The origins of Rudd’s pitch to the people

27 February 2012

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

Kevin Rudd’s unsuccessful attempt to appeal directly to ‘the people’ might have looked bold and original, but the truth is that he’s been playing this game all along. From the start, his instinct has been to bypass the Labor Party as much as possible and govern by populist appeals to ‘the people’.

Rudd’s path to the leadership was, after all, substantially founded on his direct connections to the people. Between 2002–2007, as shadow foreign minister, Rudd made weekly appearances on Channel Seven’s Sunrise program with Joe Hockey. Without Sunrise, it is unlikely that Rudd would have been able to build the profile needed to successfully contest the leadership. The busy travel itinerary that comes with the post of shadow foreign minister would have short-circuited any leadership ambitions. But breakfast television gave Rudd a place at the breakfast tables of a large slab of middle Australia.

The platform afforded by Sunrise was even more important for someone like Rudd, who’s manner is that of a brilliant but socially awkward suburban pharmacist. Laughing along with Mel and Kochie gave the future Labor leader the appearance of being a talented, and likeable dork.

Rudd continued the approach when he assumed the leadership. In his first speech as leader to the ALP National Conference, for example, the Australian Financial Review’s political editor Laura Tingle observed that Rudd seemed to be speaking over the heads of the Party delegates. Rather than address his colleagues, his pitch was directed to the TV cameras at the back: to the voters of Australia.

Peter Mair called this approach to government ‘partyless democracy‘ — an approach to government that was pioneered rather more successfully by the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Writing in a 2001 issue of New Left Review, Mair wrote: ‘On one side decision-making is dispersed and power shared; on the other, the party is gagged and the policies are judged by standards of good governance, rather than partisan purpose … The point is to take “politics” our of government.’

Perhaps the most obvious sign of Blair’s approach to party-less democracy was the decision to drop the word ‘party’ from New Labour’s official title. Mair suggested this was more than just a cosmetic change. It symbolised a re-casting of the role of the party, removing the party from the business of government.

Blair, Mair suggested, sought to neuter the party whenever and wherever possible. Tight internal controls were placed on British Labour party members, with many long-term members being expelled for not toeing New Labour’s new business-friendly approach, while Blair moved to devolve power, as seen in the establishment of the Welsh and Scottish assemblies.

One British Labour party insider memorably likened Blair’s relationship to the British Labour party to that of a dog to a lamppost: while Blair was in the British Labour party, in style at least, he was not of it.

Rudd’s style as Prime Minister shared striking similarities to Blair’s model of partyless democracy. The ill-fated 2020 Summit held in April 2008, was perhaps his most visible attempt to bypass the Party. The idea of the Summit was to throw open the doors to the people — or, more precisely, ‘1000 of Australia’s best and brightest’ people.

As with Blair, the message was that good ideas come can come from anywhere — not just the ALP and its supporters. The test for policy was ‘good governance’; a test that turns politics into a technical matter with a single, correct answer, rather than a fundamental and often irreconcilable contest of values, principle and ideas.

The Summit was a monumental fizzer as far as generating concrete policies, but it nevertheless gave Rudd a chance to portray himself as ‘a man of the people‘ unconstrained by the ALP’s usual approaches to policy development.

At the same time, Rudd’s approach to decision-making and policy co-ordination was to centralise control in his own office. He established a kitchen Cabinet and sought to micro-manage government, once again governing in spite, rather than through the party.

While Kevin Rudd made it clear that he thinks he is the only person to save the ALP, his approach, like that of Blair before him, has been to sidestep his own party wherever possible .

While this might seem like a refreshing idea for those who dislike political parties (which includes most of us) Rudd’s failed strategy of appealing to people to lobby their ALP members and Senators to get behind him was doomed from the start.

The ALP party room knew that there would be no certainty that the independents would support Rudd and that the week-long character assassination by his colleague would be used mercilessly in election ads by the Liberals come the next election.

And, if that didn’t convince them, they just needed to remember that Rudd’s approach of sidestepping the party was a disaster. With Rudd at the helm, the Liberals would just have to say three magic words — ‘pink insulation bats’ — to sink any hope of electoral victory.

Christopher Scanlon teaches journalism at La Trobe University.  You can follow him on Twitter: @c_scanlon