Kevin Rudd and Tony Jones looked like twins, both prematurely white, bespectacled and beaming, standing on either side of the Speaker’s chair in Old Parliament House. Coalition partisans would have been enraged to see the two of them, the Labor PM and the government-salaried Labor propagandist, using public money and airtime to propagandise to an assembly of impressionable young minds.
Rudd obviously enjoyed the encounter. You couldn’t say he had the youngsters eating of the palm of his hand, but the rapport was good. I don’t know how the audience was selected, but see no reason why it wouldn’t have been a representative cross-section of 15-25 year olds, in terms of political background. Rudd clearly sees himself as their kind of guy, and not without justification.
Not entirely, anyway. He is almost as nerdy as Howard, almost as evasive, and almost as ready with an infuriating glib response. He has adopted Howard’s faourire standby: ‘People will make a judgement on that’. And he has irritating mannerisms all of his own: has some adviser actually told him to say ‘Do you know what?’ all the time, or can he simply not help it? Then there’s the phony-courageous ‘I will not resile from my commitment to…’, followed by a statement of some blatantly unprincipled, populist intention.
The difference, which must surely count with young people, is that his mood and message are overwhelmingly positive, rather than curmudgeonly and reactionary. Howard couldn’t possibly have sounded sincerely enthusiastic about technology, ethnic diversity and Barrack Obama. There was no dog-whistling to the conservative constituency. And, in what was probably his most impressive moment, Rudd showed genuine, spontaneous outrage and compassion when a charmless Indian student told of his encounter with racist bullies.
The impression of respect was enhanced by the fact that Jones allowed several of the questioners to ask follow-up questions if they were dissatisfied by the first answer. To the relief of all, this privilege wasn’t extended to a rabid-looking climate denialist, who looked for all the world like a junior Tony Abbott. On the other hand, Rudd was allowed to duck one of the few well-framed questions of the hour, when a sensible young lass pointed out the inanity of publishing school averages for NAPLAN on the My School web site. When he babbled the usual set phrases about transparency, I desperately wanted Jones to let her tell him that he hadn’t answered the question — or indeed to do so himself.
On the whole the questions were not too bad, but generally not very well informed, and not reflective of a high level of youthful idealism. I suppose it’s fair enough for young people to ask about plans for changes to the driving and drinking ages, but these are not exactly burning issues for the future of civilization and the planet. There were no questions about foreign policy or Rudd’s ambitions for Afghanistan, where young Australians are dying; nothing about education funding, except for some whingeing about laptops not being ready yet. Global warming was left to the end, and in the end not a single one of these passionate youngsters asked why the government had opted for such pathetic emissions targets. It was left to Jones to ask why Rudd won’t negotiate more seriously with the Greens, especially given that the latter have now adopted an idea for a temporary emissions tax that was proposed by Ross Garnaut himslef.
That question, as it happens, produced one of the more interesting responses of the evening. Instead of critiquing Greens policy, Rudd noted that Greens support was not enough, and took the opportunity to ridicule Senator Fielding. He’s happy to burn that bridge, it seems, so we can take it that there will be no more serious attempts to stitch a deal, and global warming will be political football at least until the election.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere of meaningful communication was marred at the end, when Jones invited some Young Labor stooge to ask a Dorthy Dixer about the PM’s vision for the future, which opened the way for Rudd to close his performance with an eye-glazing mini campaign speech.
Presumably Abbott will get a similar opportunity in the future. I predict it won’t go nearly as well for him.
- Update: more from Mark Bahnisch