen's John Stirton, measured by the combined approval ratings of prime minister and opposition leader.
While Rudd went out of his way to repeatedly pay tribute to his predecessor in his first 24 hours in the post, he was simultaneously distancing himself from her by damning "old politics". He stepped into her job but is subtly repudiating her entire framework for governing, communicating, campaigning. And he is hoping that a more positive approach to politics will disarm Abbott, a master of the negative variety. "Positive plans, not slogans," was the way the new-old Prime Minister chided Abbott. The deep public dissatisfaction with the nature of politics is a tremendous opportunity for Rudd.
More than this, rejecting the "old politics" is also a way for Rudd to mark an end to the "old Rudd" and to set out as a new, improved version. It's Rudd 2.0. How, exactly, does it need to be different to Rudd 1.0? And can it work?
There are four big elements: a leader's style of politics; the way he governs; the policies he offers; and hanging over everything is the question of whether he is really the leader, or whether he is just a campaign bauble that the party's powers dangle in front of the voters at election time? Are the "faceless men" just tolerating Rudd until after the election before executing him again?
This doubt is a big reason that the level of difficulty for Rudd the second time around is actually greater than on his first run. He urgently needs to rearrange the Labor Party before the party gets another chance to rearrange him.
First, political style. Is Rudd credible as a transcendent leader promoting positive politics? He is a "psychopath", according to one of his Labor colleagues, Steve Gibbons, and "evil", according to another, Mark Latham. The Liberal Party will be extremely liberal in reminding us of all the character assassinations that his colleagues have meted out to the man whose prime ministership was characterised by "chaos and dysfunction", according to Gillard.
Ipsos Research director Rebecca Huntley, a researcher of public opinion, says Australians crave more positive politics: "Doing away with old politics and bringing in a new politics is a really good idea if he can do it convincingly and authentically."
The people won't buy a relentless attack on Abbott in any case, she says, because they are already sold on the idea that "there's something a bit wrong in the head of the Opposition Leader".
"They heard about the 'real Julia', but people have been waiting for the 'real Tony' they suspect is hiding beneath the veneer to explode forth. But because Labor and the Gillard government have just been so terrible, for the past six months people have been looking at Abbott and saying, 'He can't be that bad, can he?' They're reaching the point of acceptance."
The critical threshold in the polls was when Abbott moved ahead of Gillard as preferred prime minister. More attacks by Labor are not only overkill but also counterproductive, she argues: "By overselling, people start to push back. That's why her fearsome speech about men in blue ties was such a mistake."
Huntley cites a focus group of younger men she ran on Thursday: "One of the greatest frustrations of the group was the relentless focus on Tony Abbott; how he's going to destroy Australia, Godzilla in a blue tie. One man put it beautifully - he said you won't buy a Ford because the salesman is trying to make you scared of a Holden. Labor needs to use every available bit of air time talking about what it has to offer, what it has achieved, the unfinished business that will not get done if there is an Abbott government."
And Rudd is the leader who can carry off a more positive political campaign: "Because he won in a landslide in 2007, he is the one person who can elevate the prime ministership. And not by focusing in on Abbott's faults. He needs to make us feel proud again of this wonderful country."
But he can't do it all by himself. This is surely one of the great lessons of his first term as prime minister. This is the second big area of a prime ministership - governing and managing.
Professor James Walter, a political psychologist at Monash University, has studied the administrations of a string of prime ministers, including Rudd's, and interviewed scores of senior public servants, staff and politicians. "It comes down to whether Rudd is capable of changing. I think there are five things Rudd needs to do to govern effectively," he says. "First, he needs to manage the party. He learnt bitterly that the party can make or break leaders. This has two components. He needs to manage the cabinet. He needs to let people get on with things and not insist that everything is funnelled through him. The other is that he needs to manage the caucus and not only deal with an inner circle.
"Two, he needs to have a much better private office."
The whiz-kids with whom Rudd surrounded himself were not up to it, he says. "They lacked the public service contacts, they lacked the Canberra experience."
Rudd himself has acknowledged the failings of his management of party and office in his first attempt. "Somehow, you have to find time to have open and consultative dialogue with members of the party, which I didn't," he said in an interview with Fairfax Media in 2011.
