No solution without revolution

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

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42 responses to “No solution without revolution”

  1. lentern on 18th February 2013 11:55 am

    I’m really glad you looked at the comparisons between the UK Labour party and our Labor party and the declining role of the unions. The work of Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson, Sue Nye and co in the nineties to detach Labor from the unions to make themselves a viable party of government reads almost like a textbook for what needs to happen here.

    Labour I think benefited enormously from the fact that Mandelson as the Director of Communications assisted Blair, Brown and Robin Cook to become household names so they when John Smith became leader in 1992 he was surrounded by young, anti union modernizers. When his untimely death occurred in 1994 the upper echelons of the shadow ministry were so stacked with what Mandelson called “Modernizers” that so long as they didn’t turn on each other they could essentially box out the Old Labour influences and run on their third way/anti union platform.

    Paradoxically Mandelson’s role for Blair was very much akin to that of a faceless factional heavy the kind of which has been so demonized in Australia yet he was at the same time unravelling the traditional, invisible union power bases.

  2. Dare to Tread on 18th February 2013 4:37 pm

    Best analysis I have seen for years

  3. kymbos on 19th February 2013 7:07 am

    Hard to argue against this.

    The only niggle I’d raise is about your last suggestion that Rudd might wait until after the election to retain the leadership. I’d posit that his appearance at every possible tv opportunity over the past week suggests otherwise.

    I think he doesn’t want to look too much like he’s having a tilt at the leadership, while positioning himself to be ‘dragged’ into it. “Oh, if I must – but only under these conditions…”

  4. The Piping Shrike on 19th February 2013 6:26 pm

    I share that niggle. But he did say that he wouldn’t return if drafted for the first time a few days ago, and it was confirmed by Hawker last night. So maybe they have reached the obvious conclusion above, that the electorate will have to do the dirty first.

    From that angle, current stuff might be just positioning before the deluge.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 19th February 2013 7:24 pm

    ABC journalist Latika Bourke (@latikambourke) has questioned my/The Australian’s interpretation on Rudd’s comments, so I guess the niggle remains …

  6. Ralph on 20th February 2013 12:02 pm

    I reckon Rudd’s as keen as mustard to have another go. If he doesn’t do it now, he’ll never be PM again. Even if he is only in the seat for a few months until an election, he’s got the keys again. And I think that’ll be enough for him. Perhaps he would reduce a decimation to a solid defeat.

    For me, it’s hard to imagine what’s going to happen. It appears to me that the nation has just gotten heartily sick and tired of Labor and formed the view that they are seriously incompetent. In that vein, they are reluctantly ready to let a guy (Abbott) about whom they have grave doubts, the benefit of the doubt and the keys to the Lodge. If Labor is going to lose, I guess the current calculation comes down to which leader can offer up a less thumping defeat so as to have less time in the wilderness.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 20th February 2013 7:08 pm

    Can’t guess at the thinking of Rudd, other than what he (or supporters) are saying, but I don’t think it’s in his interests to go now. For the reasons above, but also I don’t buy this “out for a generation” meme.

    I haven’t written much on it (as the focus has been on Labor) but it doesn’t matter how bad the result is for them, this will be a very confused government coming in. What happens in one election can be undone in the next.

  8. kymbos on 20th February 2013 7:58 pm

    I’m starting to worry about the potential for a Queensland style rout, where the electorate decides that Labor’s dead in the water and the swing happens in earnest.

  9. Avalon Dave on 20th February 2013 9:07 pm

    I think the election will be a decent rout. Not on the Queensland scale, but many seats will fall.

    What I will find more interesting is how the Senate gets formed. Tony is stilled viewed as a “Mad Monk”, so the voters might give him a difficult senate to moderate him.

    Once in Government, The Coalition will surely make a complete mess of things. Their promises are ridiculous given the budget constraints. The hard heads in the coalition will take full control of Abbott and pull him into line.

    Meanwhile, the rout will surely put a final end to the reign of the NSW Right in Labor. Rudd may pull off a Blair – e.g. New Labor with the union hacks, factional leaders and other useless passengers publicly purged during the initial darkness of a thumping loss. The real Rudd may not be the nicest guy in the world, but he does connect with the electorate. He could lead a merry dance around a Tony Abbott with all of his Coalition silly promises hanging around his neck.

    I think that is the Rudd/Hawker plan now.

  10. Riccardo on 20th February 2013 11:58 pm

    Have the NSWALP right faction heavies used this post defeat period for soul searching, reflection and reform? Not in your life!

