August 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Rudd’s comeback and Murdoch’s counterattack

By Mungo MacCallum
The reaction to Rudd 2.0

“When you change the government,” Paul Keating once declared, “you change the country.” On a lesser scale, if you change the leader, you change the politics.

The Kevin Rudd renaissance, we were told for months by an insouciant Opposition, would make absolutely no difference. Tony Abbott and his fellow hit men had long since recognised the possibility of it occurring, and were fully prepared for the second coming of the man they had seen off so comprehensively in 2010. Half of their work had been done for them: the outbursts of venom directed at Rudd by his former colleagues during his earlier comeback attempts were all on the public record, ready to be regurgitated the moment the discredited despot returned to the chair.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Not only are the insults stale, to use them at all would be to give credibility to some of the very people the Coalition has assured voters should not be believed. Also, those who came out with the insults are now confusingly dispersed: some have returned to the Rudd camp, some have left politics altogether and there is a rump sitting in a well-behaved and silent huddle on the backbench. So, no doubt with some reluctance, the first round of attack ads was aimed at Rudd’s record, rather than his personality.

There was also a more powerful reason for laying off: Abbott himself. The alternative prime minister is known for his tough-guy, personalised politics, and the polls show that the public do not like him for it. The name given to him by the government, Mr Negativity, has stuck and must be shaken off. The polls also show that the voters are ready for a change: Rudd’s appeal for MPs to be a little kinder and gentler with each other has been dismissed for the bullshit that it is, but his rejections of what he calls “the old politics” have struck a real chord.

Abbott has already begun to move in a more positive direction. While few of his policies have any real substance, at least he recognises that he has to start talking about them. But it is not easy to break the habit of a lifetime, or even the last three years. He is still more at home dressing up for photo-ops in small businesses where he can inveigh against the carbon tax or hurtling around the country in lycra for the latest charitable cause than he is posing as a statesman. 

He has, reluctantly, started making himself available again to the serious media for interviews, even submitting to 7.30’s Chris Uhlmann (but not yet the dreaded Leigh Sales). Clearly, he’s found the transformation hard: in early July, he overreacted to quizzing about wrongful travel-expense claims, and quickly lapsed into slogans when asked to explain how his policy of turning back the boats would operate in practice. “What’s been done before can be done again,” he repeated mechanically.

In the meantime, Rudd has been redesigning both his own party and the wider political landscape, to general applause. The conservatives can see the prize that had been so comfortably within their grasp slipping away: it is time for plan B. Fortunately there is a model, albeit not one they would acknowledge. This is the Criticise Confucius campaign, as waged by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1970s.

The excesses of the Cultural Revolution had caused something of a backlash among ordinary Chinese, and one symptom of this was a revival of Confucianism: the revered sage seemed to represent stability and order in the midst of chaos. But there was only room for one omniscient leader in China; he might be coming to the end of his illustrious career, but the great helmsman could not afford a rival. So Mao’s faithful apparatchiks launched the campaign against Confucius: tame academics in every university in the land were called on to publish learned articles proving that Confucius had been a fraud, an enemy of the masses, only interested in maintaining the privileges of his own class and coterie.

So it has been in the pages of Rupert Murdoch’s papers in recent weeks. Armed with the invincible thought of their own great chairman, his acolytes are producing thesis after thesis to demonstrate the duplicity, the charlatanism, the sheer chicanery of the pretender. On the economic front, Henry Ergas and Judith Sloan are wheeled out to destroy, with a little help from their journalist friends, Rudd’s claims to have steered the country through the global financial crisis, or indeed anything else. On the political side, Peter van Onselen (a real professor) and Paul Kelly (a pretend one) line up to warn against the man’s hubris and megalomania, while the Australian’s veteran grouper twins, Dennis Shanahan and Greg Sheridan, fill in the gaps.

After the professionals, the mudslingers: in Murdoch’s tabloids, the indefatigable Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt pursue their lifelong task of simple-minded denigration, the equivalent of the hoons who chalked “Confucius is a pig” on the walls of Beijing.

Will the onslaught work? Well, perhaps for a while: Confucianism was stopped in its tracks in China, or at least driven underground. But the chairman died, and quite soon afterwards the sage was, if not completely rehabilitated, at least pronounced an acceptable subject of study. The problem for Rudd is that, although the press baron shows signs of frailty, he can’t wait that long; he has an election to fight. As a student of China himself, Rudd should recognise the campaign against him for what it is: an orchestrated attack by a power elite who cannot bear the thought of losing their own privileged positions.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

August 2013

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