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Oct 19, 2011

Labor will eventually return to the Rudd brand

Brands are critical to Prime Ministers and Julia Gillard's brand is very likely terminally damaged. There's only one viable brand in Labor ranks.

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Branding has a bad name in political discourse. The word is often said with a faint distaste. Presumably people, particularly politically engaged people, would prefer that the clash of party, of policy, of personality not be reduced to the level of marketing dishwashing powder or cars. But given most voters — whom we force to polls with the threat of fines — have minimal interest in or exposure to the details of federal politics unless something significant is happening, and have long since abandoned even the simplest forms of political activism like political party membership, individual and party brands are key to political success.

And that will only become more so as the unitary media of the 20th century — a single public space controlled by a small number of proprietors across three media — recedes into history as the aberration it always was. In an ever-more cluttered, fragmented media environment, branding is crucial not just for media outlets but for political parties and leaders.

Prime Ministers need a brand. As national leader, they need to have a relationship with voters, and you can’t have a relationship with a non-entity (well, not a particularly enjoyable one). It used to take a long time to acquire a brand as leader. John Howard was around Australian public life for decades before he became Prime Minister. So was Bob Hawke, in a far more high-profile role. Keating created an entirely new political character in Australian politics and inhabited it brilliantly, but he’d been in politics for decades as well before he became Prime Minister. Hawke and Keating also rebranded their party as the party of reform, of modernisation and change, the drive of Keating and the reassurance of Hawke combining to enable Australians to accept the most rapid period of reform since WW2.

Julia Gillard‘s brand, as everyone knows, is damaged, and very likely terminally damaged. Last year, after the election, her challenge was to develop her brand, to articulate her personal vision for Australia, what she wanted to achieve as Prime Minister and her agenda for achieving it. She literally admitted that she needed to do this and tried, while many of us were whingeing about her need to do it, to set about doing it.

The carbon price decision, as correct in policy terms as it was, wrecked that, branding her as deceitful. Her, and Labor’s, polling numbers crashed from the day the carbon pricing decision was announced in February, and they’ve never recovered. Her failure to address another issue she had personally identified as being on her to-do list, asylum seekers, played to a wider branding problem for the whole government, of incompetence, an image undeserved in most areas but carefully cultivated by the Opposition and many in the media, particularly News Ltd and the ABC.

Barring a recovery that would make John Howard‘s “Lazarus with a triple bypass” look like a mild angina attack, Gillard can’t lead Labor to the next election. You can’t rule out a turnaround, of course: stranger things have happened. Recall John Howard’s travails in the 1980s, when he was a figure of public derision and mocking Bulletin front pages, before his huge electoral success in the 1990s and 2000s. But that took a wilderness period when even his own party turned its back on him, and a deeply unpopular Keating Government.

The political cycle has dramatically sped up since then, so there’s time for a Gillard rehabilitation before 2013, but not while she’s in office and under the constant scrutiny of the Prime Ministership, particularly when, to her immense credit, she remains committed to actually using power to pursue a useful, if fairly limited, set of reforms.

Who else has a brand suitable for leadership in the Labor Party? We’ve seen what happens when you install unknowns into leadership positions, in NSW, where Labor inserted first Nathan Rees, then Kristina Keneally, into the premiership in an effort to turn around its fortunes. Both were unknown to voters. Voters don’t initially react hostilely to people they don’t know, but the lack of a brand means there’s minimal tolerance for error, no deep roots to secure a leader in popular support even when things go bad.

As it turned out — particularly once she was free of the burdens of leadership, Keneally was actually revealed as an intelligent, engaging woman who might yet have a lot to offer Labor. But you can’t create a brand on the run.

That’s Federal Labor’s problem. Does Stephen Smith have a brand? Well, if he does it’s as one of the hotter blokes in Parliament. Beyond that, he’s intelligent, engaging and very competent, but otherwise unknown to voters. What about Bill Shorten or Greg Combet, the next generation? Combet in particular has some profile from his days at the ACTU, but again, they’re mostly unknown and to the extent they are known, they’re not associated with anything beyond being generic Labor figures.

Simon “safe pair of hands”™ Crean? Hmmm. And the ambitious deputy, that perennial figure in Australian politics? Well, neither side is blessed with thrusting deputies at the moment, and Wayne Swan has publicly acknowledged that the leadership baton has slipped from his napsack.

