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