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.

25 June 2010

It may be with some playful irony (or playful bitterness) that Rudd refers to ALP factions as the ‘cancer of the party’. Since, of course, that is precisely how Gillard used to refer to them as well. It is surprising that in all the acres that have been written about the Rudd v Gillard anniversary, this point is never mentioned. It is surprising (OK, not that surprising) because it not only went to the heart of the partnership that was broken a year ago, but also points to why the leadership takeover has subsequently proved to have been such a flop.

When Rudd and Gillard assumed the Labor leadership in December 2006, it marked a new phase in what had been a protracted to-ing and fro-ing of the leadership since Labor traditional agenda was wound up under Hawke/Keating. The oscillations were a sign that Labor was wrestling with a problem for which there was no easy solution, because moving away from its old agenda also involved moving away from the power bases in the party it represented. At first this was posed in terms of giving more say to the membership under Crean, but as time went on, and the losses piled up, it became what it was always about; taking power away from both the power brokers and the membership and, indeed the party itself, and putting it in the hands of a narrow cabal around the leadership.

This meant personalising the leadership to a degree never seen before in the ALP, first under Latham’s ‘values’ drive and then under Rudd and his hokey tales of his rural Queensland up-bringing.

But what made the Rudd-Gillard leadership different was how explicitly it was counter-posed against the old factional groupings. It was why the leadership was seen as a ‘team’, to highlight the way Rudd from the Right and Gillard from the Left were coming together to form something new. Both announced that they had effectively left their factions and would no longer attend their meetings. Gillard had been especially vocal about the problems of the faction system, explicitly targeting Beazley to the point of making common cause with the Right over an attempt to de-select Crean. It was the reason she not only backed Crean, but also Latham and finally Rudd, against Beazley who represented the safe option of the old power bases in the party.

If Rudd had left it at the level of personalising the leadership, and even making token noises about the problems of the factions, it would have been bearable to the party brokers. But what made Rudd deadly was that he went further. He publicly made an appeal to the electorate on the extent to which he was against the old political system, on either side. It was this which this blogger believed lay behind Rudd’s enormous, but to the media incomprehensible, popularity. The height of this trashing the old system was the apology and then, his own party, the 2020 Summit.

The Summit was dismissed by the media as a stunt, which in its own terms it was. But it was a way of telling the public that if ideas and program for the future were going to come from anywhere, it wasn’t from the two parties, one of which he led and had mistakenly thought was in power.

One way this weight of popularity, or the ‘Newspoll’ faction, as one power broker later called it, was used internally was to take away faction power in not only choosing the ministry, but even on pre-selection, with the use of celebrity shoo-ins – even if it meant that when things went wrong, such as in the case of Nicole Cornes, they were left swinging in the breeze.

Yet while both Rudd and Gillard presented themselves against the factions, it was Rudd’s willingness to take away their power that really divided them. Rudd was willing to use the international agenda and direct appeals outside the party to over-rule the internal party structure.

Gillard instead played them off against each other. Workchoices was a key issue to do so. Using Howard’s IR attack, Gillard’s opposition allowed her to bring in not only the most anti-union agenda of any Labor government but shift the debate towards a more right-wing ‘individual’ solution under her super portfolio.
Workchoices provided the left with a self justification for agreeing with what they would never agree with if they had any sense of self respect. It was basically a double-bluff. The left wouldn’t need to admit that they were effectively dead, the ALP right, by banging on about the evils of Workchoices, would agree not to point it out. If Rudd hadn’t over-ridden both sides, everyone would have been happy.

The different way Gillard and Rudd managed the decline of the party and the internal angle, the hollowing out of the factions, summed up the difference between the two. While Rudd counter-posed his own values and an international agenda, especially on climate change, against the two party system, Gillard’s way was to move from left to right within it. Rudd’s counter-position to the factions was really a counter-position against the party as a whole. Gillard’s counter-position was against a right-dominated system that locked her and the left out of internal power. This is what she meant when she said the old left-right divide was no longer relevant. What she meant by that was quite different from how Rudd meant it. In reality, Gillard wasn’t against the faction system as such, but the way it was organised at the time. When both left and right power brokers were put down by Rudd, her attitude was quite different, and it justified her move to support both sides against Rudd a year ago.

Yet in making her move from left to right, Gillard was making the classic mistake of the left; rationalising its own political failing by over-stating the power of the right. This came out in full when she took over.

Her version of Labor’s problems carried the prejudices of both sides of the factional divide, namely that Labor was losing touch with its base because it was too left-wing on things like the environment, and not right-wing enough on issues like immigration, social issues etc.

This is clearly nonsense because if Labor’s base thought being conservative on such issues was so important, it wouldn’t be Labor’s base, but belong to the Coalition who bang on about these issues with more élan. To the degree that such issues matter, it is because Labor has nothing else to talk to its traditional base about.

This upside-down thinking of social reality is symptomatic of a political party in decline. It understands its own political problems as not being enough of precisely what it is not. In this case it led to the rehabilitation of Tony Abbott and a pretence that the values of a Liberal leader, probably more detached from the electorate than for many decades, are actually those of the electorate. Even when polls show support for a view that Abbott does not share, such as same-sex marriage, she cannot bring herself to agree.

Yet if the rehabilitation of Abbott is one sign of the bankruptcy of the factions that took back their party a year ago, an even more damning sign is the rehabilitation of another political leader over the last year – Rudd. Some commentators are struggling to work out whether the fact that much of the popularity of Rudd (and Turnbull, for that matter) come from supporters of the opposite party, is a sign of how suitable they would be as leader, given that’s where they need to win votes, or how unsuitable, because supporters of the party opposite are just being tactical, or something, and simply don’t want the other party to win.

