Rudd: Too clever by half
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's recent appointment of Peter Costello as the head of the Future Fund highlight's his strategic cleverness in his attempt to nullify any serious opposition and to be seen as a centrist.
Kevin Rudd has shown a remarkable ability to be a very cunning politician. His rather dull television performances, where he comes across as a verbose technocrat, mask a real ability at being able to exploit political opportunities where and when they arise. His ascendancy to the federal Labor leadership after just a couple of terms in parliament was an example of his prowess.
So, too, was his demolition of John Howard's Liberal-National coalition at the 2007 general election. Rudd's decision last week to nominate former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello to the Future Fund board was yet another instance of the prime minister's ability to come up with a political manoeuvre that captures the imagination of the press gallery while catching his political enemies off-guard.
Announcing the Costello appointment achieved three important strategic objectives for Rudd. First, it had the effect of neutralising Costello's impact on the economic policy debate.
Despite his imminent exit from parliament, Costello has been keeping up a barrage of commentary on the global financial crisis based on attacking the Rudd Government's policies. By undertaking an act of bipartisanship, Rudd basically told the electorate that people in mainstream politics don't really mean it when they say nasty, partisan things about their opponents. One wonders what impact future Costello columns on economic policy will have now that he appears to be a part of 'the government'.
Second, Rudd found yet another way to embarrass current Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull. The sight of another prominent Liberal being offered a government position surely undermines the credibility of Turnbull's leadership given that Rudd appears to have more success than Turnbull in offering Costello something more meaningful to do other than being a Fairfax correspondent from the back benches of the House of Representatives.
Third, Mr Rudd has used the announcement of the Costello appointment to the Future Fund as another opportunity to remind the Labor party at large that he is in charge. In this endeavour, Mr Rudd got something of a bonus when former Labor prime minister Paul Keating publicly criticised the appointment and disparaged Rudd for his apparent bipartisanship. While Keating is a favourite of the politics community mainly because of his wit and vitriol, his loathing amongst the electorate at large (his defeat in 1996 was one of the biggest in Australian political history) should not be underestimated.
By attacking him, Keating has actually helped put distance between Rudd and the Keating legacy. This will help Rudd in the marginal electorates.
Rudd thus probably enhanced his position in the polls by going out of his way to not be like Keating. How ironic, then, that a rather bumbling attempt to be like John Howard in the face of the arrival of a very small number of asylum seekers on the waters between Australia and Indonesia appears to have thrown Labor's electoral support in to reverse.
The Rudd Government's rather ham-fisted attempt at managing this matter has obscured whatever advantage the prime minister might have hoped to have extracted from his Costello strategy.
If nothing else, the asylum seeker impasse reminds everyone in politics that it is sometimes possible to be too clever by half – a fact that Mr Rudd is now painfully being made aware of.
Dr Economou is a senior lecturer in Politics at Monash University.
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