  11. James on 21st February 2013 9:03 am

    Anything good Labor does is dismissed by the public as “that’s what Labor governments should do”, so they get little credit. Anything that doesn’t go seamlessly fuels toxicity. There seems no way out of this and the Coalition benefits. Kicking Gillard and Labor seems more important to some voters than the consequences of an Abbott Government.

  12. Bill on 21st February 2013 9:14 am

    Congrats ‘Shrike’ … your blog has been quoted today on the abc’s site for this analysis, by Jonathan Green … at the centrepiece of their post:

    How do you like being referred to as a ‘faceless man’ ? 🙂

  13. James on 21st February 2013 9:16 am

    Shrike, you may be right about a confused Coalition government being elected. We have one in Victoria and Baillieu is in the process of being knifed by his own party because he’s inert. Abbott’s instincts may evoke the opposite to benefit from the vacuum. He likes being an ‘action man’ and could undertake a right-wing hatchet job to give his government purpose and fulfill his ideologies.

  14. Robert on 21st February 2013 9:42 am

    Shrike you say “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…” It would be good if you could expand on what your thinking is in regard to the Liberal party. Some have said that there has been a DLP take-over of the Liberal party. Your thoughts.

  15. The Piping Shrike on 21st February 2013 6:24 pm

    Very much approve of being a faceless man. Bill, Paul and I were laughing about it at the casino the other night.

    I see the Libs picking up where they left off before Labor imploded. The difficulty for them is that there is no social basis for a right wing agenda but that they will understand their victory as meaning there is.

    I think we are coming up to a very confusing period in Australian politics (like it’s not already).

  16. DM on 21st February 2013 10:53 pm

    There is no question that there needs to be a complete overhaul of how Labor operates as a party but I fear that if the party is totally routed this year it will mean a very bold Abbott government that could do great and lasting damage to our society. Let’s hope the Greens retain control of the Senate and that the Coalition majority is not larger than 95 seats in the House of Reps.

  17. Ralph on 22nd February 2013 9:55 am

    I think Abbott is completely devoid of any ideology or principles at all. People talk about a right wing agenda if the Coalition wins, but I just can’t see it. Yes, he’s socially conservative, but he’s hardly an economic rationalist with a reformist’s zeal.

    Abbott loves government intervention, loves to spend and is just as afraid of his own shadow as anyone in the ALP. I’ve seen no evidence that he has any significant amount of courage to make hard decisions. He’s terrified of giving any serious interviews because he may find himself committing to something that offends or disadvantages some interest group somewhere. He shows no sign of winding back the over generous middle class welfare that we all love to spend but which the country can’t afford. He loves the idea of non-means tested subsidies for all. He’s spooked by even the mention of the word ‘workchoices’ and ties himself in knots avoiding any commitment to do anything significant in the IR sphere. I don’t see any evidence of the courage required to actually make the spending cuts that they continuously refer to.

    Tony Abbott is a flip-flopping populist, not a marauding conservative reformer. In general, I think we’re looking at a re-run of Bailleu – a weak, convictionless government. Now I think of it, not too different to the Rudd era, but with a blue flag rather than a red one.

  18. Matt on 22nd February 2013 11:07 am

    I think you’re probably right Ralph, and it’s not dissimilar here in the NT. The gung ho bravado of the election victory has faded as they are starting to realise that governing is hard work, especially when the internal desires of the party machine and the wants and needs of the electorate are so different. I am sure they will come out all guns blazing but when they realise that their election was not on the back of a conservative groundswell they will (most likely) get spooked, because as you say, they are not led by a “marauding reformer” but a populist who has no clear agenda.

  19. Ralph on 22nd February 2013 4:35 pm

    In any case, who’s going to lead the ALP out of the Abbott era? I’m pretty certain it won’t be Rudd or Shorten or even Combet. Based purely on a couple of recent press conferences (sports drugs affair and customs corruption), I reckon Jason Clare is the longer term option that could credibly contest an election.

  20. Avalon Dave on 22nd February 2013 9:04 pm

    I’m guessing Combet will take the leadership, do a pretty good job of making Abbott look like an idiot, and when Labor are credible again, watch out for Rudd Vs Shorten

  21. Austin 3:16 on 23rd February 2013 6:46 am

    Leadership after the election – in opposition – would give Rudd the best chance to reform the party.

  22. Dare to Tread on 23rd February 2013 8:16 am

    I am expecting a Qld style rout only much, much worse. Once voters decide to swing they will do so with a fervour.

