Yesterday I discussed how Kevin Rudd’s high levels of appeal had reflected the fact that different voters were able to project what they wanted onto him.

What Rudd has managed to do in recent weeks is send the wrong signals to all kinds of voters, rather than any one group.

In abandoning his own emissions trading scheme, as well as temporarily freezing asylum applications from the two biggest sources of boat arrivals, Rudd has clearly alienated progressive-minded voters in favour of shifting to the right on the political spectrum.  But the action also showed him to be ready to jettison his own principles, especially on the CPRS, having strongly supported the need for climate action previously.

That decision would ostensibly seem to attract more conservative-minded voters, who may have been amenable to the sort of scare campaign Tony Abbott had been preparing to run about the impact of the CPRS.  But in revealing Rudd as a leader unwilling to stand by his most important values, it exposed him to a more dangerous perception — of lacking core principles.

John Howard often declared of himself, in ostensible self-deprecation, “You may not agree with me but you know what I stand for.”  It was a lie — Howard changed his position on critical issues repeatedly.  The “never ever” man introduced a GST.  The man who attacked Asian immigration ran the country’s highest-ever migration program.  The professed advocate of small government and lower taxes ran the biggest and highest-taxing government in history.  The man who wanted to “gut” Medicare became its “greatest friend”.  But Howard’s skill was to either hide fundamental reversals of position (by quietly but steadily lifting immigration and the size of government, for example) or argue they reflected a becoming capacity to learn on the job.

Until his 7.30 Report brain explosion last night, I’d have said the same thing about Tony Abbott.

Rudd has failed in this regard.  Having singled out only a handful of critical issues on which to separate himself from Howard, it was incumbent on him to seal the deal with voters on each of them.  He did it with WorkChoices and the Stolen Generations apology.  But not on climate change.  Having sold himself so aggressively as a conviction politician on climate change, his reversal — and particularly his poor handling of it — sent a clear signal to voters of all persuasions, and not an especially appealing one.

The result is both types of voters are unhappy with Rudd.  Rudd has started projecting back to them, and they don’t like what they see.

Worse, voters having been giving Rudd their full attention.  For the first time since 2006, the Liberals have been united for an extended period, however grumpily, behind a leader.  Without the incessant distraction of Liberal in-fighting (Howard-Costello, Nelson-Turnbull, Costello-Turnbull, Turnbull-Turnbull, Turnbull-Abbott), voters have been able to concentrate on Kevin Rudd.

These problems aren’t terminal for Rudd.  Few politically-aware people are single issue voters.  Individual issues may be influential, but outweighed by others in total.  He needs to clarify what exactly he is projecting back to voters.

Firstly, he needs to give disillusioned progressive voters a reason to back him. Strangely, the RSPT and the froth-mouthed reaction to it from the mining industry, and what is increasingly looking like that industry’s political wing, the Liberal Party, provides this. Abbott’s homing-in on the RSPT (to the exclusion of virtually any other content) in his Budget Reply was a smart ploy.  But it also presents voters with a simple ideological choice for what is a stringently economic rationalist piece of policy: Labor advocates a greater take from an undertaxed industry, the Coalition represents the views of foreign multinationals.  It’s the sort of political dynamic you might have seen in the 1970s, and it will draw strong support from traditional Labor voters and unions.

He also needs, if he can’t assure voters he is prepared to stand up for what he believes in, to at least demonstrate that his other forté, of managerial competence, is intact.  This will enable him to tap into the same sentiment that saw voters continue to re-elect John Howard as a competent economic manager even when they understood that he was prone to lying, feigning ignorance or twisting his words.

Last week’s Budget will be effective in that regard, particularly given it has clearly neutralised the Coalition’s one remaining effective economic argument about debt.

Both of these, however, need Rudd to present voters with a compelling story framed in a Labor-friendly way, something he has failed at in every issue other than health.  He needs to do something similar with the RSPT to what he did with health, visiting every mining community in the country like he went to every hospital, selling the benefits of the RSPT on the ground to workers and the communities that support them, hitting the regional media hard, making the case on the ground.

And he’s got to end his misconception, perhaps derived from his years as a state government apparatchik, that political communication is all about managing the news cycle and rolling out a constant series of press releases with dollar signs in them on the basis that voters don’t understand anything else.

He also needs to get his effective ministers out there, in the same way he had the underrated Nicola Roxon backing him on health.  In that, he has already been well-served by Wayne Swan, who is now providing the sort of strong support that Prime Ministers are entitled to expect from Treasurers. Fortunately, in economics, he has the two outstanding politicians of the current era, Gillard and Tanner, backed by NSW Labor’s coming man Chris Bowen, to deploy.

He will also been assisted by Tony Abbott’s bizarre decision to brazenly promote a return to elements of WorkChoices.  In the spectacle of Abbott’s mini-calamity the day after his Budget Reply, his indication that elements of WorkChoices would be coming back was missed by many, but it again shows that while Abbott has a streetfighter’s smarts, he has lousy judgment and ideological blinkers.  In fact, every time Abbott has made the Liberals the issue with a policy pronouncement, he has looked bad and taken the heat off the Government.

Rudd can save himself, but he needs to change the way he does business.  He’s no longer in the happy position of being whatever voters want him to be.

Peter Fray

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