The Labor Party has taken a jump into the unknown with Kevin Rudd on the promise that he’ll be able to “cut through” as Kim Beazley couldn’t.
Part of Rudd’s pitch for the leadership was leaked polling commissioned by the NSW ALP in the Brisbane marginal seat of Moreton and the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay which purported to show Rudd’s leadership being a potential vote switcher. His negative rating of 11 per cent was trumpeted as a tonic for those depressed by Beazley’s consistently high disapproval.
But the poll also found that 17 per cent of the voters sampled had no idea who Rudd was.
Such polls are always hypotheticals. The Labor Party will be well aware that Rudd, while hardly a tabula rasa, has an image largely waiting to be sketched in for voters. The Liberal Party hardly missed a beat trying to establish some negatives in the public mind.
The thrust of the government attack so far has been to blunt the good news story about Rudd - his very newness as leader, and his promise of a “new style of leadership”. It’s textbook Textor politics to take your opponent’s strengths and turn them around into weaknesses. The most effective case study of this technique is Howard’s run on “trust” in 2004.
It’s been part of Howard’s ongoing campaign all term. While many may discount the rantings and ravings of the punditariat over postmodernism in schools, the point of symbolic politics in education is to knock down Labor’s traditional advantage on education.
Similarly, the government has made hay with its strength on health. Tony Abbott’s been mightily helped by a performance by Labor state governments which ranges from scandalous to ordinary.
The latest economic growth figures also suggest that Howard has timed his rhetoric to make the economic and electoral cycles coincide. While his claim that an interest rise in October would forestall more next year was scoffed at in media circles, it now appears that sluggish growth will see rates fall next year. So the government can run on its own economic strengths, and hope that Iraq doesn’t dent its national security credentials too much.
Howard’s story on Rudd so far is that his selection is a backward step. He’s moved swiftly to tie Rudd to the ACTU leadership. This is a high risk tactic when public hostility towards unions has dissipated, and WorkChoices is unpopular. But it’s another way of turning an apparent positive for Rudd into a negative.
Beazley’s strategy wasn’t exactly small target. He’d enunciated themes, and released detailed policy. The problem was that the media was sick of him, and didn’t report it.
But Beazley meant what he said about being a safe pair of hands. While his weaknesses were well known, he was also less susceptible to the slings and arrows of government attack, simply because his basic image was that of someone who wouldn’t frighten the horses.
Beazley must have also thought that WorkChoices would lead to a government defeat. He spent a lot of time campaigning in the community on IR, largely beneath the government radar. As Labor leader, Beazley froze the front bench in place to keep a lid on internal dissension. As it turns out, that was a “bridge too far”.
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