To whom does the mud stick?

Did any of the Brian Burke mud stick to Kevin Rudd? This morning’s polls suggest that the voters don’t entirely buy Rudd’s version of events. According to the SMH, reporting this morning’s ACNielsen poll:

53 per cent thinking he had been “partly truthful” in explaining himself, and 10 per cent feeling he had been “completely untruthful”. Twenty-four per cent thought he had been “completely truthful”. …

But the poll found 83 per cent of voters said their view of Mr Rudd was unaffected by the Burke affair.

Rudd’s approval rating was up 2 percentage points on the last ACNielsen poll a month ago, while his disapproval rating was up 4 percentage points. So perhaps the attack helped sway more of the previously uncommitted toward a negative view of the Opposition Leader. But did it hurt the PM even more? His approval rating was down 3 percentage points, and his disapproval rating up 5 percentage points. There is precedent for the mud sticking more to the person throwing it than the target. As I argued last November, NSW Opposition Leader Peter Debnam’s unsubstantiated attacks on Bob Debus pretty clearly backfired on Debnam.

The trouble with the attack on Rudd was that it was the kind of manufactured scandal on which the press gallery thrives, but which must leave the punters scratching or even shaking their heads. There was no allegation of any real wrong-doing, just guilt by association. It looked like we were seeing a panicked government as much as an Opposition Leader with poor judgment. The whole thing collapsed into farce with Ian Campbell’s resignation and the tenuous (in the extreme) connections made between his successor David Johnston and Burke, via his shares in companies which had dealings with Burke.

This is not to say that mud-slinging never works. But unless the evidence is good, there is a real chance that it will harm the slinger as much or more than the target.

20 Responses to “To whom does the mud stick?

  • 1
    David Rubie
    March 12th, 2007 21:21

    I blame that leftist fifth columnist Peter Costello. Ol’ Pistol Pete, guns blazing, shot the head clean off Ian Campbell. He’ll never live up to his hero, Paul Keating, who he tries so hard to emulate.

  • 2
    Fred Argy
    March 13th, 2007 08:49

    Your assessment is a fair one Andrew as far as the short term is concerned. But what of the long term?

    Mud-slinging hurts the slinger for a time (especially when it is over the top as with Costello and Downer) but it does erode the crediibility of the recipient too and that works more slowly.

    We saw that with Howard. He was accused of being himself (or via Downer) an active participant in the AWB scam and this proved wrong (although there was clearly gross government negligence) and for a time it may have hurt the Opposition – but the opinion polls still show that the public for the most part suspect Howard “lied” on this issue as on Children overboard, Iraq etc.. Fairly or unfairly, few people now see the PM as honest John.

    The same thing could happen to Rudd. Although as you say he did nothing ethically wrong, many people in my circles (including some Howard-sceptics) think he is “no longer as squeaky clean” as they thought he was. This is not enough to change their vote but much of the mud could stick to the point when people will say “a plague on both houses”: there ain’t any honest politician around!”. That could work in Howard’s favour by neutralising people’s concerns about Howard’s own credibility. Politics is a nasty old buisness.

  • 3
    Andrew Norton
    March 13th, 2007 09:30

    Fred – I have argued before that instances of perceived dishonesty are not necessarily very damaging to a political leader. The general public is probably rather less puritanical on these things than some political activists – an occasional fib doesn’t mean you can’t believe anything someone says, or that they can’t do their job. And because the political process forces us to bundle a large number of judgments into a couple of votes, it would be rational to give strict honesty even less weight in political choices than we do in personal or market choices.

  • 4
    Francis Xavier Holden
    March 13th, 2007 11:13

    admin – the blog loads much faster by a factor of X10 or something.

    However something is preventing me using the back button in my browser to get off this page back to where I came here from. Talk about sticky.

  • 5
    Jacques Chester
    March 13th, 2007 11:45

    Francis;

    I don’t seem to be able to recreate the behaviour at my end. Can you give more details?

  • 6
    Francis Xavier Holden
    March 13th, 2007 13:27

    I’m using Opera and if i come here from a link on say my blog and then use the back arrow in Opera to try to get back to where I came from outside andrewnortonblog the back arrow defauls me back to andrewnortonblog constantly.

    I just checked in FF and it doesn’t happen.

  • 7
    rossco
    March 13th, 2007 16:10

    Whether mud sticks or not and the long term consequences really depend on the broader environment. If Howard was seen as a paragon of virtue, pure as the driven snow (the title “Honest John” was always meant as irony, not a reflection of his honesty) then he might get away with the personal attacks on Rudd. But Howard has such a sordid record for “honesty” in his term in office (even going back to when he was Treasurer under Fraser) he has little integrity capital in stock. So he doesn’t come with clean hands when it comes to mud throwing (sounds a bit Irish but I am sure you know what I mean). Conversely if voters were looking for a reason to dump on Rudd then the Libs attack would carry more weight, but I don’t sense there is that mood in the electorate yet.

