Sir Arthur Fadden once had a cabbage thrown at him.
In an effort to break his boring aloof image, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has taken to occasionally addressing small rallies as he tours the country trying to win votes.
But it’s nothing like the good old days when politicians stood on the back of a tabletop truck parked on a street corner and tried to persuade the masses. The late Labor minister Clyde Holding recalled the days when burly builders’ labourers and waterside workers were required to protect the speaker and the speaker himself had to know how to use the microphone stand – not to hold the mike – but to swing its heavy base to fend off would-be platform invaders.
Rowdy meetings weren’t confined to Labor events. Legend has it that Country Party leader and short-term Prime Minister, Arthur Fadden, once faced a noisy open-air meeting and as he called for silence, a man at the rear threw a cabbage which struck Fadden in the stomach. Picking it up and examining it, he observed: ‘‘I asked that man to lend me his ears – not to throw me his bloody head.’’
Today a Rudd-Abbott debate is considered lively if one speaker accuses the other of talking too much.
Even in the sedate Senate, we had stronger language than that. Senators have called each other little Hitlers, a Fuehrer, a Fascist, or have responded to an interjection with ‘‘OK Adolf.’’ Usually the rude interjectors were forced to withdraw, giving us a list of unparliamentary language which includes calling another Senator stupid, dumb, a silly old fool, a damn fool, or a political pimp.
We are constantly told that the public doesn’t like it getting personal and wants politicians to discuss the real issues – the major policy matters that confront the nation.
But there’s no evidence that the swinging voters who determine the outcome of elections are interested in serious policy debate.
As prime minister, Julia Gillard achieved much in her brief term, undertaking difficult negotiations to put a price on carbon emissions, bringing about education reform, introducing a disability insurance scheme and getting an interstate agreement on Murray-Darling water.
But swinging voters who were stopped in the street during her time in office and asked to comment on her performance typically nominated the toppling of Kevin Rudd and the broken promise on a carbon tax, if they could come up with any reason at all for their disapproval. How many knew that the Coalition reneged on an agreement to support an emissions trading system, forcing Gillard to negotiate with the Greens and independents to get a price on emissions? If the Coalition had held to its agreement and passed a bill for an ETS in the Senate, there would have been no carbon tax.
The negative assessment of Gillard was endlessly reinforced by the Murdoch press. The nonsense that Rudd was removed by ‘‘faceless men’’ was repeatedly trotted out. Rudd and his supporters also undermined her with the most reprehensible leaking during the 2010 election campaign. This will not be forgotten. The knives will come out when Rudd loses.
In contrast, Gillard and her supporters have demonstrated their commitment to Labor, by keeping quiet during this campaign.
With two-thirds of the campaign over, Rudd and his team have not demonstrated his supposedly superior campaign abilities. He does not have the common touch of Bob Hawke.
His efforts to get across the budget mess the opposition is in have been poor.
Rudd and his supporters’ criticism of Gillard and former treasurer Wayne Swan for engaging in ‘‘class warfare’’ when they sought to rally the Labor troops around such policies as the mining tax, played into the hands of the opposition and gave the Murdoch media ammunition to fire back at Labor. Voters need to be told, without any apology, that the mining tax and the carbon pricing mechanism are positive achievements and will generate $22billion over the next four years. That’s not to be sneezed at.
Rudd did hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that we could have a Melbourne-to-Brisbane very fast train for the cost of Abbott’s inequitable paid parental leave scheme.
The agreement with the states on education is another positive major reform that needed to be rammed home.
Rudd’s major significant electoral contribution in 2007 was to minimise the anti-Labor sentiment of the Christian right. In his Monthly essay the year before the election he took the religious emphasis away from such issues as abortion and homosexuality and placed it on Christian community obligations – Labor was on the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.
He has continued to advertise his Christianity, taking every opportunity to be filmed going to and from church and giving regular door-stop interviews. But his pull in the evangelical and Catholic communities has waned. Rudd’s asylum-seeker policies will not win the compassionate Christian vote and his new marriage equality policy will lose him the religious right vote.
If Abbott wins more than a 20-seat majority, as seems likely, the Rudd leadership change will have proved a failure. Only the naïve or politically ignorant could have seriously believed the polls that suggested Rudd would carry the electorate if appointed leader. His relentless, disruptive tactics did serious damage to Gillard but, by showing Labor to be a divided party, it also destroyed Rudd’s chances of winning an election.