There is really only one point to all the daily talking and all the travelling of political leaders during an election campaign. The 60 seconds or so of coverage on the nightly television news is what it is all about. And the pictures are more important than the words. The campaign planners spend their time trying to manipulate those images so that the message shown is the one they think best serves their party’s interests.
An important part of this manipulative strategy is to ensure that television journalists have no choice. They don’t like talking heads on the TV news so when the only appearance of a leader of a political party is at a school or a hospital then that is what will be shown. Unless, unfortunately for the spin controllers, some parliamentary underling or other has said something off the daily strategy and left the leader answering questions on some radio program or hasty doorstop.
Kevin Rudd found himself in that situation yesterday when the best laid plan to make the Education Revolution of a Rudd Labor Government the daily centrepiece was sabotaged. The night before, the foreign affairs spokesman, Robert McClelland, made a rather routine speech about human rights. It dutifully set out the party policy as adopted at the last ALP national conference with only the very slightest of embellishments accusing the Coalition Government of being a little hypocritical in claiming to be against the death penalty and lobbying foreign governments not to use it against Australian drug smugglers while refusing to criticise terrorists being put to death.
Unfortunately for the announcement of “Federal Labor’s $42 Billion Minimum Schools Funding Commitment: Giving Schools Financial Certainty”, Mr McClelland’s words actually got reported in a newspaper. The Australian considered the re-announcement of a commitment to try and persuade our regional neighbours to abolish the death penalty to be worthy of page one treatment. Fair enough, given that the fifth anniversary of the Bali bombings was only days away.
Mr Rudd found that journalists thought the death penalty was a far more interesting subject than the education revolution and the best laid of plans quickly went astray. Here was some real sport for the hounds and they quickly had a little taste of blood. The Labor Leader launched into criticism of his colleague, one of his colleague’s staff and the employee of his own who has the job of vetting what shadow ministers say to ensure that there are no words that will cause deviation from the approved daily line.
Not only did this reaction by Mr Rudd completely overshadow his schools policy but it turned what should have been a minor matter into the major political story of the day. Leaders do not often drop a bucket of abuse on a senior member of their front bench. Even more rarely do Labor Leaders try and rewrite party policy in a radio studio.
Fortunately for Mr Rudd, the damage was limited by this being a story without compelling pictures to accompany it. Commentators might have had a field day with it but for most viewers last night it would just have been words.
The danger for Labor is what the incident indicates about Mr Rudd’s ability to think quickly when confronted with the unplanned event. A simple comment that the timing of Mr McClelland’s speech could have been better followed by an affirmation that promising the death penalty to people who delight in being suicide bombers did not achieve much would have been sufficient.
The lesson to be learned by the Labor team is that the time has come for all the members of the shadow Cabinet to quietly remove themselves from the campaign proper and give up the notion that any speech they make can have a positive influence on the election result. From now on they should be out and about in marginal electorates as far away as possible from cameras, tape recorders and journalists with notebooks. In short, they should be neither seen nor heard.