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Grattan on Friday: Kevin Rudd and the narrative of the house

Kevin Rudd wants to mess with Tony Abbott’s head. AAP/Alan Porritt

In March 2010 PM Kevin Rudd faced off against opposition leader Tony Abbott at the National Press Club in a debate about health policy.

Three months later Rudd would be deposed by his own party. One criticism by colleagues was that he’d become obsessed with health, tramping around the nation’s hospitals with his eye off other areas.

But on that March day he trounced Abbott who, as a former health minister, should have been competitive. The incident underscores the strength of Rudd as campaigner.

Rudd yesterday was challenging Abbott to debate him on all sorts of issues. “We are going to be debating debt and deficit at the National Press Club”, he said.

We’re back to the future in more than just the fact of Rudd’s resurrection.

You can feel the busyness in the air, as he’s being briefed to the eyeballs.

Politically, he’s messing with his opponent’s mind, as well as directing the voters’ gaze away from the government’s problems to the sunny uplands of vision and optimism.

Never mind that half a dozen ministers jumped off the frontbench (without even having to be pushed) when he defeated Julia Gillard, or that Craig Emerson, Peter Garrett and Stephen Smith - who remains Defence Minister - have announced this week they will quit parliament.

Such departures are hardly votes of confidence in his powers as electoral saviour. Smith, who holds a marginal seat in West Australia, said he could not take another three years after serving two decades. But earlier this term, when Gillard’s leadership was in trouble and Rudd was considered unacceptable, Smith’s name was canvassed as a possible compromise candidate. Presumably at that stage he intended to stay on.

Any other leader would be discombobulated by the shambles. But not Rudd. He is being very consultative because he is aware of all that old criticism of his style, but at heart he’s a one-man band.

He can also live in a parallel universe. Who else would have exhorted MPs, in his first remarks in the House as restored PM, to “let us try, just try, to be a little kinder and gentler with each other in the further deliberations of this parliament”?

Nevertheless, he sailed through yesterday’s question time – the last of the hung parliament – with little trouble.

No, he wouldn’t provide an election date but strongly indicated he’d vary Gillard’s September 14. He said had to talk with colleagues, and consider the local government referendum (which has its own timetable requirements), the early-September G20 meeting in St Petersburg, and the clash with Yom Kippur.

Whatever the considerations, he probably wants a date chosen by him not her. Anyway, why wouldn’t he give the Liberals, who’ve been making their arrangements around the date Gillard so conveniently announced, a more uncertain environment? The speculation is that an August date is possible - but that would mean ditching the referendum.

He brushed off attacks on his integrity, over breaking his pledge not to challenge Gillard, by simply turning the tables, pointing to Abbott’s statements about Malcolm Turnbull when the latter was opposition leader. “I think it’s not a time for pots calling kettles black”.

The Liberals have a mountain of negative character references about Rudd from Labor colleagues who have previously unloaded on him. The grabs are devastating.

But the question is: has the public factored that in? After all, Rudd has been sky high in the opinion polls well after many of these things were said.

If those lines have lost their bite, the opposition will have to be careful about dwelling on them excessively.

Rudd yesterday declared there has been too much negativity – that Australians are looking for “a positive vision”. Gillard was always painting Abbott as Mr Negativity; the pitch had some success but she was a poor messenger. Rudd should be able to drive the point home more forcefully (with the qualification that Abbott knows he has a problem and has been working on the positives).

Mark Latham as Labor leader used to trot out the “ladder of opportunity” as his storyline. Rudd’s narrative, which got a major workout yesterday, is that of the house.

The Labor party, he said, wants to build the house up. “It takes time, brick by brick, laying the foundations, setting the walls, installing the roof. This is how we see the task of nation building.”

Even defence and emergency management are part of the house story. “These are all about how we maintain the securty of the house. We are building the walls to make sure they are robust against those threats which may come against us”.

The roof is for the protection of all – including the disabled, the sick, the pensioners.

But Abbott’s politics “is about not building the house up. His comfort zone is tearing the house down”.

Get used to the house, a simple political metaphor in a country big on home ownership.

Rudd’s strategy is about making people feel good about themselves and their nation, having them think on what is going well, even while some things need improving, and seeking to neutralise Abbott’s exploitation of their discontents.

He’ll also promote the idea of “new” more constructive politics, which elevates the discourse into something more civil and constructive, seeking to cast Abbott as practicing aggressive “old” politics. This picks up on community disillusionment with the way politics has been operating especially in the period of the hung parliament.

The public opinion polls and the parties’ own tracking will be important for both sides in formulating their tactics as the election nears. This week’s huge change in Labor has opened something of a vacuum. We don’t know whether people will be cynical about Rudd’s duplicity and less enamoured when they see him day to day, or whether they will be (and stay) as enthusiastic as ever about the man they didn’t want thrown out.

In other words, has Rudd Mark 2 returned to power coated with teflon? If he has, the Coalition will have to adapt its tactics quickly.

Rudd is talking buzz words and ideas – energy, engaging with young people and “cooking with gas”, politicians working together rather than shouting at each other all the time.

He’s creating a sense of momentum. The new ministry is expected today; the swearing in will be Monday. He’ll talk to Victorian premier Denis Napthine about the Gonski funding ASAP. Can he clinch a deal where Gillard failed? Apparently Rudd is now quite keen on Gonski despite some earlier speculation that he wasn’t.

He plans to fulfil Gillard’s commitment to visit Indonesia for leadership talks next week. She was accused of making the trip a political exercise, even though it is part of a regular dialogue. If he goes Rudd will be able to put a more “statesman” frame around it; he may also emerge appearing to have “done something” on boats (whether or not it amounts to anything substantial).

The boats issue is one of the most difficult policy challenges he has. In search of a solution, he meanwhile lectures Abbott about the need for the opposition leader to get briefed.

Another challenge is dealing with the business community. He has sent the signal that he wants to improve what has become a very bad relationship. Even if there were a superficial improvement, however, it is hard to see big or small business doing anything but being polite, while waiting in the expectation of a change of government.

What success the Rudd government has in selling its economic credentials to the wider community will partly depend on how well new Treasurer Chris Bowen performs. Wayne Swan has been widely seen as an ineffective salesman of Australia’s economic successes. Bowen versus Joe Hockey, who has been presenting more sharply in recent months, will be an interesting match up.

Around Labor, one of the big questions is whether Rudd will be be different second time round. A little, no doubt – anyone who’s been to political hell and back will have learned a bit.

Has he changed fundamentally? Probably not. But then, for Labor’s purposes just now, he probably does not need to have remade himself. If, between now and the election, Labor had a reprise of Kevin 07 that would suit it just fine.

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