It had to happen sooner or later and last week it did. Our beloved Prime Minister, Kevin Michael Rudd, officially became Mr Dud.
But what was interesting was that the appellation did not come from Janet Albrechtsen or Piers Akerman or Andrew Bolt or any of the other unreconstructed Tories of the Murdoch press; it was bestowed by the satirical team of John Clarke and Brian Dawe, who whatever their faults have never been Howard huggers.
What’s more the christening was in response to criticism not from the right, but from the left: Rudd was accused of being too soft on whaling during his recent visit to Japan, when he announced that Australia would first seek a diplomatic solution rather than go straight to the International Court of Justice.
Of course, none of the above will prevent Dennis Shanahan breathlessly informing his readers in The Australian that the Rudd honeymoon is now over. Why should it? After all, Shanahan has been writing the same thing every fortnight since Rudd became Labor leader some 18 months ago, so he is unlikely to stop now. A slight blip in Newspoll three weeks ago led to his latest outburst of rejoicing, only to see him back in mourning when the poll reversed itself last week.
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Shanahan and many of his senior colleagues in the press gallery have still not emerged from the alternative universe in which they ensconced themselves before the election — the one in which the Howard government was going so well that the polls had to be wrong. And with a change of government the voters have continued to defy the pundits; they have failed to bite on the opposition’s populism, particularly with regard to petrol prices, and have rightly dismissed personal glitches such as the Belinda Neal fiasco as good entertainment, but irrelevant to government.
The consistency in the polling also suggests that the electorate is prepared to give an inexperienced administration time to settle down and to forgive it a few early bloopers, and that the rejection of the coalition last November went beyond mere boredom with John Howard: all that he represented was also on the nose. Rudd’s so-called honeymoon looks likely to continue for as long as the opposition fails to offer something new and different — which in the end, almost certainly means Malcolm Turnbull.
But all this does not mean that Rudd can ignore some less obvious and less partisan criticism. Increasingly he is facing problems both over the substance and the style of his government. The trouble with the substance is that Rudd seems incapable of finding a balance: he is either obsessed with the meaningless trivia of a couple of cents on petrol excise, or sketching out plans for a new international order. His silly threat to “take a blowtorch” to OPEC comes in the latter category.
Australia can be a player on the world stage, but it should not aspire to unachievable stardom. And in any case, domestic economic policy will always matter more, as Rudd will find out when he has to tackle the issue of carbon trading. He would be wise to get into practice.
But this may also mean abandoning his autocratic style of government, which has been the subject of much murmuring among his colleagues and the press gallery, and has now been dragged into the open by John Lyons in the Weekend Australian. Lyon’s description of the prime Ministerial office as “chaotic” is probably over the top, but the place certainly lacks depth, experience and gravitas. The young Turks who run it — David Epstein, Alister Jordan and Lachlan Harris — take Rudd’s authority as their own: they feel they have the right to bounce ministers, departmental heads and journalists at their whim and have no hesitation in doing so. Harris, in particular, has developed a reputation as a thug and bully, and Rudd would be well-advised to give him a dose of the Belinda Neals if he wants to avoid turning the press gallery into a permanent enemy camp.
But there is also a problem with Rudd himself, and his apparently deliberate isolation from all but the chosen few. Part of it, of course, is his manic work schedule: it leaves little time for socialising and what there is he prefers to spend with his family. But he also gives the impression that he likes it that way and has no intention of changing it.
Some blame this on a lonely and unhappy childhood making him wary of strangers. Others have noted that he is the first prime minister not to have served an apprenticeship in the old parliament house, where all the inhabitants — ministers, backbenchers, staff and press — were in a constant whirl of unavoidable togetherness. But many of those who should be his supporters are finding it increasingly difficult to find excuses for his stand-offishness. They recall what Paul Keating once said about the aristocratic Labor senator Jim McClelland : “Just because you followed a f*cking dictionary when you were about fifteen, that doesn’t give you the right to pour a bucket of sh-t over the rest of us.”
It hasn’t quite got to that stage: Rudd is certainly seen as a bit up himself, but he is not yet positively inside out. And of course he is the man who delivered them government after nearly twelve years, which gives him a certain licence. But it is not unlimited and sooner or later he will have to recognise it and start talking to people outside his office. Time for a few candlelit suppers at the Lodge, perhaps; while Therese might not have Hyacinth Bucket’s delicate touch, she’s undoubtedly better company.