The dead hand of the party rises

Friday, 25 June 2010 

Andrew Dyson SMH

Twelve months ago, the government had two excellent weapons against the Liberal party; Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. In the last few weeks the ALP has helped destroy one and damage the other. The Liberals must be laughing.

Rudd’s ability to get under the Liberals skin did not come from any left wing critique – rather the opposite. What had been the left’s favourite attack on Howard, for example, his Workchoices policy, was actually toned down by Rudd as soon as he got in. Instead, it was Rudd’s ability to detach himself from and criticise the old political framework that made him ruthless against a party that was still very much caught up in it. Rudd’s ‘anti-politics’ focussed on the emptiness and redundancies of the political agendas of parties that had yet to find a replacement.

It was Rudd’s disdain of the political class of both sides that defined his term as Prime Minister and ultimately ended it. The highlight of that disdain was the apology speech. While everyone gets their rocks off over Howard’s refusal to apologise, they forget it was shared by Keating, Hawke, Fraser and Whitlam, all who governed after the practices of forced separation were stopped and recognised as wrong. It wasn’t just that the political class had to go through the charade of ‘rediscovering’ what went on in the Bringing Them Home report of 1997 (as though enough was not already known for an apology), but the apology speech was one that only Rudd could make. It required an excoriation of the political class on both sides that had supported and been compromised in the policy. It was a speech against the political class that could only come from someone who had set himself against it. Rudd’s support for the intervention, and the lousy results he has achieved since then, did, however, remind that his radicalism rested on his attitude to the old political agenda than anything else.

For Rudd to position himself like this required the support of the international agenda. The emphasis on the international angle in this blog can be misunderstood. It is not to argue that somehow people always vote directly on international issues. It is merely to say that Australian politics, like any other nation’s politics, is not conducted in a vacuum. It is influenced and shaped by global factors no matter how much some in the political class and the media might like to make themselves feel good by believing the political world emanates from Canberra. The international angle tends, for that reason, to be airbrushed out of Australian political commentary, the most bizarre example being the way an election in 2001 can become regarded as mainly about a Norwegian ship in the Timor Sea than the collapse of the World Trade Centre in New York – something that could easily be refuted by looking at the polls from that time.

In Rudd’s case, the international agenda was brought directly and explicitly into the Australian political scene in a way like never before. Its role was to fill the vacuum left by the absence of any clear domestic agenda (rather than, say, the ad hoc one developed through the financial crisis). It was the financial crisis, however, that accelerated the erosion of that international agenda, especially undermining US authority, and also any coherent international agenda on which the Australian political class, and particularly the Rudd government had relied.

That was most clearly seen on the impact it had on the bedrock of Rudd’s political authority, climate change. Climate change was a key issue for Rudd partly because it delegitimised the old politics. It did that by delegitimising sectional interests (business, organised labour), on which the old politics relied in the face of a global catastrophe. The problem for Rudd was that he had relied on the international agenda (and presumably his faith in his ability to influence it) to do his work for him.

There has been a lot written about how Rudd should never have backed down on the ETS. This is usually written by those who had been saying he could not carry on with it after Copenhagen. Copenhagen undermined Rudd’s strategy, the problem was what he did in response.

In hindsight, the key turning point was the reported discussion he had with other senior power brokers in the party over the ETS. In reality this was a challenge to Rudd. The pressure by the right to drop the ETS was ultimately a direct challenge to the source of Rudd’s authority. It’s fair to say that the failure of Copenhagen had posed an internal dilemma for Rudd on how to respond to the forces against him in the ALP. It was no wonder that Rudd was torn on what to do. It would have marked a decisive and final break from the right that had begun when he stopped attending their faction meetings on assuming the leadership. It was this need to take them on that was belatedly referred to by Rudd when he announced the spill.

Something constantly being written in the press is that the faction brokers were happy with Rudd while he could deliver the good polls. This is a cute re-writing of history. In reality of course, the factions hated Rudd even while he was polling sky-high. It forgets that Rudd and Gillard came to power as a challenge to the factions, a challenge made possible because the old system was losing election after election. The need to destroy the faction system was set out by Gillard after yet another one of those defeats, and underpinned her challenge to Beasley and support of the first leader to try and over-ride it, Latham.

