The commentariat at large (both the media and blogosphere) seem to be taking a faint air of unreality towards Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s stratospheric poll numbers.Nielson polls put him almost equal to Hawke’s record popularity, whilst Newspoll has Rudd at 67% in the beauty contest of preferred PM. Responding to this Andrew Norton wondered if this was just a Political Bubble:
I don’t think it is just my own political biases that prevent me from seeing what so many voters are seeing. He has none of Hawke’s charisma, none of Keating’s style and wit, none (OK, little) of Howard’s Australian everyman persona. He is our first nerd Prime Minister. I’ve got nothing against nerds. I am one. But I’m amazed that 74% of the Australian public approve of a man who must remind them of the annoying kid in grade 4 who answered all the teacher’s questions.
By some accounts, these numbers are amazing, Australia is in a recession, unemployment is up, and a number of big Rudd policies have stumbled (WorkChoices, National Broadband Network) or fallen over (Net Filter). So why is this nerd-in-chief well liked ? To answer that I want to use a quote from Alan Watt (one of our greatest, though now forgotten diplomats) who penned this sketch in 1967 that seems to age well:
‘The personality of the Australian could scarcely be confused with that of an Englishman by anyone who knew both well; nor was there any lack of pride amongst Australians in their own country and people – indeed, they could more justly be charged with aggressive self-confidence. But Australians, overwhelmingly British in origin, isolated in their island continent from significant contacts with non-british peoples, did not feel the urge to underline in the constitutional field the nationalism they were more than ready to assert on the field of sport. They were pragmatic by tradition, unaccustomed to and thus suspicious of theorising, preoccupied with taming a reluctant continent and with wringing from it the necessary basis for a high average standard of living for the average man, and hesitant to move speedily into new fields of independent thinking and acting.’
– Alan Watt 1967: page 30-31 ‘The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy 1938-1965. London: Cambridge University Press.
In this way, Australia is quite often ill-served by its commentariate and academy, precisely because the type of people who are inclined towards such issues and theory, are in this and this alone distinct from the community they seek to analyse and understand. The further they remove politics from its current context, the less able they are to clearly define what is happening. This is a burden that falls much more on the progressive movement, as the spirit for change is often easiest motivated in those who want to substantially move beyond mere improvement in the average standard of living. Take H. V ‘Doc’ Evatt. Foreign minister during WW2, a man who set up the entire Labor tradition in Foreign Policy, he was also first president of UN General Assembly, critical in drafting the UN charter and universal declaration of Human Rights, a man who did more than anyone to preserve free speech & the freedom of association in this country in his courageous efforts to stop Menzies ban of the Communist Party in 1951. And twice failed opposition leader and largely forgotten by history. Evatt was a middle class intellectual, it was his embrace of the theoretical that enabled him to see further than perhaps any man of his generation (certainly much further than his great, and much more politically successful opponent Robert Menzies), and yet he was largely unliked by the public and never trusted with the keys to the lodge.
In our Prime Minister, the public want someone who appears to be focusing on the here and now, and who is seeking to deal with the problems in a pragmatic and sensible way. I’ve already critiqued some of the dangers of operating on pragmatism alone, but as a political strategy it is one much closer to the Australian character. Take the man Rudd now nearly equals in popularity: Robert J. Hawke. Hawkey may be remembered today as the man who could scull a yard glass, or told boss’s they were ‘bums’ if they sacked anyone for turning up to work hungover after Australia won the America’s Cup. But, despite this iconic Australiana image, his political character and strategy was of a compromiser and negotiator who would bring people together to solve issues. That was his appeal, that was his claim. It was also the basis of his great successes (such as the Accord), and the means by which he could justify his more radical economic and social reforms (from economic liberalisation, to medicare to HECS). In terms of stereotypes: It was not as a bushman, but as a diplomat that Hawke won over the Australian public.
Rudd is following a similar approach and style to the confusion and anger of his critics. Take the National Broadband Network. Those on the right attacked it as re-nationalisation, those on the left as privatisation, whilst the general public just asked “will it work?”. Rudd may get credit as an intellectual PM, but his real success (like Howard before him, who was just as much a nerd) is that he’s made most people overlook it, and judge him on his policy and approach. Indeed, I think his critics have him backwards, seeing him as an intellectual pretending to be an everyman, when really he is a smart everyman, pretending to be a intellectual. His essay’s are well written (surprisingly moreso than his wooden, boring speeches and doorstop rhetoric), but there is a certain emptyness and lack of driving conviction and argument development that would identify a real first-rate mind at work. Rudd appropriates labels and terms “Christian socialist” “economic conservative” “social democrat” and figures, both Heroes like Andrew Fisher or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or villans such as Friedrich von Hayek, represents a certain undergraduate style of intellectual engagement. At once both passionate, certain and yet single-sided and temporary. Rudd changes and shapes his ideas and idols as they pass through his readings or as suits his political needs, rather than being long term significant life identifying features of his mental landscape.
Rudd’s popularity will slowly fall, the next election will have a few close moments for Labor supporters to bite their fingers during, but if Rudd can remember to stick to the pragmatic tradition of Australian policy making he will do just fine. All to the confusion and frustration of the ideologues and men of ideas who make up the the commentariate. From both the media, but especially the blogosphere and from opponents who warn darkly of his radical moves, to supporters who wish him to get on with actual progressive change.