Monday, 21 February 2011
In the end we won. Sort of.
This is a disconcerting book. Here is the head of one of Australia’s most powerful trade unions writing about a time when he was directly shaping the fate of an Australian Prime Minister and making political history. Yet it all seems so inconsequential. Has all the hard politics been edited out?
That is not to say that there aren’t useful insights. One early on in the book is when Howes describes how he came to be on Lateline on the evening of Wednesday 23 June 2010, doing something unprecedented for a leader of the AWU, publicly calling for the overthrow of a Labor leader. He was home early that night:
The phone rang and on the other end was a senior member of the federal ministry, telling me that the challenge to Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership was on and could I please make my mind the f**k up about whether we’d support it and let him know in half an hour … the key ‘plotters’, or so they have been called – the ‘faceless men’, whom I was about to join – wanted me to come on board; they wanted an outside voice, a leader of the movement, backing their decision to give the process an air of legitimacy.
In this, as it turned out, I wholly failed. All I did was commit the cardinal sin of backroom politics – I made myself part of the story.
This gives a nice feel for the dynamics of that week and why the press was so put off the scent by the quiescent Caucus the day before (Howes indeed claims he spent the prior weekend dissuading Caucus members from challenging Rudd at that meeting).
What we had was politics by media. This wasn’t the usual route of building support for a challenge in Caucus that the press would have been used to and been looking for. What we had instead were players like Howes getting on the television and publicly telling Rudd his time was up, so presenting Labor members with a fait accompli that would give them no choice than to follow.
As Howes puts it, the ‘decision’ he was backing was not that of Caucus, they hadn’t yet made it; the decision he was giving legitimacy to was that of the power brokers who were effectively using Caucus as a rubber stamp. Barrie Cassidy and the ABC like to get their rocks off replaying Labor backbenchers telling journalists they were wrong about a leadership challenge, without thinking what that says about an ousting that the media knew more about than the ones supposed to be doing it.
Of course, what made such a ‘top down’ tactic possible was that they were dealing with a Labor leader in a highly unusual position, of not having any real firm base in the party, which is why he could be swept away. Yet it is possible to get the feeling that what made such a public route necessary was that the power brokers didn’t really have any firm base in the party either.
This is the wonderful irony of the faceless man tag and why Howes committed the ‘cardinal sin’ of making himself the story. The ‘faceless man’ tag of course referred to the days when the party brokers, especially the unions, wielded real power and could do so behind the scenes. It was coined by Menzies in 1963 just when that power was starting to become delegitimised, something one of its victims, Whitlam, would later start to address. Calling Howes a faceless man is not only inappropriate because his face is on the telly everywhere, but because he has written a book that gives the sense of someone with not very much real power over events at all. No wonder it’s an association he seems to wear with perverse pride.
Having done the biz, Howes heads back to AWU headquarters to start the unon’s role in the campaign with a “big splash”:
With the help from some smart young people from the party, we have developed a parody ad about Abbott and the loons on his front bench. It uses the theme from The Addams Family and is called the Abbott Family.
Connoisseurs of the fine art of Sussex St will recognise the ad’s genre. The song parody format, the sing-along bouncing ball and the fifties retro-styling are all awfully familiar, sans mis-spellings, even down to the smuggler-jumping budgie. Nevertheless despite the lack of originality, the ad’s a hit, and we get continual updates as thousands of former Abbott supporters click on and decide to vote Labor instead. Indeed, by the time it is pulled because of some intellectual property rights thingy:
we have had more media than we ever dreamed of and the equivalent of one entire electorate viewing it online.
How marvelously grassroots, how terribly viral! But then given Howes’s role in the June events, perhaps it’s understandable he gets media mixed up with actual politics.
One sign of the powerless is paranoia, and it’s a constant theme running through the book, focussed on, of course, you-know-who. According to Howes the new leadership rushed to the polls partly to “take the wind out of the sails of the campaign that Kevin Rudd has been waging against his own party”. This is interesting if true.
