The political naturals creep up on us unawares, mostly.

OK, not so much with Bob Hawke, who had managed to convey his own messianic self-belief to much of the population well before 1983.

But Paul Keating was always damned as “the undertaker”, incapable of inspiring popular approval given his Treasury background, a man who needed to “throw the switch to vaudeville” to become Prime Minister. He duly managed that in 1991, keeping his job in 1993. Keating of course did throw the switch to vaudeville, well into his Prime Ministership, and it looked like a lot like a Three Stooges film. Only the diehard fans were still laughing when he was kicked out in 1996, but we still admire his capacity to inflict pain. Nobody can hold the nose of an opponent between his knuckles and belt it like Keating can.

John Howard initially won because he wasn’t Keating and because, well, the guy just wouldn’t go away. He almost managed to get himself turfed out after his first term but thereafter, for a further two terms, he was Captain Zeitgeist, mystically in tune with the voters, this nasty little opportunist whom we reviled and mocked in the 1980s, whose prediction “the times will suit me” turned out to be spectacularly right. But as happens, we tired of him and, almost overnight, he could no longer do anything right. Comeuppance by ennui.

Ditto Bob Carr. Before 1995 there were more than a few who thought this bookish, academic-looking MP who was more at home with a collection of Gore Vidal essays than the footy could ever be elected. “You’ve got to be suspicious of a bloke that doesn’t drive, doesn’t like kids,” said John Hewson. “When he’s up against a full-blooded Australian like John Fahey he hasn’t got a hope.”. But it was Fahey who had no hope, and once Carr was in power he was unbeatable, smashing the Coalition twice by huge margins. Unlike Howard, he knew when the mood turned against him, and left when it did, on top.

As did Steve Bracks, who came from nowhere, Opposition Leader, Premier, bang, leaving Jeff Kennett as roadkill. Unbeatable until he decided to leave, on top. Who’d have picked it in early 1999?

The naturals are always lucky, and luck hides their ability until it’s too late for their opponents to work out what they’re up against. They appear at the fag-end of governments that have run out of puff, or they benefit from the self-destructive tendencies of their opponents. But they use their luck, and then make more of it.

Kevin Rudd is a natural as well. If you don’t like him, sorry, but you’re stuck with him until the electorate tires of him, which will probably be around 2015, or until he quits in favour of Julia Gillard, which he’ll probably do in 2014, in his third term.

Yeah, I know, I’m getting a bit far ahead of the game there. Still, why not?

Rudd has the keenest political instincts we’ve seen in a generation. Whereas Howard’s talent lay in coming from behind and converting bad polls into convincing election wins, Rudd’s skill is in avoiding the bad polls in the first place. Not having to come from behind each time is an altogether better strategy. And Rudd has been a very, very good student of political history. One year into the Howard Government and there were already a half-dozen ministerial corpses. That Rudd’s ministry has entirely avoided scandal of any kind in its first year is testimony not to luck, and not merely to Rudd’s control freak nature, but to his knowledge of the pitfalls of new governments, especially ones long out of power like this one, where new ministers can wander into all sorts of traps.

That’s why he’s leading in the polls by a country mile, and not against Brendan Nelson, the poor bastard who volunteered for the sh-tty job of leading his party in its early period in Opposition, but Malcolm Turnbull, his real opponent, a man who wants, desires, needs the Prime Ministership every bit as much as Rudd himself wanted it, in the sort of way that means you’ll do anything to get it.

Turnbull is inexperienced politically, but he is driven, and brilliant, and would make a very good Prime Minister. That Rudd ends the year with Turnbull looking painfully like Brendan Nelson is a scary indication of how politically tuned-in the Prime Minister is. What’s that George Raft line in Manpower after he’s belted some blokes with a chair leg? “I could hit home runs with this all night!” That’s Kevin Rudd. Nerdish, wonkish, bespectacled Mandarin-speaking, and a political killer. He’s been a killer since he first became leader. His polling hasn’t changed since then.

And two years sort of suggests a pattern, to all but the most obtuse, and Dennis Shanahan. Rudd’s lowest point was the election itself, which he still won comfortably. Otherwise, he’s been miles ahead since Dec 2006, no matter what the Coalition did. They’ve thrown everything at him, and it’s bounced off, straight back in their faces. Now here we are two years and three Liberal leaders and an economic crisis later and nothing has changed.

Think Rudd will be a oncer? Are you kidding?

By the way, a word on Brendan Nelson. Nelson is now, pretty much, a figure of fun, and maybe rightly so. That petrol speech, the one with Tarago and five kids and a wheelchair, is one of the funniest things of 2008. But the bloke had guts, and he was in politics not because he wanted from the age of eight to be Prime Minister — like Turnbull — but because he wanted to actually improve the lives of ordinary Australians. And if like all politicians he had a generous helping of hypocrisy and sanctimony and self-obsession, that’s all fine, because that’s what’s needed to make a difference in a democracy. Nelson met his end because he called on a fight to settle his future, and in doing so he not merely did the decent, honourable thing but the politically smart thing by his party.

