Kevin Rudd has used his opening address to the ALP National Conference this morning to paint his Government as one firmly in the Labor tradition, emphasising a social safety net, nation-building and governing in adversity.

It was, by Rudd’s standards, soaring rhetoric, with plenty of structure and repetition, and occasional flourishes such as the Lincolnesque reference to “the better angels of our human nature”. But there was little new in the speech, and much of it had figured in his long essay on the economy last weekend.

Rudd used the address to announce a “Green Jobs” package, apparently aimed at criticism of the employment impacts of the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. It may also served as a rejoinder to union complaints that the Government has not engaged in enough direct job creation stimulus — an issue the ACTU and some prominent economists raised last week.

The CPRS itself, however, was barely mentioned. There is a rumour that a key paragraph on the scheme was removed at the last minute.

Instead, Rudd listed the Government’s achievements since the election and again used the global financial crisis as the basis for an attack on the Coalition, declaring that Labor had had to “step in and clear up the wreckage” which was the result of “an ideology of free-market fundamentalism promulgated by the political right”.

As with last weekend’s essay in Fairfax papers, Rudd also tried to reaffirm his conservative economic credentials, emphasising that the Government must “retreat” as the economy recovers and return the Budget to surplus.

And in an unsubtle hint about the need for discipline, the Prime Minister emphasised that most ALP conferences had been held while the party was in opposition, something that “should be the cause for sober reflection for us all”. He urged delegates to “apply every effort, every energy and every discipline to build a long term reformist government for the long-term future”.

He also lavished praise on Julia Gillard, who returned the favour with a remarkable encomium for Rudd who, she said, had led the party to the summit of government, “and doesn’t it feel good to be here”.

This was a programmatic Rudd opening for what will be the most carefully stage-managed ALP conference ever. A competent speech repeating the Government’s key messages, an announcement shaped to target an emerging issue, and a reminder to the party that lack of discipline will return them to the Opposition from which Rudd has only recently led them. Competent, unglamorous, focussed on outcomes.

The contrast with an imploding Opposition will be painful.

Peter Fray

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