Daily Media Quotation
A Question Of Image
June 19, 2007
by Nicholas Stuart - The Australian
There's a good reason politicians are transfixed by opinion polls, and that's because they're more vital today than they have been at virtually any time over the past three years. We've reached a point in the political cycle when the mood will be established before everyone wanders away from Canberra for the long winter break.
Most importantly, this has always been the period in which John Howard has managed to establish an ascendancy over his rival. Late last week, the Coalition was suddenly reinvigorated. A Galaxy poll offered conservatives a boost, as it showed the Coalition had made significant inroads into Labor's vote. But an Opposition frontbencher I tackled about this told me he wasn't worried.
"That particular polling was polluted," he claims. "Look at the way Galaxy framed the most important question, on voting intention. You've got to probe which way people are going to vote before you ask other questions about, say, industrial relations. But they didn't do that. They asked about issues first, getting people to think in a particular way."
The frontbencher, himself an electoral strategist, is sanguine about the results.
"Are Liberals making up some ground?" he asks. "Well, yes, they are, because they've been so far behind for so long that the earlier results weren't real. But I don't believe the Coalition has managed to change the political dynamic, and that's the key question."
Over the past three election cycles this has been the point at which things have begun to turn in the Government's favour. In 2001, before the arrival of the Tampa, there was a by-election for Aston in Victoria. The Liberals scraped back in, and although that was a predictable result (the seat is now so safe it's one of the jewels in the Liberal crown), it weakened then Labor leader Kim Beazley.
By mid-winter 2004, the Government's ruthless campaign against his successor Mark Latham was beginning to take hold. The initiative had passed to the Government and from that point on it became more dominant. It kept the upper hand by making sure the focus remained on Latham. The stress was put on one thing, making sure that as people entered the ballot booths they'd be using interest rates as the framework for interpreting the question about who they were going to vote for.
This reveals the underlying weakness of the Government's strategy. Australian election campaigns have inevitably concentrated on the leaders. And, try as it might, the Government can't get the measure of Kevin Rudd. The only way of damaging him is to try to shine the spotlight on some of the other figures around him, implying they hold some kind of shadowy influence over their leader.
But anyone who seriously tries to tell you Rudd will buckle to anyone else's instructions has obviously never met the man. Although I'd spoken to him before starting his biography, I never managed to get an interview with him while I was writing it. I tried to use that as a positive, taking the opportunity to look more extensively at the ideas that fired his political beliefs, as well as the philosophy behind them.
This forced me to rely on people who knew him for information, and as I did this the story changed. I have no doubt Rudd has a better articulated ideological foundation than most politicians in parliament today. But that's not the real story. The book I ended up writing reveals a polymath who's determined to achieve just one thing: become prime minister.
If Rudd achieves his ambition there won't be any nasty surprises. His image might be a bit more sparkling than the reality but, search though I might, I couldn't find the elusive fatal flaw that would tarnish his bid to lead the country.
He's not perfect, by any means, and there are weaknesses, including his apparent inability to respond quickly as issues develop. But these won't be enough to weaken his claim to become the next prime minister.
My research also revealed a dangerous vulnerability for the Coalition. Until now, Howard has been regarded as an asset for the Government. But new Labor Party research is showing the Prime Minister is turning into a negative. Voters feel he's changed. He's older and there's also a growing perception that he no longer understands ordinary people. Many think he's been in power too long.
Perceptions of Rudd will be crucial to the way people vote in the coming election. He's not a risk the way Latham was seen to be. His natural conservatism will reassure those voters who are considering a change. The only question is whether Labor will be able to achieve the swing necessary to win government.
Labor must win, and win big, in every state across the nation. Failure in the west could condemn the Rudd Project (as his friends describe the attempt to install him in the Lodge) to oblivion. If the Opposition can't manage to pick up a swag of seats around Brisbane, it might as well just not bother trying. The challenge is massive.
This is where Rudd's personality will again come in to play. He's not like a normal politician, duchessing the Canberra press gallery and appealing on television. His approach is unconventional. He's attempting to bypass the normal gatekeepers who interpret politics as he tries to establish a dialogue with voters. It's an approach that might cut through, but it's also one with significant dangers.
At some point Rudd has to realise he can't control everything. The tight direction and authority he's used to achieve his initial ambition of becoming Labor leader isn't enough to ensure his elevation to the next level.
Once you're performing on the national stage things happen, even if you don't want them to. For example, people write biographies, whether you co-operate with them or not. Learning how to delegate is a vital part of getting to the top.
The Rudd Project is at a transition point. Over the next few months it will come under the microscope in a way it hasn't previously. Although he's nearly 50, Rudd still has some growing to do. He's certainly capable of changing if he believes it is what he needs to do to win.
Howard is not in the same position. Next month he'll turn 68. His age has been perceived as giving him experience, but it could easily turn into a perception of being out of touch. That's why, over the next few months, the primary political battleground will be trying to fit a frame around the two prime ministerial contenders, because that's the way voters will think when they're casting their ballots.
Nicholas Stuart's book, Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography, will be launched in Canberra on Thursday.