Announcing the 7 September federal election, prime minister Kevin Rudd consciously reprised an opening move that worked well for John Howard opening his 2004 reelection campaign, when he declared this election would come down to a question of ‘trust.’
As Barrie Cassidy noted on ABC News 24, calling out trust prompts voters to focus on the respective leaders’ reliability. Coming from Rudd, it implies that opposition leader Tony Abbott is a Liberal Party reprise of Mark Latham: lots of clever criticisms, but without a coherent positive agenda — and personally aggressive to an unclear extent. If Abbott cannot avoid his own monster handshake moment this month, it will be noticed.
Abbott sounded uncharacteristically flat in his response, like he was still trying to find the right gear. (Perhaps he was anticipating the exhausting campaign ahead of him?) His talking speed was slower than usual, and he lacked that crispness and energy that David Marr portrayed in his Quarterly Essay — when in form, Abbott routinely turns out formidable stump speeches.
By contrast, the strongest echo of Howard’s 2004 campaign opening in Rudd’s announcement was its sense of combative, double-or-nothing fun. Rudd stumbled over a few words, as a script-bound control-freak always does. He had to retrace his steps a few times to make sure his cheap lines came out with the appropriate note of facility. But he clearly enjoyed the moment immensely.
At once both the statesman holding to elevated virtues of public debate and simultaneously going out of his way to tangle with adversaries, Rudd spent almost as much time criticising the negativity and negating the critiques of his opponents as he spent laying out his patter about an Australia where everyone can get a fair go.
After his prepared speech, in question-and-answer with the gathered media, Rudd picked a series of quarrels with journalists, but he had so much fun doing it that none of the knowledgable wonks on hastily assembled news panels around the country thought to fault him for it. Institute for Public Affairs research fellow Chris Berg tweeted that Rudd was not likely to win Dennis Shanahan’s vote after telling him what tomorrow’s Australian should say about Abbott’s fiscal strategy, but Berg seemed to enjoy the by-play too.
Who knows what people make of this kind of moment in any definitive sense? Presumably lots of voters have lots of different ways of understanding it, including many different nuances of ignoring it. But you would have to say Rudd seemed much more willing at the outset of this campaign than Abbott — or the minor party leaders, for that matter. This presumably must have an effect on the morale of the respective support-bases. It certainly made the political media sit up and listen to what Rudd was saying.