It wasn’t quite Winston Churchill’s oft-misquoted prescription of “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, but it didn’t sound all that much jollier.
Kevin Rudd’s forecast for the coming year and a half, which also happens to be the lead-up to the next federal election, included higher interest rates, rising food and petrol prices, worse unemployment and tough and unpopular budget decisions. And that’s assuming everything goes well; if the international recovery stalls or still worse relapses, then we’re really in for a bad time.
It says much for Rudd’s political ascendancy that he can afford to produce such a gloomy prediction. In difficult times, leaders are expected to exude confidence and optimism: “talking the economy down” is considered a grave political sin and one which is only committed by opposition politicians, if at all.
But Rudd, untouchable within his own party and totally dominant against his parliamentary opponents, has chosen to tell it like it is. There is a fair bit of pain ahead; the recovery might be under way, but paradoxically the worst effects of the collapse are yet to arrive. And it is best that the electorate be prepared for them rather than live in false hope.
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His brutal honesty may be all but unprecedented in Australia, but it is actually good politics for two reasons. The first is that if the voters are prepared for the worst, they are less likely to blame the government if it comes, and if for some reason it doesn’t, they will dance in streets all the way to the polling booths. The other is more personal: Rudd is trading on his greatest political asset, his perceived sincerity.
Asked to explain Rudd’s extraordinarily persistent high approval ratings, one writer to the Sydney Morning Herald this year summed it up in a single word: Integrity. The opposition may seek to portray Rudd as a political weathercock, all spin but no substance, but that is not how the public sees him. A large majority believe that their Prime Minister is both principled and honest (and a welcome contrast with the last one). The fact that he is prepared to bring them bad news as well as good will only redound to his electoral credit.
And it should be said that Rudd’s vision of the future is not all doom and gloom. Those who managed to plough through two closely-packed pages of broadsheet at the weekend will have found a wide-ranging, if not yet detailed, manifesto for what he obviously expects will be at least a second term of government. Rudd envisages a significant rebalancing of the global economy under the aegis of the G20, which he has already made clear is his preferred forum for all important international deliberations.
Australia will start from a better position than most, and through an intensive program of competition policy, infrastructure renewal, innovation, skills training and tax reform should be able to greatly increase productivity in a relatively short time. In the longer term the issues of adjusting to an ageing population and of course climate change will be paramount. It won’t be easy, but the hope is that future generations will look back thankfully on what they see as “the building decade”. As already mentioned, the essay is short on detail, which is hardly surprising; at 6,100 words it covers a lot of ground. But it certainly sets the parameters for a strong and challenging election platform.
And Malcolm Turnbull’s response? Well, there is nothing in there for small business. And indeed there isn’t; nor is there anything for the Sydney restaurant scene or the Bondi Pavilion — at least not directly. It isn’t that sort of document. Rudd is talking broad strategy. Turnbull, as so often, is indulging in tactical nit-picking. And by doing so, he is in danger of making himself incidental to the political agenda.
Last week Turnbull very nearly hit rock bottom: he made Wilson Tuckey relevant. Tuckey is quite simply a silly old bugger; he was a silly old bugger when he arrived in Canberra 29 years ago at the age of 45, bearing a conviction for assaulting an Aboriginal and a collection of Aboriginal jokes (Sample: “Why do they call them boongs? Because that’s the noise they make when they bounce off the roo bar.”)
No one has ever taken him seriously, for all his attempts to play powerbroker and elder statesman. But last week, when he described Turnbull as arrogant and inexperienced, it was front page news, because he was seen as articulating a view increasingly held within the coalition. Sometimes it is only the clown who dares to speak the truth.
Turnbull’s handling of the climate change issue, confused as it is, has not been impressive; last week’s compromise has achieved nothing and fooled no one. If he is seen to be losing it in wider areas of political debate, especially the economic ones which are his chosen ground to fight the next election, surely his leadership will become untenable even in a party as bereft of talent as the Liberals.
There are no contenders at present, so someone may have to be conscripted; and amazingly, Tony Abbott has re-emerged as a credible candidate. His book, from the extracts I have seen, appears to be a serious attempt to drag his party into something approaching modernity and his warning to his pig-headed colleagues that they are on a hiding to nothing if they allow Rudd to call a double dissolution over climate change was a moment of sanity in an increasingly irrational coalition brawl.
Truly, the Libs have problems. When the Mad Monk becomes the voice of reason and moderation, the party must be right off the planet.