Saturday, 4 April 2009

Kevin Rudd: The Cult of the Leader & His Teflon Coating.

I came across the following article in yesterday’s edition of Crikey.

Kevin Rudd: the PM who can do no wrong

Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane writes:_

Given the way he works his staff and his perfectionism, it’s no surprise the Prime Minister behaved objectionably toward a flight attendant who somehow failed to provide what he wanted. Rudd sets notoriously high standards not just for himself but everyone around him. However, that doesn’t excuse rudeness. That he apologised at the time becomes him. That it happened in the first place, though, is revealing of what sort of person he is. On the other hand, those of us who have managed staff less than perfectly ourselves, or have ever treated someone in the service industry shabbily, are probably in no position to pass judgement.

But that this is a leading story in the aftermath of one of the most important meetings in recent history, to the extent of being the subject of questions to Rudd after the G20 meeting, is indicative of the Australian media’s capacity to focus on the trivial. Kudos to The Australian, for giving the story appropriate weight online -- reporting it, but not obsessing over it or seeing it as a higher priority than what’s going on in the real world.

And if the Prime Minister’s chief spinner Lachlan Harris denied the story when initially put to him by Steve Lewis, it’s a remarkable act of self-directed stupidity.

What’s fascinating, however, has been the public reaction. A politician -- especially a senior one -- abusing a subordinate, especially a low-ranking one, could ordinarily expect no sympathy whatsoever. It’s one step short of the ultimate sin of declaring "don’t you know who I am". When I discussed it with 2HD’s Luke Grant this morning, he immediately noted that people on talkback had been making excuses for Rudd or emphasising that he had apologised, as if Rudd can do no wrong at the moment.

We got Media Monitors to sample the reaction and, while there was considerable criticism, there were a lot of defenders of Rudd on talkback. Some said Rudd’s behaviour was understandable -- some even applauded him -- and complained about service levels in general, or said he shouldn’t have apologised. Others suggested the abused woman should get over it, or get a different job, should be able to take abuse and would have heard worse things in training, or that any CEO would have hit the roof if they’d been treated the way Rudd was treated. Others had a go at the media.

Empathy for politicians from the public is invariably scarce, and yet here are talkback callers -- older and more conservative than most voters -- putting themselves in Rudd’s position and supporting his behaviour. The reaction of many to the story was to think of times when they’ve got poor service and wish they could have reacted in the same way as he did. This is Rudd’s scarily effective communication and image-shaping skills paying off.

Even John Howard at his most popular -- and he never reached the Hawkeian heights that Rudd has attained -- wouldn’t have got away with abusing a hostie. But voters feel they know, trust and understand Rudd, that even if he isn’t an ordinary bloke, he shares the values of ordinary Australians and views the world in the same way as they do.

It will fade, over time; voters will wise up to how he does it, and grow bored with him, as they did with Howard, and more quickly, too. But at the moment Kevin Rudd is a scarily popular man.

Studying the many different styles political leadership for my thesis this article intrigues me on several levels. Firstly, why is Kevin Rudd the man ‘who can do no wrong?’ (Particularly with regards to the general public) His public support with regards to his preferred Prime Minister levels are unparalleled when comparing them to other Newspoll figures over the past 25 years. Lots of commentators have explored these figures in party political terms with the same styles of thinking. The Government is using their incumbency to their advantage and focusing their message on the current Global Economic Crisis (GFC) they say. The Opposition is hopeless they say, constantly undermining the only decent leader they have in their parliamentary ranks. All of this is true, but to my way of thinking they are missing the central issue. What is it in particular that draws the voters to Kevin Rudd?

Even as a Labor Party stalwart I acknowledge that Rudd is about as benign of a leader as the public can get. He does not have the ability to capture the public imagination like a Whitlam, the ability to mix with the public like a Hawke, or the turn of phrase of a Keating. What may propel him into stratosphere of popular opinion is his ordinariness. Except every time he is on television trying to look like a ‘man of the people’ I cringe because (at least to me) he comes across as pathetic try hard. The one thing that he has going for him is the Howardesque ability to read the public mood, something at which Turnbull and his Liberal colleagues have no clue how to do at the moment

However all of this doesn’t explain why the public feels sympathy for Rudd after he acted like a complete dickhead. Yes, he’s human and is entitled to make mistakes, but such luxuries are not normally afforded to your average politician. Take the example of Obama referring to his bowling skills as something straight out of ‘the Special Olympics’. Potentially offensive yes, and probably in poor taste, but it’s the political equivalent of yelling at a lowly flight attendant: a minor political gaffe, which is likely to cause substantial public outrage. In Obama’s case that was certainly so, in Rudd’s case it brushed off him like teflon coating. In another case Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has caused the Rudd Government’s only political storm thus far, by not declaring a few trips to China when he was in opposition. Yes, it was a very bad political mistake and one that good ministers do not make, but it certainly does not warrant a fortnight’s worth of intense public and media scrutiny.

The point of highlighting these somewhat unrelated examples is to demonstrate that the general public treats political mistakes small and large with harshness, but Rudd’s mistakes seem to avoid this scrutiny. Why? Is the public finally tired of the Australian media covering seemingly trivial issues in favour of substantive policy issues? Is the public so concerned with the GFC that as long as the Rudd Government are seen to be managing the crisis they don’t care about much else? Do they just really like Kevin Rudd? Whatever the answers to these questions, I would sure hate to be a Liberal Party parliamentarian at the moment.


  1. He certainly has been able to remain popular, despite the various stories in the media.

    I think that what it really comes down to is that there is no alternative government in waiting. As you said the opposition Liberals are cutting each other down every moment they get.

    Labor has been able to keep their caucus together and remain united. I suspect that when the Official Opposition gets their cards in order Rudd's numbers will begin to subside.

    An opposition needs to be united with a united message and right now the 'right' in Australia is fractured and ideologically divided.

    The point on the economy may have some relation. However, it is most probable that Australians think Rudd is doing a decent job on the economy because he has been fairly proactive. Secondly, he is doing many of the same things Obama is.... and his popularity internationally is quite high. It will be interesting to see what the popularity numbers look like through the week prior and of the G20.

  2. You are absolutely right. Hope you're enjoying your trip to NZ.