One year ago today Australians went down to their local primary school, ate a burnt sausage in a slice of Tip Top, and performed their democratic duty at the 2007 Federal election. About 6.5 million of them preferenced the ALP above John Howard’s coalition, giving Kevin Rudd the numbers he needed to become the 26th Prime Minister of Australia.
One year ago tomorrow, a goodly proportion of those 6.5 million Australians woke up with a killer hangover and a definite sense that the country had somehow changed for the better. How much of that was due to the fact that Kev was in as opposed to the fact that John was out is up for debate, but one thing is for certain: not a single person got beaten up by union thugs while walking down to the shop for the newspapers and Berocca.
It all started off so well. There were a raft of symbolic election promises that were relatively easy to implement; Kyoto got signed and sorry got said. Meanwhile the Coalition slowly ate itself, electing as their leader the political equivalent of a toy cap gun — loud and annoying but completely harmless. The country, by and large, felt good about itself, and Rudd enjoyed astronomical approval ratings.
But the shine soon started to come off the messiah, and there were glimpses of a very naughty boy underneath. Kevin himself admitted as much, declaring on The 7.30 Report, "I am not God".
In the past year we’ve learned a lot about Kevin Rudd the Prime Minister, and not all of it is good news. The clumsy clichés of his campaign remain clumsy today, problems are either referred for review or declared war upon, and his fashion sense is truly appalling.
One of the first genuine signs that all was not right was the Australia 2020 summit. The Summit was a grand idea that suffered from poor execution, and Rudd came across as leader of a government that was impulsive and lacked attention to detail. Commentators from across the political spectrum slammed the talkfest as proof that Rudd and his ministers couldn’t come up with ideas themselves, but there’s something romantically democratic and egalitarian about 1000 ordinary Australians gathering in Parliament House to eat sandwiches from cardboard lunchboxes and dream large about Australia’s future. Well, 999 ordinary Australians, Cate Blanchett, and Cate Blanchett’s baby. Full marks to Rudd for embracing the "vision thing", but it didn’t help that he seemed more interested in being photographed with Blanchett and Hugh Jackman than he did with the substance of the Summit.
A prominent theme of Rudd’s campaign was a commitment to restoring the democracy that many people believed had been eroded under John Howard’s watch, but there were early signs that Kevin wasn’t keen to restore it too fast. At one stage the Labor Government scheduled the passage of 22 pieces of legislation in a week, necessitating 10:00pm sittings of Parliament. The Opposition, quite rightly, declared that the move was anti-democratic because of the lack of time for proper debate. The Government hit back with the positively schoolyard retort of, "we’re only doing it because you did it first".
Meanwhile, election promises were quietly being dropped or modified. CSIRO funding was slashed despite a campaign promise to revitalise the research body, plans for a high-speed national broadband network started looking very low-speed indeed, and a computer for each student turned into a computer for most students – and even then the computers aren’t being delivered with software, installation or maintenance. (They are, however, being delivered with one of the million or so WorkChoices mouse mats left languishing next to WorkChoices pens and WorkChoices soft toys in a warehouse by the previous government.)
One of Rudd’s biggest problems has been entirely of his own making. Last year, after one too many Diet Fantas on the campaign trail, Kevin Rudd had a rush of blood to the head and made the stupid mistake of promising to "do something" about petrol and grocery prices — both of which are almost entirely out of the control of governments. Once in power Rudd flailed about desperately, looking for the "something" he had promised to "do", and finally decided that doing meant watching. The Government’s FuelWatch scheme is a turkey that even the Government must be secretly relieved is unlikey to pass the Senate, while GroceryChoice is possibly the most useless website to ever sully the Intertubes.
And then the world’s financial markets imploded and Rudd faced his first major challenge as PM. Around the same time, the hapless Brendan Nelson disappointed train-wreck-loving political tragics around the country by falling on his sword, giving Malcolm Turnbull a shot at holding Rudd accountable. Turnbull used his financial credibility to hammer Rudd and his team for what he saw as an irresponsible response to the financial crisis, but the Australian people didn’t seem to care too much, continuing to reward Rudd with decent approval ratings and a commanding lead in the polls.
Rudd has copped severe criticism from political opponents and commentators about the length of time he has spent overseas meeting foreign governments and attending meetings. His sizeable overnight tally is constantly compared to John Howard’s modest first-year tally, despite Howard’s overseas trips in his latter years being comparable to Rudd’s this year.
Worst of all there have been the policy decisions that seem to have come straight from the Liberal Party playbook, serving as outright kicks in the teeth for Labor’s true believers. Offering internet users a "clean feed" of the tubes on a voluntary basis is one thing, but forcing all Australian users to use a government-censored feed is contrary to so many liberal (small-L) ideals, while having the potential to slow our third-world internet to fourth-world speeds. If the legislation is passed, Rudd will hold the dubious honour of serving as leader of a government that is as censorious as those of China and Iran. Nice work, Kev.
But despite the hiccups, he isn’t doing all that badly. It’s easy to dismiss new governments in their first year of office as bumbling when compared to the accomplished government they supplanted — the Liberal Party faithful must still cringe when they think of the first years of the Howard government. For their part, the Opposition has released a "report card" on Labor’s first year in government, and while there are some fair points of criticism raised, most of it is complete rubbish. If the best that Turnbull and co can come up with is that fact that Rudd spends more time answering Dorothy Dixers than questions from the Opposition in question time, then the Government can’t be doing that badly.
In the months leading up to last year’s election, many left-wing bloggers placed a graphic on their sites. It featured a close-up of Kevin Rudd’s face and a caption that read, "Don’t f**k it up" — a reference to the combined hopes and dreams of millions that Rudd might end John Howard’s reign.
With one year of Rudd’s first term down, and two years to go, that graphic is just as relevant today, but for different reasons. Those same millions now have their fingers crossed that despite the shaky start, he won’t let them down between now and the 2010 election. Over to you, Kevin.
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