Finally this week we came to the instalment of the Howard Years that has more than passing relevance to the current political milieu.
THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL
The first, and most important lesson, is realising that the ability to connect at a personal level is crucial in politics. This applies not just to the electorate- with forestry workers in Tassie embracing Howard as a saviour in 2004, while Mark Latham had avoided dealing with them, fleeing them in a taxpayer-funded limousine- but also to other leaders, as evidenced by Howard’s impressive rapport with the leaders of our most naturally allies, the US and UK, with George W. Bush and Tony Blair respectively.
Needless to say, this is particularly relevant at a time when there remain significant question marks over the conduct of the current Prime Minister, who through his own fault or that of those close to him, has allowed doubts to emerge over his truthfulness and scruples when conversing with the leader of our most important ally, lame duck leader or not.
RUDD DISSES BUSH AND WE WONDER WHY
While the damage to that bilateral relationship may well be fleeting- Howard’s strained relationships with successive Indonesian leaders, for instance, demonstrate that if work is done to improve the country-to-country ties, as well as cultivating relationships with new leaders, such damage need not be lasting, it remains an unusual mistake for a former diplomat, a highly disciplined politician who sold himself on his foreign policy expertise, to have made, and to have allowed to become a running sore. That the Opposition probably overstated the individual incident’s importance is beside the point.
The indiscretion was simply stupid. A telling point though was that this was the most major of Rudd missteps since his assumption of the Labor leadership, and could be directly linked either to him or to the unnamed staffer in the room at Kirribilli when he took the President’s call. So far, the only time Rudd has clearly admitted he stuffed up, or was sorry, was to a Generation of Indigenous Australians he didn’t steal. Good on him, but how about admitting you’re to blame when you’ve been in charge? Admitting you aren’t perfect won’t kill you in politics. But maintaining or acting as though you’re never wrong reeks of hubris, or even worse, a deadly case of the dreaded out-of-touchitis.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL
The second lesson is the importance of attention to detail. The scandalous politicisation of the HMAS Adelaide’s involvement in the Children Overboard saga by Reith and Ruddock- to the considerable chagrin of then CDF ADM Chris Barrie and then Chief of Navy VADM David Shackleton, is a master class for anyone willing to learn, appreciate, and apply the principles of proper information management and communication in politics. If somebody wants your job enough- or if it’s their job to scrutinise you- you’ll be found out. This is as true of Ni-Cola as it is of Julie, Bishop of Curtin. That Reith was a left hate figure already on the way out thinking he was doing the Government a favour by pulling a rabbit out of a hat- or, rather, putting some kids in a photo into the water- is essentially irrelevant. Even the most straightforward decisions you make in a position of authority while in the public eye can be subject to the most intense scrutiny by the media and/or the other side.
No honest observer of politics- including Ni-Cola- would’ve predicted that the appointment of a handful of men’s health ambassadors would eventually result in somewhat melodramatic but hardly baseless calls for her to resign. What Ni-Cola has in common with Bishop is form; appointing the DPM’s partner, Tim Mathieson, renowned health expert to any role was stupid, regardless of the lack of health-related expertise required to discharge it. Bishop’s generally insipid performance as Shadow Treasurer and repeated plagiarism are no less serious. They are on a continuum with often effective but gaffe-prone Reith, whose phone card odyssey had done him so much damage, with the controversy over children overboard providing an inglorious bookend to his career. With reshuffles for both parties mooted amongst the chattering classes, even minor gaffes in what has been a largely incident free first year of Government could hurt high profile pollies. Unless you’re Tony Abbott, in which case you remain allowed to pass Go and collect your $125k a year.
HOWARD V BEAZLEY
In this third instalment of the Howard Years, Howard saw off Kim Beazley, his opponent Simon Crean through his forfeiture (many Victorians will be wondering what might have been were Martin Pakula the Member for Hotham, rather than the Sun/Son King), odious Latham, Saddam Hussein, and last, and most certainly least, his invertebrate Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party to the tune of ‘When I’m 64’, one of the better numbers on the second side of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
To use his own turn of phrase, like him or loathe him, you know where Howard stands.
Even the slightly disturbing eulogising by Bush of a man that is still alive fails to obscure the basic truth here. If you allow yourself to cut through by speaking plainly, connecting with people and actually show leadership, you can write your own ticket for several terms.
Rudd is well-liked, according to the polls, but he needs to get back to basics when communicating with the outer suburbs, with the battlers, particularly as tough times are upon us. Howard’s supporter base, save for at the bitter end, these are the people that hire or fire a Prime Minister. Rudd need not dumb things down, but he would do well to ditch the Mandarin’s Mandarin, and talk to them in a language they understand.