Crumbling from within

Saturday, 4 February 2012 

The Queensland election gets underway

SIMON CREAN: People will not elect as leaders those they don’t perceive are team players, Neil.
NEIL MITCHELL: And he is not perceived as a team player?
SIMON CREAN: I’ll leave that judgment to others, but I…
NEIL MITCHELL: Well, do you perceive him as a team player?
SIMON CREAN: I think that part of the reason he lost the leadership was that he wasn’t.

I had a lively chat with @3AWNeilMitchell this morning about today’s Newspoll.

Simon Crean on Twitter

Federal Labor has now entered its zone. Don’t bother shouting or banging on the windows (even violently) to get its attention, it can’t hear you. It is now fully absorbed in its internal dynamic and anything it says that suggests it is thinking about the outside world is just pretence.

Just how self-absorbed it is at the moment was illustrated so well by Simon Crean’s appearance on 3AW’s Neil Mitchell on Tuesday. There have been several reasons touted as to what Crean was trying to achieve with the interview: warn off Rudd, rally caucus support for the Prime Minister and even, most amusingly, put himself forward as an alternative leader. These are all quite possible – the trouble is that none of these were aimed at the 3AW listeners who actually tuned into the show.

Listeners who might have expected one of the government’s leading members to justify it against lousy polls would not have heard it on Tuesday. Indeed Crean not only conceded that it had made disaster out of success, but that it was the whole government, not just Gillard that bore responsibility for it.

So when Crean says that Rudd is not a team player, it can’t be much of a problem if there’s something wrong with the team. Indeed as far as the polls suggest, brand Labor generally is on the nose and the current Cabinet is not exactly a sweet smelling stand-out. To anybody listening to the interview, it was a disaster; Crean not only failed to defend the government, but managed to bring the leadership tensions fully out into the open. Hardly an interview you’d want to tweet to the world about.

But if Crean was talking over the heads of Neil Mitchell’s thousands of listeners to the 100 odd Labor caucus, then claiming Rudd is not a team player is right on message. By “team”, Crean meant the existing power structures of the party and his comment was especially aimed at its beneficiaries, the power brokers who dumped Rudd just 18 months ago. The leadership turmoil is all about those internal power structures of the party and the way they are now breaking down.

This explains some things about the latest bout of leadership speculation that might not make sense on the surface. The press has been unanimous that support for Gillard has shifted decisively away over the summer break. Yet polls were either stable or starting to recover over a period which is usually not that great for governments anyway. Furthermore, Gillard started the year by dumping the pokie reform, a move especially designed to placate the fragile sensitivities of backbenchers. The Australia Day fiasco wasn’t exactly helpful, but of course occured after the switch away from Gillard was meant to have happened. So what did change?

Laura Tingle has kept her finger on the point she made before the break, that it was two internal events, the National Conference and the ministry reshuffle that was decisive against Gillard, as both showed the increasingly dysfunctional state of the faction system that put her into the leadership. This is what is giving this leadership contest a different flavour to those of the past – less a case of factions switching allegiance, but being unable to summon up the allegiance against someone who is intent on over-riding them.

Will Rudd override the faction leaders if he gets back in? Of course he will. Much has been made of Rudd “having learnt his lesson” after losing the leadership. But what was that lesson? He set it out clearly enough on Q&A a few months ago. Not that he should work better with the faction brokers, but on the contrary, that on decisions like dumping the ETS he should stop listening to them altogether. The discrediting of the power of the factions is a pre-condition for the return of Rudd and with faction brokers having failed with the electorate through Gillard but especially internally, that’s why Rudd’s return is back on the agenda now.

This was what was significant about reports that the NSW Right was split three ways between Gillard, Rudd and undecided – not the change in direction, but its incoherence; as are reports that backbenchers are calling up their faction leaders and telling them that they won’t be following directions if a ballot is called.

Hartcher has probably summed it up best as to what is happening, not so much a decisive move to Rudd:

… but over the summer break, caucus support for Gillard has crumbled from within. Rudd has done nothing to assist. Indeed, he’s been out of the country for most of the time and pledging loyalty to Gillard for the rest. So it’s entirely Gillard’s own work. But one consequence is that while Gillard has lost the fealty of many supporters, most don’t appear to have shifted to Rudd. Many seem to be in a state of uncommitted limbo, despairing of Gillard but not convinced of Rudd.

That this is about a crumbling from within rather than a decisive return to Rudd is why even just the act of campaigning in Queensland will be important internally. It’s not that it will necessarily prevent the inevitable fall of Bligh or even make much difference to the result, but to show a directionless, bewildered caucus that it is possible to make some connection to the electorate. Rudd may appear to be campaigning for votes but it will all be for internal reasons. After all, Rudd is as much in the zone now as anyone else.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 4 February 2012.

