Politics can be a tough gig for someone with a powerful intellect.
For a start, by its very nature there’s a lot of suffering fools gladly. There’s also the problem of how you make your intelligence non-threatening to people. Kevin Rudd has adopted a technique of pre-emptive self-deprecation that makes sure he’s the first to mock his own wonkishness. Malcolm Turnbull, with a tad more honesty, doesn’t bother. He’s brilliant and prefers you to know that from the get-go.
There’s also the constant need to simplify issues, reduce them to black and white, to avoid nuance and accuracy in favour of the bold statement that is mostly but not wholly true. Because as a rule, nuance is apt to be misinterpreted and should be avoided in politics.
Case in point: on the weekend, Malcolm Turnbull made a wholly unobjectionable observation about the source of Therese Rein’s wealth in the Liberal’s party house organ, The Australian . The Prime Minister, Turnbull noted, attacked “neoliberalism” but the source of his wife’s wealth lay in opportunities created by one of the hallmarks of economic liberalism, privatisation. That made Rudd a hypocrite.
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It was an entirely accurate point — but a nuanced one. The mere fact of mentioning the Prime Minister’s spouse was quickly and deliberately misinterpreted as an attack. Glenn Milne — no friend of Turnbull’s — attacked him in News Ltd papers. Stephen Smith stepped forward from the obscurity of the Foreign Affairs portfolio to attack Turnbull for crossing the line from the political to the personal. Craig Emerson joined in.
Turnbull does a lot of nuance. His economic message on the stimulus packages — support for the first package then criticising its impact, opposition to the second package but support for a smaller package of tax cuts and infrastructure investment in the event the Senate blocked it — has more nuance than, well, Nuanced Jack McNuance, winner of this year’s Mr Nuance competition.
As a consequence, Turnbull spends a lot of time arguing with interviewers, trying to explain his position. Way too much time. Repeatedly in interviews, Turnbull is forced to correct his interlocutor. “That’s not what I’m saying.” Or “that’s not what the IMF is saying.” Or “I disagree with you.”
Yesterday he had a sit down interview with Laurie Oakes, and a lot of it was given over to Turnbull chipping Oakes about his questions. They went round and round the mulberry bush on why Turnbull initially supported the first stimulus package but changed his mind, and whether he had been guilty of that much-claimed sin of “talking the economy down” twelve months ago.
Turnbull has to realise that arguing with the commentariat over its questions is one of the least productive features of his leadership. He has to resist it. As a former barrister and possessor of a huge brain, he is convinced that he can argue his way to victory, that he can explain the nuances, the detail of his position.
He is utterly missing the point. As much as it will rankle, he must look and learn from Kevin Rudd.
Politicians have only limited opportunities to communicate with the great mass of voters. And those opportunities are grotesquely unequal in terms of exposure. Cumulatively, dozens of interviews and doorstops with the Press Gallery will barely equal one appearance on, say, Rove .
There are two strategies for this: manufacture more opportunities to communicate, and make sure the ones you do have are effective.
Kevin Rudd’s leadership has been about both. While John “crystal set” Howard avoided that new-fangled FM radio like the plague and ducked chat shows, Rudd, with his long background on Sunrise, embraced them. And he has always understood that the media, and the Press Gallery in particular, are a means to an end, not an end in itself. He uses the media to speak directly to voters, keeping his messages simple, staying disciplined, repeating things ad nauseum . The working press and political cognoscenti might hate it passionately but it works. For Rudd an interview is an opportunity to get his message across to voters. Whether it meets the needs of the interviewer is irrelevant. He is adept at switching his answers to the subject he wants to discuss, while never skipping a beat with that peculiar, but horribly effective folksy nerd routine.
In contrast, Turnbull accepts what interviews are supposed to be — a legitimate opportunity for the press to grill him. He plays fair, and tries to argue his case. When he attempts to shift the focus to the Government, it looks forced and clunky. Turnbull needs to learn from Rudd that interviews are not about answering the commentariat’s questions and explaining himself, but about conveying his key messages to voters. He needs Rudd’s ruthless streak. It helps that Rudd has been in politics a lot longer.
By way of comparison with Turnbull’s effort with Laurie Oakes, Rudd had an hour on Seven last night to talk directly to the punters. With his studied self-deprecation, faux-honesty and carefully-cultivated air of listening, Rudd was in his element. He wouldn’t have minded the end bit when he was one of a line of experts asked to reflect on where things would go from here — there’s more authority as a television-appointed expert than as a political figure, and Rudd was careful not to even mention politics.
And no doubt “shitstorm” was carefully rehearsed. It earned him a round of applause, and that was before Lindsay Fox said he couldn’t have done anything better. The television audience would primarily have been Labor voters, but it would have included plenty of those aspirationals who switched to Labor in 2007 and whom Rudd needs to hang onto as things get bumpy over the next eighteen months.
The contrast with Turnbull, arguing the toss with Oakes about what he did or didn’t say six months ago, was painful.