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Questions for Kevin

Canberra 12 June 2013. If Kevin Rudd managed to wrest the prime ministership from Julia Gillard, among the first questions he would need to answer is how he’d address the three issues she promised to resolve after she overthrew him.

As new PM Gillard pledged to deal more effectively with carbon pricing, asylum seekers and the mining tax. On all three, her record is poor to bad.

She promised to build consensus on carbon pricing, but ended up breaking a subsequent promise – under pressure from the Greens – and introducing a carbon tax. She secured a deal on the mining tax, but the revenue it yields is very limited. Asylum seeker policy has turned into a shambles.

Rudd undoubtedly would be able to prosecute the case against Tony Abbott on these and other issues with more force than Gillard. But what would he actually propose to do himself? Would he seek to differentiate himself from Gillard in policy terms, as distinct from voter appeal?

At the time of his February 2012 challenge, he indicated that he would work for the “earliest possible transition [from the carbon tax] to an emissions trading scheme and a floating price”. What would his approach be now? Given his earlier statement would he go to a trading scheme ahead of the mid-2015 timetable?

When he was opposition leader, the climate change issue was a winner for Rudd: in 2010, when he retreated after failing to get his ETS through parliament, his behaviour on carbon pricing became one major factor in his demise.

If he were PM again, his huge challenge would be to try to neutralise the issue, which is at the heart of Abbott’s campaign, as much as possible.

A few months ago, Rudd obliquely criticised the changes to the mining tax that Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan had finalised after the coup, which greatly limited its revenue raising capacity and provided that companies had to be compensated for state royalty rises. (Negotiations to soften the original tax were already underway in Rudd’s final days.) Would he make any alterations, or would he go into an election campaign accepting that what’s done is done? Of the three issues, this is the one which he could afford to leave in abeyance.

He certainly couldn’t do that with asylum seeker policy. Last week he said Tony Abbott lied when he said he would be able to stop the boats and send them back to Indonesia. Once leader, the attention would on the credibility of Rudd’s policy as well as that of Abbott.

Rudd’s problem is that he would need a policy that was more convincing than Gillard’s for dealing with the boats, as well as an answer when his critics said he was to blame for restarting the inflow in the first place.

Many commentators – this writer included – welcomed the Rudd government’s more humane approach to asylum seekers. But in retrospect it had disastrous consequences.

Not only has the inflow increased to proportions that can’t be controlled – even with the harsh deterrents the government has now imposed – but the number of drownings is horrific.

In recent days, about 55 lives have been lost not far from Christmas Island. There are signs the public is becoming used to this sort of appalling news, which competed in the headlines with the Labor leadership story.

If Rudd became leader he would face policy questions not just on these matters, but over a wide range of issues.

But what is most noteworthy in this leadership battle is that it actually involves very little policy content. It is driven by one basic factor: electoral popularity.

Three years ago, the coup against Rudd was propelled partly by poor opinion polls and partly by a revolt against Rudd’s leadership style.

Looking back, the opinion poll factor appears almost a joke, when his lapse in popularity is compared with consistently bad polling (except in the honeymoon period) for Labor under for Gillard.

The style of leadership issue is being little talked about in the present debate, although it is one factor in the hatred of Rudd felt by many caucus members and so is working to Gillard’s advantage.

Would Rudd be a better, more consultative leader the second time around? He has previously conceded some personal faults and indicated he now favours restoring the right for caucus to choose the frontbench (though presumably not pre-election). But whether he would be a new man is questionable.

On the other hand, would it matter?

Few in Labor believe he would win the election. So his second coming might be very brief.

If he did well at the election (but failed to win), it’s possible he could stay on as opposition leader, but Bill Shorten would remain on hand to take over before too long if caucus decided that Labor could once again not stomach the Rudd style.

Thisn article first appeared in The Conversation

The author

Michelle Grattan AO is one of Australia’s most respected and awarded political journalists. She has been a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery for more than 40 years, during which time she has covered all the most significant stories in Australian politics.

As a former editor of The Canberra Times, Michelle Grattan was also the first female editor of an Australian daily newspaper. She has been with the Australian Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald and Political Editor of The Age since 2004.

Michelle currently has a dual role with an academic position at the University of Canberra and as Associate Editor (Politics) and Chief Political Correspondent at The Conversation.

In her role at the university of Canberra, Michelle will be teaching, working on research projects in politics and political communication, as well as providing public commentary and strategic advice.

She is the author, co-author and editor of several books and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2004 for her long and distinguished service to Australian journalism.

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