Gillard: Rudd’s weapon against the party

Friday, 7 December 2007 

If Penny Wong is Rudd’s agent for changing relations with neighbours overseas and the states at home using the issue of climate change, Gillard is Rudd’s agent for changing the internal structure of the party, using the issue of education.

Gillard has been constantly mis-read because she represents what is new about the ALP under Rudd, but comes from a tradition that seems to be the old Labor party. This confusion has not been helped by this year’s IR pantomime of union-bashing and Workchoices bogey-men which pretended that the old left-right battles still had relevance. She also tends to receive overly personal analysis, which also totally misses the point.

Gillard’s speeches are often the most interesting on the Australian political scene and if commentators are not getting what she is about, it is certainly not because she doesn’t spell it out. Probably the first important speech she made leading to her current role, was the one she gave at the Sydney Institute on 7 March last year attacking the faction system. This was not the first time Gillard had done this, faction unity was periodically breaking down during Labor’s leadership contests while in opposition and Gillard had already called for Beazley to end his factional ties after she withdrew from the leadership race in 2005.

However, an opportunity came to ram the point home following the fiasco of Crean’s pre-selection. The end of the Socialist Left’s long held control of the Victorian branch in late 2004 resulted in the right faction not only targeting left candidates but also turning on one of their own, supposedly in payment for Crean’s flirtation with the Left in the last days of his leadership. This row within the right faction gave Gillard the opportunity to attack Beazley, not just for abandoning Crean but for pandering to factions whose roles were becoming meaningless.

Crean’s turn to the Left is almost a ritual for Labor leaders near the end of their tenure as support from the Right that put them in, ebbs away. Rudd, who is also from the Right, is highly unusual making an alliance with the left from the outset. In particular, it was his alliance with Gillard, whose Sydney Institute speech was an important factor in destabilising Beazley’s leadership, that has brought those two together on a similar agenda. The importance of Rudd’s alliance with the left is being missed. Mike Steketee is right to highlight the high number of those from the left in Rudd’s Cabinet (nine out of 20, compared to just one at the start of the last Labor government and he didn’t last a year). However, he is wrong to say it is mainly because they have become just like the right. They play a very different role. As the perennial losers of the faction system, they now have the most to gain from it ending and this brings them in line with Rudd’s agenda to depoliticise government. That is why Rudd’s inner circle of Gillard, Wong and Faulkner are all from the left.

In the Sydney Institute speech, Gillard called for the party leaders to leave the factions, and her and Rudd have done so. By taking away the factions’ power to pick the Ministry and choose candidates, Rudd and Gillard now want to end the faction system throughout the party. This is also why Gillard has taken the industrial relations and education portfolios.

At the core of the faction system is the representation of the unions. Gillard has said she doesn’t want to end the unions’ role in the Labor party. However, by attacking the faction system she is cutting off their means of exercising their power and her portfolio gives her the political means to do so. Anyone who bothers reading her speeches, such as the two she gave to the National Press Club in May and June, will see that Gillard has little time for the union movement. In May’s speech she boasted how quickly they declined in the last Labor government (faster than during Howard) and in June she set out why the next Labor government would be more anti-union than the last. Essentially Labor’s IR policy is not to see the return of union negotiation but to replace it with a state-run body, the Fair Work Australia authority, to set awards and conditions. Vagueness over unfair dismissal and the leadership’s commitment to individual contracts suggests that the repeal of Workchoices will give little comfort to the union movement. The $30m advertising campaign they spent to buy influence with Labor’s campaign will do them little good.

It is so as to set the political ground for Labor to move beyond the unions, which is why the leadership is focussed on education. Commentators like Brian Toohey have rightly noted that Rudd’s Education Revolution may be full of high profile gestures like a computer for every school-kid, but it is highly under-funded. After talking about how far Australia lags the world in education spending, as yet Labor has set out no plans to get anywhere near bridging the gap. Indeed by the end of the campaign the message was more to put a straight-jacket on any spending.

However, that does not mean that Rudd’s education rhetoric is empty. Education and re-training always has a double edge in industrial relations that is rarely commented on. In industries in decline, re-training and re-skilling are often posed as alternatives to, and to undermine, unions defending jobs. Education also links to a topic that used to be highly sensitive for unions fighting wage claims, productivity. It is a sign of how union influence has declined that Gillard can now openly boast that’s what her portfolio is about. As an aspirational alternative to the union movement, it is why education has been made such a big deal of by Third Way leaders like Blair and Clinton.

Education is about individual, or family, aspiration than the collective of the union and this focus on the individual leads to the third part of Gillard’s portfolio that will lay the ground for Labor life after the unions, social exclusion. She goes through this fairly thoroughly in another Sydney Institute speech in July. Social exclusion seems to be about fairly non-controversial issues like the homeless shelters that Rudd told his MPs to go and visit. But there are some loaded assumptions behind it. As Gillard noted in her speech, it is about people who are left out when economic times are good. For this to happen, it usually because of behavioural problems either of those excluded, or of others (e.g. racism). In the UK and the US, this has often led to some rather intrusive legislation. It will be interesting to see whether this happens here.

Rudd has rapidly set up the people to carry on the ALP’s transformation that was indicated at his first party conference in May; the decline of the factions, the erosion of union influence and the internationalisation of the ALP. This latter one could be the most troublesome going forward. Australian politicians are usually wary of being seen as too directly dependent on international events. Relying on something they have little control of can be risky for a political class that struggles to get authority in the best of times. This is the potential flaw in what Rudd is setting up and will come through more with his relations with Gillard than anyone else. Just as the state of Hawke and Keating’s relations exposed when Labor’s last reform program was exhausted, the Rudd/Gillard partnership will be the one to watch.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 7 December 2007.

Filed under Key posts, Political figures

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