A Question of Language – Rudd and Gillard’s Appeals to the Party

Watching the competing press conferences today has been illustrative of the competing styles and values of our two aspirant leaders. First of all, it is interesting to look at the style and structure of Rudd’s speech, which he clearly worked on assiduously on that plane trip from Washington.

He spends the first minute talking about Australia’s challenges in the first 30 seconds – though not without framing that through the lens of his time in public life and his two core goals. He refers to those two goals as how to build a better Australia and how to build a better Australian Labor Party.  So, he is giving his supporters a picture of Kevin the Builder and Kevin the Reformer of that rotten union infested ALP.  He then checks off the things about the new GFC that could affect Australia – making sure he mentions manufacturing – a key concern for any Labor party, before Small Business – a key constituency that Rudd appealed to successfully in his 07 election campaign.

In a blink of an eye, he turns to the main problem facing the ALP – the “ravages” of an Abbottpocalypse, where “the most conservative and right wing government we have ever seen in our history” would come to power. He infers that the Government has lost the “confidence of the Australian people” and then says “Julia” – not the Prime Minister, not the Leader, Julia, has “lost the trust of the Australian people”. In this, he immediately acts to reduce his opponent as just being an ordinary person. A bit like Coalition MPs who do the same trick. He then says he “wants to start restoring that trust”.  Many would be a bit confused with that line, considering that he has, over the past few days, virtually confirmed that he leaked confidential information against the government to his favoured four journalists. Not exactly an act of a man who is asking people to “trust” him.

It is then we come to a piece of rhetorical sophistry, where he says he wants “to finish the job the Australian people elected me to do, when I was elected by them to become Prime Minister”.  In that, he adopting another Coalition line, in saying that people voted for him to be their PM in 2007, they didn’t vote for the party that made him leader.  What can be called the Presidential Line. Using that line, he is making it clear that he would still run things his way, because he was the one elected in 2007.  Skating away from that quickly, however, he does make mention of the “right team”. The leadership structure, however, is made clear with the positioning of the sentences.

The next part of the speech seems to be intended to show how he can be a good salesman, articulating clearly the achievements of his government, making special emphasis on the much maligned Building the Education Revolution project, repeating the line that he was “proud of each and every one” of the libraries and other resource centres built with the money.  In this, Rudd is showing a clear advantage over Gillard, due to a better, more natural delivery of his lines than Gillard has shown since becoming the leader. The same goes with his obvious pride at Australia becoming part of the G20.

Then, with that old rhetorical trick of seeming to let the audience have some power – “let me just say”, he lists what he could do if he was leader.  In that, he refers to families “doing it tough”, and saying “it’s all about jobs, creating jobs, not exporting jobs” using the same simplifying (some would say simplistic) language he was known for from his Sunrise days – and the 2007 campaign.  Interestingly, it does cause pause for reflection that Rudd seems to speak better as an opposition leader than as a Prime Minister.

That vision of what needs to be done is short, though, in the face of his real target – the ALP itself. He says it needs reforming and that his interest is in “the Australian Labor Party of the Future”. He then goes straight to talking about democracy being important around the world – making an inferred reference to the Arab Spring – but then inferring that the ALP (my own party) isn’t democratic – a sentiment expressed with a short chuckle. This is where he starts putting his coded boot into the party.

He starts with a reference to the leaders of the union movement moving to oust him in 2010 – “Australians are sick and tired of outside forces calling the shots”, going further by calling for the ALP to have secret ballots and be free to vote however they wish, “free from intimidation, including intimidation from factions”, plus “no-one should live in fear”.  This is Rudd putting himself on the higher moral ground, suggesting that if people don’t vote for Rudd, they have been intimidated. He links this intimidation to Gillard by “calling on her to guarantee” that the preselection of MPs would not be changed as a result of voting for him. This is a promise he knows that Gillard, an insider in the Labor Party / Union nexus, can’t make.  He also adds that the ballot should begin with a short speech from each candidate, breaking from the tradition that each vote has been decided before the ballot is held. Another play for the high moral ground, as the “outsider”.

The next gambit of his appeal to the parliamentary party is to attempt to separate his attempted attack on unions with his own mistake of taking away the power of the unions by insisting on selecting his cabinet.  That is why he wants to give the power of appointing ministers back to the parliamentary party – with the caveat that that union influence – the factions – could not play a role. In other words, a virtual impossibility for a party so enmeshed with the union movement that supports their campaigns. He goes on to assert that it’s the Australian Way to have their free and independent say.

