For the second time in this campaign, Labor has been taken by surprise. Perhaps the party was lulled into a false sense of security by the lift Rudd has long enjoyed in the polls. They overlooked the obvious fact that until Rudd, each of the leaders Labor put up has not been seen by the electorate as the sort of person who should be prime minister, particularly Mark Latham. (Unlike most in the commentariat – and, incidentally, the caucus, the Howard battlers were right about Latham.)

Although Rudd looks prime ministerial, he has spoilt this by unwisely displaying hubris in boardrooms and more dangerously, in the nation’s news rooms. But he doesn’t perform well under pressure. His glass jaw and petulance in blaming others is now out in the open.

The campaign has revealed another flaw. Rudd doesn’t appreciate that leadership involves understanding and learning from your opponent. He demonstrated this by his body language in the House, turning his back, or pretending to write, whenever Howard or Costello were replying. The first manifestation of this failure was when Howard offered an early debate, which he clearly didn’t expect. He has to accept this offer, or be seen as refusing to face the prime minister. Now it’s the massive $38 billion tax package.

An essential aspect of any campaign, military or political, is in gathering and learning from intelligence. To understand the conservative side, Labor could have, for example, closely studied and learnt from John Stone’s proposal on tax reform in the National Observer, which I mentioned here on 23 September. (Not that Stone was in any way complimentary of Costello.)

The fact is that true conservatives believe that people know better than governments, and government spending should be restricted to core functions. Howard’s battlers share this view. The political imperative to buy votes will moderate this, so you get conservative governments providing middle class welfare or working with institutions which are too entrenched, like Medicare.

For a man who claims to be a fiscal conservative, it is inexplicable that Rudd not only has no fiscal plan but that through his amanuensis, Wayne Swan, he was taken aback when Howard and Costello produced theirs. If Rudd tries to match it, the Caucus will only accept this through gritted teeth. Since Whitlam, Labor politicians like nothing more than spending, but not on such practical things as dams, or other infrastructure. The Howard battlers think differently.

The other aspect of campaigning is to run your own campaign and disregard instructions from your opponent about this. In the 1999 referendum, the republicans tried to tell the constitutional monarchists which issues to campaign on. This gratuitous advice was of course consigned to the rubbish bin. Kevin Rudd’s endless bleating about the “mother of all negative campaigns” will be ignored, and so it should.

Of course, strictly private matters should be off limits, but Julia Gillard’s active involvement in the leadership of a neo-communist organisation is a matter of legitimate public interest. Rather than airbrushing it, or saying she could not remember what it was about, she could have done no better than to observe that a person under 30 who is not a socialist has no heart, and a person over 30 who is, has no brain.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey