Too late for the NSW disease

Wednesday, 7 September 2011 

Er, choose the second from the right. He’ll know what to do.

As polls confirm Gillard as the most unpopular Prime Minister in the history of the planet, the mind inevitably asks, who’s next? Or at least the media’s mind does. As far as their narrative goes, when the leader becomes unpopular, the leader gets changed. Although the problem for Labor now is that this time it can’t, because otherwise it might be seen as having the ‘NSW disease’ and could end up getting wiped out like NSW Labor.

That this theory is supposed to be that parties become unpopular by changing leaders to be popular, suggests something’s not quite right with the narrative – and it underplays what Federal Labor is going through right now. If NSW Labor changed leaders to revive popularity, there was little polling evidence that it would. Any more than there was a single national poll that had Gillard more popular than Rudd when she toppled him. The media assumed that this was the reason that the leaders were toppled because that usually had something to do with it in the past. That assumption has now broken down.

Just as the dynamic for Gillard replacing Rudd had more to do with internal dynamics than anything, so the shuffling through the leadership pack in NSW had more to do with internal dynamics. But those internal dynamics have now gone wrong.

Labor’s internal structure reflects the role it plays in society. Historically that has been based on its relationship to the unions, and the role it can play in the broader economy. The factional splits in Labor reflect the contradictions in that role, most notably between the interests of the unions and that of business. The dominant faction in Labor has usually been the one that can best manage that role, and the Right’s links with business and the unions has underpinned its dominance. That’s why traditionally when the Right would assert its interests, there would usually be some electoral justification to it, as it was the Right that best represented it.

As Labor’s relationship with the unions has less social relevance, so does its internal factional structure have less meaning. Yet one of the striking features of Labor over the last two decades is the degree to which the internal factional structure has largely remained intact, at least formally. The rise of technocrat Labor has seen a gradual eclipsing of the normal power bases, with state parties like that in SA, the home of technocrat Labor, having a leader not formally from either faction but still heavily reliant on patronage from the Right.

It was in NSW, however, where the most successful of the old union-business models was the last to change. When it did, it went from the old business-union model to technocrat, straight through to decay in a couple of years. When the power bases in the party took on Iemma and the Parliamentary wing over electricity privatisation, it split the Right and resulting in the anti-Iemma part joining forces with the Left to choose the first leader from the left in living memory. Although Rees was only a new boy, so it didn’t count – until he tried to take the opportunity of the disarray in the Right to take on the old structures. That was enough to bring the Right back together again and soon Sartor was pumping the air in victory to make sure it was his candidate that would led the party to a crushing defeat.

Factional bosses getting rid of Labor leaders is hardly new – in fact it is the way it is always done. What was new was one, temporarily losing control in the process, but more importantly, two, it having absolutely nothing to do with the party’s electoral prospects, indeed actually damaging them. This was the real NSW disease, not changing leaders, but it having no electoral rationale. When Bligh or Rudd raise the NSW disease, it is from leaders dealing with the threat from factional retribution by highlighting what can no longer be ignored – the relationship between what the dominant faction does and any electoral justification has broken down.

Having now been exposed in Sussex Street, they have certainly been exposed in Canberra. This is not just with the failure of Gillard’s leadership. On other issues, the normal ability of the Right to assert its position for electoral gain has turned to mud. Take the most squalid of Gillard’s ‘Right turns’ on taking the leadership, the treatment of asylum seekers. The toughening up of handling asylum seekers (started, of course, under Rudd) was supposed to deal with a political problem by being just as tough as the Coalition, ending up in the miserable people trafficking deal with Malaysia. None of this namby-pamby touchy-feely stuff, if you want to stay in office. Yet if Gillard had greeted each boat personally with flowers and a box of chocolates before showing them to their new quarters in Wollstonecraft, the government’s refugee policy would probably be more popular than the one they have now got.

The factional leaders can no longer kid themselves they know what to do to cure Labor’s polling woes, leaving them with as little to say as Howes on Monday night’s Q&A. But even worse, the one leadership change that does have electoral justification is, of course, impossible. Everyone has been going on how Rudd must learn his lessons if he is to retake the leadership. But he has not been the one that has been discredited over the last year. Whatever he says, he, and the factional leaders, will know that in the unlikely circumstance that Napoleon comes back from Elba, it would have to be under conditions that will make the first stint seem like a picnic for the power brokers.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 7 September 2011.

