Monday, 18 February 2013
There is an air of banality to the current commentary on the return of Rudd, best summed up by political philosopher Tim Soutphommasane’s article in the SMH last week claiming that Labor faced merely a problem of execution and judgement, and that “with hindsight, it is clear that removing Rudd from the prime ministership was a mistake.”
If “hindsight” is a coy way of admitting that he also made a mistake at the time, fair enough. But even then, it should have been pretty clear to any with a passing familiarity with Labor (let alone a former advisor) that things could go wrong.
Because Rudd’s dumping was not about getting “a good government that had lost its way” back on track, but discredited party brokers taking back the party they were in danger of losing. It’s the failure to understand the dynamic then that is why commentators like Soutphommasane are missing the dynamic now.
It’s because this is about an internal power struggle that was why on the three issues on which the government was apparently losing its way, the solutions were half-baked: the Citizen’s Assembly, the East Timor solution for asylum seekers and the renegotiated mining tax were all quickly drummed up to justify the power grab, not serious policies. Two of them flopped within weeks and we now know where the third one has ended up.
Nor was it for electoral reasons. Undoubtedly electoral reasons laid the ground and were used as an excuse, but leaving aside the fact that the government was facing re-election in the most comfortable position of any for twenty years, if electoral reasons were the reasons for Rudd’s decline, why were those against Rudd damaging him in the electorate? Whoever leaked the delay of the ETS and the internal polling at the time hardly had Labor’s best electoral interests at heart. Nor of course was there a single national poll that said Gillard would do any better.
Just as for the dumping of Turnbull, electoral reasons were the excuse, not the cause. Otherwise the Liberals would not have chosen their most unpopular candidate to replace him, and bypass Hockey who wouldn’t (for sound electoral reasons) toe the right’s climate sceptic line.
Both parties are increasingly looking internally, not at the electorate, because both parties are undergoing a profound crisis. Whereas the Liberals’ is an ideological one, which is covered up for the moment, Labor’s is coming out as an institutional one. At the heart of Labor’s is the erosion of Labor’s social base, the trade union bureaucracy, illustrated so well by Paul Howes’ feeble attempt to argue for its relevance on the weekend.
The erosion of Labor’s social base effectively happened twenty years ago, but despite some attempts to reform it, Labor still remains organised around it. Not just in the pivotal role the union bureaucracy plays in the party, but also the factional system through which its power is traditionally exercised. After having been kept in aspic for years, Labor’s internal structures are now finally unravelling as it reflects social reality. Labor’s problem is that it does not know how to manage it.
To understand Labor’s problem, it is interesting to compare it for a moment with that of UK Labour, which also had to adjust to the declining relevance of the union bureaucracy. For UK Labour, it was brought home to Labour electorally, because Thatcher in the 1980s made an electoral issue of it and publicly defeated them, especially in the miners’ strike. Blair’s take over the party could then be viewed as an electoral necessity – but one imposed from the outside by the right.
In Australia, the union movement’s back was broken at the same time, but by their best mate, Bob Hawke, with Keating as the grave digger. Labor’s problem is that it has never had to face the decline of the unions as a clear electoral problem. Indeed, the supreme irony is that it is precisely that period, when Labor lost its historical role, which is still regarded as their finest electoral hour.
This is the significance of Rudd. He is the catalyst for the crisis in Labor because he is the first leader who has worked out how to turn acceptance of the irrelevance of Labor’s historical role into an electoral asset – but not through an attack on the unions, as Thatcher did, but on whole “argy-bargy” of the two party system. This is why things are so confused at the moment. The unravelling of Labor is coming not in the form of adapting to external electoral necessity, but through the apparent über Machiavellian doings of one man from within.
This also points to the significance of Rudd’s leadership challenge last February. First was the near unanimous opposition of the union leadership. It certainly wasn’t because of industrial relations policy, given the lack of difference between Rudd and his former IR Minister. Nor was it because of Rudd’s personal working habits, given that the union bureaucracy was the furthest distance from working with Rudd. Indeed that was more the point; the opposition was because they knew that Rudd’s return would mean their loss of influence in the party (it also sheds a light on how seriously they really worry about Workchoices given that a return of the Coalition would surely have been less likely under Rudd than Gillard).
But the other striking feature of the leadership result last February was that despite the unanimous opposition of the unions, a third of the Caucus ignored them and voted for Rudd anyway. The irony of Labor under Gillard is that despite the brokers having taken back power, the unravelling has continued. The breaking down of the factional system was evident in her attempt to appoint Smith as Foreign Minister last year and the need to leave the announcement of the Leader of the Senate’s departure as late as possible this year. The increasing inability of the most important faction, the NSW Right, to operate as a coherent bloc has now descended to a collapse of discipline across the party in its dealing with the press.
It will be the breakdown of the factional system that will be the necessary precondition for the return of Rudd, but not sufficient. Rudd faces three electoral problems that mean that current polling like this morning’s Nielsen should be taken with caution. The first is that Abbott is a less easy target than he was in 2010, significantly helped by Labor’s rehabilitation of him.
The second more important reason is that much of Rudd’s popularity has always been less about him, but about his opposition to a left and right whose time has passed. If he returns without having dealt with the ones who got rid of him in the first place, the problems he had in the last months of his Prime Ministership could pick up where they left off. From this angle, reports by The Australian that Rudd would not return even if drafted, may indicate that he also thinks the electorate will need to give its verdict first before a thorough overhaul could begin.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 18 February 2013.Filed under Political figures, State of the parties