The 7:30 Report‘s Michael Brissenden was neat indeed in his wrap of the leaders’ speeches apologising to the stolen generations. Brendan Nelson, Brisso said, had “struggled to find a cohesive theme”.

Yet the opposition leader could get an edge on Rudd if he had a good speechwriter to shape a higher purpose message with a touch of poetry.

Kevin Rudd likes to write his own material. It’s not bad, but it can be derivative and inclined to cliché. In his speech on Wednesday, the Prime Minister came close to plagiarising Barack Obama. Twice.

Rudd talked about “audacity of faith”, not a million miles away from Obama’s own “audacity of hope”. And he channelled Obama with his talk about a day “in which we might just be able to transform the way in which the nation thinks about itself”.

There is an enormous irony in all of this. Twelve months ago this week, the then prime minister, John Howard, talked with Laurie Oakes on the Sunday program.

“Senator Barack Obama’s announced overnight he’s running for the Democrat Presidential nomination,” Oakes said, “and he says if he gets it he has a plan to bring troops home by March, 2008.”

Howard replied “If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats.”

The comment set the tone for Howard’s terrible year to come. What was he doing attacking a potential President of the United States? Even if he was lowly rated (then), who knew how far Obama could go?

Something broke that day. The comments destroyed Howard’s foreign policy credentials. Until then many believed rightly or wrongly that the Coalition would always have better ties with any US administration than the ALP. Howard’s comments seemed to prove every Green Left conspiracy theorist’s rants that he was close only to Bush and his cronies. If the Democrats won, (as looked increasingly likely), Australia might be better off with a Labor government. It was a spectacular own goal by Howard.

Kevin Rudd and the ALP were able to argue that Howard had endangered the American alliance by attacking the whole Democratic Party, the largest political party in the US – an amazing turnaround.

Obama neatly responded:

I think it’s flattering that one of George Bush’s allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced [my presidential] candidacy. I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1,400. So if he is… to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and send them to Iraq, otherwise it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.

The episode broke the invincibility aura that had been surrounding Howard on national security issues for several years. It put in place the impression that never went away, that he was an old man who had lost the plot.

Twelve months later, John Howard is back in Wollstonecraft and Kevin Rudd is Prime Minister – borrowing the rhetoric of Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama.

Peter Fray

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