Rudd is different from his predecessors in having a genuine reform agenda. Howard’s agenda was to not be Keating. Hawke’s agenda was consensus, but in truth it became economic reform, imposed by the parlous state of the Australian economy that Fraser and Howard had ballsed up so badly. Fraser’s agenda was to replace Whitlam and work out the rest later. But Rudd arrived with a real to-do list made up of reformed federalism, infrastructure and educational investment, reversal of the previous Government’s IR reforms, and addressing climate change.

It is not, however, an agenda to be pursued at all costs. It will be pursued as far as political judgement permits, and no further. If that means some things don’t get done, so be it. Like establishing a real ETS.

That’s the thing about politicians, or maybe about life, really. Good politicians — like good people — can do bad things. They do them because that’s their judgement at the time, or because even if they’d prefer to do something different, they have to do them. I suspect Kevin Rudd would very much like to go further in addressing climate change, but as a politician he won’t. That doesn’t justify his failure to do so — indeed if anything it makes it worse — but it explains it.

In fact politics is more or less based around people of high principles and good will discovering that the obtaining and exercising of power involves doing bad things, distasteful things, amoral things, involves unpleasant trade-offs and not just the famous half-loaves of compromise but stale, mouldy crusts. And it’s all the more that way because its symbiotic partner, its Siamese twin the media, dislikes complexity and nuance, in favour of the same simple narratives, repeated with an ever-changing cast of characters but the same plots and moral lessons over and over again. That’s what sells. And what gets votes.

It’s the media’s job, or one of them, to make much of little and it has done that expertly for much of the year, as it does always. History suggests that, barring incompetence on an inordinate scale, Labor will be in power for several terms, but that’s not going to attract many eyeballs. Instead, the most minor political events are forensically analysed, with each tiny feature placed under the microscope so that it looms large to the viewer despite its irrelevance. Recall The Australian’s concerted push for Peter Costello mid-year, undoubtedly motivated not just by a sense of mischief-making but by the moderate inclinations of the obvious alternative to the failing Nelson. After more than a year on the backbench, not a scintilla of evidence has emerged that Peter Costello ever intended to do anything other than what he said, which was to remain on the backbench until he found a job outside politics. And yet we — as in all of us — devoted many pixels and column inches to his imminent ascension, or the unlikelihood thereof.

Afterwards, we forgot all about that, and probably hoped our readers did too.

Never forget the media has a vested interested in convincing you something is happening even when precisely nothing is happening — indeed, particularly when nothing is happening. It is thus wise – and I’m possibly not telling you anything you don’t already know here — to retain a strong scepticism about all political reportage and analysis, no matter the source. We’re all selling something.

2008 also saw the emergence of a new party. I speak not of the LNP, that National Party takeover in Queensland that is busy finding a way to lose yet again to a Labor Government riddled with bullies and sociopaths, but of the Greens, who obtained party status federally this year. I picked cool newcomer Scott Ludlam as a rising talent back in June but it is the aptly-named Sarah Hanson-Young who has busied herself getting a profile on water, refugees and childcare. Both show up the quality of candidates on offer from the major parties, particularly from Labor, which installed a compelling array of party and union hacks in the new Senate this year.

The Greens will continue to pick up votes, and Senate spots and, maybe, one or two seats. One of the biggest questions in 2010 — for that is when the next election will be held, as Kevin Rudd knows perfectly well the dangers of going early — will be whether Lindsay Tanner can withstand a Green surge in his seat, one fuelled by his Government’s cave-in on emissions trading.

It would be a huge loss. Tanner and Julia Gillard form the core of Rudd’s team. Wayne Swan has survived the toughest possible year as Treasurer, which is much more than many predicted back in February. It is not a frontbench to match that of Hawke’s first two terms, but the trusted inner circle is quality and a key reason why the Prime Minister has not, literally, worked himself to death this year. There is also great talent waiting in the wings, in Chris Bowen and Greg Combet. The Second Rudd Ministry will likely be very good.

Malcolm Turnbull would give a few of his remaining millions for similar quality on his side. His up-and-comers, apart from Greg Hunt, aren’t performing, and some of his old hands seem barely interested, or are plagued with problems. You can see why Turnbull wanted Alexander Downer to remain in politics and take the shadow Treasurership.

2009 will, assuredly, be a much tougher year for the Government. We haven’t collectively worried about unemployment for many years. Once the holidays are over, and we hit February and head back to work and face a long year of growing joblessness, the political dynamic might seem altogether different. But on the evidence so far, Rudd has the smarts to stay on top, and Turnbull hasn’t worked out what to do about it.

Have an enjoyable break and see you in 09.

Peter Fray

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