Rudd, the anti-politics campaigner – Reprise?

Thursday, 29 September 2011 

Keep waiting … but not too long.

Rudd has told colleagues he is not sure he wants the responsibility of trying to rescue a dying government. If he took the job for a second time, he reasons, it would absolve the people who deposed him – Julia Gillard and the faceless men of the Right faction – from their historical responsibility for Labor’s dire position.

Peter Hartcher SMH; 23 September 2011

When Napoleon returned from exile in Elba, it lasted less than a hundred days before defeat at Waterloo. As things now stand, if Australia’s little Napoleon returns from Norman Park, the result might not be much better.

Hartcher’s report confirms him as the best channeller of Rudd’s thinking since he was deposed, because the quote above is one of the few insights in the media as to what is really at stake with his return. Mostly in the press we have read about how abysmal opinion polls are causing a re-think with some in the caucus, but Labor MPs still preferring to saw off their arms and poke their eyeballs with a fork than allow Rudd to return, hum-te-dum-de-dum.

Let’s clear this dross away for a start, because obviously if this was really about opinion polls then Rudd would never have been dropped in the first place, given that they showed he was heading for the most comfortable re-election of any government in over twenty years. Nor, of course, was there a single national opinion poll that suggested Gillard would do any better.

There was of course that internal poll, which Labor insiders handed to Andrew Bolt, showing that the government was headed for catastrophe. As to why an internal party poll should give a different aggregate result from the professional polling organisations was something never explained by those who gave it credibility, least of all some of those psephological sites that were always so vigilant when it came to dodgy internal polling that suited the Coalition line, but fell hook line and sinker when it suited the official Labor meme.

Nor is it especially about the feelings of caucus. The caucus immediately before the move was quiescent, Rudd’s sounding out of members the night before found nothing. It was not until the faceless men started putting a face to their opposition to Rudd, especially the reluctant Paul Howes, that caucus was presented a fait accompli that they were just as quiescent in accepting. It may not have been the height of internal party democracy, but it did at least give the ABC some hilarious clips of backbenchers denying anything was going on, as though it had very much to do with them. The ABC love replaying these clips to show how much it was ahead of the game. But don’t tell the ABC, it’s “scoop” probably had more to do with the media driven strategy of those toppling Rudd than the political ingenuity of ABC political reporters.

It was about what it is now, a political fight between Rudd and the traditional powerbrokers of the party. The complete political dis-crediting of the powerbrokers is a pre-condition for the return of Rudd. In one way, whether Rudd would seriously hold off before the election of the leadership was handed to him on a plate is not really the point, Rudd is making clear that the electoral consequences of the powerbrokers re-taking control would need to be fully recognised.

This is a struggle over the dead soul of the Labor party. The exhaustion of Labor has long been evident in declining membership, the inability to develop a distinctive program and the quiescence of caucus. But the most dramatic sign is the breakdown in the link between the interests of the dominant faction and electoral viability. The “NSW disease” is a code for the internal structures of the party no longer working as it should. When the Right slam the foot on the accelerator to get the party back on track, they go straight into a brick wall. Rudd learnt the electoral consequences of this when he agreed to delay the ETS for pragmatic reasons that turned out not to be electorally pragmatic at all. It was something he finally woke up to in the last days of the leadership and what has happened since has only confirmed this in stone. The Right’s agenda has turned from electoral pragmatism to electoral death. For Gillard, who has made a career of being pragmatic by moving from the left to the right, this is a teeny bit ironic.

This breakdown in the normal workings of the faction system is evident to all and managing it is what gives momentum to internal party “reform”. Yet reform highlights the contradiction being posed here. Labor is looking for a way to move away from the internal structures of the party, but these structures are a product and are core to the party’s rationale. They are not incidental, but directly stem from the role Labor historically played. This contradiction is why there is so much focus on the membership and everyone plays lip service to giving membership a greater role – not because there is anything in the membership that suggests it is the solution, but because it provides a way for the Labor leadership to talk about a problem for which they have no solution.

Rodney Cavalier sums up this thinking – and its problems. His main argument that the factional bosses have too much power seems to have some resonance, as does his argument that the members should have more say in the ALP. In effect, Cavalier is arguing for Labor to return to its roots when the factional bosses did not control the party. But when exactly this Golden Age was is not clear. Sometimes he looks back to the party’s formation in the 1890s, bizarrely in the Oz piece it seems to be in Whitlam’s day when party bosses didn’t control things.