Once in power, Rudd systematically set out destroying their power, such as going over their heads on pre-selection and ministry appointments. This was clearly intolerable, but while Rudd’s base in the party was based on his ability to win, there was little they could do.

Rudd’s poor polling gave them an opportunity. Arguably, they might not have had too much of a window. Rudd’s stance against the miners was starting to give him the (temporary) appearance of principle again and polls were starting to recover. While the media and the party was portraying the mining tax as doing Rudd damage (helped by selective leaking of marginal polls showing that probably in some seats it was) and pleading with him to stop dragging it out, nationally it looked as though it was starting to stabilise party support. Despite little sign of unrest from the in last week’s caucus, confirmed by Rudd’s canvassing this week (that apparently so outraged Julia), the power brokers needed to make their move. What united both left and right power brokers was their need to restore their power.

To justify it, there needed to be an electoral reason. It is a sign of how self absorbed the party is that it is thought that this would be acceptable publicly. Here we have a party now not only willing to dump policies for polls, but leaders as well, and now will do even more policy backflips for the same reason. Whatever Gillard’s considerable political skills to manage it, it is hardly very good for Labor’s long term credibility.

To sustain all of this, the media has helped. It was hugely amusing on the ABC’s coverage yesterday to see the media try to find the electoral evidence for this switch to Gillard. On repeated questioning from the studio, the best one journalist could come up with was some secret internal polling from the Liberals that showed Gillard would “smash” Abbott.

Right. This is likely to remain as “secret” as the polling that Newspoll presumably did last weekend between the two leaders, that was promised by one of their correspondents – but it never emerged, except in the marginals. The Gillard ‘challenge’ may have never existed in the electorate nor even in the party room, but it did in the media and the power brokers that clearly fed them over the last few weeks.

Outside a handful of shoo-ins with little party background, Rudd never built a base in the party and as the party itself has lost much of its base, the combination of power brokers, a viable candidate in an acquiescent Gillard and nerves from a relentless media campaign was able to decisively switch the mood leaving Rudd without even a broker to do the numbers for him.

There are similarities to Rudd’s fall and that of the other leader recently to take on his own party, Turnbull. Both undermined their polling power by compromising with party brokers and both discovered the need to take on their own party bosses too late, when the challenge had become a formal one. The difference was that while Turnbull could go out with guns blazing and almost salvage it, the ALP, in true mafioso style, prefers a quiet slit of the wrists ensuring a dignified funeral (escort out with Faulkner) and the kids and family are looked after (a cabinet post).

Yet what brought Rudd and Gillard to the leadership, the bankruptcy of the old party system remains. Even the Liberal’s old guard could manage to find some principle (on the ETS) to regain control. The Labor power brokers have nothing but so-so polls. This may be concealed by Gillard’s political skills but it leaves Gillard with a taint of illegitimacy and the question of what the party stands for. The real reason for Gillard’s accession, expressed as a need for inclusion of the party (brokers) obviously has no interest for anyone else.

Sooner or later this bankruptcy must work its way through again. What will make it interesting is that Gillard has a history of being very clear on the bankruptcy of her sponsors, let alone coming from the faction that had most to gain from it ending. Indeed it is a sign of the weakness of the right power brokers that they needed to rely on someone from the left so opposed to them and the faction system as a whole. But then, as Sydney-siders will know, there are no limits to how far the party’s brokers will go, to the point where there is not even a pretence of electoral viability.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 25 June 2010.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

Tags: , , ,


34 responses to “The dead hand of the party rises”

  1. Invig on 25th June 2010 8:22 pm

    I want there to be some accountability shown by yourself when Julia turns out to do a fine job.

    Not that it matters. You’re irrelevant.

    Ok, bye.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 25th June 2010 8:48 pm

    Nowhere do I say she won’t. Especially if she takes on the party bosses as her record suggests she may.

