You can learn a lot about Kevin Rudd from watching his farewell speech to the Socceroos last month. If you haven’t seen it and you want to squirm, click here. I think my favourite part is when the PM appears to betray the fact that he doesn’t know the name of the coach.
Rudd stumbled his way through his informal address while players stood around him. The PM seemed socially maladroit — and indeed, if David Marr’s analysis is correct, he might well be socially abnormal. In Marr’s words, "it’s so hard to tell what the real Kevin Rudd is, who this real person is in there". Some stared at their shoes. The clincher — the "I can’t believe he said that" moment — came when Rudd told the players, "it doesn’t matter how well you play — just enjoy yourselves".
It was a spectacularly ill-judged performance and encapsulates Rudd’s public persona: cold, opaque and given to affected colloquialisms. The panelists on Fox’s Back Page were scathing, and The Age‘s Caroline Wilson called the display embarrassing. It was also, as a bemused Barry Cassidy pointed out on Offsiders on ABC1, something you might say to the under-8s T-ball team.
He’s right. Not only did he fail to fire up the team, Rudd squandered the marginal political benefit of being associated — however fleetingly — with a group of men who will shortly dominate the imaginations of Aussies.
And it gets worse: Rudd made us squirm because he could not connect. His jokes — "you’ve got the easiest game up front" — were unfunny, forced clangers. Embarrass yourself, Rudd, but for chrissakes don’t embarrass us.
Whatever the magical combination required of politicians when they speak to athletes — warmth, sincerity, levity, the opposite of earnestness — Rudd dramatically failed to nail it. His big failure was to make us aware just how little he cares about the success of these men.
Should we care? That Rudd fails to connect — with the Socceroos as with his Cabinet and constituents, apparently — is a worry for him. But does it affect his capacity to govern? What is does do is damage his ability to lead — which is a different matter altogether.
Australia doesn’t have a history of high oratory, that much is true. Our culture simply doesn’t support it. We have a deep distrust of large words, high sentiments and wide mouths, a trait not without its charm and usefulness. This affinity with the laconic does not lead to the dense, tortured sentences of Rudd-speak. We don’t appreciate them, indeed, they leaves us as cold as the man uttering them. In light of this, how can we possibly shadow Rudd’s faith in highly-centralised government, in micro-management, in endless bureaucratic mechanisms?
What we do respond to is leaders who can really — sincerely, bravely and clearly — speak to people.
Bob Hawke’s long-sustained and vaunted popularity is pegged to his ability to communicate. Remember this? "Any boss who sacks a worker today is a bum!" And here’s the rub: when we remember Hawke, we talk about how well he gave us an impression of himself — not just of his government’s policy — and, perhaps, our sense of ourselves. Rudd appears so… odd because, unlike Hawke, he seems to be constantly repressing himself.
Paul Keating said that "in the prime ministership is invested, to some respects, the ideal of the nation and its aspirations". If this is true I have a hard time seeing Rudd make sense of this investment or being able to discuss with us — as adults — what our aspirations might be, could be or should be. The public did not have to struggle like this with John Howard.
If the prime ministership is a sort of repository for our national ideals, then the Socceroos should have been better accommodated by Rudd. Australians have long relied upon sport to help shape our national identity. Furthermore, the Socceroos suggest a major theme of Australians which Rudd would have done well to exploit — the power of the underdog.
The Socceroos have drawn a mighty tough group in this World Cup: Germany, Ghana and Serbia. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to see us advancing beyond this group stage. To be brutally honest, I think we’ll struggle to score. (Kennedy, Cahill, whoever: please prove me wrong.)
Kevin Rudd is struggling to sell the achievements of his government right now. The failures may dominate our discussions and the editorial pages but there are considerable achievements to champion, not least our enviably healthy economy. Rudd may never have the love of the Australian people again, but couldn’t he show us that there’s a lot to love all around us? On the strength of his little chat with the Socceroos, it’s doesn’t look like it.
For the record, here’s what Rudd should’ve said to the Socceroos: "Shoot straight, you bastards." Instructive, practical and laconic.
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