For refugee supporters, any illusion that Kevin Rudd was more progressive than Julia Gillard came crashing down after he announced his new PNG “solution”.
But Rudd’s primary vote is still higher than Gillard could manage. Many Labor supporters argue that Rudd must push right-wing policies to win the election and beat Abbott. Yet it was precisely this strategy last time around that made Rudd, and Labor, unpopular.
Rudd round one
Rudd came to power in 2007 in a thumping landslide. He called Howard climate change denier, promised to withdraw troops from Iraq and, most importantly, make industrial relations “fair” by tearing up WorkChoices, Howard’s most-hated policy.
His clever symbolism and talk that built up hopes of change won him support. Rudd talked of “fresh ideas” and “working families”. In his early days as Prime Minister, Rudd’s approval rating soared to record levels as he ratified Kyoto and apologised to the Stolen Generations.
Many commentators argued that Rudd won the election because he portrayed himself as a younger version of Howard and a self-proclaimed “economic conservative”. In reality, a deep-seated desire for change explained the scale of Howard’s defeat. Far from reshaping Australian society in his own image, Howard made people less conservative and more pro-union.
When Howard took power, only 17 per cent preferred increased social spending to tax cuts. Nine years later it was 47 per cent, according to the country’s largest survey of social attitudes. Support for privatisation plummeted, from 30 per cent support for privatising Telstra to 9 per cent. Those who thought big business had too much power rose to 62 per cent.
There was a glaring contradiction between the hopes for change and Rudd’s actual policies. Rudd’s pro-business approach meant he did not deliver significant change over industrial relations and climate change.
As soon as he became Labor leader Rudd moved to reassure business he would work for them. He set up a special business advisory council, chaired by Rod Eddington, a board member of corporations including Murdoch’s News Corp, Rio Tinto and JP Morgan. Rudd had such a close relationship with Australian Industry group chief Heather Ridout she was described as a de facto member of Cabinet.
Although Rudd talked about scrapping WorkChoices, big business was by and large happy to live with his IR laws, because they kept the bulk of WorkChoices intact.
Rudd thumbed his nose at the unions. He refused to get rid of the ABCC, Howard’s anti-union commission set up to harass the building unions.
For all his talk about “working families” Rudd delivered little for them. Talk of action to halt the rising cost of living came to nothing. Even the stunt of his (long forgotten) GroceryWatch scheme was abandoned.
When the global economic crisis hit, Rudd stepped up his rhetoric against “extreme capitalism” but delivered only quick cash injections into the economy, designed to maintain business profits. The school buildings and insulation scheme fiascos saw people begin to question whether his government was capable of delivering on its promises.
Despite the apology, he continued and entrenched Howard’s “Intervention” in Aboriginal communities in the NT, a return to assimilationist policy.
When Rudd decided to shelve his CPRS climate plan it destroyed his credibility, and saw him lose a million voters in a fortnight, according to Newspoll. It exposed how little substance was behind his showy rhetoric and grand statements.
Rudd had spent over a year and a half promoting his emissions trading scheme, with lofty rhetoric about addressing “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, then seemingly dropped it overnight. His deference to business meant he was unable to tackle climate change. He was unprepared to do anything that would damage business profits, or take action after global moves stalled at Copenhagen.
Ominously, he quickly sacrificed his principles on refugees. Though he shut down the Pacific Solution to start with, as soon as the Coalition attacked him over boat arrivals he back flipped, freezing refugee visas for Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers, and tearing up Labor’s promises to make detention a last resort.
By the time he announced his mining super profits tax, most people were no longer listening. And as always his plan was compromised, given most of the proceeds of the tax were set to be handed back to big business. Rudd pitched the scheme around its suitability for business, not to Labor supporters.
With his public support in freefall, the Labor caucus moved against him in the hope of saving the 2010 election.
Right now, Rudd’s last disastrous term is all-but-forgotten. But he remains the conservative neo-liberal politician he was then, with the same political strategy. Once the disconnect between his media stage show and his actual politics resurfaces, it won’t be long before disillusionment returns.