Richard Farmer’s piece in yesterday’s Crikey, Playing Prime Minister, argued that Kevin Rudd’s climate change summit has the potential to backfire. His analysis is on the money, but the Opposition Leader faces further risks in his political communication.

Rudd is yet to master the art of the 30-second grab. His take-out lines are embedded within wonkish jargon, as Tim Blair picked up on his blog, quoting a Rudd grab from The 7:30 Report.

The contrast with John Howard interviewed on the same night couldn’t have been starker. Howard wasn’t in his best form, but his answers conveyed clear messages and hit the themes he wanted to get across.

Matt Price in his column in yesterday’s Australian quoted Rudd on his justification for the summit:

We need to know the drill-down for the Australian economy of a business-as-usual policy complacent approach to assist in forming and shaping the consensus to act in the future.

We do, but Rudd is communicating to two different audiences at the same time. While he’s having some success in convincing business and commentators that he’s a serious policy player and dispelling Latham’s ghost, his approach is too redolent of the habits he picked up as a public servant. As Price observes wryly, leaders normally wait until they’re elected PM before they start governing.

It’s no doubt one of Rudd’s strengths that he is skilled in, and capable of, broad consultation and thrashing out a policy approach that has wide support among stakeholders. But this is a skill of governance, not opposition.

In 2001, Howard was able to make some play with the line that Beazley avoided firm commitments and promised inquiries and commissions and reports. It’s a good political line, because voters expect clear and contrasting policy positions from Opposition leaders, not meetings and briefing papers.

Beazley, much derided for his prolixity, was able to articulate clearly what he would do with WorkChoices. Rudd, in search of business support, has made the message more complex.

Rudd’s problem is that by going down this particular road he may be playing to his own weaknesses, which are ironically also his strengths. Few doubt that from a policy and governance perspective, he’d be a good PM. But being a good opposition leader is a different thing altogether.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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