Second: "With the benefit of hindsight, I had a terrific staff and I am enormously respectful of Alister Jordan, an outstanding performer [referring to his former chief of staff, 27 at the time of his appointment]." But, he said, "A few greybeards would have helped around the place, helping with institutional wisdom, for keeping open lines of communication so you know when your colleagues have a different message for you, or for when things need attention."
On these two points, Rudd has shown early indications that perhaps he can change. He has some firm views about policy changes, yet has made no unilateral declarations. He will take his ideas to his new cabinet before announcing any major new policies. And while he has not exactly appointed a greybeard, he has hired a man with a grey moustache, veteran Labor operative Bruce Hawker, as his political adviser.
But Walter has three more managerial prerequisites for a successful Rudd prime ministership to round out his list of five. Third: "The best sort of policy outcomes have always been co-operative ones between prime ministers, their staff and the public service. It just didn't work with Rudd, and when he cut senior public servants out, as he did in the end, [it] was bad. He's just got to listen to his senior public service advisers."
Fourth: "He can't continue to presume that everything has to go through him." In short, delegate.
Fifth: "He has to be prepared to be told that he's wrong. Everyone I've spoken to has said that he couldn't bear being wrong."
It is an open question whether Rudd can make these changes.
The next big category is policy. Rudd has signalled he is considering revisions of some of the toughest policy areas. On climate change, he has never supported the carbon tax; his preference was always an emissions trading scheme, a mechanism where permits to emit carbon trade in a market. And Gillard already planned to switch from the tax to the ETS on July 1, 2016. Rudd is considering doing it a year earlier, from July 1 next year.
Is this a good idea? The politics are clear. It would kill off the much-maligned carbon tax, lower the price of carbon emissions, and allow Rudd to say he was easing the pressure on the cost of living and on businesses. Yet it would keep a carbon price that allows progress towards cutting greenhouse gases. If Australia's scheme linked to Europe's, the price of emitting a tonne of carbon would fall from the $24 that will apply from July 1 to about $6 on current pricing.
Is it workable? Ross Garnaut, the adviser on climate change to the first Rudd government, believes that it is. He poses three vital tests for changing policy. First, what would it do towards cutting emissions?
"It is important to retain the carbon pricing mechanism, as that will allow reductions in emissions to be achieved at low cost. So long as we retain the linkage to Europe, the price in the year after next is less important than the mechanism and the link to Europe. Firms contemplating investment will take into account the likelihood that international prices will rise in future."
Second, what are the effects on the Australian economy? Garnaut says: "The trade-exposed firms that are affected materially by carbon pricing are protected by the issue of free permits, so the main economic effect is a budget one. Early linkage to Europe would increase the budget deficit in 2014-15 by several billion dollars."
Rudd would need to allow the budget deficit to blow out, or find savings in the budget to offset this cost. The overall effect on budget policy, however, would be "quite small in proportion to the budget and total GDP," says former Keating economic adviser John Edwards, who now sits on the Reserve Bank board.
Garnaut's third poser is: "What would it do to our relations with countries that are important to us?" And his answer: "The world is making solid progress on climate change mitigation within the new framework of 'concerted unilateral mitigation'. Any step back in our effort would be an issue in Australia's relations with G20 countries which have done more than us, including members of the European Union, China and the US."
So, switching to an ETS would be OK, but scrapping carbon pricing altogether a la Abbott would not.
Rudd will also be exploring options for changing policy on asylum seekers and perhaps some of the budget settings, too, as he declares tough times ahead. Deftly handled, these could all be positive policy and political moves.
But there remains perhaps the trickiest of all, taming the tiger on whose back he rides - the Labor Party. The general secretary of NSW Labor, Sam Dastyari, has been working towards reform of the party to put more power in the hands of the members and the community. And he has been talking to Rudd: "Kevin has always been very clear that he feels there's a need for change in Labor's culture and structure."
Allowing the party a say in the appointment of the leader is a key agenda item here.
All these elements could conceivably come together for a successful second Rudd term or, if they don't, Australian politics could again find itself down the rabbit hole with Alice, back to the old politics, with just the disappearing grin of the Cheshire cat to remind us of what might have been.