In reality of course the opposite is true. It was the strength of those brokers while Whitlam was deputy leader that Menzies made political hay out of with his “Faceless Men” jibe. Indeed in areas such as the Victorian intervention of 1970, Whitlam went over both the heads of the Left power brokers as well as much of the membership to make the party more electable. For Whitlam the issue was not between the powerbrokers and the membership, but dealing with those sections of the party, especially on the left, that made it unelectable, whether it was supported by the membership or not. It was because Labor had a social role, that there was reasonable coincidence between the Labor leadership and its membership. In many ways, in starting the long unwinding of Labor’s role as the political voice of the union bureaucracy, Whitlam was in fact laying the grounds for the separation of the party’s leadership from the membership that we see today.

But the real problem with Cavalier’s response and the whole program of party reform is that, like much of the thinking from inside the party, it looks at reality upside down. Labor’s problem comes from its diminished role in society, not its internal structures. The irrelevance of Labor’s social role is most evident in the external parts of it, especially the vanishing membership, and it is only now becoming evident in the dysfunctional internal operations as well. Turning to the membership now will only highlight Labor’s real problem – its fading social role. Far from dealing with the problem, the reform plans are likely to merely run it up the flagpole. Labor’s plans to hold primaries sound especially grim.

Cavalier’s response is typical among politicos these days. There is a kind of birthing movement going on where everything needs to go back to the basics and how things originally were, as though the last few decades of politics never happened. As often with those who become reliant on history, it generally requires a gross distortion of it. In the past, it used to be only the far left that would talk of upheavals in the working class and the reconstitution of working class institutions (given the colour bar, hardy desirable in Australia). Cavalier shows how mainstream this despair has got. He claims that Labor’s problems are not cyclical, but in the end a hope of one grand turn of the cycle is all he has left.

Rudd’s actions when he was leader, and even since then, have shown that he is not immune to getting caught up in the political class’s way of thinking. But there is one critical difference – his willingness to make political capital out of the decline of the two party system. While he and Gillard both pitched themselves against the factional system, it was Rudd that made an electoral asset of it.

This is why the actions of Labor since dumping Rudd have been so disastrous. Not only have they exposed the dead hand of the party and its bankruptcy, by ostracising Rudd, the Labor leadership has rehabilitated him, just as it’s made Abbott electable. Rudd’s problem in the declining months of his leadership was that decisions like delaying the ETS made him look too much like an ordinary politician rather than one who would over-ride mundane political considerations for “the greatest moral challenge”. His position as Foreign Affairs Minister, while important, has allowed him at the same time to pose himself outside the government and politics in general, and recover his position as Australia’s most popular politician.

This grim interpretation that Labor’s current state is not a consequence of getting rid of Rudd, but replacing him with those who these days represent the “true” state of the party, is hardly going to be readily acknowledged by Labor watchers. The self-delusion needed was highlighted by another self-serving piece by another Labor “insider”, Barry Cohen. Just how self-serving is summed up by his claim of being “shocked” at how much three MPs loathed Rudd, this coming from someone who told another Barry that he was considering voting for Abbott’s Liberals over Rudd while he was leader (note also how Cohen sees Rudd’s decision to appoint the Minstry as a “sign of things to come” while ignoring Gillard doing the same). Cohen thinks it’s unfair that “experts” claim Gillard disloyalty to Rudd was a reason to vote against her. Does anyone really care? If they did she would have been unpopular straight after she did it. We now know that polling was her height.

Coming from the state where the two party system has long been at its weakest, Rudd is not the first Queenslander to take political advantage of the decline of the two major parties. And, as Beattie shows by his constant reminders that he’s not interested in politics while getting on the telly to talk about it, Rudd is unlikely to be the last. But while Labor remains in government Rudd is in the position to be the lightening rod of the anti-politics mood now rife against the major parties.

