There are generally two types of politicians; those that do the Batman thing and wear their duds on the outside of their pants, and those that don’t. But Rudd has invented a third type of politician – the political freeballer that wears no duds at all.

You cannot be wedgied if you have nothing for your opponent to grab hold of – and this has been the Rudd blueprint from day one of his leadership. All of those wedgie issues that the Coalition deployed so successfully in the past against former Labor leaders, Batmobile drivers showing their political underwear the lot of them, have been a dismal failure over the last 11 months.

The Haneef affair for Rudd, incorporating the twin wedgies of terrorism and swarthy looking foreigners, became an argument about the process, not about any intrinsic right or wrong of governments deporting such people. The tax policy wedge quickly came to nought as Rudd simply copied the fundamentals of government tax policy and tinkered around the edges to differentiate the brand.

By keeping over 90% of the tax cuts outlined by the government, thus preventing any chance of the Coalition producing a document where the costings didn’t add up, removed from the playing field any chance for the government to wedge Labor between the desires of their broader party base and the economic management narrative of the government and its media supporters.

The schools hit list policy? Wedgie shields were up – the education spending initiatives by Rudd have deliberately set out to remove the possibility of the private vs. public education wedge gaining traction. By funding programs that are independent of the ownership of the school systems, from education expenditure rebates through to yesterday’s school computer and broadband funding initiatives that apply to all schools, that wedge became nothing but Coalition dreams of what might have been.

This political freeballing looks to be a key part of the broader political strategy of Labor that is being overlooked in the commentariat.

The commentary over the so called “me too” policy that Labor has been adopting misses the point. It’s not about minimising the differences as part of that other perennial media cliché… the “small target strategy”. Far from it – it’s one of the oldest political strategies in the book being deployed with a new twist; You agree with your opponent on those issues where to disagree would lose you net votes, and you disagree with your opponent in those areas where to do so will gain you net votes.

For the last nine months or so, the focus has been on the areas of government policy which are popular. One of the primary benefits of incumbency is the ability influence the issues of the day that make up the news cycle; it’s why Sinodinos was so good.

So the point got missed, and the “me too” became the narrative simply as a result of the public face of the strategy having to deal with relatively popular government issues. The other part of this strategy in dealing with the popular government issues is where the political freeballing comes into it. Don’t disagree if it loses you votes; don’t be trapped into disagreeing by falling for wedges over those issues.

But now the campaign is in full swing, the other side of the strategy, the “accentuation of the differences” side of the strategy has become fairly obvious, and the “me too” cliche is left looking a little anaemic as a piece of decent political analysis, as it was always going to be.

WorkChoices, climate change, education and healthcare – those are the policy issues of projected difference, those are the policy issues getting hammered home in the political advertising, those are the policy issues which get mentioned in every Labor interview and every Labor set piece.

Those are the issues that Howard is seen by a large part of the electorate to not be managing well (a quick perusal of the nearest Newspoll issue survey shows us that), the areas where to disagree with Howard and to provide an alternative will only result in gaining net votes.

When you weave into that agreement/disagreement matrix the big non-policy issue that has come out in everyone’s polling – the “Howard’s been around for too long” factor, the strategy becomes complete, or rather completely obvious. The endless repetition of the “New Leadership” slogan reinforces the brand differentiation, but only in those areas where to do so delivers the electoral goods.

Rudd is refusing to be wedged, he is political freeballing because he’s refusing to be drawn into disagreeing with the government on policy areas where the government is popular. But don’t take that as a simple “me too” small strategy approach as it misses the point. It’s about product differentiation, but only in the right places as far as the ALP is concerned.

Peter Fray

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