Kevin Rudd is not pursuing a small target strategy in winning government, as Kim Beazley did. Small targets are essentially passive, and the prerogative of a government rather than an opposition: Kim Beazley was the first leader in the ALP's history who spent most of his career in government rather than opposition (and at the point where this was no longer true, he was dumped).
Rudd has attacked Howard and put him on the back foot, and has actively courted constituencies who have felt excluded from the benefits that Howard claims as his. He has demonstrated that he is willing to look at governing Australia in a new way; but not to the point where he's off with the pixies or that he is unmindful of the economy, as Whitlam was.
Phillip Adams claimed that Kevin Rudd is running a small target strategy. Gerard Henderson should know better - he's had Rudd over to his place - but rather than listening to and observing Rudd, Henderson has decided to go Adams regardless of the reality. Adams writes for Murdoch and Henderson for Fairfax. There comes a point where pundits who cancel each other out politically add no value in helping us assess those who would govern us, and this latest Adams-Henderson exchange is one example.
But am I not alone in feeling a little anxious about the strategy? What seems like unseemly haste to neutralise Howard rather than challenge him?
Adams may feel anxious that the game is not yet won, that Macbeth is still king of the castle and that the challenger is untried. It is idle to imply, as Henderson does, that those who bet on the election result are doing so "with real money", as though people's no-less-real money in the economy that is not lodged with bookmakers is somehow less affected by the decisions of different government, or that those of us not having a flutter are somehow less than serious about the election result. What would Santamaria have said about that Gerard?
Rudd is under no obligation to tackle every issue that comes up in an agenda that he doesn't control. This is what it is to be wedged: to take a position separate from your support base over which neither you nor they can negotiate a solution.
Did Whitlam launch a frontal assault on McMahon's economic stewardship? Did he bollocks. He didn't launch a frontal assault on Vietnam either, cultivating an impression that he was nudging along the same process that McMahon had instituted. He didn't challenge White Australia either, because Holt had done that and Freddie Daly was soon restored after his wistful gaffe on this issue. Whitlam didn't call McMahon a liar, he didn't vanquish McMahon in any melodramatic way. But neutralise him he did, and let the record show that Whitlam not only defeated McMahon but erased any contribution he may have made to public life.
All successful opposition leaders neutralised their opponents rather than obliterated them - Hawke with Fraser, Howard with Keating, etc. Let's have none of this idea that boldness and drama is all, or that Whitlam set the standard.
If you're a Labor supporter, what would you rather: someone who talks a good game from opposition, and after the election a) doesn't win, or b) wins government and disavows what was promised before the election? Perhaps Phillip Adams has seen the pantomime of politics for too long to imagine any other possibility.
If you're keen to see the back of Howard, neutralised and then buried will do the trick, right? "Crash through or crash" has been done, and those who are most fond of this Whitlamite tactic were those least prepared for, and most scarred by, the crash that was always inevitable.
That said, Henderson is being snide in pointing out that because he made a mistake in 1968, his opinions are invalid. Henderson has also missed the point here:
The leftist critique of Rudd Labor overlooks the fact the ALP may be ahead in the polls because of its stance on such issues as national security, indigenous matters, water, forest policy and the like. It also assumes that, fearful of being wedged, Rudd is embracing policies in which he does not believe. But there is no evidence he is being intellectually dishonest with respect to any of these policies.
Henderson assumes that Labor has a firm stance on these issues upon which policy could be built. What is possibly more true is that Rudd has revealed his intellect and character to be such that he can be trusted to develop new solutions that are not yet manifest - whereas Howard is pretty much stuck with the transitory, and ultimately unsatisfactory and unsustainable, position we have now. "What you see is what you get" is an attractive idea until what you see is stale, shabby and fragile, then it becomes difficult that you're offering more than meets the eye.
In leaving alone issues about which the opposition leader can do little constructive, such as Hicks or Haneef, Rudd is doing in the political game what cricketers call letting the ball go through to the keeper. The ball that goes through to the keeper couldabeen hit for six, but it also couldabeen the ball that got the batsman out.
It may be intellectually honest to say that many of these issues are best addressed in government, with full access to the best information and control of the political initiative. Civil liberties in an age of insecurity need to be rethought, and there will be many stakeholders to consult and much careful thought to be done and working with others in an integrated way. Going into too much detail on areas where he is not expert make Rudd look foolish, and may close off options he would prefer were open on assuming office.
Howard maintains a large lead over Rudd when voters are asked who is best equipped to handle the economy and national security.
Really? After the Haneef bungle Howard's national security credentials are pretty ropey, and Rudd's focus on rising prices for houses and consumer goods are wearing away the hold over economic policy (see Friday's post on the political importance of the economy).
In any event, the left has nowhere to go politically while leftists, virtually to man and a woman, remain committed members of the Howard-haters club.
There is no club (so it's down from a brigade, then?). To assert that there is assumes that Howard sets the agenda, and that one cannot propose different policies to his without being visceral and emotional rather than intellectual. If you believe the leftists have nowhere to go, just say so. Stop implying that leftists (and other opponents of Howard) should just give up any opposition to the Howard government, like the broken Winston Smith at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It is noteworthy the left's criticism of Rudd is much the same as that of the Government. Both maintain he does not believe what he says he believes.
All politicians say one thing in opposition then do another in government. Those of us whom Henderson patronisingly calls "punters" know this. The difference is that there are several big issues that Howard can no longer be trusted to overhaul (see the first sentence quoted from Henderson above - "The leftist ... and the like" - for a list of these), whereas Rudd can be trusted to tackle them in a way that is unlikely to make matters significantly worse - hell, he may even do a good job. Howard has lost the benefit of the doubt, and with a known quantity comes a pessimism about his capacity to change and grow.
There are challenges facing Australia in securing a safe and prosperous future. Our leaders, and their perspectives, priorities and characters have a large bearing on our capacities to realise our ambitions for our nation and the societies in which we live. We need commentators who at least help us understand the questions, let alone the answers. Whether it's Henderson and Adams stuck in 1968, or Koutsoukis, Milne or Price playing personality politics, the media just isn't helping us build our understanding of the challenges and our leaders' performances in meeting them.