Filed under State of the parties

Tags: , ,


27 responses to “Too late for the NSW disease”

  1. kymbos on 7th September 2011 11:32 am

    Do you think it is a realistic option that Rudd might return? I can’t imagine anyone else wanting the job (Swan, for example). It almost feels like one of those ‘so crazy it just might work’ moments, that would only be entertained in the absence of any other options (say, a few months out from the election, after no improvement in the polls).

    Given your observations of the power brokers’ willingness to put internal squabbling ahead of electoral impacts, they may prefer to retain ownership of the sinking ship than hand control to an enemy in Rudd. “Yeah, it’s a sinking ship, but it’s MY sinking ship!”

  2. Amber Dekstris on 7th September 2011 5:45 pm

    I can’t imagine the party allowing Rudd as leader — he put too many colleagues too far offside during his reign as emperor.

    I can imagine his leaks during the election campaign would be view as an unforgivable betrayal of the party.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 7th September 2011 6:58 pm

    I think a return of Rudd is highly unlikely. It’s more to point out 1) the yawning gap between changing leaders and electoral rationale and 2) that any return would represent a far major defeat for the internal structures of the party than is being acknowledged. Basically, he highlights how the functioning of the factional system to the benefit of the party has broken down.

    Leaking from the party happened against Rudd as well. Some, such as the leaking of the decision to delay the ETS, were highly damaging to the party. Rees and Iemma were also leaked against by the same groupings who removed Rudd. I think any accusations of leaking against Rudd would be seen in that context.

  4. Lentern on 7th September 2011 7:33 pm

    Given all that Howes has said on TV(not to mention his book) I think it’s completely implausible that Rudd could be leading the parliamentary party and Howe’s the AWU, one cannot live whilst the other does.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 7th September 2011 7:50 pm

    I agree (almost). A return would symbolise, and require, a severe reduction in the influence of union leaders and the power brokers on the ALP. The underground war between Rudd and the traditional power bases between 2007 – 2010 is now in the open.

    Howes could still stay leader of the AWU though!

  6. Michael on 7th September 2011 9:19 pm

    There seems to be a cognitive dissonance between Rudd’s popularity with the wider population and his seeming isolation from the political sphere. The media report his popularity but seem to rarely comment on it’s implications or causes. The fact that he remains popular despite quite intense efforts to discredit him from his own party and the media (and many in the blogosphere) demonstrates the detachment there is in Australian politics of the parties and the media to the general population.

  7. Thomas Paine on 8th September 2011 10:33 am

    TPS puts it all quite clearly. It is my view that a too early a return to Rudd (if at all) would allow those threatened by it to undermine him all the way, regardless of damage to the party.

    As for Rudd leaking after he was knifed by Gillard and friends, if it was him, should have been expected. Especially when you come to realise they had no defendable rationale for taking down the Prime Minister of the country. Rudd and others would have seen as a pure internal power play nothing to do with electoral prospects or the good of the country. In which case they got what they deserved and what good is Labor to the country if it is inhabited in this fashion in any case?

    Rudd comes over very clearly as the competent non politician politician. Gillard comes over as the exact opposite, a person deeply mired in old fashioned political gaming, talk and inward focus.

    She in fact represents exactly what the people are sick of. Truly she is a female version of Howard.

    Labor could save some furniture with Smith, and probably a lot more furniture with Rudd, if he were to take over about 6 months from an election. Otherwise the best option for Australian politics would be for Labor to get the mother of all hidings at the next election.

  8. Riccardo on 8th September 2011 11:35 am

    Yes, the NSW diseases needs the NSW cure.

    How’s John Robertson going – the unreconstructed old unionist is apparently having workshops with his staff on ‘ethics’ although I get the impression the workshops are only being held so they can announce them to the public – convince fools like me they are capable of change.

    The fact that Rudd is even being talked about suggests the political class know they have done wrong.

  9. Patricia WA on 8th September 2011 2:29 pm

    If we’re talking about leadership issues generally I wonder why the MSM, ie News Ltd and its echo chamber, our national political commentariat generally, are continuing with the escalating attack on this particular Prime Minister.

    Her party are still solidly behind her leadership. Her party’s government is achieving its major legislative program and the country’s economy is in very good shape.

    She is unpopular, it’s true, but only because the MSM and the LOTO keep denigrating her and questioning her ability to lead. I don’t think it’s because she’s a bad leader. I think it’s because she is a very good one. They know that of all the potential ALP leadership material, and there’s plenty of it, she is the best.

    I can remember a long time ago when on a very minor scale I was suffering the kind of public lambasting and character assassination Julia Gillard is now subject to. A very good politician (a Liberal cabinet minister, as it happens!) said to me, “Never mind, Patricia, when people like that are kicking you in the arse, you know you’re ahead of them.”

  10. Riccardo on 8th September 2011 3:30 pm

    Nah, the water would be running off the duck’s back a lot quicker if it was fundamentally a strong government, at the core as well as at the surface.

    It’s the malaise of the age.

  11. Scott on 9th September 2011 9:30 am

    The minority government factor make it near impossible for Labor to win the next election. The media’s use of polling to justify an early election, twelve months after the last one, reflects their bias (and their hunger. Labor would probably get a brief bounce in the polls if they brought Rudd back but so what. It would probably be temporary and it wouldn’t be enough if it was on-going. You are right – Rudd’s biggest problems were internal and his personality. Very few people could functionally work with him.

  12. Michael (the other one who occasionally comments here) on 9th September 2011 8:09 pm

    You’ve really hit the nail on the head, Shrike.

    That said – and at the risk of being seen to flog a dead horse – bringing Rudd back is hardly the answer.

    Like it or not, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. How will everyone (including Rudd himself) explain what happened last year? That it never happened? That it was all a dream? (Hey, that – sort of – worked for Dallas after Bobby Ewing got run over.) Why *compound* the government’s inability to explain what happened last year. Even Bob Menzies had to start a new party in order to get a second crack at The Lodge.

    More importantly, Rudd is infected with all the other diseases apparent in NSW Labor – let alone the rest of our politics. The idea that somehow hoarding political capital at the beginning of your term prolongs its shelf-life. The idea that the first task of government is to win the daily news cycle. The idea that the best thing about a policy is what you can announce about it. And, the one that is least remarked upon, the idea that politics is more science than art: that you can measure and weigh opinion – and take at face value what a bunch of people (and actors) gathered in a room by someone with a clipboard say about an idea that’s just been sprung upon them.

    And let’s not even begin about the fact that Rudd is temperamentally incapable of running anything ….

  13. Amber Dekstris on 9th September 2011 11:41 pm

    Rudd was incapable of spending political capital

  14. MonicatheGee on 10th September 2011 4:24 pm

    I thnik the ALP has no other option but to bring Rudd back. Once the decision is made it will be all sweetness and light. The driver will be the huge thumping staring at the ALP come the next election.

  15. Godfrey on 10th September 2011 7:26 pm

    The problem with both the Union movement today and the Labor Party is the outdated influence of conservative factional big men.

    It’s a small network of influence that does a lot for a small number of people, and very little towards the implementation of social democratic policy or for Unions as a whole.

    What we are seeing is not the destruction of the Labor base, but the Labor political superstructure moving so far away from the base that it no longer even knows where to find it. And the further it drifts from the base the more its political relevance declines.

  16. Thomas Paine on 10th September 2011 9:45 pm

    The remarkable decline in Labor’s public position and perception since Gillard’s usurping of PM has barely been examined by the MSM or the more common political blogs.

    The deterioration is large as it is remarkable and you would think more blogs and the media might have undertaken a forensic examination of what has happened.

    It is all too easy to blame the media. Rudd and other Labor PMs lived under the exact same type of media and didn’t break Labor’s primary vote the way Gillard Labor has.

    TPS identifies a lot of mechanism at work like nowhere else does.

    Gillard suffered an immediate and I think also delayed backlash for knifing Rudd – simply because it became obvious enough that it was totally unjustified (a justification acceptable to the public). I think we saw in the immediate over drive attempts by one and all to denigrate Rudd after the knifing was an attempt to justify the event.

    The lack of justification feeds right into a meme of Gillard’s lack of legitimacy that she continues to carry.

    She may have turned things around quickly and mollified a miffed public if she had immediately shown herself to be a good leader. But instead she started off with a dog whistling on xenophobia then pic opportunity in a Darwin patrol boat, hat tip to Howard there.

    Any chance of Gillard winning over the faithful and former Rudd voters died on the bush when she immediately took the Conservative route on this and such things as a carbon tax and the like.

    So it is very easy to come up with reasons why Labor’s polls might have tanked under Gillard. But it still doesn’t explain the huge crash in primary support.

    Maybe it boils down to the fact that whilst the persona of Gillard is doing things the public find commendable she maintains support, but as soon as she goes off the path she becomes one of those politicians the public love to hate. With such awful personal ratings right now I tend to think that the public have personal issues with her. Especially when you consider she is up against a fairly unattractive LOTO.

    As for Rudd it is hard to say he didn’t spend political capital. He didn’t really get much of chance. People seem to forget he was Labor’s first PM for a long while, and had to be consumed with the GFC. Also statements now about how he failed some or other test totally removes the situation out of context. The same complainants were singing at different tune at the time things were going down, and were gernerally supportive of Rudd’s positions on a number of controversial issues. It is only in hindsight that they now speak.

    I find it amusing and an indication just how bad Labor must be if truly the reason for dumping Rudd was the weak kneed, soft hearted, jelly belly caucus and union heavies found Rudd to tough and intimidating. This of course is a nonsense and is cover for their self interest.

    I think the problem the internal insects had with Rudd is he wouldn’t implement or take heed of the more conservative agenda as Gillard now is. Dictator = Rudd wont implement right faction policy.

    Who now knows what Gillard Labor stands for, what Gillard stands for and the purpose of Labor if any. Trying to stampede Liberal Party territory just makes her irrelevant.

    AND I think that is Gillard’s current predicament. The public are beginning to see her as irrelevant.

    As much as Gillard supporters, and interal hacks may dislike Rudd there are many marginal seat MPs who will be becoming quite a bit more agitated if things don’t turn soon.

    The Gillard coup has turned out to be ill conceived, executed and rejected.

  17. The Piping Shrike on 12th September 2011 5:20 am

    Nice to see confirmation from the NSW Right that they have seen the errors of their ways and will now go back to the McKell principle of supporting the leader.

    Yeah right! Like they have a choice!

  18. The Piping Shrike on 12th September 2011 5:24 am

    On political capital, I never think he had much of it other than an anti-political attack, which was always going to be messy given that it was also aimed at his own party.

    He lost what ever else he had in the meeting rooms of Copenhagen.

  19. Riccardo on 16th September 2011 1:09 pm

    From SMH

    Earlier this week, the NSW Right, through the state ALP general secretary, Sam Dastyari, moved to kill off speculation about a leadership change and urged the party to hold its nerve.

    He said leadership changes must be a ”last resort when a party has lost its way” and changes ”can never be allowed to transform into a prevailing culture”.

    Read more:

    So there is a template – endorsed by the NSW Right. If the party has ‘lost its way’ ie Rudd, its OK to knife the leader, otherwise not.

    Had the ALP lost its way under Hawke, or just not reelectable.

    So Rudd needed to be knifed because even though he possibly wouldn’t have lost the election (his polling was unremarkable and not much different from Howard mid-cycle) but he had ‘lost his way’. ‘Lost’ with Ken Henry (long serving Treasury jead) ‘Lost’ with climate change policy they took to election and ‘Lost’ with an asylum policy the whole party had agreed to.

  20. Mitchell Porter on 17th September 2011 2:18 pm

    My feeling is that climate change, and specifically the idea of trying to do something about it, is underestimated as the reason for Gillard’s situation. The ALP ditched Rudd when he lost his way after Copenhagen. After the election, Gillard had to bring in a carbon tax in order to keep the Greens on board. A major, major motive of the campaign against Gillard is, again, the carbon tax. And if Abbott somehow gets in, he won’t get any peace on this issue either.

  21. Riccardo on 22nd September 2011 4:52 pm

    Good article about the decline of the ALP in the Australian by Rod Cavalier

    8000 members of the ALP would make it smaller than the Greens.

  22. Dr_Tad on 22nd September 2011 10:14 pm

    Riccardo, Cavalier is good on the rise of the ALP political class but he is blinded by his 30 year obsession with the right-wing unions as the main cause of the party’s problems.

    To call the ALP “a party controlled lock, stock and dividend stream by affiliated unions” is just risible. Actually the party’s actions are much more controlled by its taking responsibility for running the capitalist state (or at least the governmental aspect of it).

    Just saying.

  23. Riccardo on 23rd September 2011 7:23 am

    Dr Tad, I see it as ‘resumption of normal service’. Green Party represents those who actually want to vote for left wing causes, whether or not they end up in a position to govern.

    The ALP represents what??? And the Libs only represent opposition to the ALP.

