Well, it worked. After nigh-on three weeks of head-hunting and cage-rattling, the combined forces of the Opposition and the media finally claimed the scalp of Peter Garrett last week. Sort of.
And in the week since, Rudd and his Government have worked hard to reclaim the political narrative, delivering a solid lesson in political strategy to observers.
Rudd handled Opposition leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull well for the most part but he has struggled against the brawling Abbott, a flawed individual in the eyes of the public but also a plain speaker with a considerable talent for delivering a cut through line on the issue of the day.
Abbott and his team successfully kept Rudd Labor on the ropes for weeks over the insulation debacle — distracting attention from, for example, the Coalition’s direct action plan for tackling climate change which is, to put it mildly, full of holes. Greater scrutiny will be applied to the Opposition’s policies later in the year, as the election draws near, but for now, Abbott just needs to keep Rudd on the back foot.
This time last week, subeditors across the nation were racking their brains for more insulation related puns and now they’re having a field day with health policy related headlines. So how did Rudd do it?
To understand the current blitz on health, we first need to step back a week or so, to that quiet Friday afternoon when Rudd made the decision to strip Garrett of responsibility for energy efficiency but to leave him in Cabinet.
By taking away energy efficiency, Rudd ensured he was seen as a tough guy PM but by retaining Garrett as technically the most senior of his trio of environment ministers, Rudd conjured the illusion of ongoing support for the former Midnight Oil front man.
In other words, he sent a mixed message. Canny observers might point out the entire exercise was about recapturing control of the "message" — something Labor has struggled with since Tony Abbott became opposition leader.
The belated release of the terrorism White Paper was seen by all for what it was, an attempt to divert the narrative away from Garrett. Abbott’s Opposition, which has but one tactic — "attack, attack, attack" — refused to let up on Garrett and Rudd and while the White Paper was widely reported — a message like home grown terrorism is on the rise will always get a good run in the media, and no matter what they think, journalists do report the news of the day — not even terrorists could disrupt the "Garrett must go" narrative.
And hence this week’s media blitz. So how has our Prime Minister dealt with it this week?
What’s that you say? You saw him on the Channel 7 News the other night? But wasn’t he on Channel 10? Didn’t I see him on SBS? And the 7.30 Report? And wasn’t that him I heard on the ABC? Didn’t he talk to Hadley on 2UE? Nope, can’t have been, my friend in Melbourne heard him on Mitchell. And so it goes on.
The truth, dear reader, is simple. Rudd appeared on all of these shows in one day! He has courted many more over the last week, first to tell us how sorry he was that his Government had not delivered on all its promises, and then to sell us Labor’s takeover of the health system.
By putting on a hair shirt and admitting the failings of his Government, Rudd successfully changed the story. Suddenly the question being asked was whether the contrite PM had apologised too much; whether he had gone too far with his contrition.
Backbenchers, especially from those in marginal seats, began to rumble: hadn’t we avoided a recession, they asked. Haven’t we been a pretty good Government?
But, even as the apologies continued, Stage Two of the media management operation was already underway. Details of a federal health takeover dribbled out in a couple of well-placed drops to the media ahead of the full launch on Wednesday when Universities Australia chair Peter Coaldrake was hastily bumped from his scheduled appearance at the National Press Club for Rudd. The PM appeared instead, shaking his fist at the states and promising to revolutionise the health system via a federal funding takeover.
Rudd’s plan may well be a very good one. It’s easy to understand in punterland and it looks like being popular with the doctors and nurses struggling through an inefficient — if not quite as bad as everyone thinks — system. It will certainly shake things up.
Just as importantly, it has changed the narrative for the Government. Batts are gone and forgotten, as is climate change (for now). Health, like education, is typically a strong campaigning issue for Labor, whereas climate change has become a millstone around this Government’s neck, although it’s an issue that will certainly return, and on the Government’s terms, later this year.
As a former health minister, Abbott has form — and baggage — on the issue, something that has surely not escaped the notice of Labor’s strategy machine. By making health reform a signature issue in an election year, Rudd has put himself in an excellent position to dominate the narrative throughout this election year. There are hospitals all over the country, ready-made locations for prime ministerial pop-ins for campaign-friendly "announceables".
And by whacking the states in passing during his health announcement, Rudd put the onus on them to allow him to begin the reform. If it stalls, Rudd can blame and distance himself from unpopular state governments which surely can’t hurt in an election year.
So while the news has been dominated recently by stories of Rudd’s plummeting popularity, don’t be fooled — things are about to turn around — or so goes the theory of the Labor media managers.
Rudd has moved to solid policy ground. Abbott’s honeymoon will end the moment his plain-speaking gets him into trouble and the impending visits of the Indonesian and US presidents will allow the PM to appear, well, prime ministerial. By then, it will be April: the federal budget will be looming and the phony electioneering will be in full swing. And the wages of spin will roll on.
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