Will he or won’t he? Why Kevin Rudd won’t give a straight answer on his leadership aspirations

Kevin Rudd will only give a smug smile when asked about his designs on Julia Gillard’s job. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Watching Kevin Rudd in his almost daily struggle to avoid giving a straight answer to questions about whether he’ll challenge Julia Gillard is as painful as listening to a smoker justify why they won’t give up.

Both know what they need to do, and why, but somehow can’t act.

Even when directly asked his intentions in that strange late-night interview for Sky News on Saturday, Rudd would not answer directly. His failure to do so fuelled the firestorm that speculation over Labor’s leadership has become.

Yet his comments in that interview have been interpreted as a clear signal he will challenge. He may not now have a choice if the Prime Minister calls a spill while Rudd is overseas thus curtailing the undeclared campaign.

Whatever Rudd may say, being a “happy little Vegemite” as Australia’s top diplomat and working in the Cabinet team is obviously not what he wants. Getting the top job again is. That awkward smile with which he dismisses questions about his intentions confirms it.

Maybe Rudd is just using that ancient politician’s spin technique of keeping his options open. But he hasn’t even given an “if the position becomes vacant, then of course I’ll stand” answer. Maybe he is going to challenge and is thus being mischievous in the hope that the instability his attitude creates will terminate Gillard’s leadership.

Or, perhaps more importantly, he simply cannot bring himself to say “No”.

There is a sense of cognitive dissonance here. Rudd perseveres with giving non-answers to questions about his intentions all the while knowing he is fuelling the speculation, and the resulting political instability.

The analogy with smokers is apposite. Australian research has shown smokers among a cohort of university students are aware of anti-smoking messages and know the habit is bad for their health, but just cannot give up because they enjoy it. Can the Foreign Minister simply not give a straight answer because he is enjoying the game, knowing all the time he should blow full-time for the health of the Government and his own credibility? That he avoids a straight, honest answer with that smile seems to suggest he does enjoy what he is doing.

The question then becomes what he hopes to gain from his non-answers.

If political commentators are to be believed, there is little chance the caucus will turn to Rudd even when the PM’s leadership becomes terminal. Simon Crean said so openly; others say it on background. Rudd must know it, even though the realpolitik of leadership coups is that you must keep eroding an opponent’s support.

In a recent conversation, an academic colleague proposed that Rudd does know, and probably accepts, that he’ll never be leader again, but is nevertheless trying to extract a “reward” for being dumped in 2010. Perhaps the reward is the end of Gillard, maybe he doesn’t know what he wants, just that he wants something. Perhaps it is an ego thing.

Whatever he wants, Rudd at last seems to have the communication strategy he lacked as Prime Minister.

Then, he was content with the tactical domination of the 24-hour news cycle and ignored the need to explain his government’s policy decisions in a consistent long-term manner. The leaked section of the review of the ALP’s disaster at the 2010 election has hinted at the reason for this: complacency.

The Rudd Government acted as though everyone was aware of, understood and supported its policy decisions just because they’d been announced. The lack of a strategic approach to communication in which policy and decisions were amplified and explained led to Abbott’s domination of the media and in the end to the Prime Minister’s downfall.

Had there been a properly thought-out communication strategy the polls that brought him down may not have turned against him; there would have been a better chance that people would have understood. Rudd’s community cabinet program was an example of how the government should communicate, but they didn’t deliver the sense of instant media gratification so craved by politicians and their media advisers.

For her part, Gillard seems to have recognised the problem. In July 2011 she told the National Press Club she had “tended to allow decisions to speak for themselves.”

Now Rudd has reverse-engineered a communication strategy. That is, to deliberately not communicate in pursuit of destabilising Gillard to the point where she can no longer continue as Prime Minister without being challenged. That takes time, so he’s in for the long term, not even tempted by the daily opportunity he’s given to have people listen.

Success in opinion poll ratings seems to have Rudd following Machiavelli’s advice to Lorenzo de Medici. When a prince has the people’s goodwill he needn’t worry about conspiracies; only when people are hostile should a prince go in fear of everything and everyone.

Kevin wins while people are hostile to Julia. And perhaps that’s the reward after all. No need for a straight answer.