    I do not think Rudd would have much chance of being Leader after the rout, because the ALP will in fact be a Victorian Labor Party and might as well rename itself as such. About 50% of the seats will be held by the Victorians and therefore Shorten will be a shoe-in for leadership. There will in fact be just two geographic centres western Melbourne and the hunter region, with just a scattered few elsewhere.

    Combet may stand a chance in this environment but it will come down to a battle between these two.

  23. Dare to Tread on 23rd February 2013 8:18 am

    Jason Clare is probably too young and comes from NSW right. I doubt the shrunken caucus will go near anyone who has ever been in the same room as Eddie Obeid

  24. Riccardo on 23rd February 2013 9:30 am

    There was a time when NSW right had the midas touch. Neville Wran getting elected after the dismissal, having the popular touch without implementing silly leftist policies, eg going for environmental policies without the socialism of Cain.

  25. kim swanson on 23rd February 2013 10:20 am

    Thank you for explaining to the Australian people the real agenda that was behind the shafting of Rudd, the unions desperate bid to hold onto power and influence in the Labor Party. The shrill, emotional argy-bargy of Paul Howes this week cemented that fact for us all. He sounded quite hysterical with his passionate allegiance to Gillard….in reality it was about keeping his own access to the Canberra power base and his future political ambitions. The labor Party becomes increasing doomed politically the more strident Gillard and her backroom union and political backers become. It makes it blatently obvious to all what the real game actually is. And to throw a complete Molotov cocktail into it all…here comes Julian Assange, a principled upmarket version of Andrew Wilkie to not only stand as an independent but to start an alternative party…the Wikileaks Party. Cry Havoc and losse the dogs…..

  26. F on 23rd February 2013 12:52 pm

    “here comes Julian Assange, a principled upmarket version of Andrew Wilkie to not only stand as an independent but to start an alternative party”

    I’ll have some of whatever you’re smokin’. Sounds potent!

  27. Austin 3:16 on 23rd February 2013 1:16 pm

    Hi Dare to tread,

    Depends how long Labor wants to be in opposition for……

  28. Avalon Dave on 23rd February 2013 3:36 pm

    Agreed. A Qld like defeat would take out so many seats, the factions would be decimated in the parliamentary party. So much so, that the leaders would have no numbers left to play with, and therefore completely impotent.

    Rudd’s seat is safe no matter what. I see his agitation as making sure that all his primary foes lose their seats – or at least their allies – and thus their power.

    He’s playing a longer term game – at least in his view.

    He can be the Messiah that not only saw off Howard, but also a new coalition government in a few years time. This Coalition Govt’s only agenda will be to the opposite of the Gillard Govt, that was a Govt who had no idea what they were there for anyway.

    Total amateur hour for a few years yet….

  29. atomou on 23rd February 2013 6:54 pm

    Well, I have visited the Delphic oracle and the Pythia there made this utterance:
    The Libs will win with an excruciatingly tenuous alliance with the Greens (my mob).
    The Labs (Lobotomites) will be led by Shorten but excruciatingly so because Rudd (the Jacko-in-the-box) will keep appearing every second day in our idiot box.
    Julie Bishop will have handed him a cushion among the mandarins, in a vain attempt to get him out of their faces but it will be vain indeed.

    There will be no double dissolution as the false prophets prophesy because this very issue will cleave the Libs asunder because those with moistened undies on one side, will fight (with limp swords) those with moistened arm pits on the other, until the end of their term in office, when it will be leaked to Tawdry Laurie that there was no blood spilled and no injuries of any consequence. The Melbourne Club may rest easy.

    And the new term will be forever remarked upon as the term when nothing was done in Oz but a great deal has been undone.

    The ravelers 0, The unnravelers 1, The aussie punters SFA!

    Looking forward to the term hence.
    Ask Zeus. He’ll tell ya!

  30. Thomas Paine on 24th February 2013 1:50 am

    So if Rudd really does have the root and branch reform of the party his strategy should be to maximize their loss at election. Then put his hand up for LOTO.

    Nobody wants to be the first LOTO after a defeat as they never last to the next election usually. So would get the gig with his opponents holding back to knife him a few years later (they would think).

    Then again if the polls really are representing reality then apparently his taking over would lead to a victory, and that would also give him enough power to rent a few factional backsides and their hacks.

    But we know the factional cockroaches will never give up their power love, and may prefer to create a defeat if Rudd regained PM just to make sure he isn’t LOTO or new PM.

    I think that is something Rudd needs to consider, will those whose power he threatens try and cause an election defeat, but not as large as it would be under Gillard.

