Election Interpreter 2013
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra Times columnist and author of Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography, What Goes Up: Behind the 2007 Election and Rudd's Way: November 2007-June 2010.
Every now and then there's a moment when everything suddenly seems to spring into focus. Literary types describe these as 'epiphanies'. It's that instant when everything comes together and seems to make sense. Often they follow a long period of research and deep thought about an issue but occasionally they just arrive, unbidden.
Anyone watching Kevin Rudd's speech to the Lowy Institute this morning should have had one of those moments of sudden clarity.
The fact that Rudd made time to speak about foreign affairs and defence less than a fortnight out from a vote that polling shows will see him lose office demonstrates that Rudd still cares deeply about these issues. As well as that, the strategists would have realised that the images on television tonight (speaking at a respected intellectual forum) will do him no harm. They'll show Rudd talking about a concern that is both his passion and strong suit. But none of this will change a single vote in Sydney's west.
Nevertheless, this remains the only sensible way of revealing the meaning behind his words. Use a twin framework to deconstruct the speech: half earthy politics; half frustrated desire. Do this and the elemental urges behind Rudd's words spring to life.
Firstly, the policy. As far as this Prime Minister's concerned, the Defence White Paper released a few months ago is now dead and buried. He's brushed aside its recommendations as if they never existed.
Take, for example, the initiative that formed the basis of his speech: the need to move the fleet north. This on again, off again project seems to depend more on who happens to reside in the Lodge than on Australia's strategic requirements. Rudd despises the way Stephen Smith has administered the Defence portfolio. The friction between the two generates sparks, and is one of the reasons Smith has now resigned from parliament. How wonderful for Rudd, prime minister once again, to use the opportunity to restore his vision for the future of Australia's defences.
This guarantees headlines and excitement. True, the (minimum) $6 billion price tag has always been enough to cause governments to pause. But think, for a moment, of all that Sydney Harbour waterfront property suddenly becoming available! The detail doesn't really matter – it's the image of the PM talking while overlooking Garden Island that the voters will take away from tonight's news (although the encounter with NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell wasn't part of the script).
This was the second leg of the speech: the political. Think of all the business opportunities in Townsville/Brisbane/Darwin (all, incidentally, harbouring marginal seats) that punters will take away from the speech. 'Hey', they'll think, 'this guy's doing something.'
Rudd has created a marvellous opportunity for a government under pressure: the chance to offer up new ideas; new ways of getting things done. Instead of looking old, the Government is rejuvenated. Tony Abbott's 'steady as she goes' approach lacks the frisson of excitement generated by Rudd.
Most marvellous of all, the actual shift is so far off in the future that it will never have to appear on the forward budget projections. But by insisting that the project needs to be studied now, the Government looks as if it's doing something. Just like, for example, planning a high-speed rail network down the east coast. Don't worry about the detail, feel the vibe.
This is, of course, all somewhat unfair to Rudd. He is just a politician running for re-election, after all. Regrettably, though, this was the meaning that those who know and care about defence took away from the speech. And that leads back to my epiphany.
It wasn't anything Rudd said or didn't say. It was just a simple question. Michael Fullilove asked if the Prime Minister would match Abbott's commitment to raising defence spending to 2% of GDP. But just as for Abbott, this remains a purely aspirational target for Rudd.
Everyone's got ideas. It's just committing money that both sides seem to find a problem.
Photo by Flickr user the_fella.