Monday, June 30, 2008

Rudd feels the sting of a self-inflicted wound

KEVIN Rudd has been slapped about by political reality. No one ever seriously expected Labor to win the Gippsland by-election. It's a Nationals seat. But the 8.4 per cent swing against Labor is a stern reminder that voters pay on results, not talk.

Since taking office, Rudd has faced difficult obstacles not of his own making, including the global oil crisis as well as the inflationary pressures that built up last year under John Howard's watch and have continued to push interest rates upwards. But the new Prime Minister has also damaged himself. During last year's election campaign, Rudd led people to believe he could do something about the prices of fuel and groceries. Although it is true he made no specific promises, instead vowing that monitoring would put downward pressure on prices, he used the power of suggestion for political gain. Now he is paying. Grocery and fuel prices have increased.

Then there was Rudd's first budget, with its tax on pre-mixed alcoholic drinks pathetically disguised as part of a fight against binge drinking. It was a revenue-raising measure. People might have respected it had it not masqueraded as something else.

The risk of Rudd's political strategy is that it opens him to criticism as someone who talks a lot and does nothing. Worse than that, he looks mean, tricky and wowserish on the issue of alcohol excise. Such themes are already at the heart of Brendan Nelson's political strategy. Apparently, they have registered with the voters of Gippsland.

In some ways, it's unfair. Rudd is undertaking a huge amount of behind-the-scenes and vital reform in areas such as health, education and inter-governmental relations. This will be highlighted on Thursday when a meeting of the Council of Australian Governments slashes red tape affecting business. Such reforms are meaty and important. In retrospect, they will be universally lauded. But they take time to produce results and they are too obscure to capture the public imagination.

The fat swing in the Gippsland by-election - an 8.4 per cent swing turnaround in only seven months - ought to be a cause for concern in Labor ranks. It should ring alarm bells about Rudd's political strategy. It is too glib - it assumes people are stupid and unable to see through spin. It is time for Mr 24/7 to inject greater authenticity into his style of government.


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