Oh, except, there is Kevin Rudd. He has a brand. And his brand is far better now courtesy of his knifing by his colleagues. The punters like Kevin much more now since he was done over by the factions than in the final stages of his leadership, although he was well ahead of Tony Abbott on all indicators when he was knocked off.

One of Rudd’s problems as PM was that he failed to build his brand while PM. I just said you can’t create a brand on the run, but Rudd was in an unusual position, having won the Prime Ministership on the basis of being able to project different things to different voters as Opposition Leader, appealing to both more cautious voters who were tired of Howard but didn’t want too much change, and the Howard-haters who would have done anything to turf out the Liberals.

With his enormous popularity, and his adroit handling of the GFC, Rudd was positioned in 2008-09 to craft a durable positive brand from a position of power. Instead, he blew it, blew it any number of ways but mainly, for mine, by allowing the Opposition to define the terms of economic debate, by skipping the chance to have a double dissolution election on the CPRS (dud policy that it was) in February 2010, and by dumping the CPRS.

All of that was fixed by getting knifed. As Malcolm Turnbull discovered, getting publicly executed by your party is a great way to revive your reputation. Before Tony Abbott narrowly defeated him, Turnbull’s leadership was a mess, particularly due to his appalling misjudgement over Godwin Grech. All that’s been forgotten now, particularly by Labor and Greens voters, who would lift the Liberals’ vote to even higher levels if he was leader, and even by the independents, who clearly would be tempted to back a Liberal Government if Turnbull was at the helm.

Turnbull was done over for standing by his principles, while Rudd can make no such claim, but that detail doesn’t seem to have dampened the popular enthusiasm for Rudd. The fact that Labor’s factional leaders are so poorly regarded further strengthens the image of Rudd.

That’s why, barring that improbable Gillard recovery, Labor will turn to Rudd, probably late in 2012, should the government survive that long, which is by no means assured. They’ll turn to him in spite of his profound personality flaws, Downfall-based management style and quite staggering genius for alienating people. Rudd’s the only choice. Labor wasted Gillard when it elevated her to the leadership too soon, and surrounded her with duds from NSW Labor to run her election campaign. Sticking Stephen Smith or Bill Shorten or anyone else in will just waste them too. Labor can’t waste Rudd, because it’s already done it.

Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of what exactly the ALP’s brand is any more, anyway. That’s a problem beyond the immediate capacity of any leader — Gillard, Rudd, Smith, anyone — to fix.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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155 thoughts on “Labor will eventually return to the Rudd brand

  1. SBH

    Archer I agree, you should have a view and inform yourself. As a parent I’m sure your children’s welfare is foremost in your mind and I’m sure you give them good advice like eat properly, exercise get enough sleep, don’t do dumb things in a car you know sound parental advice.

    If one of your kids came to you and said ‘Dad (or mum) the doctor’s put me on beta blockers for my hypertension, I’m already on verapmil so could you help me adjust the dosage to counter the additive effect it may have on mechanichal and electrical depression?’ You’d probably say ‘I think you need an expert son.’

    For some reason you’ve decided that the science on climate isn’t overwhelmingly conclusive. You could take the same view about lots on things including newtonian physics or special relativity or evolution. In each case further inquiry is warranted but our knowledge in each field is now extensive and closely matches the observable world. When you say the question on climate is open and should be so taught in schools, it’s like saying that you can’t predict the movement of the planets using calculus or that objects can move faster than light. You’d need some pretty strong grounds. People who don’t believe in climate change don’t have these grounds, they continue to use junk science and a debased form of reasoning.

    As for the national curriculum, teaching is a profession and writing curricula is a specialised part of that profession. It’s not a job for amateurs. And yet, you’re happy to critices the new national history curriculum as ‘political advertsising. By all means have an opinion. I just wanted to know if your opinion was in anyway backed up by knowledge of the subject matter or competence or anything other than a conversation you had with one teache in one school about one pupil.

  2. Policeman MacCruiskeen

    From the newsroom:

    Folks I’ve just spent a couple of hours at the Wollibuddha bowling club doing some intensive polling on our leadership crisis … pension week brings out the sample very nicely, but you’ve gotta get in before happy hour and the schooners of chilled sherry start to mount up.

    So I ran Troofie’s … sorry Troofys’ … idea about the Stephen Smith brand up the flagpole and the numbers are well and truly in:

    78.435% didn’t know who he was. 17.402% thought he was a jockey.