    Bye bye.

  3. Don on 25th June 2010 9:25 pm

    On one point you are very wrong…the Liberals aren’t laughing.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 25th June 2010 9:30 pm

    Relative to where they were a year ago, with Rudd gone and Gillard tainted by association to faction bosses and unions she opposed? Then they have no sense of humour.

  5. Larry Buttrose on 25th June 2010 11:19 pm

    Good column Shrike. Spot-on analysis. This was the Dismissal, MKII. This time schemed up not by John Kerr and Malcolm Fraser to unseat a government that wanted to buy back the farm from vested mining interests, but by right wing unions and vested mining interests to unseat a prime minister who wanted us all to get a decent return on the farm.

    Paul Howes boasts of the proud history of the AWU. As far as I can recall, that proud history is not about secretly organising the political assassination of a prime minister who refused to cave in to wealthy mining companies.

    Labor has destroyed a fine leader, and tarnished his heir apparent with its disgusting mafia hitman-like behaviour.

  6. Ian on 25th June 2010 11:56 pm

    Incisive analysis. The dice have been rolled and it’s ‘game on’. Odds anyone?

  7. john on 26th June 2010 12:06 am

    She’s not Socialist Left, she’s Ferguson Left, a soft left faction from Vic. The Socialist Left, e.g. Tanner never trusted her because she always caved to the right to get power.

    I agree with your analysis, but I don’t think Gillard will challenge the faction bosses. After the filthy stunt she pulled in the Caucus, they might be her only friends.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 26th June 2010 12:09 am

    Dead right. Changed.

  9. Lloyd on 26th June 2010 9:12 am

    This would tend to suggest they might have made a smart move.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 26th June 2010 9:40 am

    Even leaving aside that’s its a funny poll that has Labor losing in every state except NSW (52/48) and Victoria (67/33!). Small samples in the breakdown? But anyway, I’m not suggesting she won’t get a honeymoon, or do well; she is a good operator. But I am arguing that the way she has taken power has exposed her to problems that for someone with her political background, she didn’t need to necessarily have. I thought they came out with Morrison v Bowen on Lateline last night.

    Having said that I do lean to Mumble’s view that this may end up being a mistake (although maybe not with his degree of confidence).

    What I am confident about, however, was that Rudd’s dumping was primarily about internal power brokers regaining control than electoral considerations.

  11. Avalon Dave on 26th June 2010 10:09 am

    Another nice insight Skrike.

    And that Invig is a quaint individual. Spending all his time reading irrelevant jottings. He must have had a bad day.

  12. Invig on 26th June 2010 11:47 am

    Ok, i’ll reply.

    You are painting Rudd as some kind of knight of valour and honour, whose only fault was being too confident of the justness of his own cause.

    You are also saying that the party power brokers are, basically, resentful bastards. And Julia has handily taken advantage of their bastardry.

    So, I was a little too dismissive in my earlier comment. But the case you make remains a fraud.

    I think you forget that people can and have changed in the past few years. Especially in politics. But, your arcane political theories see only centres of power in conflict, and those who take advantage of them.

    Rudd was a fucking idiot. He had to go. He couldn’t change. THAT is the little key that unlocks your fraudulent analysis.

    Go back to the ivory tower my friend, and I hope one day to have the opportunity of forcing your brain to absorb my own theories. They will blow it apart. You will change; and ironically become a walking indictment of your present set of horribly-cynical and ultimately-destructive beliefs.

  13. Graeme on 26th June 2010 5:12 pm

    Alas, Shrike, the quantum gap has been leapt (giving us one bright egoisitical leader of floating ideology for another).

    There are too many counter-factuals now for us to now ever know if ‘appointing Gillard was a mistake’ – short of the Libs winning a landslide (and the one certainty have is that is far and away the least likely of the five parliamentary outcomes).

    Unless … by ‘appointing Gillard was a mistake’ you mean Labor now has fired its two shots, rather than keeping one in reserve, although that is rather circular to your case.

