There is no “People Power”

Saturday, 25 February 2012 

Who is this guy?

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

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14 responses to “There is no “People Power””

  1. Michael (the other one who occasionally comments here) on 25th February 2012 9:35 am

    Bang on – most voters just want this to be over, they don’t want to get involved by haranguing their MP (or Senator). Not to mention that Rudd’s appeals to ‘People Power’ are a reminder of that tendency to demagoguery he displayed as Prime Minister – and which the post of Foreign Minister doesn’t provide much of an outlet for.
    One thing, though. Yes, the idea that Labor were on track to win the last election before the leaks happened is fanciful. So what? You don’t let off, let alone reward, a saboteur just because the sabotage didn’t work – or didn’t make a difference.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 25th February 2012 9:55 am

    No but he was hardly the problem then, or since and it just avoids what is. In fact, I don’t even think people notice leadership rows much and care whether it’s over or not. I think it’s Laborities who more worry. It certainly hasn’t turned people off Rudd.

    Funny how it’s only the government it seems to affect.

  3. patrickg on 25th February 2012 10:19 am

    Yes, I think you’re right on with this analysis. It’s fascinating to me watching the Gillard camp founder and trash their own record trying to quash this challenge from Rudd. We’re really in “destroy the village in order to save it” territory.

    In the same way they let the Opposition and Opposition talking points define much of their public persona since assuming government this second time around, they seem to have largely accepted Rudd’s contention that he is more likely to beat Abbott. Whilst there’s some token rumblings that of course Gillard can beat Abbott, the majority of the rebuttal seems to consist of trying to tear Rudd down than build Gillard up.

  4. Mahaut on 25th February 2012 3:07 pm

    I wonder if there is not something new going on here and maybe Gillard’s comment about Big Brother is a clue.
    So many people now are active in all kinds of media and have a diminishing acceptance of being treated as having a say only at election time. Now people can every day ring up radio stations, vote in internet polls and make comments on twitter and facebook. Perhaps they expect political parties to take note of their views.
    Collectively, they elected KRudd and seemingly have not been pleased with the actions taken without consideration of that collective decision.

  5. Dave on 25th February 2012 8:07 pm

    Isn’t Rudd trying to give labor legitimacy by positioning it more to the left to ward off the greens. That is why albo, faulkner, cootie et al have signed on for the last stand of the labor left on Monday. I don’t see why labor as a more progressive party espousing core values is hollow. Rudd, I tin ink wants to make the party more an agent of change than just a patronage system

  6. Dave on 25th February 2012 8:10 pm

    Cootie – Doogie.

  7. Riccardo on 25th February 2012 8:21 pm

    On fire TPS!!!

    Posts like this is why i return again and again.

    I know Rudd wont win, but id love to see this mass cabinet resignation. Or their humiliation i they dont.

    As i keep saying, the Australian Settlement has completely collapsed in every respect. The government now directly regulates the economy and wages, the market dominates and we live the Keating vision.

    Keating interview with tony jones in 2007 should be compulsory study for all high school students.

  8. Michael on 25th February 2012 8:43 pm

    What happened with the experiment of have primaries for candidate preselection. Seems like an idea worth giving a go. The fact is that as membership declines, there are still plenty of people who want to have an input, just not at tedious branch meetings.

  9. dedalus on 26th February 2012 1:07 pm

    Shrike, I’m in broad agreement with a central theme of all your posts: that the old political system of 2 party politics is undergoing fundamental trannsformation. Maybe you get a bit theoretical at times, but the general thesis is definitely plausible, and I respect your consistency in articulating it.

    Nonetheless, one thing you have said is a little surprising to me. It is that Rudd’s popularity is a “mystery”.

    Can I try to put forward an explanation for Rudd’s popularity.

    In the period prior to becoming Opposition leader, the public didn’t know much about Kevin Rudd. His appearances on Lateline and the 7.30 Report as Foreign Affairs spokesman built up his reputation as Labor’s best advocate. The AWB scandal was a big help in this. But this effect was mainly on the politically aware – a minority.

    Rudd used his superior media skills to build a US style campaign in the 2007 election run-up. Here again, all the voters saw of Rudd was a media concoction. The MSM broadly supported this, and a bandwagon effect, bolstered by polling, was created.

    All this is no criticism of Rudd. Gillard herself has emphasised his superior campaigning skills this week.

    What am I saying? That Rudd is a media product. His popularity is that af any product that is marketed by a sustained and heavy media or advertising campaign.

    The Coalition got stuck into Rudd from the 2007 election run-up onwards. Kevin then started his slow transformation from a superior supermarket brandname to Kevin O’Lemon.

    Eventually his poll numbers started to get soft. It took about 18 months for this to happen. They fell of a cliff in 2010, and the rest we know.

    What is mysterious about all of that? Nothing, I would argue.

    The reverse of all this applies to Gillard. The media built up her stocks when Rudd was the Prime Minister, as they are tearing them down now.

    The power of the media and advertising in general is something I truly believe you have a blind spot to.

    I believe the current flurry of excitement over Rudd in shopping malls etc is due to Rudd being largely absent from the media spotlight for the last year or so. The “return” of Rudd is being promoted by his media unit as just that, a return of a messiah, but the throngs at shopping malls are only those who would come out for any shop-worn celebrity.

    Much larger crowds came out to support Gough in 1972, and what happened shortly after is well documented in the pages of numerous ALP histories.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 26th February 2012 10:05 pm

    I’m saying Rudd’s popularity is a mystery to the commentary. I’ve put forward my reasons for it in the link.

    Your reason is contradictory since you say it is because he is a media product, but then say his current popularity is because he hasn’t been in the media.

  11. dedalus on 27th February 2012 8:23 am

    The best analysis I’ve read on the Rudd-popularity phenomenon is by Michael Duffy in todays SMH (27-02-12). The broad commentariat are ingenuous.

  12. The Piping Shrike on 27th February 2012 8:33 am

    Duffy’s piece expresses the contempt for the voting public I am coming now to expect from the media. You are seriously putting that forward as an argument? Crikey.

  13. Riccardo on 27th February 2012 4:50 pm

    The only real reason we even have a ‘meeja’ is spectrum licensing on FTA and the legacy mastheads with their distribution channels for dead trees.

    Hopefully we’ll see the end of both in short order.

  14. Bubba Ray on 1st March 2012 8:11 pm

    Well there is no people power now – wait 18 months or so …..

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