The return of Rudd the campaigner

Kevin Rudd just announced that – as expected – he will contest the Labor leadership on Monday. And his first open move in this contest was a series of political master strokes.

In what was less a simple informative media conference than it was a stump speech, Rudd said he wanted ‘to finish the job he was elected to do’. His government’s political agenda was interrupted by the machinations of the factions, and he has a vision for a ‘better Australia’ and a ‘better Australian Labor Party’.

Although he talked up his chances of taking the leadership, Rudd made a point of ruling out a second challenge. He’d go to the back bench and represent his electorate.

The factions came in for quite a kicking, as Rudd repeated his accusations that factional ‘heavies’ had attempted to intimidate backbenchers by threatening to dis-endorse them at the next election. He called on Gillard to guarantee that ‘no Australian Labor Party member of the House of Representatives or the Senate will have their pre-selection changed as a result of how they vote on Monday’. Additionally, he called for a ‘truly secret ballot’, implying that the usual practice involved those same heavies using standover tactics. And he fired a shot across the bow – if he gets the leadership back, he intends to undertake broad party reform, including reducing the power of the factions:

‘That power should be transferred to its ‘rightful’ position – to each and every member of the elected members of the party’.

Party reform also featured his first mea culpa: that he was wrong to take away from Caucus the power to elect the Ministry. He promised to return that power if he regained the leadership.

With that out of the way, he moved on to the major thrust of his job application – his declared ability to beat Opposition Leader Tony Abbott at the next election. ‘I’m not prepared to stand idly by and see our nation’s future wasted by an Abbott government,’ he said. ‘If we don’t change, the Labor Party is going to end up in Opposition … we will all end up on the back bench, and the Opposition back benches at that … this is the cold, stark reality’. He went on to lay out exactly how dreadful Abbott – who he described as ‘having his feet firmly in the past’ – would be as Prime Minister.

Lest anyone think the task was just too daunting, he added, ‘Beating Mr Abbot is vital … and it is achievable … he is entirely beatable’.

It was an incredibly slick piece of political theatre. The attention to detail was amazing – almost certainly choreographed by Bruce Hawker, who could safely be called his campaign manager for this ballot. The conference took place in a government building, against a backdrop of a deep blue curtain. The lectern was flanked by two large Australian flags. It could only have looked more Prime Ministerial if the Governor-General had been standing by Rudd’s shoulder.

Rudd’s manner was relaxed. He looked utterly at ease, friendly when the words called for it, stern on the subject of party reform, and full of grim conviction when stating his utter opposition to Abbott. He frequently made eye contact with the media in the room, and the cameras in front of him. Although he was reading from a speech, he’d clearly practised the delivery.

And speaking of that speech … as an announcement of candidacy, it was a great piece of campaigning. The language was simple, straightforward – none of the tongue-twisting, ‘programmatic specificity’ type phrases which were such a gift for comedians during his tenure as Prime Minister. This wasn’t a speech for a small group of Parliamentarians; it was an appeal to the dream of Labor, invoking Chifley’s ‘light on the hill’. Rudd seemed to be saying to the faithful who’d drifted away, disenchanted, that they could return to a Golden Age (real or imagined).

He put the focus squarely on the next election. Much of his speech had little to do with Gillard – it was all about the looming threat of a Coalition government, and the terrifying possibility of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. With that rhetoric, Rudd didn’t have to mention Gillard at all; it was enough to talk up both the fear, and the ‘solution’.

Ruling out a second challenge was perhaps the most cunning piece of Rudd’s strategy. It will be particularly easy for him to keep to this undertaking, should he lose – because he never ruled out being ‘drafted’. He can lose, go to the back bench, work hard in an election campaign and, likely, keep his seat in Opposition. His presence there will be a reminder that he was an alternative, who might have had a better chance against Abbott. And, like Caesar, he can be offered the crown again and again, until he can legitimately claim he is acceding to the will of the party.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Rudd conference was the reaction of the media. It’s fair to say that the questions were blunt, and the tone assertive, bordering on aggressive. Rudd smiled, answered some questions, dodged others and generally controlled the room. He dropped another bombshell by confirming that Gillard and Wayne Swan had pressured him to shelve his original carbon pricing scheme, and further, that Gillard had urged him not to re-visit the idea until Abbott accepted climate change as a reality. Then he added that nonetheless, he accepted full responsibility for the decision.

Something strange happened then. From questions about leadership, leaks and ‘white-anting’, suddenly the media started asking Rudd policy questions. What would he do about carbon pricing? How would he fix the asylum seeker system?

And Rudd engaged them on every question. If he didn’t provide a lot of specifics, he showed he was abreast of broader issues well outside his former Foreign Affairs portfolio. He sounded like a Prime Minister.

Is this going to make any difference to the numbers? Probably not. He’ll still almost certainly lose. But with this announcement, he may lose a lot more narrowly than the Gillard camp is proclaiming. Already media speculation is daring to contemplate the outside possibility of a Rudd win.

Perhaps more importantly, Rudd just reminded people that he’s a very, very good political operator, and a formidable campaigner.

Gillard’s presser is due momentarily. Her response is sure to be fascinating.


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