Kevin Rudd’s first year as PM has fallen into three phases: a first phase of dramatic symbolic action; a second of slow and as yet unremarkable policy work; and a 3rd, which began with the global financial crisis. These 3 phrases have been matched by three different leadership styles: the symbolic healer; the policy driven bureaucrat; and the crisis manager as Rudd has shown the flexibility to shape his leadership style to the tasks at hand. A fourth style, that of the kitchen table populist, however, has locked him in to unproductive policies on which he has been unable to deliver.

Rudd began his Prime Ministership with some dramatic symbolic actions to mark the change of government. He ratified the Kyoto protocol, the agreement to keep Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions no higher than 8 per cent above 1990 levels. This was the first official act of the new Government. It fufilled an election promise, and it symbolised that the new government took a very different position on climate change to its predecessor. For too long Howard had played down the threat of climate change, treating it as if it were simply a left wing ideological attack on capitalism. He did modify his position during 2007, but only after it was clear that he was way out of touch with public opinion. So signing Kyoto was an important symbolic action to show that yes, the government had indeed changed. This was followed up by Rudd, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong, Environment Minister Peter Garrett and Treasurer Wayne Swan all going to Bali for the United Nations conference on climate change.

The other major symbolic act was the Apology to the Stolen Generation at 9am on Wednesday 13th February in a speech that was intelligent, thoughtful, and gracious. It didn’t try to score political points but to respond with sensitivity to the terrible human suffering state laws and policies had brought to Aboriginal people through policies which removed children and broke up families. It was the bookend to a pointless national debate that had begun at the Reconciliation Convention in 1998 when the Report Bringing Them Home was first released and Howard had angrily refused to apologise.

Last week on the ABC’s Howard Years showed footage of an angry Howard shouting and banging his fist; indigenous people standing and turning their backs. A debate followed as to whether or not the children had been stolen or removed for their own good; whether or not there were enough of them to call them a generation, and so on. It was mean minded, and cruel. Rudd’s speech provided symbolic closure, as its delivery was watched around the nation, in schools, homes and workplaces.

After this symbolic first phase, the Rudd government settled down to the policy work it had promised during the election — the 2nd phase and the Rudd we saw was the policy drive bureaucrat. Much less noticed by the general public than signing the Kyoto protocol and attending the Bali conference was the first meeting of COAG under the new government. This was held on 20th December — less than a month since the election, and it set out an ambitious policy agenda for the new government: health and ageing; the productivity agenda — including education, skills, training and early childhood; climate change and water; infrastructure; business regulation and competition; housing; and Indigenous reform.

The COAG list was not glamorous or ideological but a list of the government’s bread and butter policy responsibilities. All had featured during Labor’s year long election campaign. All were caught up in the tangled funding and jurisdictional relations between state and federal governments. And all were in a mess, with state and federal governments engaging in a continual blame game as each refused to take responsibility.

Howard’s main policy preoccupations had been tax reform — which he had achieved with the GST, introduced at the 2008 election; the culture wars; foreign policy and the US alliance which had drawn Australia into the disastrous war in Iraq; and industrial relations reform — which had led to the overreaching of WorkChoices. As Howard wasted time and political capital on these, the policy problems piled up: health funding and public hospitals; infrastructure bottlenecks and failures; a dysfunctional federal system; tax and income support systems in need of overhaul; underfunded universities; falling school retention rates; a natural world under terrible strain, with the looming disaster of the Murray Darling River system; and the need dramatically to re-structure energy to reduce carbon emissions.

So the new government had a long policy backlog to tackle, which it wanted to do in cooperation with the states, in sharp contrast to the coercive federalism of Howard’s last two terms. It established seven working groups each overseen by a Commonwealth Minister — and it set out a timetable for implementation. And in other key areas too, like climate change, and tax reform — the government established enquiries.

Clear policy and decisive action would be delayed till the various enquiries reported. By the middle of the year, though, the political elites and the journalists in particular were getting impatient. What was the government doing? When would it start governing? The opposition mocked Rudd as all enquiries and commissions and no action. If there’s a problem, with pensions say, what does the Rudd government do? It has an enquiry.