Some of the paranoia is a hoot, despite Howes’s best attempts to build the tension:
As I prepare to board my flight back to Sydney more and more calls come through saying Rudd is about pull something. This is what I feared. Bill Ludwig has already told me he’s sure that Rudd is going to try and inflict some damage on the party today.
Sure enough, it comes:
By the time I get back to the Sydney office, it’s clear what Rudd is up to. He is campaigning at a local school in his electorate, and somehow every media outlet in town knows about it. He does a tour of the school with the cameras following him, refusing to answer any questions but making sure that he is walking in areas he can be filmed. It is deliberate and it is clever. He is ensuring that he isn’t being perceived as disloyal but is simultaneously getting the nation to focus on him, reinserting himself into the campaign.
God knows how this will play out.
So the full bastardry is revealed. Rudd not only visits a school during an election campaign but, not content with winning the votes of 12 year olds, he invites the media as well. The reason why this is damaging is only too clear. After when the Australian public should have Moved Forward and forgotten what had happened all of four weeks before, Rudd was cleverly reminding people about his ousting instead of just disappearing from the planet and our collective memory.
Some cynical readers might think this is just stretching things a touch. However, that would be because they were unaware of what was really going on in the campaign. One of the useful things of Howes’s day-by-day account is that it reminds that the campaign didn’t quite go according to what has become the subsequent media narrative. You know: week one, wonderful, government sailing to landslide victory as Abbott stuffs up on Workchoices and nation revels in the fabulousness of our first female Prime Minister; week two, disaster, as treacherous leaks derail campaign etc. etc. etc.
In fact as Howes reminds us, even after week one, things were already starting to not look so hot:
Monday 26 July 2010, Sydney: Bad start to the day. Newspoll this morning has Abbott and the Coalition gaining on Gillard and Labor. Both Newspoll and Galaxy put Labor at 52 per cent, two party preferred – a massive fall from last week.
This time, even the internal polling isn’t that politically convenient:
I ring Karl Bitar to check if Labor’s internal poll has us doing better, but I am sadly disappointed there. Bitar says the vote is soft, meaning that a large proportion of the electorate could still swing either way, but the Coalition has been gaining ground since Rudd’s re-emergence.
Presumably this was one that didn’t get sent to Andrew Bolt.
Actually it has to be said that in his eagerness to blame what happened solely on Rudd, Howes’s timeline starts to get a bit muddled; at one point he suggest the leaks started in week one and when he talks about Labor’s vote going south it is all lumped together in the horribilis second week. Yet by the polling, it looks as though it was the first incident-free week when Labor took the biggest hit.
Clearly that school visit must have been to blame – it is hard to see what else it could be. Certainly not the campaign’s powerful theme of Moving Forward, or any of those campaign masterstrokes such as the Citizen’s Assembly, which Gillard announced in that first week and of which, of course, Howes mentions not a word.
Indeed what is useful about the book is that as an insider, Howes is able to give fresh perspective that those outside the loop can only dream of. For example, this blogger had always thought Labor’s 2010 campaign was a bit of a turkey. Not so. Those in the know can now reveal:
The reality is that this campaign is probably one of the most impressive Labor has ever run. When you look at the things that are under control – ads, research, campaigns in the marginal seats – they can’t be faulted.
In fact, readers may have been under the impression that the campaign was such a turkey that even Gillard felt the need to distance herself from it, by saying it was time to break from the campaign and present a “real” Julia. In fact, dear reader, if you were playing with the big boys you would know that it was just a slip up at some interview when Gillard only meant that she wouldn’t be reading from the script at press conferences. It was blown out of all proportion by the Coalition and Abbott at his “ferocious, partisan warrior best”. Funny, this blogger thought that it was Labor who had wanted to make such a deal of that they leaked it to the Fairfax press beforehand. Must be mistaken.
