The election-night convention is that the losing leader first concedes defeat, and when these formalities are out of the way the victor claims the spoils. In each case, these speeches, replete with the necessary acknowledgments and thank-yous, are delivered to a gathering of the hard-core faithful.
I recall some vivid scenes from what my memory tells me are past examples of the genre: Malcolm Fraser in victory deflecting Tammy’s adoring embrace; Fraser in defeat, at the precipice of tears, with Tammy attentive at his side; Keating alone on stage, announcing, This is one for the true believers, to a rapturous rock-concert response.
On the night of the 24th of November, it fell to John Howard to concede at the scene of so many triumphs—the Wentworth in Sydney. Such occasions are normally, naturally, sombre affairs, but there was an air of defiance and the mood was surprisingly upbeat. Howard said all the right things, dealt gently with the vocal drunk, and was cheered and applauded frequently.
A little later the scene switched to Lang Park. Kevin Rudd entered to a rapturous reception. After 11 and a half years in the wilderness, the Party was back. Then he began to speak, and we were treated to the spectacle of a victorious election-night crowd being ground down to a restless and perplexed audience by the numbing force of Kevin’s rhetoric. Every now and then the audience would rouse itself to applause at the sound of some well-worn party electioneering slogan, but they couldn’t generate any enthusiasm. It was a feat I had never witnessed before, in many years of avid election watching.
Kevin can tell a joke—an obscure joke, badly. My name is Kevin, I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help, to open his address to the national conference. In the victory speech, he made the gruesome “out-the-back-door” gesture with a small smile. It was a joking reference to the same terrible moment in his campaign ads (for example, at 2:09 in the YouTube video). Some smiling may have broken out in the audience, live and on TV, but a belly laugh it wasn’t.
Some questions beg to be asked. If this is the best Kevin can do with such a crowd, how is he going to motivate the nation to follow his lead? When he needs to communicate and persuade, what resources will be be able to employ? You wonder whether a Graham Freudenberg would do him any good. The material certainly be better, but the delivery is always going to be a problem.
But the Liberal Party has collapsed, and has abandoned the only policy plank that will actually look appealing at the end of the next three years; rejection of the anthropogenic global warming cult. Even Howard baulked before the election, under pressure from members of Cabinet. With its enthusiastic endorsement of the global warming hysteria, and the abandonment of any policies that might distinguish it from the Labor Party, it has no plan for making its way back to government, except to hope that Rudd will be another Whitlam. That is even more improbable than the hope that Hawke was going to do a Whitlam. Rudd’s total lack of charisma is not in itself a weakness. Combine it with unexpected stresses on the economy and the arrival of a Liberal leader with audience appeal, and the utter flatness of Kevin’s personality will come to be seen by everyone as a liability.