Labor fears the Coalition is scoring points in punterland on the question of debt. So Kevin Rudd and his ministers whip themselves into a forensic frenzy to assure the public that the debt will be paid off.
The Coalition, meanwhile, worries that Labor will leave it with a nation not worth governing. So it convinces itself that obstruction and delay is the quickest way back into power.
The problem is both sides are feeding the other’s phantoms.
Labor has accepted the Coalition’s frame for the debate that debt, and indeed cash splashes, are bad. It explains why the Prime Minister was tongue-tied last week, refusing to put the words billions and dollars in the same sentence, and why he returned to the political comfort food of slogans about nation building this week.
But the next step, which most leaders can’t take, is to generate ideas that move a nation.
Sometimes a leader can interpret what the people already know about themselves. On other occasions, the story being told is new, such as Labor’s reform agenda in the 1980s.
But Rudd won’t find his voice at a photo opportunity on a building site.
Rudd sees a media interview as a form of a public anger-management class. The wilder the question, the more he seems to enjoy deflecting it.
The pattern of this budget fortnight replicates Rudd’s malaise this time last year.
He had gone into budget 2008 with his approval rating in the high 60s, just as he had done with budget 2009.
On both occasions, the budget’s release was the trigger for a mere mortal’s approval rating with a five in front of it.
Last year, Rudd wasted his time, and the nation’s, arguing with Brendan Nelson on petrol prices - a debate made all the more ridiculous with the hindsight of the global financial crisis that saw prices tumble, and the world’s consumers stop buying new cars.
This year, Rudd finds himself in the same place, arguing on the Coalition’s terms.
So we wind up with the following routines.
Turnbull: Debt is bad.
Rudd: Look at my hard hat.
Turnbull: Debt is bad.
Rudd: Show us your policies. Gotcha, you have none - our debt is no different to yours.
It is too easy to satirise, which is the real point here. Voters can see through both sides, so they take the default position of backing the mob that seems the more positive, which would be the Government for the time being.
What a waste, though. Rudd’s approach reminds me of the call that all print journalists dread - when there is a hole for them to fill on page one, but no real news to offer.
Rudd has sold the budget as if the headline and the picture are all that count. He should have devoted more attention to the words.
Long quotes yes, but all are worth reading. Rudd won the 2007 election on the back of so called ‘New Leadership’ but is once again displaying ‘Old Leadership’ tendencies by falling into the Liberal Party’s trap of playing politics as the battle for ideology. Thus giving the Opposition much credence and air, both equally valuable to them at the halfway point of the election cycle.
This problem has emerged because Rudd has yet to prove he can actually govern. He can certainly give out money to bribe voters, he can certainly use rhetoric to his advantage, but the question still remains if he can actually turn it into reality. This is where the contrasts with Keating are apt. Keating was one hell of an arrogant son of a bitch, but he had the ability to frame complex political and economic arguments beyond the rhetoric. Keating would state the problem, state how the problem would affect the voter, and then state how his policy would alter the outcome.
Governments should completely ignore the opposition. They provide unnecessary distractions. They aim to obtain media coverage. They use ridiculous flow charts, pictures, and other parliamentary antics that should be beneath a government. Their job is to lead the country. Leave it to the opposition to look like idiots.