Style vs Substance

If it wasn’t for the gender of the Prime Minister  this could be about New Zealand:

To a visitor from outer space, it would be hard to distinguish the job description of prime minister today from that of a talk show or game show host. The PM is a regular fixture on radio and television, where no topic is too small for him to discuss. He offers cash prizes to listeners and he sweats on the weekly ratings.

Sounds very familiar.

The lines between celebrity and politics blurred some time ago. Our leaders are more needy because their handlers have convinced them that if they miss a single news bulletin the public will soon forget them. But voters can just as easily project wisdom on to politicians who are silent as those who blather sweet platitudes about Australian values and the noble struggle of the working family.

This too could be about politics on this side of the Tasman.

Although it is tempting to see Rudd as merely the sum of his past lives as a Queensland bureaucrat and diplomat to China, his approach to federal office is, in a way, no different from Howard’s.

“The moment you start campaigning for the next election is today,” Howard told his partyroom at the first meeting after the Coalition’s 2004 election win.  I’m a great believer in perpetual campaigning.”

And this explains one of the problems with the many unexplaiend consequences of the Electoral Finance Act: it’s impossible to separate the role of an MP from campaigning because under the Act’s very broad definition so much of what an MP does could also be deemed to be campaigning.

This happens to be a worldwide trend. Tony Blair noted last June, just after leaving office, that a large part of his time as a British prime minister was spent “coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity”. Blair measured the compression of the news cycle by the number of topics he ran a day: “When I fought the 1997 election we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening that agenda had already moved on.”

Thankfully, the Australian market is still small enough to keep Rudd to three issues a week rather than three a day.

It was not always thus. Remember when sit-down press conferences took precedence over the door stop and parliament was the place to announce big policies? The last government to practise politics the old-fashioned way was the Hawke-Keating regime between 1983 and 1996. To be fair, Howard’s administration began as Paul Keating’s ended, with a sense that the public was intelligent enough to handle a detailed policy debate over months and years, not hours and days.

The GST was Australia’s last old-school reform. Howard needed four years, from 1997 to 2001, to discuss, draft, amend and bed down the new tax system.

When was the last time the electorate was treated intelligently with prolonged discussion, drafting, amending and bedding down of policy here?

Under Rudd, Labor operates on the delusion that the electorate can absorb two or three earth-shattering announcements a week. Darting from topic to topic, like a shock jock or newspaper columnist, is why Howard lost the plot in his final year in office.

Has Rudd forgotten Howard’s increasingly hysterical public conversation of 2007: the Murray-Darling takeover, tax cuts, the Northern Territory intervention, a federal rescue of one hospital in a marginal seat in Tasmania and more tax cuts?

What really binds Nelson and Rudd is their mistaken belief in the 24/7 media cycle as an end in itself. The reason Blair and Bill Clinton have such dismal legacies in the deeper ponds of British and US politics is that they wasted too much time thinking of the next line instead of honing policy.

This is not a curse of either the Left or the Right. US Republican President George W. Bush followed the Democrat Clinton by devoting more time to crafting the headline for invading Iraq – weapons of mass destruction – than worrying about securing the peace afterwards.

The media has reduced politicians into thinking by the minute.

Or is it that politicians only think by the minute and so that’s all that’s left to report?

Think about the issues on which Rudd hopes to build a new reform consensus, from climate change to the Federation to the tax, welfare and retirement incomes systems. Rudd can’t win any of these debates by press release alone. He has to patiently explain himself again and again, one big idea at a time.

Patiently, explaining one big idea at a time? Could any of our politicians try that here – and if they did, would we do them the courtesy of listening to them and really thinking about what they were saying? Because if didn’t we would indeed get the politicians we deserve.

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