HE isn’t dumb, like Michael Kroger says. He’s smart and he wants respect! Always described as a “Liberal power-broker” – which isn’t a compliment given the Victorian party is powerless – Kroger surprised me last week when he proposed an Occam’s Razor-meets-Fredo Corleone theory on why Anthony Albanese struggles with details: “He’s just dumb.” As Wayne Swan memorably discovered in 2010, Kroger’s contempt for Labor can be scolding but he doesn’t usually get personal. There is clearly frustration in Liberal ranks that the Opposition Leader’s mediocre campaign performance isn’t narrowing the race in polls or shortening the odds in betting markets.
On the importance of Albanese’s inability to remember all six bullet points of “his own” grand plan for reforming the National Disability Insurance Scheme – the proximate incitement of Kroger’s ire – there are two possible views. When I saw Chris Bowen handing a rescue folder to his bullet-less boss, I was reminded of the Hawke-Peacock debate in 1990. The mate-rivals were both charismatic but Andrew Peacock couldn’t match Bob Hawke’s talent for weaving prosaic minutiae into winning advocacy. It was said that one exchange in particular made this obvious.
Before my political time, I didn’t hold out much hope of finding this obscure debate between two now-deceased men conducted 32 years ago. Incredibly, however, the video exists in its entirety on C-Span of all places. I made stills (above) which show Peacock’s paper-strewn lectern and Hawke’s clean slate. At the 43:09 mark, the Prime Minister asks a supplementary question; while answering it, Peacock triumphantly holds aloft a sheet of paper like Neville Chamberlain. It was investment-related analysis prepared by Access Economics (now Deloitte Access Economics). “I just happen to have it here,” declares Peacock. “You’ve got a lot of things there, Andrew,” Hawke retorts, beaming. Did the exchange make a difference to the final result? Not really. Did any contender or incumbent bring files to such a bout ever again? No. The moderator of the Morrison-Albanese blab-fest on 60 Minutes last night made clear the combatants were not permitted to use any notes.
In Albanese’s defence, however, I once failed to remember Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in a history exam. I expatiated on about five before combining the rest into an amorphous generality of presidential intent. Which, funnily enough, was the Labor Leader’s strategy when pressed on “the details” of his NDIS policy (as if any network would have run it had he nailed the obscurities). He would simply spend more money on the scheme, he protested. Since when has that not been close enough for government work? Arguably the most list-zapping, articulate party leader in Australian history was former Liberal Leader, Dr Brendan Nelson. He didn’t so much speak as read from the auto-cue in his mind. It didn’t do anything for his prospects in the long run – nor did the “detailed programmatic specificity” of Kevin Rudd. My head tells me the Opposition Leader is not ready or even psychologically suited to a prime ministership in this era. My gut tells me that fussing over how well he memorises a pamphlet isn’t going to make any difference at the polls.