Saturday, 25 February 2012
This is not Celebrity Big Brother.
J Gillard yesterday
OK, when this blog said Labor was now going into its zone, it wasn’t expecting it would be quite so far down its own rabbit hole. It’s bad enough that the party is so affronted at the thought of being led by its most popular politician – and the only election winner in nearly 20 years. It is rejecting him in a way that is shocking the media and commentators looking on, who may have been under impression that political parties were about winning votes at some point.
In contrast to the histrionics of the Gillard camp (which by Combet and Plibersek’s appearances were at least starting to tone down), Rudd has been far more sure-footed from the moment he resigned from the Ministry. Sure, the intervention of the family has been a bit hokey, but then if hokey didn’t work, we wouldn’t have Queensland politicians. What has undoubtedly made it easier for Rudd is that he has reality, the bankruptcy of the party’s power structures, on his side.
But the one clunky note in Rudd’s repertoire has been his appeals to ‘People Power’. Actually, phoney populism is a pretty common feature of the Queensland political landscape as well, something even a small-time NSW accountant can pick up. This doesn’t come from Queenslanders being anymore ready to mobilise than anyone else, but a way of playing on a long-standing chronic weakness of the traditional two-party system in Queensland for political gain.
Queensland has excelled in producing politicians who could gain support by presenting themselves outside the political system, from Joh to Beattie and now Rudd. Yet because they have never really represented anything that would provide a counterpoint to that system, they remained at the end of the day still very much in it – only occasionally making the mistake of believing their own rhetoric and trying to make it tangible with some ‘third way’ such as we have seen from political flops initiated by the likes of Hanson, Joh and now likely to be joined by Katter.
Still, even though appealing to populism may not be coming from something real, it does attack something real, the increasing illegitimacy of the political parties, something that federal Labor is now displaying in droves. For Labor, that legitimacy had originally come from organised labour wanting a political voice to match its social weight. With that political voice now gone, the social base of Labor’s legitimacy has as well.
When Rudd says, as he did yesterday, that factions telling MPs what to do was not the “Australian way” (whatever that means), it certainly was the Australian way for at least a century. The factions represented the real tensions in the labour movement, and in as much as that represented real social groupings in society, there was a democratic element. What we are looking at now is not the discrediting of the faction system per se but that with Labor’s social base gone, those factions are now a hollow shell.
What is Rudd proposing to replace that with? Well, nothing really. He talked about all MPs having a say and protection against de-selection from the factions. But on what basis, as individual MPs, would they exercise that say and have any influence at all? All that will happen is that MPs will replace a reliance on the patronage of a faction with the patronage of the leader and in reality have even less power internally than before. Furthermore, unlike the factions of old, that leader will represent little more than himself.
That would seem unfair given Rudd’s popularity. As we see on the front of the morning’s papers, Rudd’s popularity is clearly a front and centre issue. Yet still no one wants to go into the reason for it. Certainly not the politicians (watch Beattie squirm and avoid trying to explain it) and the media don’t even seem to want to discuss it. Gillard at least tried to address it by saying he was an excellent campaigner (where has he been campaigning over the last 18 months?), but otherwise it remains the on-going mystery it has always been.
The reason obviously is that his anti-political style has made him the best focus for dissatisfaction with the political system and the widespread recognition that it has had its day. It was something he started to lose when he began playing “clever politics” in his final days as PM on the ETS and asylum seekers. But the ideal combination of his ostracism, but also a post of prestige, has rehabilitated him against the failure of the return of the dead hand of the party under Gillard. But while that popularity is recognition of what he is against, it does not represent a mobilisation for something new, certainly not that could be really called ‘People Power’.
This is what is behind the deep, visceral – and oblivious – nature of this fracas. While Rudd is brutally exposing the irrelevance of Labor’s organisation, he is not bringing anything to the table to help Labor but his own popularity. Rudd’s intention is not to ‘democratise’ Labor, but reorganise it to reflect the social irrelevance it has become.
Gillard’s tactic has been to frighten the caucus over the potential chaos if Rudd returned, that would only work because there is a sense of it already. Never mind that in doing so, the leadership is trashing themselves and the government’s record in the eyes of the electorate, even during the GFC (when it was “chaotic and paralysed”).
Against that fear, the leadership is giving comforting myths of why things are so dire now. So the current lousy polling is due to Rudd, despite obviously being lousy long before the leadership speculation broke (and remaining remarkably unmoved since it has). Gillard’s also extended the theme to blame the (Rudd) leaks on the lousy election result back in 2010, when obviously anyone could just glance at polls at the time and see the polls were going south even after the first week of “Moving Forward” and the Citizen’s Assembly, before the leaks emerged on the 28th July, as Howes’s account of the time admits.
Finally there is the most comforting myth of all; that the lousy polling is due to the intense reform focus of the government and that besides, popularity doesn’t matter, this is not “Celebrity Big Brother” after all. This is especially ironic as the whole purpose of Gillard coming in was supposed to have been to restore popularity by watering down reforms like the ETS and the mining tax, while upping the ante on popular issues like asylum seekers, which ended in the fiasco of the Timor solution.
Indeed, it was the failure of that strategy that led to a loss of majority and being forced by the independents to bring in reforms at a pace it didn’t want and compounded the lack of legitimacy that has dogged it from the very start. As the minority government has shown, even a busy legislative program does not create legitimacy, but merely reaffirm the bureaucratic shell that Gillard Labor has already become in reality – just not a very popular one.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 25 February 2012.Filed under State of the parties