    Of the remainder 23.908% thought he’d be a far preferable leader if he had a moustache and changed his name to The Stephen Jones Brand . A small minority favoured the Bolt Upright brand. One did anyway.

    33.333% of intending Greens voters though he looked quite nice on telly and spoke real good but needed a bit of a touch-up with pomade around the temples. Or some dreadies. Or maybe a mohawk.

    100% of those planning to vote for the Sex Party – yes that’s you Maureen (I promised I’d mention her) -thought he had are really hot butt but still reckoned the white shirts looked too staid and conservative for a real stud. A few TV appearances in budgie smugglers was strongly endorsed as a profile-building effort for the brand, but it was late in happy hour and your pollster could not quite make out the rest of the interview.

    So there you have it folks, the jury is in on the Mr Smith – or Jones Brand. Just watch this space – and remember: you read it here on Crikey first.

    Brand Power … helping you vote better.

  3. Archer

    Jimmy Posted Thursday, 20 October 2011 at 11:22 am

    Hello Jimmy

    Archer – “If you start teaching it now you are predicting results and history not known for two generations” What the? They aren’t teaching history of the future, they are teaching history and the curriculum won’t be static, it will evolve.

    In my opinion, unlike the event of a world war, we know what will happen with absolute certainty. It starts, someone is the winner and someone is defeated. The statistics between the timeline is unknown until it ends. During the war, assuming there are schools, the topic is open for discussion until the inevitable, the war ends and becomes an important point in history.

    My concern with the global warming / climate change debate is that the curriculum must be devised so that all possibilities are open for discussion. At present, my son attends a primary school in a “green belt” region of Melbourne. His homework tasks, be they maths, social studies, geography or science are saturated with environmental themes. To me, the environment should be examined in the science class, nowhere else. It’s as if the curriculum had already been set, Al Gore’s film was shown and many parents were furious. Nobody had consulted them.

    Back to my original rant. The benefits, if any, of this tax will not be known for generations, therefore it is my belief we teach the introduction of the tax as a subject of history only. However, the science is to be taught in it’s appropriate class, impartially, because of the long period of uncertainty before any result is confirmed.

  4. Archer

    Gillard will be hard to remove. All the independents made their deals with Gillard and Gillard alone behind closed doors. That’s how they ended up with entitlements they demanded. None of the other Labor MP’s would have put up with their wish list.

    Having said that, if Gillard goes the deals may go as well, something the independents definitely won’t put up with. Rudd isn’t a liked man, well “not liked” aren’t the words, he’s despised. No one wants to work with him. Rudd may pull the deals just to put the Greens and the independents in their places. I don’t believe they would retaliate because for the first time the Greens are actually in a position of power and so are the independents. And do you think they want to go to an election? I doubt it, Windsor, Oakshotte and Wilke would be mauled and Katter doesn’t care. Besides, doesn’t Katter have his own party now? The Greens would take a pounding, perhaps even in the City of Yarra where Bandt comes from.

    There is a rumour that Steven Smith has been chosen. He’s likable, not threatening and will probably honour the deals negotiated by Gillard.

    Even though I hate Rudd I’d love to see the proverbial hit the fan and the Greens and Indies squirm but I doubt it’s going to happen.

    My two cents.

    P.S. Whoever Labor offer as the contender they can be assured this is there one and only shot at the PM ship because they will be defeated badly. What do you call it in cricket? The night watchman.

  5. SimsonMc

    MWH – Rather than you reading Green blogs which just reinforces your prejudice and jilted view of the world I will enlighten you. I never said that the Greens didn’t action on climate change. What I was referring to was the fact that unlike Howard and the Democrats who understood the practicalities of implementing reform when it came to the GST, the Greens’ decision to vote the CPRS legislation down altogether, rather than passing it with minor amendments as better than nothing, seems to be based on two fundamental misjudgements.

    First, the Greens were hoping that the government held a Double Dissolution election on the CPRS. A Double Dissolution would have seen more Greens elected to the Senate (because the quota for election is much lower than in a normal election). This would have meant that the Greens might have held the balance of power in their own right. That would have obviously been to the Greens’ advantage but they also seemed to have held out the hope that Labor would have then introduced a far more radical scheme in order to pass it with Greens’ support. However that was never going to happen because not only is the ALP ideologically opposed to radical left policies but it knew it faced genuine political and economic constraints with such a reform. Labor (and the Coalition) understand the structural power of business in a capitalist economy. Governments especially Labor ones, have a long term fear of overly antagonising business because they have seen the concerted business campaign against Labor that contributed to the defeat of Chifley in 1949, Whitlam in 1975 and Latham in 2004.

