It’s not clear what’s worse — that Kevin Rudd refuses to answer questions about the leaking of the G20 phone call, or his utter shamelessness in doing so.

Not that he’s the only one leaking on President Bush. Now Barack Obama has done it too. Perhaps the Prime Minister suggested it to the President-elect during their phone chat last week.

Yesterday the Opposition asked the Prime Minister four times about who leaked the call. The number doesn’t matter so much as Rudd’s attitude in response. Each time he recited the same non-answer, although once he pretended that the question was actually about the approach he would be adopting toward the summit this weekend and gave a lecture on the importance of the G20.

Rudd didn’t even care when the Opposition moved a censure motion. He had Stephen Smith respond. He sat there silent. What sort of leader hides behind his Foreign Minister? What sort of leader hides behind Stephen Smith?

Andrew Robb called it a disgrace and was chucked out of the chamber for it. But he was dead right.

This mini-saga is all about the Prime Minister’s ego. It was about his ego when his office leaked the story, designed to puff him into an international leader. And it’s about his ego now, in his unwillingness to acknowledge the role his office played in the story despite the fact that every refusal to answer the question gives it away. All Rudd need do is declare that yes, his office provided background for the story and, on reflection, that was not perhaps the smartest thing to do. But that would involve admitting a mistake — something Rudd seems to be incapable of doing.

Messes with that careful image of control, see.

And, equally important, he doesn’t care. He knows this is Canberra stuff, of fascination to the Press Gallery and political obsessives but without resonance in the community, and no amount of puffing from the Opposition will turn it into one, particularly when The Australian, which can usually be relied upon to get stuck into Labor, apparently feels hamstrung — although Dennis Shanahan finally had a crack at it today.

Turnbull spoke entertainingly in the censure motion. In fact, Turnbull is a boon for journalists if only because he is head and shoulders above both Rudd and Brendan Nelson when it comes to Parliamentary speaking. His comments on Barack Obama and the First World War earlier in the week were very good, and his asides as he read Matt Franklin’s original report yesterday were, by the dire Parliamentary standards of recent years, vintage snark. (Turnbull is in italics.)

“It was 10.40pm on Friday October 10.”

The articles goes on:

“The Prime Minister, still clad in the suit he had worn to a business dinner in the city…”

He works so hard that he had not had time to change into his black tie; he normally has dinner in formal wear, of course.

“was polite and calm. “Have another drink while I take this call…”

Ever the gracious host.

“Rudd told his guests as he slipped into the adjacent study.”

The reporter wrote:

“What followed was an extraordinary exchange in which Rudd…”

The great polymath, he who knows all, told:

“…the most powerful man in the world that a plan to address the global financial crisis through the G7 group of leading industrialised nations was wrong. Rudd, the former diplomat and Mandarin speaker…”

Was he speaking Mandarin to the President of the United States? It is amazing what you discover when you read these articles with great care.

Turnbull’s problem is that his own ego, which is every bit as colossal as the Prime Minister’s, might be getting in the way of sound political strategy.

For two weeks and more, the Opposition’s tactic has been to call Rudd and Swan incompetent in their handling of the financial crisis. It hasn’t just been the entirely appropriate probing of the Government’s response. All semblance of bipartisanship has disappeared. Yesterday in the joint party room Turnbull told his troops that while he supported the Government’s stimulus package, he didn’t support the actual ingredients, and that he would have constructed the ingredients “more astutely”.

Rather a change from a month ago, when Turnbull declared full support for the package “without quibbling”.

This has been coupled with persistent attacks on Ken Henry and, at one stage when Don Randall got carried away, Glenn Stevens.

The only possible conclusion from the Opposition’s tactics is that it is perfectly prepared to exploit the biggest economic crisis in decades for its own political ends.

I observed earlier in the year that Brendan Nelson’s biggest problem was that he didn’t want to be Prime Minister in the way that Malcolm Turnbull wanted to be – and that successful leaders like Rudd, Howard, Keating, Hawke and Fraser had wanted. Turnbull’s tactics demonstrate his determination to be Prime Minister, no matter what the cost. He knows he only has one shot at it. He won’t still be Opposition leader in 2013, especially not if Peter Costello sticks around. So he’s doing everything possible – no matter what the collateral damage to economic confidence, to Australia’s leading economic institutions — to attack the Government.

The opinion polls suggest it’s not working at all. Rudd is back to the sort of approval levels he reached earlier in the year against the hapless Nelson. The 2PP is still in the same area 55-45 — that it has been pretty much since December 2006.

The risk with Turnbull’s tactics are that they backfire, and create a public impression of a smart-rse, someone who failed to get behind the Government as it tried to manage a global crisis. Having Julie Bishop — who keeps throwing up ever more episodes of plagiarism — at his side doesn’t help. Turnbull would be better off letting the economic slowdown do his work for him, leaving the unemployment numbers to undermine the Government’s standing. The risk at the moment is that he cruels his public image before that can happen. Once the public has an image of you, it’s very hard to shake it off. Only John Howard has ever managed it, and he did it by turning his weaknesses into strengths.

Turnbull showed patience in waiting out Brendan Nelson. He’s not doing the same in his contest with Kevin Rudd. And this time there’s a lot more than one job involved.

Peter Fray

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