The Rudd government’s reliance on reports and reviews may finally have caught up with it. As any Yes Minister devotee should know there are two basic rules of government.
Never look into anything you don’t have to and never set up an enquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be.
If it’s not too late perhaps someone should ship Kevin Rudd’s office a copy of the entire series as a matter of urgency.
The precipitous decline in Kevin Rudd’s approval rating will be put down to many things. But if a single factor can be found for the deflating coming from Kevin Rudd’s balloon, it is the sound of expectations – mostly of the government’s own creation – rapidly escaping.
What did people expect of a Rudd government? That’s in the eye of the beholder. I’ve heard some on the left argue this government was elected with a reform agenda, that Rudd was Australia’s proto-Obama riding a wave of change, or that he was a transformational generational figure but none of those explanations sit comfortably with his personality or public image. Nor entirely does the image that he was elected entirely as an economically conservative John Howard lite. For most in the middle Kevin Rudd came to power as a wonk. Every expectation was that he would lead a slightly technocratic, wonky, policy driven government.
Certainly in the early stages, the Rudd government’s fetish for enquiries, summits, and comprehensive reports seemed to feed those expectations. The opposition’s criticism that it was a “do nothing” government was tempered by an expectation that it was engaging seriously in comprehensive review. No one doubted that the results would be politically tinged but the report fetish seemed to show curiosity and foreshadow a whole series of incremental wonkish rather than ideological reforms. It’s neither sexy nor charismatic but it was integral to the public expectations of Kevin Rudd as leader.
Fast forward to the present and there’s an obvious downside. The problems with reviews and reports such as the Garnaut climate change report (which Rudd inherited but trumpeted) or the Henry Tax review is that they have set a benchmark for good policy that the government has failed to meet. A basic function of a public report or publicly airing advice is that it provides cover for change but destabilises the status quo. The 2020 summit created a similar problem – regardless of intent it raised the expectations of a thousand reasonably well connected people and has mostly dropped them.
With each report tabled the government has inadvertently made an explicit comparison between its own actions and what it chooses not to do. Rather than using the cover provided by Henry, Garnaut and the many others to reinforce the sense that it is slightly boring, but relentless in the pursuit of good policy – recent events have done the opposite. In airing and ignoring almost all the recommendations in the Henry review the government has grabbed the megaphone and made it clear to anyone listening that it is doing politics not policy. A charismatic leader may get away with it, but it is confusing and contradictory coming from a leader whose perceived strength is his wonkishness.
If it is still possible for the government to recover from this, the Prime Minister needs to realise his strength is his wonkishness. Perhaps it is time to dust off the reports and recast them as an agenda. Is it still possible to return to the environmental and economic challenges outlined by Garnaut and recast this term as ambition thwarted by failure of compromise? Is it still possible to cast the Henry Review as a series of ambitions and not as a discarded set of options? Is it possible to dig out the papers and reports and recast the whole first term as the difficult preparation of an ambitious, long term, pragmatic reform agenda and not the schizophrenic flirtation with and abandonment of one.
I’d cynically suggest it’s a narrative that could make some sense of Kevin Rudd’s debacles and provide a compelling reason for a second and third term. If not, it still may be far more desirable for Kevin Rudd to fail as a policy wonk than as a populist.