It’s probably neither, but the way that voters across both parties are expressing what is so patently clear both in the last federal election and in subsequent polls, they are fed up with both parties, and the leaders that took back power on their behalf. Turnbull has counter-posed himself against the Liberals by his self-proclaimed principle over climate change. Rudd’s route has been more subtle, basically claiming that whatever position he was going to have on climate change, or anything else, he should never have listened to his party to arrive at it.

While Rudd and Turnbull can now have some sort of popularity on the degree to which they pose themselves against the old system, Gillard looks well and truly caught up in it. At the beginning of the year, this blogger suggested the key to Australian politics rested on whether Gillard had a way of breaking out of the ever-shrinking political spectrum she is caught up in. it is now looking increasingly unlikely she will. To do so, she would probably have to do what Latham and Rudd did, i.e. supplant the party with themselves and their own values. Far from being able to do that, going by the humiliation she put herself and her partner through in that recent 60 Minutes episode, it seems she may actually think she is part of the problem. Grim.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 1 July 2011.

Filed under Key posts, Political figures, State of the parties

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6 responses to “The dead hand of the party rises – an update”

  1. j-boy on 2nd July 2011 2:35 pm

    a dissolving of both houses after the Turnbull coup would have fixed things politically for Labour.
    The dumbness here needs investigating.
    If Gillard was against this remedy she is sowing the reaping.
    Unfortunately there seems to be a fair amount of misogynism
    abounding in the commentary.
    Makes you laugh when Mark Halperin a respected pundit
    had to mea culpa and was stood down for daring to call bazza a bit of a dick.

  2. Lentern on 3rd July 2011 12:25 pm

    I think the idea that Gillard could ever break out of the spectrum like Rudd and Turnbull had was pretty extraordinary when there was such a strong public perception that the factional bosses had just hand-picked a leader of their preference. I’m not sure what she could have done, demoted Arbib?

    She certainly had a go at making it about her and not the party institution with her “I’m just your average aussie don’t think of me like a PM”. She needed to try and put forward some justification for ousting Rudd though and Rudd himself occupied a lot of the anti-union/party/faction ground.

    I think a lot of the parties misfortunes have to do with the leader itself though. I can see how she was an effective shadow minister and even deputy leader but I never thought she’d be an effective leader, personally I thought they would have lost if she’d lead them in 07(and I think Beazley, Tanner and Smith could have all won that quite easily.

  3. Riccardo on 3rd July 2011 6:42 pm

    TPS – post of the year!!

    Why do we need a Labor Party??

    And I’m tending to agree with Brown and wonder whether the threatened combination of ALP and Libs against the Greens is the best thing he could ask for. Craft his party into a genuine opposition, and tarnish the ALP in a way it could never recover from – having been emptied of its raison d’etre, then become indistinguishable from the Libs.

    Sure it might be a 90:10 or at best 80:20 split, but no-one would be in any doubt who the combatants were, what was at stake or what either side stood for. The majority would be the status quo, however loosely defined, the Greens for change.

    And both sides could happily rest with the consequence, as the Greens would not need to deliver change, and the status quo party would have no problems continuing to deliver status quo.

  4. nick on 5th July 2011 11:57 am

    whilst I’ve been critical of Gillard and many in this govt ricardo, I don’t think with policies such as the nbn, carbon tax, mining tax etc that you can accuse labor of being simply a status quo party ….

    Liberal party obviously has taken very different view of these issues and is the status quo party in this regard.

    Greens obviously against the status quo allowing the govt to make progress on these and other fronts.

  5. Riccardo on 5th July 2011 3:00 pm

    Do ALP actually ‘add value’ beyond the general global trends on these fronts?

    Not trying to be picky, just a feeling I get (and I think TPS has mentioned this too) that political class happy to be guided by overseas developments.

    Again I doubt Kim Beazley’s phrase “independent initiative” ie the idea that a sovereign country actually makes decisions separate from the rest of the world. You can only ‘be’ sovereign if you exercise sovereignty.

    A larger version of the issue of cowardice at the International Court about whaling – Australia claims sovereignty over a section of Antarctica but refuses to exercise it lest the emperors nakedness be acknowledged.

    The ALP, a branch office of the US Democrats and Blairite Labour, won’t make the tough decisions. I’m not suggesting turning Australia into Venezuela, but merely that if we want to not be the antipodean colony or the 51st state, we need to act that way.

    Talking about US practice, these pathetic anti carbon tax rallies have Republican-instigated Tea Party smell all over them.

    You can just imagine some junior staffers have stepped off the plane from Washington with a head full of such possibilities: link up with Alan Jones to do a Glenn or a Rush, dress up the party faithful as mum and dad trailer park, placards professionally designed and printed and ready to hand out.

    Unlike the US, we thankfully don’t get the numbers to our Tea Parties.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 5th July 2011 5:46 pm

    Yes, and even then there is doo-dah about the numbers that do turn up. Our political class do not have the confidence to play with any sort of mobilisation even to the degree of the Tea Party in the US.

    Lentern, I agree that Gillard did try to break out of the deadlock by promoting her ordinariness as something special, but she never shook off her backers. What could she have done? Difficult, the way she took over, but perhaps there could have been some way of distancing herself and discrediting the party hacks. There’s a lot to play with!

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