Will 'Sorry' Work?


All of a sudden, the Rudd Government is looking just a little bit unsteady.

It’s not just the surprisingly effective performance of Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader. It’s not just that Abbott has gained a small but measurable improvement in the polls and it’s not just the home insulation scandal, a story which has run and run.

It is, according to none other than the Prime Minister himself, more than that. After a honeymoon that lasted more than two years, Rudd is now facing the very different expectations of incumbency. A Prime Minister who is seen to be in tireless command of the details has somehow failed to deliver on the big picture. Climate change, hospitals, the tax review — and of course the bungled insulation scheme — are all key policy areas containing election promises which the government has failed to deliver.

All this and more was contained in an extraordinary interview with the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy on Sunday morning (transcript here and video here), in which Rudd explained his demotion of Peter Garrett, admitted he had not delivered on some election promises — notably the promise to take over public hospitals from the states — and baldly admitted that "I need to lift my game."

"We are taking a whacking in the polls now," he said. "I’m sure we’ll take an even bigger whacking in the period ahead. And the bottom line is: I think we deserve it, not just in terms of recent events, but more broadly."

As Queenslanders would have recognised, it is a move taken straight from the playbook of former premier Peter Beattie. Beattie, a wily operator with a natural talent for communication, was a master at owning up to government scandals, solemnly apologising before vowing that he’d fix them. Media commentators hated it, denouncing Beattie in countless columns for The Courier-Mail but voters loved it, and re-elected him after a succession of stuff-ups, even one as bad as the "Dr Death" scandal at Bundaberg Hospital.

Rudd appears to be trying the same tactic. Given that he is far from the natural communicator that Beattie was, it is a risky move as Michelle Grattan and Dennis Shanahan have observed. Unsurprisingly, it has also annoyed some of his colleagues who have decided to background their misgivings to Fairfax’s Phil Coorey. This has forced the Government’s best communicator, Julia Gillard, to come out in strong support of Rudd’s new line.

In fact, a change of tactic is exactly what the Government needs. It has been unsettled by Abbott’s canny attacks which have proved surprisingly successful in reframing the debate on issues such as the emissions trading scheme.

Make no mistake, the insulation debacle has hurt the Government. While the extent of Peter Garrett’s responsibility is still being debated, by late last week it was clear he had become a political liability for the Government. As Jack Campbell pointed out here at newmatilda.com on Friday, if a scandal runs for more than 10 days, the minister responsible is on shaky ground.

Once Rudd had decided to take responsibility for the insulation controversy, sacking or demoting Peter Garrett became a foregone conclusion. Garrett’s ministerial career has been permanently damaged: this scandal will dog him well into the future. On the other hand, he remains a cabinet minister, and will likely continue to be one in the next Rudd Government because he appears to retain the support of his Labor colleagues. In politics, sometimes you have to be the fall guy.

There is also a wider shift apparent in the Government’s media policy. For the past two and a half years, the Prime Minister has snubbed right-wing talkback radio hosts like Ray Hadley and Alan Jones, former favourites of John Howard. Like any politician, Rudd has preferred media opportunities of a friendlier sort, which for him meant FM radio and long essays in The Monthly.

But Hadley had been running hard for weeks on the insulation issue, excoriating Garrett and the Rudd Government morning after morning. As Paul Kelly wrote in the Weekend Australian, a decision was clearly made to change tactic and get Rudd onto these shows, to stem the bleeding and reach out to those audiences. Rudd duly went on Hadley’s show, calling the host "mate" several times in a typically cringe-worthy attempt to appear blokey. It probably didn’t win Labor any extra votes, but it does show that the Prime Minister has finally recognised that his academic style doesn’t work with everyone.

Rudd’s abrupt change of tactic probably won’t provide the "circuit breaker" that the Government is angling for. It takes more than a couple of interviews and a ministerial demotion to reset the political landscape, even if the polls are far more positive for Labor than anyone in the media appears willing to accept. But the new direction does signal that the Government has finally woken up to some of the serious communication failures of the past two years. The previous strategy of sitting back while the Liberal Party imploded has proved to be a grave error.

Rudd and his key ministers, especially Julia Gillard, need to work much harder and smarter at selling the Government’s policies and deliver on more of those big-picture promises like climate, health and broadband. If the current ETS is unworkable, for instance, perhaps it’s time to junk the existing legislation and go back to square one. Then Rudd could take a far better piece of legislation to voters as an election promise, one that might well win broad endorsement from environmentalists and Senate support from the Greens.

Rudd’s new approach is a clever tactic, but to succeed it needs to be more than just that. What’s required next is not just contrition, but follow-through — both with the new media strategy, and with policy delivery.


Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.