Filed under State of the parties

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23 responses to “Crumbling from within”

  1. Dr_Tad on 4th February 2012 10:36 am

    It’s NSW all over again, but even less coherent.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 4th February 2012 10:40 am

    I agree, but I think Rudd Mk II will mean something different for the party.

  3. F on 4th February 2012 12:27 pm

    If I were Rudd, I think I would wait this one out. If he returns now, his ability to restructure the Labour party to reduce the power of the factional bosses will be limited. He would have to focus on trying to patch things together in order to try and get through the next election. If he succeeds, then unless he has consolidated his hold on the party by then, he might be out again (if you think that sounds unlikely, then clearly you do not live in NSW). On the other hand, if he fails to keep Labour in power, then his one advantage over the factional bosses (his perceived popularity) has gone. And even if Labour get in again, what are the plans for the next term? I would have thought the next few years would be about bedding in the carbon tax and the mining tax, but both of those are reasonably locked in anyway, unless Mr A (assuming that it is he) goes for the double dissolution. If it is Mr T on the other hand (not impossible), he might be tempted to accept the fait accompli and the stacks of cash this will net him for buying off seats left right and centre, especially if he dumps the NBN. After all, the cities will get broadband anyway, and who else are the country seats going to vote for?

    So back to Rudd, better to keep yourself in the public eye, show you are a team player and build an electoral fortress in Queensland, which is one of the swing areas which will determine government. Wait until everyone in the caucus comes to his door to beg him to assume power. In the manner of Ausgustus, refuse the mantle until it is thrust upon you. Then graciously accept absolute power, reshape the party in your own image, fight the double dissolution, and spend a few years with a blocking senate frustrating the action man in the Lodge. Wait until Mr A melts down and gets knifed and then prepare for a triumphant return. After all, the great Rudd has time on his side. Where are the challengers? Gillard is a dead duck. Shorten – really?

  4. Dr_Tad on 4th February 2012 1:08 pm

    TPS, agreed, because the incoherent factional Right could still get its candidate up in the end after a brief interregnum.

    But whether Rudd has a base (rather than his opponents simply lacking one) to shift the government’s fortunes & restructure the power relations at the top of the party I remain deeply unconvinced. Do you see this self-immolation of the old power structures as creating an opportunity for an inner-party Bonapartism?

    I could only see that as logical if something shifted OUTSIDE the parliamentary sphere. Of which, as yet, there is little sign in Australia. The two things I can think of, which I’m not sure that Rudd could harness because of his politics, are a deep recession or a major rise in protest/strike action.

  5. Dr_Tad on 4th February 2012 1:08 pm

    Coalition disarray would be enough for him to win an election, but I don’t think it would settle the ALP’s problems more than briefly.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 4th February 2012 1:42 pm

    I agree. A Rudd return would have the potential to put the Coalition’s problems in sharp relief, but would not solve the ALP’s long term problems by a long shot.

    The trend till now under Rudd and Latham (and partly with Gillard) was to see power increasingly centralise and the values of the leader to replace those of the party. I see that increasing even more with a Rudd return.

    The problem with that is that the factional system did give some internal order to the party and there could eventually be the potential for fragmentation, a sort of Aus Dem free-for-all.

    Any sort of restructuring of the ALP would have to be in response to external factors, I agree. I tend to see the international situation being more of a catalyst in the medium term.

    But Rudd’s return will be tricky nevertheless. Although, in my view, the underlying trends seem to be going only one way, to the bureaucratisation of politics. For now Rudd has the potential to place himself above both sides of the old political system (a sort of Bonapartism of politics than society, if you like).

  7. Dr_Tad on 4th February 2012 2:20 pm

    There is one way they could smooth the transition…

    Gillard could call a referendum on some policy, withdraw under pressure from state bureaucrats and financial markets, and step down for a government of national unity headed by a technocrat from outside the usual political system, named Kevin Rudd.

    That kind of thing never happens elsewhere, but here in Australia you never know…

  8. Godfrey on 5th February 2012 8:20 am

    As wiser people have said, history repeats itself twice, first time as tragedy, second time as farce.

    The Rudd/Gillard government is a farcical replay of the Hawke/Keating government. The Abbott government will be a farcical replay of the Howard government.

  9. Dr_Tad on 6th February 2012 12:28 am

    Phew, that was a near thing, but the Nielsen 53-47 means your post is irrelevant. Onward to a Gillard landslide!

  10. The Piping Shrike on 6th February 2012 5:03 am

    Absolutely. A poll that puts Labor in line with the others now means that the pressure is off Gillard for the moment … lifeline … breathing space … relief for embattled leader … hum-te-dum-te-dum (Fairfax edition only).

    Either that or nobody much makes their voting choice on the latest drama in the media. No, that can’t be right.

  11. Bill on 6th February 2012 12:28 pm


    If you were forced to come up with percentages ..

    What would you say the % is that:

    1.Gillard takes Labor to next election

    2.Rudd does

    3.Somebody else does

    Wondering how likely you think it is Rudd will make an astonishing comeback. Looks too hard for the party to explain /swallow .. from my perspective.