    I suspect in all the panic – which Rudd’s office appears to have been just as swept up in as the rest of the ALP (witness his sending out his chief of staff to count selective heads, then denying even seeing Bitar’s polling data) Gillard’s thinking was as primal as ‘I don’t want to die full of regrets like Costello’.

    In theory the ‘risk’ of last week’s maneouvre is the appearance of desperation. The Libs for some reason haven’t used that line. Their ‘good man/your elected man assassinated’ line is weak for several reasons. One is that a clearly fickle electorate will forget Rudd very quickly; another is that it was Abbott’s he-man negativity which helped drag Rudd down; the third is leaders have been falling like flies since Howard started looking old around 2004.

  14. The Piping Shrike on 26th June 2010 5:27 pm

    Gillard like everybody else in the party wants to be PM. I don’t buy that she only decided to at ‘outrage’ that Rudd was daring to sound out his own party. But the way it has happened has caused her problems as I see it.

    The main problem she is has is why did they replace Rudd? Polls? Bowen was angrily denying it on Lateline. So why then? When Abbott took over he could at least say it was about ETS (although I think really it was much the same dynamic).

    Labor are clearly sensitive to being seen as poll driven, but without a clear reason for the dumping (other than the real one, internal politics)that’s what it seems like. The problem for Gillard is that being so close to the internal power of the previous government, for her to credibly say that there was a problem with it, is going to be tough. Any changes will seem more like back-flipping.

    Poll driven and back-flipping were the two drivers of Rudd’s fall in polling, in my view.

    Finally, you’re absolutely right that it is impossible to conclusively prove whether replacing Gillard with Rudd was a mistake. It’s just a view that replacing Rudd in this way, without a real political challenge (because the left/right power brokers don’t really have one) will ultimately speed up the decline of the ALP, not slow it.

  15. Graeme on 26th June 2010 5:45 pm

    ps: Admire the visual rhetoric at:

    Behind the ‘Action Contract’ (!), ‘Strong Plan’, he-man slogans is poll driven advisors. Marrying what their told is the plus of Abbott’s physical (rather than any intellectual or ethical) fortitude, with Rudd’s negative, the image he accrued as dithering or unable to deliver.

    Such rhetoric is instantly dated, for Queen Julia enters with Lady Macbeth’s steely jaw yet also with the rhetoric of compromise and understanding.

    The saddest part of all this is that a Prime Ministership whose promise lay in its potential for creative and inclusive policy-making ended in Rudd staking all on a tax that needed road-testing (especially as micro-economics was not his special topic), then borrowing a play from Howard’s 1998 GST gamble which reduced Rudd to chanting the word ‘tough’ every second sentence.

    The irony is Abbott’s single-minded oppositionalism (his dislike of Rudd had a theological dimension) only tainted his own popularity. Mr Boxer-Iron Man Abbott will have three notches to his belt: Turnbull, Rudd and himself.

  16. nobby on 26th June 2010 6:30 pm

    shrike you seem not to give much credit to the vicious campaign by the murdoch media in all this.i think this was vital in producing the scenario for his assassination.i believe murdoch’s intention was to weaken rudd not thinking for a minute that he would be replaced.the way i see it,it’s ALP one murdoch zero at this point.

  17. john on 26th June 2010 8:11 pm


    The media was fed by NSW right leaking to them. That’s why there were so many stories with ‘unnamed sources from the ALP’ suggesting a leadership change.

  18. The Piping Shrike on 26th June 2010 9:20 pm

    I think the top down nature of this was what confused the media. So you had Shanahan saying a challenge was on, then, after an acquiescent caucus, saying it wasn’t. When of course it was being worked through behind the scenes the whole time.

  19. kymbos on 26th June 2010 9:38 pm

    It seems to me your main point, that factional leaders launched the spill because they could, is sound. However, the question of whether it should or should not have happened is less clear.

    Was it the international context that left Rudd exposed? There were a lot of policies that were inadequately thought out and poorly executed (schools infrastructure, Green Loans, insulation). There were policies dropped in haste (ETS). And there were policies that simply underwhelmed (Education ‘revolution’, health reform).