These sorts of comments were heard more and more, and not just from the opposition. Paul Keating who described the government as solid but cautious”, said it needed “an overarching narrative”. When he addressed the National Press Club in August, his first as PM, Rudd’s speech was criticised for lacking ‘life blood and being more like a bureaucrat’s briefing paper than a Prime Ministerial address to the nation’ (Australian 28 August). Where were the Big Ideas to hold the many and various policy initiatives in place? What was Rudd’s vision of Australia?

Disillusion was setting in, as it always does when the hopes and idealisations released by a change of leader come to terms with the fact that the leader is only a man after all. This impatience though was much more apparent amongst the policy elites, the journalists and the opposition, than the general public. Rudd’s approval ratings stayed high. It seemed as if the general public has been willing to give the government some time to tackle what are very complex and difficult policy problems.

Since the global financial crisis began at the end of September, we have seen a 3rd Rudd leadership style: the decisive crisis manager. As Paul Kelly keeps telling us, crises define political leaders: they test their skill and nerve and they remind us how much we depend on them. And if they seem to get it right, they can become heroes. We remember Winston Chuchill as the hero of the Second World War, rather than the fool of the Dardenelles campaign and Gallipoli. Early in John Howard’s leadership, the Asian Financial Crisis and the breakdown of civil order in East Timor were crises to which Howard responded with decisive action — and made him seem more like a leader.

Two decisive actions were taken quickly — the Reserve Bank cut interest rates by a percentage point; and the government unlocked reserves to pump billions of dollars into the economy to try to stave off recession. It also guaranteed bank deposits — though here the decisive action was a little hasty.

It is too early to tell how successful Rudd and his government will be in managing the financial crisis. But it has transformed the perception of his leadership. The crises is still unfolding, and it may well be that in hindsight Rudd will be seen not to have managed it well. But at present, with so much money and so many jobs hanging in the balance, we need to believe he will.

We have not seen the same decisive action, however, in relation to the water crisis and the collapsing Murray Darling river system. Part of the reason is federalism – but the scale and speed of the crisis is fast moving beyond the program of consultation and enquiry of the COAG process. With the financial crisis he is backed by the advice of Ken Henry and Glenn Stevens, and the policy bureaucrat in him can draw strength from their expert knowledge. With the water crisis, and with environmental issues more generally, he is much more exposed to what historian Keith Hancock called ‘the host of petty appetites’ that push their individual cases for continued government guaranteed sustenance from Australia’s natural resources. So far he is holding firm on the government’s commitment to introduce a carbon trading system, but action on water has been slow.

The fourth style of leadership we have seen from Rudd this year is the kitchen table populist. During the election campaign last year, seeking for a quick and sure fire line of connection with the electorate, Rudd sat himself down at the kitchen tables of the nation to help them with their weekly budgets. Fuel prices, interest rates, grocery bills, he promised under his government these would be less, and he accused the Howard government of indifference to the weekly struggle to make ends meet. This was a foolish and short sighted strategy, born of political inexperience and his need to develop a national profile in record time. It may have convinced people he cared and helped him to victory, but it was politics of the wrong scale for tackling national problems.

It has trapped him in fiddley policies like Fuel Watch and Grocery Watch which will only make marginal differences to most people, but which have cost him a good deal of political capital and time. It has led him to make promises on which he is unlikely to be able to deliver, like lower fuel prices, and which are at odds with his commitment to drastically reduce Australia’s carbon footprint. It may have been OK if the economy had stayed buoyant and the numbers of people struggling to make ends meet relatively small, but as the economy slows and the media fill with stories of lost homes and jobs, it will be a different story.

Judith Brett is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University. She is also the author of Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class: From Alfred Deakin to John Howard, (Cambridge 2003), Relaxed and Comfortable: The Liberal Party’s Australia (BlackInc, Quarterly Essay 19), and with Anthony Moran, Ordinary People’s Politics (Pluto 2006).

Peter Fray

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