    That is why Labor wanted significant business support for their CPRS model not, as Christine Milne implied because they are craven or corrupt. Perversely, if the Greens were as Marxist as Nick Minchin and others accuse them of being, they would have understood how power operates in a capitalist society and of the economic constraints which all governments have faced historically. So, the Greens misunderstood the strategic considerations underlying Labor’s CPRS. It was designed to win broad initial support but to be incrementally strengthened over a period of years as business and public opinion was gradually won over to the tougher measures. (After all, an incremental methods has been used to introduce most major government economic reforms).

    Second, the Greens seemed to believe that the detrimental impact of climate change would become so obvious that public opinion would automatically fall behind a more radical scheme, forcing Labor to introduce one. This was a huge assumption to make and showed little understanding of how ideology works. Many climate change scientists do argue that the evidence of catastrophic climate change is becoming more obvious. Nonetheless, climate change scepticism is growing, as is opposition to taking action against it. Furthermore, even if a changing climate is eventually acknowledged, it can still be interpreted, as Tony Abbott sometimes suggests, as being due to natural changes that have happened throughout history.

    So, even if the Greens are right about the catastrophic environmental impact and causes of climate change, they blew their chance so now large sections of the public prefer the comfort of denial.

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    Even today the stupid woman is claiming it is Abbott’s fault 51 refugees arrived, even though our over all lot for the year has fallen by 19% on last year because they are going to Europe instead.

    And forgetting of course that she was told in May by the UN commissioner for human rights that flogging off refugees is illegal, she was told by the head of the UNHCR who would have nothing to do with her dirty dealings, the head of Human rights watch who wrote and laid out the laws, the head of Amnesty International, our own HREOC and international jurists and lawyers and our own High court who screamed in the stupid woman’s face IT’S ILLEGAL.

    It cannot ever be made legal but still she shows no leadership and fails to understand that the truth was told last year by her.

    We should also understand that what drives the peaks and troughs in the
    numbers of boats trying to get to Australia has less to do with what we do
    here and more to do with the conditions people are escaping – conditions like
    war, genocide, imprisonment without trial, torture, harassment by authorities,
    the disappearance of family and friends, and children growing up in refugee
    camps with no prospect of ever again seeing their home.
    And when conditions deteriorate in countries with sea routes to Australia, as
    they did between 1999 and 2001, more boats come – some 5,516 people
    came to our shores in 2001. But then when conditions improved as happened
    after 2001 with the downfall of the Taliban regime fewer and fewer boats

    So she knows and doesn’t care. Read the articles I posted from Malaysia.

    Gillard could show some facts instead of crawling into the lazy racist gutter.

  7. Douglas Evan

    Labor has an incredible problem on its hands. If the polls don’t pick up it may, as BK argues, try to solve its woes by changing leaders again before the election.

    First question for the back room morons who might be thinking along these lines. Would this help their standing or would it only reinforce an already strongly held public perception that Labor is terminally disorganized and doesn’t know what it stands for other than gaining re-election?

    Second question. Even if they want to do it who will be prepared to be drafted? In the event that the polls stay poor, anyone with ambition and half a brain will wish to keep their head down until after the event. Rudd’s ego is so large that he might think he can become a Labor hero by winning the day. However calm reflection suggests that Labor will still lose, even though some of the Queensland furniture might be saved, with Rudd at the helm.

    That would leave him terminally damaged as leader of a defeated, disorganized, demoralized, disoriented opposition that by and large hates him. He would be dead(ish) meat waiting to be snapped up by the first sufficiently lean and hungry wolf to gather the numbers. If you were Rudd would you take the gig under those circumstances or would you hold off until after the election?

    Combet and Shorten will wait. Smith might be prevailed upon to sacrifice his career but I wouldn’t bet on it. Neither would I assume that Rudd is simply waiting to get back in the chair as soon as possible.

  8. Ian


    My take on this is that the politics of this are irrelevant. Action on the climate change ball was going to be relegated to an old, forgotten cupboard in the garage. Julia Gillard, whether by design or pragmatic decision dusted it off, pumped it up and got it rolling. The ball is now in play.

