Ambition Trumps Policy

Commentary, Politics, Frontier Centre

As Kiwis watch Kevin Rudd's re-elevation to the Australian prime ministership, one curious thing becomes clear: this leadership bid had nothing to do with policy, but Mr Rudd's character, and backbenchers afraid of losing their seats.

To understand why Julia Gillard failed so miserably as prime minister, one must understand the shortcomings of Mr Rudd.

When he was elected prime minister in 2007, hubris quickly became apparent.

He considered himself a philosopher king, penning trite essays such as how Protestant theologian and Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have voted Labor, and a 7000-word tome on how it was his sacred duty to save capitalism from itself.

Only social democrats, he opined, could navigate Australia through the global financial crisis.

Sadly, philosopher kings are often difficult human beings, and so it was with Mr Rudd. It is well documented that members of his own party were waiting for the day when "the public hates Kevin as much as we do".

He was poll-driven, prone to tantrums, horrendous to work for and with. Last year fellow Labor MP Steve Gibbons called him a "psychopath with a giant ego", and his own treasurer, Wayne Swan, said he had a "deeply demeaning attitude towards other people including our caucus colleagues".

In 2010, many were pleased to be rid of him.

However, it's often overlooked that Mr Rudd was dumped in large part because many of his policies were either poor quality or unpopular and his administration inept.

Many "policies" were either mismanaged, or simply never materialised.

Climate change topped the list of Rudd policy failures. Despite bloviating that it was "the greatest economic, moral and social challenge of our time", Mr Rudd quickly abandoned doing anything when it became unpopular.

An ineffective fiscal stimulus was still being spent in school halls years after the global financial crisis had passed, while a home-insulation disaster came complete with house fires, deaths, and a ruined industry.

He presided over an abandoned laptops-in-schools programme. He introduced an unworkable and punitive mining-super-profits tax.

He legislated the Fair Work Act, taking industrial relations back to the 1970s. He dismantled the "Pacific solution" for asylum seekers, helping restart the odious people-smuggling trade, and 100 boat people are now arriving daily.

For this reason Mr Rudd's elevation will probably make little difference. The policies are the same, and are still unpopular.

The basic conceit, under which Labor has operated since 2009, is that it is no good at "selling its message" – the notion that people might just not like the policies is never countenanced.

The policy failures, political ineptitude, blatant spin and deceit under both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd have been staggering.

Despite Mr Rudd campaigning as a "fiscal conservative", they have both run old-school Keynesian tax-and-spend social-democratic administrations.

Since 2007, Australia's increase in tax revenue has been greater than the entire New Zealand budget, yet Australia faces years of deficits.

Ms Gillard gallantly tried to clean up these policy failures, but her own lack of political skill and a minority government meant she was struggling to tread water.

She had the double problem of introducing even more unpopular policies and was viewed as untrustworthy for misleading voters about introducing a carbon tax.

It didn't help that she was seen as working with independents, and some pretty low-rent characters that never grew out of university politics.

The lessons here for New Zealand are simply: policy matters, and good policy makes for good politics. It is also a reminder that corrosive personalities can cripple a government or political party.

Mr Rudd stalked Ms Gillard, and has been rewarded for three years of destabilising, bastardry and revenge. No great principle was at stake, just personal ambition.

New Zealand has had grownup, responsible government for the past few years, our public finances are being restored and the economy is growing.

In contrast, Mr Rudd has brought his own party to its knees.