According to Newspoll, Labor’s vote fell off two more points after the disastrous second week, bounced back two points the week Latham ran amuck, and then finished back two points to a tie at the end. It seems that despite the paranoia about Rudd, shifting swiftly on to Latham, neither really seemed to have that big effect. So why, if the campaign was such a success then, didn’t Labor win? Obviously it’s all the things that were not in Bitar’s control; Rudd, Latham, and, near the end, the lousy impact of Bligh and Keneally. Indeed, it seems that voters were put off by every Labor leader except the one they were actually voting for. But then voters can be silly distracted bunnies like that.
There’s no doubt the leaks had an impact. But why? It was not because anything came out especially from the leaks themselves but the tit-for-tat between anti-Rudd leaks and anti-Gillard leaks showed a dysfunctional government. What’s amazing is that Labor brokers didn’t think they already did that when they felt the need to take the unprecedented step of dumping a sitting Prime Minister in his first term. But even that might not have been such a big deal, as long as it was for a reason. However, what became clear over the course of the campaign with the lack of difference in policy, rather than tactics, is that there wasn’t one.
And for Howes? Was it worth it? He had his doubts from the day he did it. But it had to be done. Like Cassidy, he claims polling justification, but that Labor ended up getting a lower vote in the election than at the time when Rudd was dumped, and it has continued to slide since, is a fact for all to see.
But there were other reasons as well. Howes hit the headlines a few months earlier with his criticisms over Rudd’s policy towards asylum seekers. Howes highlights throughout the book his disgust with Labor’s equivocal stance on this and especially Rudd given his high polling.
But no matter how commendable he is on this, it is hard to escape the impression in the book that the real problem was less Rudd’s attitude to asylum seekers, but his attitude to Howes. Rudd’s response to his criticism, Howes says, “couldn’t have been more aggressive” and “blew me away”:
He said, ‘I am just saying I have not seen his remarks. I am being completely straight with you. I have not seen what he said. It does not surprise me what the given individual might be saying in any public policy debate on any given day.’
Maybe Howes moves in rather genteel circles but that doesn’t seem too aggressive, rather Rudd more trying to play it down than anything. Unless of course, it was the very fact that Howes felt he was not being taken seriously was the whole point.
The suggestion may be grossly unjust. The trouble is, why then did he back a leadership whose immediate response was to get even tougher on asylum seekers but at least treated Howes with respect while they did so? To be fair, unlike the little he has to say on the new leadership’s watering down of another thing he apparently cares about, climate change, he acknowledges that:
During the campaign Labor has refused to have a debate on this issue [of immigration and population], just like the Coalition. It has failed to debunk the population policy myths that are circulating and has just gone for the populist pitch. It’s shameful and reflects badly on Australian politics.
But this isn’t what happened. Labor did have a debate on immigration and population, indeed they ran the campaign around it in the first few weeks. Gillard directly campaigned for a ‘sustainable Australia’ and Labor printed leaflets on it, proposed to reintroduce Howard’s off-shore processing, took the Member for Lindsay out on a patrol boat and ran their ads highlighting it. It was just that it was a debate directed at the former leadership, not the Liberals. Which side was Howes on?
As Howes admits that he was more in agreement with Rudd than where Labor is heading now, we have to assume that immigration was not really the problem with Rudd either. So what was it?
It’s obvious. As a leader of one of Australia’s foremost trade unions, he naturally would dislike Rudd as bringing in the most anti-union legislative regime of any Labor government in its history. Or at least, you would think so. Actually, maybe that’s not the reason, since he backed to take over the Minister who introduced it. Indeed never once in the book does Howes have any complaints about Labor’s retention of Howard anti-union laws.
So what, then, was the reason? Surely it’s not that the Australian Prime Minister simply didn’t show him enough respect. Can Australian politics be that insubstantial?
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 21 February 2011.Filed under Political figures, State of the parties, Tactics