    No ALP = No Libs, and you would be left with a majoritarian party and a minority left one, which I suspect is the true political landscape of this country.

    The ALP only existed because at some point in Australia’s history, people whose primary income was their labour could get a better deal through the ALP than the alternative. Not only has the ALP lost sight of its purpose, so has the Libs, and you have Abbott promising rubbish that no businessman in his right mind would support. Which shows big business have lost control of the libs. Instead, the puppy dogs do what they THINK their masters want, and what they think will get them elected.

  24. Dr_Tad on 23rd September 2011 8:05 am

    As Gramsci wrote, “At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression.”

    But that doesn’t stop those parties playing a quite different role once responsible for the capitalist state, even if they do so from a position of wildly diminished authority and so politics takes on the same kind of bizarre aspect it has now: “When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny’.” Nevertheless, these “violent solutions” will be pro-capitalist solutions.

    [Caveat: I’d be careful ascribing too much charisma to Abbott!]

    But there is something else about this situation that I think you and TPS underplay.

    Capitalism continues to create a class of exploited workers despite the weakening of their institutionalised defence organisations, the trade unions. Indeed, the fact that the ALP is based on the union bureaucracy and not the rank-and-file has always been a big reason (not the only one) as to why Labor was not simply a socialist workers’ party but what might be called a “capitalist workers’ party”, and so the weaknesses we see today are in some ways a magnified version of weaknesses that existed in embryo previously. This is not the first time that the ALP in government has systematically attacked its support base (think of the Great Depression, for example).

    So working class doesn’t equal unions which doesn’t equal ALP, and such an equality has never existed. Today the three have become markedly unravelled, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be tied more tightly back together. For example, if there is widespread and socially meaningful resistance to austerity the unions can quickly rebuild and in the absence of a coherent alternative workers can be attracted to an ALP back in opposition and mouthing left-wing rhetoric in electoral desperation.

    It’s not clear to me which way the Greens would move in such circumstances — whether or not they could shift to a greater class rhetoric and consistently support striking workers. They certainly don’t seem capable while “in government” in Canberra.

    It’s that coherent alternative — or its lack — that concerns me. A vacuum on the Left won’t necessarily get filled by forces we like. And in a period of deep and intractable economic crisis that bodes very ill.

  25. Riccardo on 23rd September 2011 12:45 pm

    To me, Dr Tad, the term working class should instead be focussed on the real social classes we see today – the working poor, the women who come in and clean our offices after we have gone home – the hospital cleaners( who are currently being fleeced by the HSU with millionaire office bearers spending union funds on prostitutes etc).

    I’m actually a Marxist at heart and agree with most commentary on REAL class and REAL power, as wielded, not nominal or notional power. That said, I’ve run a mile from socialism or any socialistic attempts to deal with class and power issues.

    Also Marxists need to look more closely at the concept of tribe, which is still influential in society long after the end of subsistence farming.

    If the Sovs had anything to teach us, or the Chinese, it is that in any system there will always be a powerful class who help themselves to the spoils, and an outsider class who get the leftovers.

    Like Menzies suggested when he founded the Libs, the rich will always look after themselves no matter what system you use.

  26. The Piping Shrike on 29th September 2011 7:35 pm

    “This is not the first time that the ALP in government has systematically attacked its support base (think of the Great Depression, for example).”

    I would say this is the first downturn that Labor hasn’t attacked its supporter base, because with the unions now a spent force they can’t – not like they did so well during Hawke.

    I really can’t see these institutions rebuilding in response to cuts and why on earth anyone would want them to. The unions sold their membership down the swanee last time, do we want this to happen again?

  27. Dr_Tad on 1st October 2011 12:12 pm

    TPS, whether or not these institutions rebuild exactly as before, they will rebuild and attempt to divert struggle once again into safe, reformist channels. Unions are in almost all times defence organisations, not designed to destroy capitalism but to get a better deal within it. They are certainly not early expressions of workers’ power. I raise the ability of reformism to revive not because I see that as the way forward but because I think it’s an inevitable outcome of heightened working class confidence this side of smashing the state. So we have to deal with reformism to replace it, not just expect it to collapse under its own contradictions because of its accommodation with the ruling class.

    I made the point about the Great Depression because there was genuine concern then that the ALP couldn’t revive after its disastrous splits, but it did. This says less about the ALP than it does about the nature of reformist consciousness under capitalism.

Comments are closed.