Comparing Kevin Rudd to Tony Blair seems to be in vogue at the moment. Jeff Sparrow’s piece yesterday was only the latest of several recent items suggesting that Blair and his penchant for spin and gimmicks is a template Rudd Labor is following in areas such as binge drinking.

Now, a methodological note before we proceed: the traditional Left response to such nonsense as binge drinking crusades, as represented with distinction by Mr Sparrow and, from his outpost on Planet Genocide by Guy Rundle, is to regard them as at best middle class moralising, and at worst deliberate distraction from fundamental social problems. To egregiously and unfairly simplify, The Kids wouldn’t binge drink if the capitalism system didn’t offer them such a meaningless consumerist existence, and if Kevin Rudd was serious about stopping binge drinking he’d fix that instead. But like Tony Blair, he’s only interested in generating the illusion of fixing social problems, not the reality.

Well, maybe Rudd is Blair Mark II, maybe not. Without bothering to check, I’m fairly sure during the election campaign, I too professed to see in the Christianity, and the scarily ferocious ambition, and the feeling that he didn’t quite belong in his own party, some eerie, or at least faintly interesting, parallels between St Kevin of the Working Family and the papist pommy ex-PM.

And yes doubtless Rudd’s staff have pored over the Blair years, looking for tips on what, and what not, to do. Do hang out with celebrities. Don’t send troops to Iraq. Don’t sell honours for political donations. Don’t fall in love with the US president.

But we need to be careful about making such comparisons. After all, it isn’t so long since Janet Albrechtsen – admittedly not the brightest bulb in the magnificent News Ltd chandelier – compared John Howard to both Blair and Margaret Thatcher within the space of a fortnight (when really it was John Major she was reaching for).

And, having observed the man up close, I think the argument that Rudd’s focus on binge drinking is a replay and a foretaste of New Labour-style stunts in the UK is based on a misapprehension about Kevin Rudd’s political personality. Blair was never a bureaucrat. Rudd was, and for a significant period of his career, at junior and senior levels, and I’d argue it is critical to his political personality.

And yes, since I’m a former bureaucrat myself, doubtless I WOULD say that, but hear me out.

Rudd talks like a bureaucrat, carefully choosing his words, inserting caveats, phrasing things so that it can be impossible to nail him down on things. It’s not deliberate evasion – as a bureaucrat you’re taught to allow yourself (or, in fact, your minister) that sort of wriggle room. And Rudd’s emphasis on benchmarking and performance indicators betrays that he also THINKS like a bureaucrat, ever anxious to achieve best practice and demonstrate efficiency and effectiveness.

But within every bureaucrat – especially Canberra bureaucrats – there lurks the fear that you are Out Of Touch. That you don’t quite understand what is going on out in the real world. This is the fear that I believe drives Rudd to make sure he is always in touch with ordinary Australians, that he never comes across as the wealthy Mandarin-speaking policy wonk but as a leader who understands what the much-celebrated “working families” are going through. The fact that the Howard Government lost because it ended up out of touch with many of its core voters reinforces the lesson that Rudd wants to ensure he never forgets.

So when Rudd said – as he did when challenged at a press conference – that ordinary people have been raising binge drinking with him in supermarkets across Australia, I believe him. He may not – as he admits – know what to do about it, but he wants to do something about it, as well as be seen to do so.

It is still moral panic, and still lacks any evidentiary base, but Rudd isn’t imposing from the top down some half-baked coercive measure because he’s afraid of fundamental social change. His motives are quite different. He genuinely believes that this issue concerns parents across the country and across demographics. His political instincts tell him that he cannot let it go unaddressed. And on binge drinking he’s even prepared to challenge the advertising and media industries – normally a huge no-no for politicians – in doing so.

This isn’t to laud Rudd’s bravery. Pursuing populist causes is rarely brave. But Rudd’s thinking is more complex than a simple Blairite stunt n’ spin approach, at least at this stage.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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