    When all you have is your success to keep you in charge, it seems obvious in hindsight that when the gloss comes off you’ll get bumped pretty quick.

    Of course Gillard played a large part in many of those policies, but Rudd was leader and Gilard can change the Government’s position on them if she wishes.

    I think the ‘bankruptcy’ of the old party system is just how it is and how it will be. Isn’t that just politics?

  20. The Piping Shrike on 26th June 2010 9:56 pm

    The way I see it was that the erosion of Rudd’s international agenda undermined his authority to manage problems that in many cases were always there. Take for example the asylum issue, an issue itself that was reliant on international factors. When the Ashmore Reef incident happened Rudd could manage all the problems around that because he and the government had authority. As that authority eroded (primarily after Copenhagen) so there was a perception that he was out of control, whether on asylum seekers, or the stimulus program, which also caused little problems when it was happening, but only after Rudd’s authority had begun falling. Ditto for the insulation issue.

    What I think becomes clearer in hindsight was that it needed Rudd to take on the power bases in the party but that he was not prepared to do so. So his other electoral asset, his anti-politics, was muted. It only came out right at the end when he announced the spill and tried belatedly to go over the faction leaders heads and appeal as being elected by the Australian people.

    Calling the factions ‘bankrupt’ is not a value statement on my part in that it doesn’t imply I was a fan of the ALP right before. Rather it is to say that since the decline of the unions as a social force, they now don’t stand for anything in society, just in the party.

    The bankruptcy underpinned the unusual way this happened. Because there was no real issue other than their own power, the left and right could come together and elect someone to lead the party from outside the right faction for the first time ever (I think). The problem for Gillard is that it leaves the question open, what are you here to do differently from Rudd other than not ride roughshod over the faction bosses? (Whether Gillard doesn’t of course, is another matter). I would have thought that this would be something she would have wanted to address as soon as she started, but as we saw on Lateline, the ALP has not yet thought up the answer to it.

  21. The Piping Shrike on 27th June 2010 1:11 am

    Ah memories! Well at least she brought them together!

  22. ricc on 27th June 2010 5:02 am

    Shrike, Harcher on the case.

    Are you commenter “Ciao”? Sounds like you

  23. The Piping Shrike on 27th June 2010 9:47 am

    Hah! One pseudonym is quite enough!

  24. Invig on 27th June 2010 11:43 am

    “What I think becomes clearer in hindsight was that it needed Rudd to take on the power bases in the party but that he was not prepared to do so.”

    Yeah. You’re a genius.

  25. Michael on 28th June 2010 12:13 pm

    Interesting analysis. I happen to think that Gillard will do better than Rudd in the current climate, but I still don’t like the way they took Rudd down. The now legendary failings of Rudd are being blown out of all proportion. What person capable of becoming a party leader isn’t deeply flawed – in other words what’s new? What is new in my opinion is the way his own party undermined him in the last couple of months. Either Rudd had everyone in his own party cowering from his absolute power or they either played along because they thought he was doing OK or they didn’t do anything to help or change him. All this post-rationalisation in the press focusing on Rudd’s personality is just a sideshow. The news media is also facing it’s own terminal decline and it’s opinion makers are suffering a reduced ability to set agendas. The mining tax is a red herring for most of the population how almost certainly don’t understand how it works or care.

  26. ricc on 28th June 2010 8:39 pm

    The media can be hysterical.

    What was Rudd’s crime?

    Hawke was a drunkard, Keating was hardly popular during his time, Howard was “made for radio”, and had been a very unlikely choice for leader. Alex Downer was just as comical in 1995 as he was later.

    The media even claim they knew Latham was unsuitable, well geez, he had them going for a while.

    Rudd seems to me to be a very ordinary, middle of the road pollie. And as TPS says, his poll numbers were not unusually. I don’t remember Howard as likely to survive going into 1998 election, nor at the beginning of 2001. Imagine if Libs had given Howard the flick in 1998!