    I think they’re stuck with her, for better or worse, although wouldn’t be unhappy to see Rudd return …

  12. Avalon Dave on 6th February 2012 3:13 pm

    If some backbenchers already have the courage to ring their Faction Leaders, and tell them where to stick their orders, then things could “deteriorate” much faster than we might imagine.

    If the ALP were to truly reduce themselves to a rabble, thankfully we can rely on the other side to continue to provide the entertaining viewing.

    The continual good polling for the Coalition hides a very large split within the Liberal party. The Tea Party wannabes seem all happy, but the rationalists within the party are aghast that Tony Abbott could walk into The Lodge, with that sort of political capital.

    If the polls continue north of 54% for the conservatives, I expect a move from either Hockey or Turnbull before the end of the year .

  13. The Piping Shrike on 6th February 2012 3:25 pm

    Bill, put me on the spot, I would say 50/20/30. Based on 1) the breakdown internally will continue 2) it may not happen fast enough for Rudd and 3) the power brokers would rather see Labor lose the election than see Rudd return. No point having a Labor government if you can’t run it.

    I reserve the right to change those numbers!

    AD, I generally agree there is a contradiction between the “values” crowd and the pragmatists, although not so clearly defined. The factors that saw their crisis two years ago are of course still very much there. I see the Libs being much more sensitive to polling and what Labor does as to whether they keep Abbott.

  14. Riccardo on 8th February 2012 11:54 am

    The Napoleon analogy implies a Waterloo, but recall that Waterloo was described by Wellington as “A close run thing” – maybe Gillard will hang on the party room while Rudd resigns/retires/generates a close-run byelection that the ALP loses.

    Or he’ll win, by a nose, because a “close run thing” must by definition allow an alternative history to be written.

  15. Michael (the other one who occasionally comments here) on 8th February 2012 10:05 pm

    Or is the Napoleon analogy meant to imply The Return from Elba (to the leadership) followed by The Hundred Days (of feverish attempts to break the party free of the old guard) followed by Waterloo (defeat at an election and/or the implosion of the party)?

  16. The Piping Shrike on 9th February 2012 12:19 am

    That’s more the line. But also because Napoleon came in as figure above an irreconcilable political impasse between two opposing forces.

    If Rudd comes back, it can only be as someone who pitches himself above and against the “old politics”.

  17. dedalus on 13th February 2012 4:52 pm

    Coming in late here, but can’t help noting the slight change in tone after Tad’s post on 6th Feb that the Neilson poll had shown a slight improvement. Are we as poll driven here as elsewhere then? For what it’s worth, if there’s not a run of good poll numbers for the government sooner or later (a speculation I base entirely on historical trends), then I for one will be mightily surprised. What will that do to all this theorising about leaderships changes? I lot I would say.

  18. Dr_Tad on 13th February 2012 11:50 pm

    dedalus, here is today’s Newspoll, which confirms the general trend of 54/46.

    2PP: ALP 45 (-1), L/NP 55 (+1)
    Primaries: ALP 32 (+2), L/NP 46 (+1), no Greens result available yet.

  19. The Piping Shrike on 14th February 2012 12:59 am

    The polls didn’t change anything but presumably the media were no longer channelling the Rudd camp. Not even the poll itself, which was the same as all the others, but it did calm the Rudd-media-nervous backbenchers-media thingy. It will be back.

    The dynamic of a failed coup by the party backers, and Rudd being a polarising magnet for that failure is unchanged. As is the difficulty of Rudd going over the heads of the party faction bosses. My guess he will be more open after if/when he makes the first stab.

  20. The Piping Shrike on 14th February 2012 1:00 pm

    … ok … back already. Didn’t take long.

  21. bill on 16th February 2012 9:59 am

    This leadership rivalry has now generated enough momentum to make one of the bbc’s ‘top stories’ (today, Feb 16th).

    Another very interesting article about our increasingly ‘presidential’ style of PM here, on the ABC:


    As for the future, my thoughts:

    Liberals will probably win, but Gillard just, just might turn things around, given more time ..

    Think Rudd could be the game changer (more likely to turn their fortunes around) .. and think the best counter from the Libs would be to bring back Turnbull (who would surely make them MUCH more electable right now ..)

    Rudd vs Turnbull .. THAT would be interesting …

    [TPS: Apologies for getting caught up in the filter.]

  22. Riccardo on 18th February 2012 11:26 am

    Did people see 4 corners?

    Sciacca casting himself as the faceless man, smirking, proud of what he did.

    Joe de bruyn as the remorseful one.

    Rudd letting a staffer dump on him. All theatre.

  23. Riccardo on 19th February 2012 10:21 am

    SCORES of comments favourable to Rudd and anti-Gillard for trying to show Rudd as being human. Downer didn’t get that, clearly the clowns in Gillard’s office don’t either.

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