Friday, 31 December 2010
What is it about Barrie Cassidy and Kevin Rudd? It’s an interesting question. Not because there is any interest in the personal history between the two, but because it adds nuance to the nature of political reporting in this country beyond the usual claims of left-right bias. Here is someone working for the ABC, from a Labor background as Hawke’s press secretary, who has written about the rise and fall of a Labor Prime Minister with all the distortions and omissions worthy of the most disingenuous right wing hack.
This is despite Cassidy making clear a critical point about Rudd’s dumping – it had nothing to do with lousy polling but all about an internal power struggle. As Cassidy says:
That Kevin Rudd was cut down by Labor factions because of poor opinion polling is the great myth of 2010.
The factions took the initiative that’s all. And when they did, using poor opinion polling as the excuse, there was very little arm twisting to be done.
Remember this, because Cassidy does not.
Cassidy’s problem is that although he acknowledges the core truth about Rudd’s dumping, he cannot acknowledge the more basic truth behind it, the bankruptcy of those factions that regained power. As a result he fails to understand Rudd’s rise, his enduring high polling, the decline and what happened after the dumping. As this pretty well encompasses the entire period under review, we clearly have a problem.
Let’s start with Rudd taking the leadership from Beazley. Cassidy trots out the usual narrative about Beazley’s dumping; holding up in external polls but troubling signs in the internal ones, getting Karl Rove’s names mixed up with Rove McManus the final straw … hum-te-dum-de-dum.
That the Karl Rove ‘incident’ had dramatic political consequences is one of those typical stories the political class occasionally feed to the media because only the media could possibly believe a minor slip-up at a press conference would be politically important. Readers will no doubt also have a twinge of recognition at the role of ‘internal’ polling that curiously, as we saw again in June 2010, never seems to give as good a story for the Labor as do the professional polls. Live by internal polls, die by them, as they say.
But basically, the electoral veneer to Beazley’s dumping was simply an external justification for an internal dynamic. After Crean and Latham, the Rudd/Gillard takeover of the leadership represented the third, and sharpest, break from the factions and Labor’s past traditions to fill the gap left by the exhaustion of the party’s traditional program. Indeed Beazley might have gone on to win in 2007, that election was always more about the Liberals’ problems than what went on in Labor.
But what Rudd did so effectively was to fuse that internal break with Labor’s power structures with an external agenda of being against the old politics. In doing so, Rudd gained an electoral vindication for over-riding the internal power bases of the party. During 2007 he did it through the stunts of expelling union bosses like Mighell, something that according to Cassidy, everybody now regrets having been done, but never said much about it at the time. However, the link between the internal and external strategies really came together at the 2007 campaign, when the Labor brand was subsumed under ‘Kevin07’.
Cassidy has a whole chapter titled ‘Kevin07’ but barely mentions anything about the campaign or the nature of it. The personalising of Labor’s campaign around Rudd is left at the level of an ego trip. He writes that Rudd used the campaign to announce that he would be over-riding the factions to choose his Ministry, although he had already demanded the right to choose the Shadow Bench when taking over. Exactly why the power brokers agreed to either is not discussed.
While Cassidy ignores the internal dynamic that enabled Rudd to over-ride the factions, he also has trouble understanding its external consequence; Rudd’s historically high polling. At least, though, he notes it:
Rudd’s popularity was extraordinary. From the moment he became leader, he assumed a personal approval rating in the 60s, which stayed high for longer than the ratings for any previous leader. It didn’t matter whether he was in opposition against John Howard or in government against Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull or, early on, Tony Abbott; he maintained that high figure. It virtually flat-lined in the 60s for three years.
His rating was ahead of that of his own party, although that figure was impressive throughout as well. On a two party preferred basis, under his leadership, the party went as high as 58 per cent to 42 per cent.
The enduring nature of Rudd’s popularity was a political phenomenon. During Hawke’s height and even during Howard’s relatively mediocre polling, reams were written to explain how they manage to tap into the Australian psyche, with the media trotting out the usual cheeseball clichés about how the Australian electorate is supposed to think.
Yet with Rudd, there has been virtually no attempt to explain it in the media, summed up by Cassidy’s own lame attempt:
Why was Rudd so popular? The idea of a smart, youngish candidate apparently in touch with modern concerns was a huge plus. He was undoubtedly confident and competent. Howard, by comparison, was fast losing confidence and his body language in the parliament started to reveal the pressure he was so obviously feeling; he became more strident, less-footed.