  27. Thomas Paine on 29th June 2010 12:02 am

    Agree with most all of that.

    I suspect that Rudd was the most likely vehicle to regaining power since the old Labor politics had no chance against Howard.

    I am sure they rationalised that if Rudd won they could simply replace him at a convenient time. However it didn’t work out like that. Rudd was far more popular and competent than anybody imagined.

    Coming into election year the boys were getting a touch nervous, Rudd was still sailing, still totally independent and breaking the old faction paradigm.

    So we get months of undermining, Rudd taking bad advice from his senior colleagues that eventually caused him the most poll damage.

    And you are right, they had a small window as the polls got low enough to justify to the rest that a change is necessary to save bacon. It was a con of course. Unions were getting upset because their mate corporations were getting concerned. So we have certain corporations in bed with Union heavies, the faceless men keen to remove Rudd and actually getting that opportunity.

    Yes, the dumped a pretty useful PM because who he was and what he could do was dangerous to the old paradigm. They have gone backwards a decade with Gillard and factionalism again.

    It will be the thing that eventually puts Labor into another decade of loneliness. How soon before the cracks? Gillards novelty can only last so long, as always people will get used to her, and the boost will be gone. The same old wars break out and Labor gone nowhere again.

    Rudd was the PM they had to have, and like Keating’s assessment of that recession its truth will only be seen in hindsight.

    Gillard is a fool, truly, but unable to resist the grab. A recession is very likely, it will occur in her term, it will be tough, she will be vulnerable, the Libs will inevitably recoup and Labor find themselves one potential PM too few.

    Rudd should have been left to deal with the next term, Gillard to take over near the end of that as a circuit breaker. And yes Rudd would have won this election, just look at his polling position, trend and historical efforts, and his good campaign discipline.

  28. Marilyn Shepherd on 29th June 2010 3:13 am

    Now we see Gillard has rewarded the man no-one ever listened to ever.

  29. john on 29th June 2010 1:08 pm

    @Thomas Paine

    He wasn’t the PM they had to have, he was the only one in the caucus who thought they could actually win the 2007 election. All the factional bosses were talking about ‘two-term strategies’. He showed the party they can succeed without the factions, and the caucus didn’t choose to get rid of him, Gillard and Arbib and Shorten forced their hand.

  30. Wood Duck on 29th June 2010 2:38 pm

    I’m still intrigued by the storyline that Gillard only moved against Rudd because the Prime Minister had the temerity to ask caucus members whether or not he had their support. Loyal to the very end; not at all ambitious.
    It’s a good story. I only wish I could believe it.

  31. ricc on 29th June 2010 10:02 pm

    I know Keating was calling Gary Gray “Two step” for his plan to get reelected in 2 terms.

  32. ricc on 29th June 2010 10:03 pm

    And if Latham was so dangerous and antithetical to Labor’s interests…why did both factions and caucus back him all the way to an election.

    A lot of rear-view mirror driving.

  33. prunella on 7th July 2010 2:12 pm

    Is it just me or has eerie silence blanketed the land? The PM gets sacked by some backroom boys whose collective IQ is so small none of them would get a job outside of the ALP.

    Only in Australia would something as momentous as “pushing ” against an elected PM happen without the knowledge and consent of the CIA.

    Some mining hotshot said on ABC TV last Sunday that the ALP replacement of PM ‘got their attention.’ Normally foreign interests and mercenaries are the shady figures involved in coups but in good old Oz we have the ‘bastard boys’ from the Unions.

    Their next target is Maxine McKew. Why? She said ‘no’ their faction game. And us girls know what happens when boys in Australia are told ‘no’.

    Julia had the frighteners put on her and so she said to Kev. ‘Sorry mate, but its you or me. And they can do much worse things to a girl’

  34. Abbott & the auto-unravelling of the Right - Left Flank on 4th December 2013 7:37 am

    […] ALP’s part in this crisis has been especially acute in recent years, exacerbated by the party machine’s revolt against Rudd in 2010, exposing the machine’s inability to cohere an electoral majority whereas in the post-WWII period […]

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