Kevin Rudd’s return to the Prime Ministership allows us to explore some of the more nuanced aspects of political communication.
On his second day in the job, he has got many on the conservative “side” of politics up in arms over two simple words in relation to the issue of Foreign Affairs: “Diplomatic conflict.” Here is the full quote from his press conference yesterday
“I am concerned about Mr Abbott’s policy where he says he can “turn the boats back to Indonesia.” I really wonder whether he’s trying to risk some sort of conflict with Indonesia. That’s not a good thing. It’s a really bad thing”
“What I’m talking about is diplomatic conflict. But I’m always wary about where diplomatic conflicts go.
What happens on day one when field marshal Tony puts out the order to the captain of the Australian Naval frigate X to turn back a bunch of boats and you’ve got naval frigate from the Indonesian navy on the other side of the equation.”
It has been repeatedly said that one of Rudd’s major weaknesses is the issue of Asylum Seekers. “Stopping the boats” after all has been one of the key lines Tony Abbott has used to frame the national conversation on the Coalition’s terms over the past three years.
I’m no expert on Foreign Affairs, so I’ll leave that to others. For this post, all I’m interested in is the issue positioning.
Rudd has taken the word “conflict” and associated it with “Abbott” on the issue of Foreign Affairs, which is Rudd’s perceived strength. So, if Abbott decides to raise the issue of “towing back the boats to Indonesia”, which you’d expect given how much capital he’s put into it over the last three years, he now has to deal with the idea that he’s playing right into Rudd’s hands on an issue he has no control over while handing all of the control of the issue framing back to the ALP.
That’s part one. Part two is far more subtle.
Here are some headlines from today’s newspapers:
“Kevin Rudd risks row with Indonesia” – The Australian
“Kevin Rudd broke every rule in the book” – The Australian
“New PM warns of refugee war with Jakarta” – The Daily Telegraph
“PM says Abbott turn-back-boats policy risks conflict” – Australian Financial Review
“Turning back boats poses risk of spat, warns Rudd” – Sydney Morning Herald
The interpretation of Rudd’s words by the newspapers or how the newspapers are trying to spin it to suit their editorial positions is irrelevant. All that matters here is the framing and more importantly, who is in control of the framing.
If the Coalition attempts to suggest Rudd, a person of significant foreign policy expertise and experience, is risking a row with Indonesia, they’ll be paddling upstream as Rudd will slam them from his carefully worded position and they will have to defend their policy or escalate the conflict on an issue which is his strength.
If they start trying to defend their policy towards asylum seekers, Rudd has won. If they viciously attack Rudd (which they have), they merely confirm that their position is one of “diplomatic conflict” through their actions making Rudd’s position all the more credible with people.
This is just one example of how the ALP suddenly has regained control of the emotional dynamic over the last couple of days. There is likely to be many more examples over the coming weeks and months.
I sense the Coalition has begun to realise they are losing control over the national conversation as evidenced by their need to hold an emergency war room meeting in Canberra yesterday, Former Prime Minister John Howard joining Tony Abbott on the campaign trail and this hysterical outburst from Senator Michaelia Cash in the senate yesterday.
This is just the beginning!