There’s a long interview in The Age today with each of the major party leaders, capturing their mood and views as they make the final turn for the run home to Saturday. And it’s instructive to read them, back to back, as taken together they give quite an insight into both the mindset of Rudd and Abbott, as well as the state of politics more generally in Australia.
Neither interview contains much in the way of policy, and so mirrors the campaign that surrounds them. Rudd again mentions Abbott’s ‘$70 billion’ worth of cuts to Government spending and services; a claim that has been revealed as essentially a figment of Rudd’s imagination by Polifact, the ABC and nearly every journalist who’s bothered to take an interest. And Abbott offers only the same un-frightening generalisations that the media have been happy to let him get away with to date; he wants a ‘stronger’ Australia and doesn't want ‘to leave anyone behind’ while he builds it, sentiments that would probably apply to anyone currently alive. I mean, could we find a public figure who’s against these things? Even Bob Katter and Clive Palmer aren't mental enough to demand a weaker Australia and a tougher time for punters stuck at the bottom.
So much for policy. Which makes sense really, as the major parties long ago made peace with the fact there’s little difference between the two of them anymore. At least, on the big questions about how the country is to be run.
Which brings us to other considerations. And here the differences between the two men can be more starkly defined.
Truthfully, Rudd comes across as a bit bonkers. The first chunk of his interview is given over to raving about the Murdoch press being out to get him which, while undoubtedly true, isn't worth his time complaining about. This is simply part of life on the left side of politics in this era, where Murdoch still holds an inordinate amount of influence, and there’s little that can be done about it. Murdoch’s media instruments aren't doing anything illegal and the sensible course of action, for a party leader anyway, is to get on with the job and just ignore it. By banging on about evil empires and conspiracies, Rudd just makes himself sound like someone who’s watched too much Homeland and not gotten enough fresh air. Rudd’s underlings should soldier the burden of whacking back at the billionaire tyrant, he should be talking solely about health, Gonski, broadband, disability insurance and far above everything else, the economy.
‘Most country’s would envy Australia’s economy,’ writes US economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stieglitz, yet Rudd spends far more time jumping at shadows then he does claiming some credit for this. I mean, is this really what he wants to run with in the closing days of a losing election campaign? ‘These bullies are out to get me!’ Shouldn’t Rudd be pointing out how Labor helped insure the strength of our economy, and then raising legitimate questions about how a change of Government would effect this rosy picture? After all, this tactic worked a treat for John Howard for a decade (until people got sick of his tracksuit and senile drawl). But Rudd seems no better at communicating his party’s successes than he was 3 years ago.
In contrast to the jittery, rattled sounding Rudd, Abbott presents the very definition of calm confidence. A comparison that has served him better and better, the longer the campaign has dragged on. Abbott clearly expects to be Prime Minister , in a way that he can’t have in 2010, when he was always behind in the polls and only rated a fool’s chance of causing an upset. But behind the slick demeanour, lurks an alarming void. As well as having no policy information on hand to enlighten us with, Abbott seems determined to try and remove all traces of a personality from his public utterances as well. His interview consists entirely of the same well worn phrases that he’s been rolling out for three years, batting the interviewers questions away and presenting the blandest possible face of a potential Coalition government. With Rudd at least, you can see motivation behind his will to power; the Labor leader clearly values himself highly and nothing short of the top job will do (he also has a never ending list of enemies to get even with). Abbott would pretend that he’s not even motivated on this level.
Why does he want to be Prime Minister? ‘To build a stronger country, without leaving anyone behind.’ This is the logical extension of his ‘Stop the Boats’ mantra: a reasonable sounding phrase that means precisely nothing. The truth of Abbott’s position as heir apparent is that no one has the slightest idea what he’ll do if he is elected, and that includes his colleagues. Consider the most expensive policy put forward by any party in this election; Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme. Costed at billions per annum, Abbott announced this policy on National TV, having consulted almost no one in his shadow cabinet about it beforehand. The absence of detail from the Opposition leader, and his well documented fickle nature and fondness for snap decisions, should be alarming to everyone, reinforcing why Abbott is keen to smile and nod his way through to September 7.
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The Age also asks both leaders to identify their opponents best quality, which again highlights personality differences between the two men.
Rudd nominates Abbott’s love of his family and their closeness as a group. In other words, he places no value whatsoever on Abbott’s contribution to public life and has instead chosen to praise the safest, blandest, least controversial thing he could think of. And this then serves to reinforce the image Rudd would like to cultivate of himself; that of a family man and a regular bloke. ‘I love families! Families are great! They are so great that even that cunt Abbott loves them. Even though he wants to steal $70 billion of their entitlements!’ Rudd has reached a point in his political life when he can include the words ‘working families’ in response to a question on any topic.
Abbott offers a more interesting choice, by selecting to highlight Rudd’s time served as Prime Minster. ‘A serious country does not elect nobodies to the Prime Ministership,’ Abbott says, offering a perspective on his own campaign, where he has sought to portray himself as ‘Joe Nobody,’ the affable bloke from next door. Abbott’s respect for Rudd’s time as PM displays his old school love of title and position and maybe offers a small clue to how he will position himself, post election, assuming he is successful. If Kevin Rudd isn’t a ‘nobody’ then his feat of knocking him off is magnified. Abbott’s victory speech will probably include a reference to ‘Kevin Rudd, the greatest political operator who’s ever lived!’
But neither Rudd nor Abbott offers anything much new, and certainly nothing that is newsworthy, in either of their interviews. Both appear to be stuck in the grove they’ve been in for the last five weeks; Rudd frustrated but unsure how to control his destiny, Abbott obfuscating but increasingly confident no one will catch him out.
Mercifully it will all soon be over. And life can then continue, almost exactly the same as it has for the last three years. What does Bill Shorten think of it all? We’ll probably know soon enough.