Tuesday, 15 September 2009
Never promise a post in advance. Back in June the idea was to do two posts, “The Unpopular Mr. Rudd” and “The Popular Ms Gillard” looking at why the media was so much less enamored with our hugely popular Prime Minister than his less popular deputy. Unfortunately, after the first one, events intervened and the political landscape changed or, more accurately, revealed the reality underneath.
As far as the media was concerned, Ute-gate generated a new respect for Rudd. Needing to avoid having to explain Turnbull’s collapse by facing the real state of the Liberals, suddenly the media discovered a new found ruthlessness in Rudd, which, in fact, had always been there.
Yet while Rudd has gained at least something in the media’s eyes, a little of the shine seems to have gone from Gillard. To understand why, it first necessary to look at the role Gillard plays in this government, which is often misunderstood. One of the ways you can tell this is the bizarre leadership speculation that has accompanied her deputy leadership. It is not just that the idea of replacing Rudd seems so strange coming so soon in his leadership and a very popular one at that. It also under-estimates how critical Rudd is to Gillard even more than Gillard is to Rudd.
The Rudd/Gillard partnership repeats the duality that has been a feature of the leadership of the last three governments, which embodied a contradiction within them. So we had the previous Labor government bringing the unions in for their most important role (Hawke), before dealing them a mortal blow (Keating). We then had a Liberal government that carried on as though a right agenda still had validity (Costello) but led by someone who was better at riding the vacuum than being the conviction politician that some comforted themselves by believing he was.
Now we have a Prime Minster who sets himself against the political class, but has come to power helped by it. It is Gillard’s role within the ALP, and to a degree against the Liberals opposite, that has given Rudd the space to become the anti-political globe trotter that commentators said would never be accepted by the Australian electorate.
The strength of the Rudd/Gillard leadership rests on its ability to manage the exhaustion of the old political system. Rudd does it by setting himself against it and tapping into the strong dislike of the political class in the electorate, Gillard does it by using the political class’s exhaustion against it.
The main issue that has allowed her to achieve that is Workchoices. The Workchoices pantomime allowed both sides of the political spectrum to pretend that the industrial relations battleground, that had defined them for over a century, still had relevance. It allowed the unions to pretend that they were engaged in a fight for survival when their relevance had died years ago. It allowed the Liberals to pretend that their anti-union agenda still had some purpose.
The campaign against Workchoices has been especially convenient in allowing the left and the union leadership to avoid the unpleasant fact that this Labor government is introducing the most anti-union program in its history by reinforcing the end of collective bargaining, to be replaced by enterprise bargaining and individual contracts that pre-dated AWAs and that most employers continued to prefer over the Howard years. The anti-union agenda of the Rudd Labor government is not even a surprise as the left likes to complain usually happens when Labor comes to power. Gillard spelt it out clearly for anyone willing to listen even before assuming office.
The trouble for Gillard now is that having dismantled Workchoices, her ability to use it against her own side and the Liberals is coming to an end. So, to a degree, is her effectiveness and her weakening grip over the parties is partly shown by the faltering in her performance in Parliament that has been picked up by some commentators.
Workchoices’ usefulness is not completely exhausted, of course. As seen by Gillard’s attempt to make a mountain out of Turnbull’s comments and by Abbott’s performance in Parliament yesterday, both sides have an interest in keeping the pantomime going on as long as possible. But ultimately it is a sham. If Workchoices had any resonance in the electorate it was only because it tapped into an insecure workplace environment that has been a fact of life for nearly two decades and is seen by the flexibility with which earnings have been cut through reduced hours over the last year. It is possible to see Gillard being caught up in an increasingly irrelevant political class that she once mastered in a way that made her such a media darling, while Rudd distances himself further from it. There might then come a time that rather Rudd needing to fear Gillard, the threat could become the other way round.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 15 September 2009.Filed under Political figures