Playing safe

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I watched bits and pieces of the French Open women’s final on Saturday. Sam Stosur, having swept aside more highly credentialed opponents leading into the final, found herself favourite against a journeyman (woman?) Italian, Schiavone. It was a no contest. Though the scoreline suggests otherwise the Italian was decisively better. She played smarter than Stosur, and she played the braver tennis. She deserved her win.

As an Australian hoping for a win to Stosur it was disappointing and frustrating. Gone was the aggressive power game that had led her to convincing wins over Serena Williams and Jankovic. Instead she was tentative and cautious. Leading into the final she played as if she had nothing to lose; in the final she played as if she had everything to lose – and thus lost.

This happens a lot, in sport, in life. With the spotlight on and everything on the line it’s difficult to maintain the precise focus that led you to this position. Rather than flowing with the moment one becomes stilted and self-conscious. Rather than just doing the mindset becomes negative. It’s not about achieving something more it becomes about protecting what you have. ‘Don’t lose’ becomes the mantra, rather than nothing to lose. It’s always easier being the challenger than the champion.

In the days after watching the final and reading the daily newspapers I began to see a parallel between what happened with Stosur, and what has happened with Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

It was not so long ago that Rudd had one of the best approval ratings of any Prime Minister. I don’t know if anyone was particularly fond of him, but he had the respect of most of the electorate. If nothing else he was perceived as a powerful intellect.

How things have changed. The newspaper headlines yesterday suggested that if an election was held now then he would lose. Given the lead he commanded and the ongoing rabble which is the Liberal party this is almost unbelievable, and a terrible indictment on Rudd’s leadership.

I haven’t written a lot about Australian politics lately because I share most Australian’s distaste with it. It’s a depressing battle of mediocrities. Abbott is a smart man but seems to lack the substance to be a national leader. For all his intellect there seems something lightweight to him. Unfortunately his policies and his public utterances – negative and reactionary – seem to lend credence to that view. He is a better 2IC than the man in front.

Then there is Rudd. He comes across as an obnoxious, supercilious pain in the arse, but you forgive that if he’s doing a good job. It’s not a popularity contest – or shouldn’t be – you want the best man for the job regardless of his airs and graces. For a long time Rudd got by because he had the confidence of the public, and because he did the right thing. (Despite the administrative incompetence we got out of the GFC lightly because of government action; and Australia has a robust economy now far in advance of our peers. We are healthy despite the doomsayers of the Liberal party.)

Then he bottled it. The turning point came when Turnbull was deposed as Liberal leader and the ETS was defeated in the senate. Rudd had the chance to pull the trigger then and call a double dissolution election on the back of it. Had he then he would have won comfortably; instead he hesitated and then failed to act. Like Costello before him when the moment came he wasn’t equal to it.

Since then it has gone from bad to worse. It’s been a litany of broken promises, of weak non-decisions, of playing politics rather than the situation. Like Stosur Rudd has attempted to hang on to what he has, to mitigate the damage by doing little. The poetic irony is that it has had just the reverse effect.

Rudd was manful at the Copenhagen conference. He was passionate and driven. He had described climate change as the biggest moral challenge of our generation and there was nothing in his actions that suggested it was anything but sincere. Then he fumbled the ball when his proposed emissions trading scheme bit the dust last year. Ok, that was disappointing, it was weak, but then he really fucked it up when he dropped it altogether.

Far from being the greatest moral challenge, climate change was now a political hot potato. In April this year he deferred any action until 2013. 2013! Not surprisingly this created a stir. How could he change his mind so radically? Was it hyperbole after all? And if it wasn’t then how can one change core convictions so easily? Either way it was damning of his leadership and of him as a man. He was either a cheap political opportunist or a man of shallow conviction. In any case the Australian electorate made their judgement, and he’s been paying the price ever since.

Sitting on my couch Saturday night I urged Stosur to put more muscle into her shots, to go for the line. She did but rarely. Instead she played it safe and the match slipped away from her. Rudd faces the same situation. The match is not lost for him yet, but if he is to fight back he needs to stand for something, he needs to drop the bullshit and say it like it is. He needs to regain the respect he’s lost. He’s never going to be loved, but trust counts for a lot.

I suspect Rudd will survive by the skin of his teeth. He’s still the preferred PM even if the party trails. He’ll have a scare though, and is lucky that the opposition is so ordinary – if Turnbull were the Liberal leader then he’d have my vote. That’s not the case though. When push comes to shove I think most Aussies will vote for Rudd. I reckon the polls are registering a protest element that will disappear come election day. Still, he needs to pull his finger out, and pronto.

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