In a life garlanded by few and modest distinctions, I do enjoy, I suspect, one that is unusual. As we approach the shuddering climax of our democratic rhythms, I am among that very small minority of people who feels quite warm and fuzzy about both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. I met each of them many years before either went into politics and have always regarded them as friends. Now I should be quite upfront about one thing: I think our government is a poor government and deserves to lose the forthcoming election. You have to judge Labor’s six years in office, not Kevin’s six weeks. Overall, it is a government that has spent too much, regulated too much, exhibited gothic internal hatred, turned the direction of economic reform backwards and trashed good process. I was quite happy when Rudd was elected in 2007, much as I respected John Howard, but the argument for a new government now is overwhelming.
As I’ve been writing along these lines now for a while, I suspect that I am not presently that popular with our beloved Prime Minister. But I still class myself as an admirer of Rudd’s. I met him in Beijing in 1985 when I was a correspondent and he was a junior diplomat. I had asked for a briefing on human rights and the embassy thought it a bit too sensitive to do in the regular ambassador’s briefing with the small (but distinguished!) Australian press corps (Robert Thomson, Helene Chung and Yours Truly). So they organised a private briefing from Rudd. I found him erudite, engaging and wholly helpful, judgments I’ve never had occasion to revise. A lot of people at the embassy already thought him the smartest person there. Many suspected they might end up working for him, not as Prime Minister, but as head of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
In truth, I’ve had a much closer friendship with Abbott. In what seems now the Pleistocene Age, he and I were first-year undergraduates together at Sydney University. He was a great fellow and a great friend. We became intensely active in student politics and deep friends in the way that is characteristic of undergraduate life. One of his endearing traits was a tendency to call everyone ‘mate’, including the odd nun of his acquaintance. I have adopted the Michelle Grattan variation of this tactic myself. As the senior moments creep up, and names sometimes become a little elusive, I tend to call everyone ‘cobber’. It applies easily to male and female, young and old, boss and subordinate, colleague and interrogatee. Israeli friends tell me it derives from the Hebrew word, kever, meaning friend, and was picked up by the Diggers in the Middle East nearly a century ago.
Abbott’s apparent unpopularity in the polls is perplexing because really there are few better blokes. I think the explanation, though, is simple enough. The last opposition leader to win an election on his second consecutive effort was Gough Whitlam in 1972. No other successful opposition leader has survived continuously from one election loss to, at the next election, victory. Successful opposition leaders have generally come to the leadership late in the political cycle, meaning they avoid the mauling of a whole parliamentary term. Malcolm Fraser took over from Billy Snedden halfway through the parliamentary term. Bob Hawke became leader the day the 1983 election was called. John Howard replaced Alexander Downer well into the parliamentary term, as Kevin Rudd replaced Kim Beazley.
Speaking of Beazley, I always thought he would make a fine prime minister. But even with his immense personality, his long experience and the deep affection so many people, including me, held for him, he didn’t make it at his second attempt. This owed something to the 9/11 terror attacks and the Tampa boat people incident. But it does seem to me that any government has so many opportunities to fire ordnance at the opposition leader that inevitably it takes a toll. Three things make Abbott’s situation a bit different from Beazley’s. There is no 9/11 or Tampa. Rudd himself is also unpopular, according to the polls. And the government is in much worse shape than Howard’s was in 2001, when Beazley lost for the second time. For all that, it’s clear to me that Abbott is prime ministerial quality. The energy, intellect, inherent decency, and the discipline evident in a decade as a minister and four years as opposition leader, leave me in no doubt he would do OK in the Lodge.
I spent a couple of days this week in Adelaide, looking at the defence industry. Among Labor’s most colossal failings is the bizarre way it has jerked the defence budget back and forth. This has hurt Australia’s military, but it has also profoundly damaged our defence industry. Nothing the government promises ever comes to pass, which makes rational planning by defence firms impossible. I also found myself having some seriously heretical thoughts about support for the manufacturing industry and a policy to build ships — and a few other critical defence capabilities — in Australia, even if that’s not the cheapest option. Of course, you have to structure industry assistance so that the unions don’t go mad with the knowledge that the government, rather than their firm’s competitiveness, pays their wages. But there is a lot of benefit to having these things done in Australia. A modest premium to that end is no bad way to use our money. Rudd and Abbott, pay attention.
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Greg Sheridan is foreign editor at the Australian.
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