    I’m no finacial wizard or scientific mind. I’m a truckdriver. But,IMHO, the amount of money that will be spent on renewable research to help come up with the overdue solutions the planet so desperately needs. None of this would be happening if Julia Gillard hadn’t put the ball into play.

    At least be fair and give some credit where it is due.

  9. MinkTheLink

    It seems to me that the Australian electorate is increasingly fickle. They love Rudd, they hate Rudd, they love Gillard, they hate Gillard – all within the space of a few months. Loyalty to a party and policies has all but disappeared and given way to what can only be described as a personal popularity contest. The public may hate Gillard now and want Rudd back, but no doubt if this did come about, the media would condemn Labor and Rudd for another leadership change and they would be in the same position as they are now.
    It’s largely a case of the media dictating public opinion rather than public opinion dictating media content. Although I’m certainly not Gillard’s number 1 fan, I think she’s being assessed by grandiose statements by much of the media about her incompetence, rather than by what she has achieved – which is actually not negligible, especially given her minority government. It certainly doesn’t make it any easier that Abbott has made it his priority in life to make everyone hate Gillard and to oppose everything she puts forward even when it is in line with Liberal policy.
    Given the changeability of opinion when it comes to leadership I don’t think Gillard is beyond redeeming herself in the public eye – one incident, latched onto by the media and spun positively by the media could make all the difference.
    Surely Howard reneging on his no GST election promise was no better than Gillard’s carbon tax turn around. He was forgiven – so why not her?

  10. Ian

    Sent this to the PM yesterday. Don’t really care what the right thinks

    Dear Prime Minister,

    Firstly, my sincere congratulations on the passing of the Carbon Reduction Scheme. I am sure that my grandchildren and their childrens gratitude will echo with much more resonance than mine. The future,as always, has much to thank the past for. This is no exception. Again, thank you.

    As I watch the daily political debate I can’t help but at times to feeling a disquieting coldness overtake me. It’s as if the heart of the old time knockabout, she’ll be right Aussie has been clenched in a corrupted fist of hate, bile and venom. The personal attacks on yourself have been particularly disturbing. No Australian worker, and you are one, should ever be subjected to that. It really is unAustralian. How and where you get the strength to fight it day after day I have no idea. I, like millions of others are just thankful that you find the courage to do so.

    In those times when you find yourself doubting the validity of your beliefs, your vision of the countrys’ future, the steadfastness of your colleagues beliefs please remember that for every Australian that doubts you one Australian believes in you. That the polls say different is superflous. The last ballot boxes spoke truthfully. I truly believe that in the cheap cardboard voting booth Australians, aware of the importance of their individual action, vote in the best interests of this country. It was so in 2007, it was so in 2010 and will be so in 2013.

    Pay no attention to those who, by not understanding the true nature of courage, seek only to destroy it. To those to whom the meaning of Honour is not the selfless actions of the brave, the courage of independent thought guided by an empathatic awareness of the foibles of humanity. They believe Honour to be a useful addition to the school motto. Give them no heed.

    Millions of Australians believe in you and your journey. Draw on our strength.

  11. Jim Reiher

    Labor have been their own worst enemy. If they had any real courage, any serious survival strategy they would begin a serious reformning agenda including:

    – increase the mining tax (even if it means breaking the deal Ms Gillard did with them three days after knifing Mr Rudd)
    – use that money to immediately increase pensions (will Mr Abbott take it back?)
    – put dental care under medicare (will Mr Abbott end that?)
    – get up the national disability insurance scheme
    – end the intervention in the NT
    – institutue a national holiday celebrating our indigenous people and their heritage (let’s see Mr Abbott try to undo that one)
    – change media ownership laws to lower the amount that any one person or company can own
    – begin a govt owned and operated manufacturing plant for wind turbines and solar panels – out near Hazelwood, and offer people out there more jobs in clean energy work…
    – introduce gay marriage (cant see the Libs undoing that one either)
    – and more….

    What might happen? They lose the next election?
    You have to be joking!?
    That looks so certain that a radical action plan of serious reform might just save them.

    So to Labor out there…. I have to cry out in desparation: Go down fighting you cowards! Sack your conservative advisors and minders and DO SOMETHING you frightened poll-driven gutless wonders!

    The only think I can image worse right now, than impotent Labor, is an Abbott led hyper-conservative govt. That thought causes me to fall into the fetal position, shaking ….

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