In Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, a mother struggles to love her strange child despite the many vicious things he says and does. Something similar has happened with the Australian media and public in coming to terms with the political rebirth of Kevin Rudd. How can someone described by his colleagues as a ‘complete and utter fraud’, a ‘crypto-fascist’ and ‘a psychopath with a giant ego’ regain the highest office in the land after having once been deposed by his own party for serial incompetence?
In his first term as prime minister, Kevin acted in ‘autocratic, self-serving ways’ and behaved like a ‘narcissist micro-manager’, so much so that Tony Burke, his current immigration minister, observed in 2012 that ‘the stories of chaos, temperament, inability to make decisions… They were not stories.’
Once ousted in June 2010, Rudd conducted ‘an unending campaign to regain power’. This long-running ‘jihad of revenge’, unprecedented in modern Australian politics, ultimately undermined his successor Julia Gillard. Throughout this period, Rudd presented himself as both martyr and political messiah.
At the first conference of his second coming, Rudd enthralled a rapt media with his unctuous mixture of moralising and contradiction. The great communicator adopted a hip argot asking everyone to ‘just chill’, before raising the rhetorical temperature by asserting that a vote for the opposition was a vote for war with Indonesia. Asking for politicians ‘to be a little kinder and a little gentler with each other’, he later challenged Tony Abbott to debate him face to face, contending: ‘It’s time you demonstrated to the country you had a bit of ticker on this. I mean he’s the boxing Blue, I’m the, you know, glasses-wearing kid in the library, come on.’ Whatever psychoanalysts might make of this display, it is the rhetoric of melodrama and soap opera rather than mature political debate.
Informed political commentators have noted that Rudd is both indecisive and unwilling to defer decision-making. He has reversed his opinion on a range of issues that he once considered non-negotiable. He advocated economic conservatism in 2007, only to denounce it during the global financial crisis and embrace Keynesian stimulus. Faced with a mounting budget deficit, he recently announced his reconversion to fiscal prudence. Similarly, on climate change (‘the greatest moral issue of our time’), the mining tax and gay marriage, policies Kevin once advocated have been discarded without any acknowledgement of error. In foreign affairs, his knowledge of China has done little for Australian relations apart from undermine them. Meanwhile, on asylum seekers, he has had more positions than the Kama Sutra — moving from compassionate acceptance and diluting border controls to pushing illegal economic migrants to the back of the queue and negotiating a dubious deal to send them to Papua New Guinea’s remote Manus Island.
And yet the media, with rare exceptions, consider the litany of policy announcements ‘game changing’, ‘cunning gambit(s)’ and ‘reckless, inhumane and brilliant’. Labor’s subsequent boost in the polls and Rudd’s own approval ratings reflect his brilliance. Conventional politicians who work collegially to implement policies fail to cut through; yet a political chameleon like Rudd both excites and delights. Why is this and what do these developments tell us about the current pathology of one of the world’s most long-established electoral democracies?
Rudd’s political presentation and appeal transcends the normal conduct of party politics and indicates a worrying development in modern democratic practice and its relationship with the media. As the late Anglo- Australian conservative thinker, Kenneth R. Minogue, observed in The Silencing of Society: The True Cost of the Lust for News, the relationship between political presentation and journalism changed dramatically in the era of 24/7 news cycles. Before the CNN era, print and television journalism reported political debates and policy proposals and commented upon them. The relationship altered dramatically, however, when political news became infotainment. In this brave new world, the politician required a persona that the media welcomed. In other words, politicians became media performers and the media now judged the performance. Politics responded to polls and not arguments, and history was reduced to a sound bite. Indeed, there was no need for a past because both journalist and politician jumped to the next drama and forgot the last.
This is an interesting despotic development that even George Orwell failed to anticipate. In 1984, the party had constantly to rewrite the past to make it conform to the needs of the present. Today, there is no need, as media man lives in a one-dimensional world in which memory is short term, truth is information and the media presents fragmented factual propositions describing constantly changing aspects of life for maximum emotional impact. An endless flow of information flattens understanding. The public live in a permanent present craving only stimulation. The media responds, presenting policy in terms of praise or blame, triumph or disaster.
Mass media for mass consumption thus complements the activist impulse of a new breed of democratic populist like Kevin Rudd. The outcome of most media uproar is an incitement for government to do what contemporary democracies most like doing, namely, taking more power and managing more aspects of our lives. Media serves to infantilise the public and creates a servile condition where the populace live in a perpetual childhood of prescription. In this political game-show world, the media treats politicians as celebrities, first taking them up and then abandoning them. Ultimately, this rhetoric of simulation and dissimulation undermines the basis of politics classically conceived as a limited activity of finite possibilities.
It is this rhetoric of the modern media that Rudd, who evidently cannot survive without it, intuitively grasps. In particular, he recognises that, in this condition, action is speech and words become deeds. Indeed, what he practices is a form of preaching. Kevin, as his constituency website tells us, ‘connects’. He offers cool paternalism and his appeal is to the young, the blank and the impressionable, the nerdy Generation Y who seem to have spent too much time on Facebook and in a virtual world where Rudd also dwells. Rudd’s self-serving narcissism fits with a population inured to state dependence and more self-absorbed than any previous generation.
In Lionel Shriver’s novel, the police ask the disturbed Kevin why he massacred his school mates, he replies that he is simply giving the public the excitement they secretly crave. Our Kevin similarly plays into the sensation-driven maw of the mass media and in the process massacres the traditional conventions of political practice.