    I see Howard is now going to attack Rudd on economic issues and in particular IR. Interesting as worries about the IR changes are one of the main reasons voters are turning against the govt. Workchoices might be great for business/employers/ profits but it is scaring the daylights out of ordinary workers and there are many more of them than there are employers.

  • 8
    Boris
    March 14th, 2007 01:16

    If Andrew’s observations are confirmed in the next few polls, then I think not everything is lost about the electorate. Fred may be right that some fraction of the mud may stick to Rudd, but frankly he does deserve that fraction for not being up-front and frank. However the fact that this attack backfired on John Howard is a good thing all round, and I say this as someone who actually votes Liberals. It means that people disapprove of this hypocricy, and that in the future politicians may even learn from this experience.

    I don’t think though that Howard has panicked. I think he just couldn’t resist a temptation to test Rudd. For a moment it seemed that he almost succeeded – with Rudd panicking and calling for early elections…

  • 9
    Jacques Chester
    March 14th, 2007 03:20

    FXH;

    Does the link from your site point to andrewnorton.info or andrewnorton.info/blog ?

  • 10
    Fred Argy
    March 14th, 2007 08:15

    Tony Abbott is at it again – engaged in mud-slinging in a SMH article. These people are not fools, Andrew. The Liberals must have’private polling’ which tells them it is paying off.

  • 11
    Andrew Norton
    March 14th, 2007 08:43

    Fred – No, they are not fools, but that does not mean that they have the right strategy. Abbott’s piece this morning did not say anything new, it was just trying to explain why the government is behaving as it is. But putting it all together and assuming Abbott’s rather than Rudd’s version is correct it still doesn’t amount to very much, so I think there is a danger the government will look petty and vindictive without doing Rudd much harm.

  • 12
    David Rubie
    March 14th, 2007 15:59

    Have a look at what Andrew Robb said at the national press club today:
    Mr Robb said today the government’s relentless focus on Mr Rudd’s relationship with disgraced former West Australian premier Brian Burke was a tactic in assessing the Labor leader’s fitness to be prime minister. (as quoted in the Age).

    See? It isn’t mud slinging, the Liberals are doing us a favour.

    They must realise that this tactic isn’t working when they have to publically defend it.

  • 13
    Jeremy
    March 14th, 2007 19:30

    When does questioning a person’s actions stop being legitimate and become ‘mudslinging’?

    Given the shenanigans that Burke has been involved in over in WA, and especially given Rudd’s lack of candour about his meetings and phone calls with Burke, don’t you think that this issue is a legitimate matter of public interest?

  • 14
    David Rubie
    March 14th, 2007 23:47

    Jeremy,
    I think the whole exercise was perfectly legitimate – but hilariously poorly executed.

  • 15
    Fred Argy
    March 15th, 2007 08:06

    Andrew, today’s SMH has seven or eight letters on the Abbott article and they are all hostile. This backs your view that Abbott’s article was ill-judged. But that’s a short term effect. Who knows what the longer term effect will be?

    Jeremy, I think it is a bit unfair to say that Rudd showed “lack of candour” on his meetings and phone calls. What are you referring to here? In my view, guilt by association is the hardest thing in the world to refute and Rudd has been as transparent as he could be, given that he could not be sure what others were discussing at the dinner table. I agree that he has seemed very nervous when questioned about the incident. But that is understandable as the charge of being “indebted” to Burke was so serious that he risked extinction over it. Nervousness is not evidence of lack of candour.

  • 16
    Fred Argy
    March 15th, 2007 10:29

    I notice the Brisbane Courier Mail has a story that Howard hosted or attended a fund-raising dinner where one of the guests was a criminal porn star. So what? This is again a case of ridiculous guilt by association!. I am sorry to see Swan jump in to attack Howard on this trivial issue. Labor will be losing the moral high ground on mud-slinging if they do that too 0ften!

  • 17
    Jeremy
    March 15th, 2007 15:00

    (Lengthy reply, sorry)

    Fred,

    Thanks for replying to my question. I think you’re being a bit too cute, in saying that Rudd couldn’t be sure what others were discussing at the dinner table. As it turns out, Burke organised the dinner to allow invitees to meet Rudd. Rudd was the guest star!

    You’re a public figure of some note, Fred – how many dinners have you attended, at the behest of someone else, only to discover that you were the guest of honour? None, I suspect.