Leaving aside that Cassidy explains Rudd’s popularity in contrast to Howard’s, after having just noted it was pretty well the same no matter who he was against, the idea that Rudd was breaking new ground because he was “smart” and “youngish” and “in touch” (note the “apparently”) would apply to pretty well all new opposition leaders, but says nothing about what was happening with Rudd.
The reason for Rudd’s popularity is simple, just as it is so difficult for the media and many of his colleagues to accept, he represented a break from the old political system of which they were part. So did Latham, for a while. Rudd just had the conditions, both externally and internally, to maintain it for longer. Once in power, Rudd used the apology, the 2020 summit and the climate change agenda to only reinforce his distance from the old party system and the sectional interests that supported it.
Rudd could pitch himself against the old system, but had no viable alternative to it. When a viable alternative failed to emerge on the international stage, both on the economic front in London in April 2009 and on environment in Copenhagen in December of the same year, Rudd was exposed. Gradually Rudd was forced to accommodate to, and reflect, the bankruptcy that he had pitched himself against.
It is this period, the loss of authority of Rudd in early 2010, that Cassidy has the most trouble with. It is fair enough perhaps that when writing the book, Cassidy did not know what some journalists and the US Embassy did, namely that moves were being made against Rudd a full year before the June coup. But the role of Gillard, Swan and Arbib in the key decisions that were supposed to be behind Rudd’s dumping were reasonably clear. Exactly who was arguing against an early ETS double dissolution in February depends a bit on who you read. But we certainly know that Gillard, Swan and Arbib argued for the dumping of the ETS a few months later.
Yet in Cassidy’s account of the decision to dump the ETS, the role of Gillard and Arbib is not even mentioned. Instead the entire blame for that, as well as postponing the ETS double dissolution, falls entirely on Rudd and no one else.
Such a deliberate decision by Cassidy to omit what was widely known is all the more extraordinary as we don’t even need to speculate on what really happened – because we know what those same people actually did when they took control in June. Gillard barely mentioned the ETS on taking office and during the election campaign turned it into the joke of a Citizen’s Assembly, something that made even Rudd’s decision to postpone it look almost decisive.
As we approach the dumping, the distortions in Cassidy’s come thick and fast. First there was the polling, as Cassidy starts to assert that contrary to it being a “one of the great myths of 2010”, polling was indeed a factor after all:
One poll after another raised the question with voters – who would you prefer as prime minister, Gillard or Rudd? The answer was fast becoming Gillard.
But of course, never actually did. There was not a single national poll that put Gillard as preferred over Rudd. Once again, we had those trusty internal polls, that showed what most professional national polls did not, and what nearly all commentators did not believe; that Rudd was heading for defeat against Abbott. Indeed Rudd was recovering in June, possibly because of finally taking a stand on the mining tax.
Cassidy thought the mining tax was “the big stink bomb” that brought all “the Labor Party’s frustrations with Kevin Rudd to a head”. Actually, quite a lot of Labor supported the tax and the electorate overall was reasonably supportive as well. Swan was especially a big proponent of the tax. Cassidy thinks Swan was performing at the top of his game at the time, so unsurprisingly is not presented as having anything to do with the tax. Again, it’s all Rudd’s fault.
Probably the most laughable attempt by the faction brokers to create polling panic and dump the blame on Rudd that, incredibly, Cassidy goes along with, was the 26% swing Labor copped in the Penrith by-election on the weekend before Rudd’s dumping. A NSW by-election following the resignation of a state MP caught lying to an anti-corruption body was used as an argument for the right faction brokers to retake control in Canberra, whereas given the role of Arbib and Bitar in the said government, it would surely be more an argument against.
But the point is not really whether the polls were really looking that bad, dodgy use of polling was used against Beazley to get Rudd in, and now to get him out. Nor is it even that Cassidy is not enough of a journalist to pick through the spin, or to remember his own point that he makes elsewhere in the book; that Rudd’s dumping was nothing to do with the polls.
The main point is why it is Cassidy ends up talking about a polling justification for Rudd’s dumping – to conceal the mess that happens next. Indeed, as Cassidy points out, where polling did have anything to do with it, it was the resilience of Rudd’s polling that is more likely to have been the problem for some. Cassidy quotes a senior party official who not only points this out, but gets to the real problem posed by the Rudd dumping:
… developments in the campaign had ‘absolutely confirmed in the minds of serious people in the party why Rudd had to go’, adding: ‘The other day, somebody said to me, “now I understand why Kevin had to go. We might have lost the election’. And I said, “No, we had to get rid of him because we might have won”. The most frustrating thing is that we can’t explain properly to the electorate why we acted as we did, because that simply wouldn’t help out election chances.