This may not last after the election, and creates something of a dilemma. Rudd may prefer for the electorate to put their stamp of disapproval on what the power brokers did, but he might not be in as good position to take advantage as he is now during a government that decided to make him the problem. This is because the real source of his popularity comes from the dissatisfaction with the political system as we see it through the current government rather than what he is proposing to put in its place. This alternative is what Rudd doesn’t really have, and hasn’t since Copenhagen, which forced him to compromise with the dead hand of the powerbrokers in the first place. The media has a sense of this and so can most easily envisage Rudd’s return if it happens shortly before the election, capitalising on a brief honeymoon then quickly going to the polls before it fades.

Hmmm. Now where have we heard that before?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 29 September 2011.

Filed under Political figures

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7 responses to “Rudd, the anti-politics campaigner – Reprise?”

  1. Thomas Paine on 29th September 2011 10:53 am

    ‘Labor’s problem comes from its diminished role in society, not its internal structures.’

    I agree that Rudd was unanimously perceived by the public to be beyond the business as usual type politician and this made him especially popular. His demise, worked on fully a year before they knifed him, I believe came about not because of any hatred of the person of Rudd but because he refused to give the ‘Right’ its ‘voice’. We have seen that voice in Gillard, and it is not good.

    But Rudd was right and went wrong when he listened to the Right. The Rudd type of politician is still what the public want. The public place their own assumptions of his belief system and motivation from the persona he projects, either rightly or wrongly.

    They are no longer interested in two party politics and are now more comfortable with having a leader ‘they can believe in’. A sign of the times maybe.

    As I have noted earlier the GFC will be upon everyone before the next election and it will have significant impact on Australia this time around. Rudd in my view is most likely to be trusted and believed in by the public as the leader most likely to do the right things. His popularity would increased beyond what it is now.

    Given those circumstances and the timing of global economic events, yes Rudd could win the next election, so long as he didn’t come to the job too soon. But I think a leadership change will come sooner and this would not be suitable for Rudd.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 29th September 2011 7:29 pm

    Funny how these “leadership openings” come sooner than anybody wants. It suggests that this may not be really a question of leadership, but rather looking at it to deal with a bigger problem.

    I don’t see him failing to give the Right a voice as such, the left weren’t that much comfort to Rudd at the end either. I see this less as about his fight against any particular faction than the faction system as such.

    I detect some under-estimation of what is at stake here. Calling for the defeat of the internal power bases in the party is no small thing. Let alone when Rudd doesn’t have anything really in its place. It highlights how incredibly unstable Australian politics is at the moment, with Rudd now placed as a potential catalyst.

  3. mikey on 30th September 2011 11:56 am

    The government would be perfectly stable if the media stopped speculating that it was unstable. We have the world throwing accolades at our treasurer for our economic success. There’s no election for two years and not a single Labor MP has suggested some change at the top might be worth considering. The opposition have failed to block any legislation except it’s own “stop-the-boats” position. Ha! The never-ending stream of articles calling for regime change is an attack on our democracy. Labor needs to fight back, harden up and gain some respect.

  4. Riccardo on 30th September 2011 1:48 pm

    Nah, the weakness of the government is why the opposition and media appear so strong.

    As has been pointed out before, its not like Rupe and Jamie are any harder on the left than Keith or Frank or any of the other antecedents were in their day.

    Agree with TPS – there was no mythical good old days when MPs listened to branches or conferences or obeyed pledges and that sort of stuff.

    Primaries must by definition weaken a party. The US party system is such that any old joe can get elected to congress as “Republican” or “Democrat” then vote against the whip based on what “their consituents want”

    Neither Gillard nor Abbott could govern Australia on the current electoral reality of splits around 52:48 at best – if they had backbenchers who could genuinely point to a local mandate and vote against the party.

  5. Riccardo on 8th October 2011 9:40 pm

    Rudd and Richo at it. What’s confusing is Richo trying to run the following three lines:

    -Rudd wants the job
    -Rudd stands no chance of getting it and he knows it
    -the ALP might actually turn to Rudd to save it

    All 3 points can’t simultaneously be true.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 8th October 2011 10:40 pm

    Given Richo’s past form, it’s probably for the best he covers all possibilities.

  7. What a hollowing out looks like :The Piping Shrike on 28th November 2011 1:33 pm

    […] is definitely past its sell-by date. For the time being at least, the fault line will remain with the former Prime Minister whose relative popularity has been revived by his dumping on the back of the widespread recognition […]

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