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Why is political courage so unpopular?

On Sunday afternoon, Kevin Rudd confirmed that his official election campaign will be the vanity exercise, the gutless appeal to a shallow and disaffected electorate, that most of us suspected it would be.

Positioned against the ubiquitous sky-blue billboard – which now bears the rather pretentious slogan “New Leadership” – Rudd could have cashed in a little of his electoral capital and kicked off the campaign with a “vision for Australia” that is so generous, so expansive and morally engaging that any residual concern over his federal inexperience would have evaporated amid the heat of his fidelity to such an ideal.

He could have lifted his listeners out of their prosperity-induced lethargy and directed them, much like Paul Keating did in his 1993 campaign launch, toward “a great Australian social democracy, a proud and independent country, united and cohesive – and able to deliver to all our people living standards and a way of life unequalled in the world.”

Instead, the launch was everything we’ve come to associate with the “Kevin Rudd Show” to date.

He presented as relaxed, vaguely affable, and completely sterile. The actual content of his speech was inconsequential, because its overall intention was to give the public nothing to object to, and John Howard no ammunition to fire back at him.

Rudd is clearly convinced that this election is the Coalition’s to lose, and that popular discontent with the government has finally reached critical mass – as it had in 1996, the election that saw Howard defeat Keating.

The political pendulum is swinging. The time for change is nigh. All Rudd has to do to win is play it safe, avoid any issue or matter of principle that Howard could use to drive a wedge between voters, and, above all, keep playing the media dandy.

There’s no doubt that this has been a remarkably successful strategy, one that will more than likely carry Rudd through to victory on 24 November.

If it does, the media will have played a crucial role in determining a candidate’s fate: it would seem that years of whoring himself to journalists (Latham once described him as “a fanatical media networker … he is addicted to it, worse than heroin”) has finally paid off.

And yet one cannot shake the feeling that Rudd has sold his soul in the process – presuming, of course, that bureaucrats have souls in the first place.

Rudd’s new slogan is thus only half-true. For while he has embraced the aura of glitzy political novelty, one looks in vain to find anything resembling the virtues that define genuine leadership.

Rudd’s diminished political capacity is thrown into sharp relief in an unexpected juxtaposition in Don Watson’s outstanding memoire, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart.

In the first vignette, Watson describes how it was reported by the ABC’s Jim Middleton that, “on the flight from Pusan to Beijing, in a conversation about Mabo and the premiers, [Keating] made unflattering remarks about Wayne Goss and called his adviser, Kevin Rudd, a ‘menace’.”

On the same page, as if providing the ultimate foil to Rudd’s soulless brand of politics, Watson describes a moment in the 1994 H.V. Evatt lecture, in which Keating spoke of the chief among the political virtues:
“Between the conception and the execution there is faith, hope – and courage.”

Keating went on to say that “it is never the people who let their countries down, but governments that ‘lack heart’, politicians who ‘imagine things but don’t do them’, bureaucrats who ‘thwart initiative’.”

Such courage – which Watson later describes as “Keating’s hallmark and his stock in trade … the prime element in the Keating mythos” – is defined by a leader’s willingness to wage war against the people’s baser instincts, to expand the public’s moral imagination rather than simply pander to avarice, to stare electoral oblivion in the face by defying popular opinion, to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a larger cause.

In his justly famous address to the National Press Club on 7 December 1990, Keating lamented the absence of this kind of courageous leadership from Australian politics.

“We’ve got to be led, and politics is about leading people … The United States had three great leaders, Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt, and at times in their history that leadership pushed them on to become the great country that they are. We’ve never had one such person, not one.”

It was his commitment to this political virtue (which is the subject of Michael Beschloss’ stunning new book, Presidential Courage) that motivating Keating’s blistering attack on Kevin Rudd in June this year.

Keating complained that Rudd had surrounded himself with “conservative tea-leaf-reading focus group driven polling types” who lack “the creativity or the passion or the belief to go and grab the prize.”

Rudd was thus adopting a craven, unprincipled brand of politics that had lost sight of what political leadership was all about.

As if this diagnosis of Rudd’s cowardice needed any further proof, one cannot help but be sickened by his recent rebuke of Robert McClelland – the only Shadow Minister to demonstrate any moral insight or political courage all year – over his opposition to the practice of capital punishment in Indonesia.

The great hypocrisy of Rudd’s style of politics is that he launched his challenge for the Labor leadership twelve months ago with an appeal to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s courageous opposition to National Socialism in the name of robust Christian commitment.

But it was this same Bonhoeffer who urged Christians not to fear “being publicly disgraced, having to suffer and being put to death for the sake of Christ,” for it is by such courageous discipleship “that Christ himself attains visible form within his community.”

Perhaps it is time for Rudd to consider Christ’s warning, which had seared itself into Bonhoeffer’s conscience: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?”