Explanations for Kevin Rudd’s success often focus on what
he is not. He is not Kim Beazley: he is fresh, ambitious and knows
that weathervanes do not win elections.
He is not Mark Latham: he is seen as a "safe pair of
hands" who won’t scare the economic horses. When disaster strikes,
he spins the story and moves on, much like Howard. This may have
taken some of the gloss off his shiny new public profile, but it
has also reassured people that unlike Latham, Rudd will not implode
But all that really tells us is that Rudd is seen as a viable
figurehead for an electoral ship that is changing course. The
question is what is driving this change in direction.
Polls are not plebiscites, and we don’t necessarily think deeply
about our answers when pollsters interrupt our dinner to badger us
about voting preferences. So between now and the election, we can
expect a lot more speculation on the shifts underpinning the
As H.L. Mencken put it: "Politicians are like baby’s nappies:
they should be changed often and for much the same reason."
Every government decision offends one group or other, and given
enough time even the most popular of governments can acquire a
critical mass of unhappy voters. But Australians are reluctant to
vote against incumbents. We’ve only changed national governments
four times since 1949 – twice in a recession.
Given the state of the economy, something more significant must
be going on.
Rudd has been framing the big issues of this year’s election
with some pretty mangled metaphors, but that hasn’t diminished
their effect. Australian voters think Howard has gone "a bridge too
far", taking advantage of the Senate majority to go against the
interests of those who gave it to him. We no longer expect
politicians to be honest, but we do expect them to know who’s
In another odd metaphor, Rudd described the challenge of good
government as a "Babushka doll" and promised not to just take care
of the "outer layers" of national security and economic management
but also the "inner layers" of health, education and community.
This makes Rudd more than just a safe alternative to a prime
minister on the nose. His real appeal lies in the promise that we
can have it all: flexible jobs and good pay and working conditions,
a sustainable economy and environment. Rudd has tapped into a hope
that we can have our slice of the economic cake and eat it at home
with the kids, too. It’s this promise that makes him look like a
man of the future, while Howard continues to waste time debating
the ghosts of governments past.
On the other hand, some situations do require leaders to make
trade-offs between competing interests – and when that happens,
voters like to know that the decision maker is on their side.
Over the past few years two things have made it clear that
Howard can no longer claim to be battling "for all of us". In the
face of the public backlash against Work Choices and the
overwhelming demand for decisive action on global warming, he looks
like a man caught pulling a face when the wind changed. He may be
trusted to keep interest rates low, but we don’t trust him to put
the interests of our grandchildren above those of fossil fuel
companies, or to put the interests of workers and their families
above those of their employers.
Rudd may not represent all of us, but he is speaking (and
listening) to more of us than is Howard. And in an election, more
is all you need.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 9, 2007