Rudd denies leadership bid... over and over again
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd is constantly asked the question he doesn't want to hear, and while his answer stays the same, his sense of humour does not.PT3M20S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2ekwk 620 349 February 17, 2013
Federal Labor has a strategy beyond staring into the void, not that you'd know it most days. Some elements of the ALP remember that the voters are still out there, watching, wondering if there's any purpose to this battered and fractured government, or if it's only about random, internecine retribution.
Today there's exactly the sort of opinion poll you'd expect after the opening of the federal political year: bad for Labor, slipping back down in the quicksand; good for the Coalition.
Labor is trying to get its nose up with an industry statement. A declaration of purpose; a reach-out to the base and a rebuilding of the core. Tony Abbott reached out too last week, not to the base, but to his own future. Given all the distractions, you may not have noticed.
Abbott did something really significant: he accepted responsibility. He accepted that leadership is about doing things that might ultimately cost you, not just things that wound your opponent.
Last week, with the passage of the Act of Recognition through the House of Representatives, Australia took the first cautious step towards achieving long overdue recognition of indigenous people in the constitution.
Abbott took a bolder step - positioning himself as the politician who would get this important job done, with the authority to bring his colleagues with him. It wasn't an act of hubris, or an inappropriate insinuation into the future - not in my view anyway. It was a calculated move to render change inevitable.
Abbott locked the conservative side of politics into change.
He plotted his personal contribution in a continuum beginning with Harold Holt and Gough Whitlam who sponsored the 1967 referendum, to Paul Keating who looked unflinchingly into the heart of past wrongs, to John Howard who sought to acknowledge indigenous people in a 1999 referendum bid, and to Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson who ''together made the national apology''. ''I believe that we are equal to this task of completing our constitution rather than changing it,'' Abbott said. ''The next Parliament will, I trust, finish the work that this one has begun.''
A cynic could see last week as part of the repositioning Abbott is trying to achieve right now: a transition from one of the most negative opposition leaders we've seen to ''positive putative prime minister''.
Abbott is certainly a man in search of segues - he needs to overcome the hesitation voters have about him. ''Vision'' is the new Abbott buzzword - clearly the research is telling the Libs that the candidate needs to soar rather than just punch his opponent's lights out (particularly given Labor is doing a superb job at KO-ing itself).
Politics being politics, Abbott's positive contribution on recognition is, of course, part of his shape-shifting imperative. But it also exceeded it. The speech didn't feel ''set-piece'', it didn't feel ambivalent, it didn't present as hedged or transactional as tactical sorties in politics do - it sounded like the sum of extended reflection.
Professional journalism doesn't necessarily give you wisdom but it does give you access. I've been fortunate to have accompanied Abbott to remote communities over the past few years - to Alice Springs and to Cape York. So I've observed at close range. My view is that Abbott sincerely wants a game-changer in this policy space, and he's of the view that a leader from the conservative side of politics is a leader who can deliver that game-changer.
John Howard struggled to overcome his reflexive hostility to symbolism in indigenous affairs. He always leaned heavily to the responsibility agenda, and was weighted by his 1950s baggage. A conversion came, but it came too late.
Abbott, as Noel Pearson put it to me when we visited his country a year or so ago, has always more easily grasped the concept that responsibility must coexist with symbolism to achieve practical reconciliation and healing.
Abbott's instincts can balance the two strands: he can intuit the morality of symbolism.
The boldness of Abbott's gesture should not be underestimated, because the campaign for recognition is more fraught than it might seem, and has a long way to run.
He might be able to fuse the symbolic and the practical seamlessly enough in his own mind, but I suspect some of his parliamentary colleagues will struggle with that synthesis. Some of the Coalition's base will also baulk at the concept, either out of a ''don't fix what ain't broke'' reflex, or outright hostility to the ''rights agenda''.
Abbott has deliberately left himself room to move on the detail of the referendum proposal for precisely this reason. In some respects, politically, he has the harder task.
As he put it: ''It won't necessarily be straightforward to acknowledge the first Australians without creating new categories of discrimination which we must avoid, because no Australian should feel like a stranger in their own country.''
Not easy, not the populist route, but the right course of action at the right time. Abbott has locked in the direction. A new chapter. It'll be fascinating to watch him try to deliver.
Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent of The Age.