It is clear at this point that he is addressing voters – telling them that it’s union power and the factions that is blocking him from coming in and steering the party to help ordinary working families like them.  It’s a powerful line, that does steer the mind away from the policy paralysis of his time as Prime Minister, especially in the final months.  This is underlined by the fact that he identifies his main flaw as not allowing the parliamentary party select the ministers.

Rudd then reveals another core selling point of him being leader – being able to stymie Tony Abbott. He produces a vision of a negative man stuck in the past, in terms of women, climate change and technology. This boot is stuck in further by comparing him to past Liberal leaders, saying he is more conservative than the lot of them.  The code here is that Rudd has a clear line to use against Tony Abbott and he would intend to repeat it, time and again – a bit like Abbott himself. A simple line for a simple goal. Back to the Sunrise technique.

To make a vastly negative speech seem to be about positives, Rudd finishes with a recap of what needs to be done. Curiously, though, he says that a Green Party doesn’t need to be there to tell the ALP what to do about the environment. Very curious, in that Rudd would need Green support in the both the lower and upper house to get his programs through. Though, perhaps with that line, we get some insight as to why he failed to negotiate his ETS with Bob Brown when he had the chance. He then returns to “trust” and the “ruthless” factions that would be stopping him from his positive, achievable goals.

Ultimately, the speech makes it clear that Rudd is making this battle about the structure of the ALP, which allows factions and unions to control its appointments and decision making – something that has always been there. It is also about who is more capable of pointing out how bad Tony Abbott is. And a little bit about what he can do with policies already being implemented.  It’s an extraordinarily ambitious aspiration, from a man who has cast himself as an rugged individualist trying to make the ALP into a party for the people once again.  It’s little wonder the ALP / Union nexus has a problem with Rudd, who is a loose cannon beyond anything Mark Latham offered with his distaste for union and “machine” control.  And why he won’t succeed in anything more than giving the Liberal Party ammunition for the election next year.

Gillard, however, in her statement is defending herself and her the system that keeps her there. She can’t attack the rhetoric of a person claiming that the unions have wrecked democracy in the ALP, because that is a hard case to make in press conferences. As a result, she made it personal, about choice and about “character, temperament, strength to deliver”.  As a Rudd directed zinger on top of that, she makes the comment “this isn’t Celebrity Big Brother”, making the inference that Rudd is more a TV star on a reality show than a leader who can deliver on his promises – “get things done” being the repeated theme of this speech.  Then the speech goes into the rhetoric of “delivery”, “building” and “creating jobs”, saying that she is interested in delivering on core ALP policies, not making rhetorical stands and spending time reforming the ALP.   She casts herself as the steady worker, working with purpose, method, long haul thinking.

It’s not a pretty speech with the rhetorical flourishes of Rudd – which does define their different leadership styles. To emphasise this point, Gillard says “talk is easy, getting things done is harder and I am the person who gets things done”. With frequent recent talk of Rudd’s time as PM being about a lot of rhetoric but not a lot of completion, this is Gillard speaking to her party – though, it’s not terribly vibrant or sexy for the public’s ear. Gillard’s dreary pragmatism never has been.

Gillard, like Rudd, spends time talking about Abbott’s weaknesses – essentially that he is negative, revealing that he and his repetitive, negative and simple tactics have been playing on their minds for a long time. Neither mention, however, that the Coalition’s chief weakness may well be with the team behind him, who aren’t really mentioned that much in either the media or in these speeches. It’s a clear strategy that could be pursued, but has not been.

The speech ends with repetition of the theme that she as leader is about delivery and governing – delivering on “historic” reforms for working people and the inference that Rudd is all talk, without the character to lead.

Renae Farrington's Excellent Cartoon

It’s an ugly business. Rudd with his Four Journalists of the Ruddpocalypse, helping to break union power over the ALP, plus deliver that policy stuff Versus the Dreary School Principal delivering programs.  It’s easy to see why many people would like Rudd – he seems sincere and principled. But his is the impossible dream, because he has been there before and failed – and doesn’t seem to have learned that government is more than just ideals, rhetoric and settling old scores.

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