Having got rid of Rudd for internal reasons, the party now had to face the problem that led them to handing over power to him in the first place, their own redundancy. It was this that made it difficult to explain to the electorate why they retook power. When Rudd took power against the old power bases, he could turn it into a virtue for the electorate. When those power bases regained control, they had the opposite problem. As this became more obvious during the campaign, so the party had to turn back and furiously rewrite history, not only talk up the brutalities of working under Merciless Ming (as though anyone else cares) but the polling bloodbath that would have happened if they didn’t get rid of him. Cassidy duly follows along.
Cassidy is bewildered by the old guard’s failure to reassert authority under Gillard, which he sees more as a ‘Rudd backlash’ than a lack of enthusiasm for what replaced him. Cassidy expresses this when he compares it to Abbott’s knifing of Turnbull:
Some saw the delicious irony in the fact that Abbott had ‘knifed’ Turnbull, essentially because Turnbull could not agree with him that climate change was crap, and he fell by just one vote, yet the nature of his coming to power was never an issue, his legitimacy was never questioned. But Gillard, by ‘knifing’ Rudd, somehow seemed ruthless and driven by ambition, her leadership less legitimate than Abbott’s. The fact that the support for her had been so overwhelming that a vote was not even needed was somehow seen as irrelevant.
Yes, because the party that acquiesced to it, the same one that laid down and handed over power to Rudd in the first place, was also irrelevant.
Could Rudd have done better in the 2010 election? Cassidy asks around and unsurprisingly the answer is a unanimous no. Well you could say that claiming your government is so bad that you need to dump a leader is not the best way to prepare for an election. Or the fact that the plusses of changes in climate change and asylum seeker policy not being really enough to outweigh the negatives of undermining Rudd’s credit for the economy during the GFC is a fairly simple piece of electoral arithmetic.
Labor’s mediocre campaign, Gillard’s short-lived honeymoon, the unimpressive results when the power brokers’ strategy through the Citizens’ Assembly and the East Timor solution were eventually rolled out, all have to be downplayed in Cassidy’s account. Because the only thing that really undermined the otherwise sparkling 2010 campaign were the leaks from you-know-who.
Cassidy calls those leaks “the greatest act of political bastardry in a generation”, yet he has just written a book full of accounts from Labor Party players for whom polling and the survival of a Labor government was secondary to getting Rudd out. But Cassidy agrees with those “bastards”, it’s Rudd who’s the thief. Just how far they are willing to go to get the party back was summed up by Cassidy’s recall of a conversation with Barry Cohen, a Minister in the Hawke and Whitlam government, in a way that caught the breath of even this semi-jaded observer:
‘If Rudd had stayed leader I would have voted Liberal for the first time in my life’. Then he fixed me in the eye and added: ‘If Rudd was a better bloke, he would still be the leader. But he pissed everyone off.’
When I got to the taxi, I wrote down Cohen’s words, convinced that few people could nail such a complex issue in seventeen words.
Let’s just consider this for a moment. Over what issue? There was no real political difference between Rudd and those that followed him other than tactics. Presumably Rudd opposed the watering down of the ETS and the line on asylum seekers because they weren’t good politics rather than principle, which is why he eventually agreed to them. The Gillard crew merely reinforced the backdowns that Rudd had already made. Whatever differences between Rudd and Gillard, they are surely less compared to Labor and Liberal. Yet Cohen is saying he is more willing to see Abbott in, with all Labor’s bogeymen about the Libs; Workchoices, rolling back welfare and health, etc. etc. than Rudd remaining in power. Cassidy is right; it does neatly nail the bankrupt state Labor has now become.
Whether Rudd would have done better in August ultimately depends on the balance between him and the forces who opposed him even if it damaged Labor’s electoral prospects. But let’s leave such speculation to those who must justify what they now have revealed themselves to be. Instead let’s answer the more important question: could someone have done better who could provide a convincing alternative to those major parties that dragged their sorry carcasses around the political landscape last August? Of course. Everybody knows that.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 31 December 2010.Filed under Media analysis