    As for Rudd’s lack of candour, bear in mind the above fact while reading Rudd’s initial explanation of his attendance, given in a press conference on 1 March:

    ‘And the third was a dinner at a restaurant to which Graham and been invited and I was invited by Graham in turn. At the restaurant in question, my recollection is about 20 or 30 people were there and there was a general discussion around the table.’

    No mention of the fact that he was the main attraction – he only told the press that he was a guest of another invitee. That’s a bit of a gap, wouldn’t you agree?

    When the journos asked him on 4 March whether or not he knew that he would be the guest of honour at the dinner arranged by Burke, he each time dodged the question and tried to shift the discussion by calling on the PM to call an election.

    On 5 March Kerry O’Brien asked Rudd about a phone call between he and Burke, which hadn’t been mentioned by Rudd before. Also on 5 March, the ‘general discussion’ at the dinner was revealed to have involved an ‘extensive Q&A’ session.

    And also on 5 March, Rudd said that a dinner had been organised by Brian Burke, Edwards was invited, and Edwards invited Rudd to ‘come along’. A bit strange – Burke organises a dinner, with Rudd as guest star, but leaves it to Edwards to say to Rudd only: ‘I’m going to a dinner, would you like to come along?’

    The fact that the story has kept developing indicates, to me anyway, a lack of candour on Rudd’s part.

    (BTW, all of the above information has come from Rudd’s statements to the press.)

    As for your other comment, Fred, you are right – the association of the PM with a crim porn star is ridiculous! But the porn star hadn’t organised the dinner, had he (she)? Nor had he/she been involved in shenanigans in the WA parliament, I suppose? There is something of a difference, to my eyes.

    David, thanks too for your reply.

    Now, can one of this blog’s intellectual lights help me find the line between legitimate questioning of a public figure’s activities, and chucking mud at that public figure?? Maybe we can use an example – was Rudd’s questioning of the PM’s and the Treasurer’s and the Industry Minister’s meetings with Ron Walker, as a rep of Australian Nuclear Energy, legitimate – or was it ‘mudslinging’ too?

  • 18
    Club Troppo » Missing Link
    March 15th, 2007 23:24

    [...] favourites (and they’ve tended in recent years to be more accurate than the pollsters). Andrew Norton, on the other hand, assesses that Howard’s Brian Burke blitzkreig on Kevie may have damaged [...]

  • 19
    Fred Argy
    March 16th, 2007 08:55

    You raise an interesting question Jeremy – when is it mudslinging and when is it legitimate questioning? We all will have our views on this. Here’s mine (as far as recent events are concerned).

    I agree Jeremy that it was perfectly legitimate for the Government to question his meetings with Burke. Rudd was unwise and showed poor judgment. That was not “mud-slinging” by the Government.

    But Government Ministers including the Prime Minister went two steps further.
    1. They charged Rudd with being “indebted to Burke” and “morally compromised” without any evidence to back it up.
    2. They then disputed his childhood recollections on the detail and drew conclusions about his truthfulness and honesty.

    These two cases involved mud-slinging in my opinion.

    As to the Australian Nuclear Energy affair, I rather agree with today’s correspondent in the Australian, She says “Voters are smart enough to distinguish between muckraking about Rudd’s childhood experiences and the legitimate scrutiny of the Government’s relationship with an energy company that could benefit from government policy”.

  • 20
    Jeremy
    March 16th, 2007 15:47

    Thankyou Fred. I think we’ll have to ‘agree to disagree’ on a couple of points, although I agree with you that the government’s initial questioning of Rudd’s meetings with Burke were legitimate.

    I don’t think that the charges of being ‘indebted to Burke’ and ‘morally compromised’ were mudslinging. I think that just passes for the usual political hyperbole, and it could have been quickly dismissed if Rudd had just played a straight bat and been candid. As I tried to demonstrate yesterday, Rudd’s lack of candour makes the whole affair look fishy, and gives the government ammunition.

    Regarding Rudd’s childhood, we must bear in mind that, by accusing a man, now dead, of having once summarily evicted his family, Rudd himself was ‘throwing mud’. The man’s family aren’t happy and the newspapers have reported that they are considering legal action. It may be unpleasant for the government to investigate his claims, but it is equally unpleasant for Rudd to have made the accusation in the first place – especially when Rudd’s recollection of the event is disputed.

    What is worse – to be accused of mis-remembering an episode from your childhood, or to be accused of evicting a penniless widow and her three kids shortly after she has buried her husband?? To my mind, the charge against Rudd is much the lighter, and the charge that he is making much the heavier – and ‘muddier’.