  31. Avalon Dave on 24th February 2013 8:45 am


    That’s my point. Rudd’s seat is a safe as houses, but he will want to see Labor get thumped and watch as the Electorate kick out Swan, etc for him

    Time is on Rudd’s side here – he doesn’t want the leadership now. He wants the current Leadership (and those that supported it), to be totally belted to Kingdom Come.

    He’s learnt his lessons. He wasn’t able to kill the factional power, but hopes the electorate can.

    With the Obeid mess on the back of so many before it, Labor will get shot in Western Sydney and kill the NSW Right’s power themselves.

  32. atomou on 24th February 2013 10:31 am

    You’re absolutely right with your Tenth Commandment (I men paragraph) butcher bird: It were the twine swine, Hawke and Keating who broke the Union’s back; ie, the ALP’s back -and legs and hands and that zipped the wallets of the workers firmly shut, until bloody Howard tricked them into believing he’d give them back their money and their working conditions and so they voted the prick in and he certainly gave them something. Not their bandy, not their working conditions but something to think about: wasn’t the fifties a good time? Men were men then and footy and drinking was a man’s bloody game, and women were all about kinder, küche and kirche!

    Poor Yorick, I knew him well! He was called Union Solidarity!

    On a comical note, a chuckle surfaced joyfully to my throat when I heard Abbott the other day, mocking Gillard for making a deal with the Greens. To show just how good his mocking can be he said, “I don’t do such deals.” At which point I visualised Windsor, dealing with the image that must have sprung before his eyes, of Abbott’s bare arse, a sign sticking out of it, saying “Not For Sale – Budgies on the other side!”

    How hilarious life must look from the eyes of flies on the wall!

  33. j-boy57 on 24th February 2013 11:07 am

    six months is an eternity in the current political climate.
    Abbott is a loose canon who seems to have allowed himself and a fair portion of his front bench to involve themselves in a homosexual honey trap in a bid to remove the speaker of the house of doubt this like the Obeid matter will play out over the coming months both are grubby affairs but I would say that honey might turn out to be worse than the money for the electoral prospects of the players..
    The current Abbott strategy of “She’s a lying Ranga bitch v a return to the golden years of honest John” is surely not sustainable.
    Meanwhile the brand trashing of the Australian polity continues apace defined by the only two areas of unanimity namely the torture of asylum seekers and the killing of Afghanis… I really wonder who we are..

  34. Political Animal (@PolAnimalAus) on 24th February 2013 2:11 pm

    {sigh} Yet more Ruddstoration crap. And, please, Rudd was a creature of the factions as much as any Leader is.

    Rudd apologised for the HIP and that is where the rot started. Funny that never gets a mention here, eh?

    So the rot had started, Rudd had lost it and Julia took over and dealt as best she could with the mess Rudd had left.

    To take the MRRT: Rudd had sat on the Henry Tax Review for most of a year then *weeks* before the election announced a 40% Super Tax. Of course the mining industry jacked up and started an advertising campaign and that is the climate in which Julia had to organise a new tax, the MRRT.

    The opportunistic, cynical, party-political players with on aim, to suck votes out of Labor, now want Julia to alter the tax, which she can’t do in the run up to an election in which all the media, incl the ABC are against her.

    So, why not put a bit of reality in this fairyland blog, eh?

  35. Political Animal (@PolAnimalAus) on 24th February 2013 2:13 pm


    “opportunistic, cynical, party-political players with on aim, to suck votes out of Labor” =

    “opportunistic, cynical, party-political players with one aim, to suck votes out of Labor, the Greens”

  36. Austin 3:16 on 24th February 2013 2:37 pm

    the reality is the Gillard reign has – pretty much from day one – lurched from one disaster to the other.

  37. Ben Heslop (@ceisys) on 21st March 2013 12:57 pm

    Ha ha Rudd’s coming back – your turgid analysis is WRONG WRONG WRONG.

    Political scientist? Huh! Dickhead more like.

  38. The Piping Shrike on 21st March 2013 4:29 pm

    Rather unfortunate comment.

  39. Riccardo on 21st March 2013 9:06 pm

    Strange contributions to this thread.

    Anyhow Rudd now achieves true god status. He becomes whoever you want him to be. Promoted from messiah.

  40. No solution without revolution – an update :The Piping Shrike on 22nd March 2013 8:02 am

    […] No solution without revolution […]

  41. Ben Heslop on 25th March 2013 10:35 am

    Yes I was wrong. You’re not a dickhead. I am.

  42. The Piping Shrike on 25th March 2013 10:44 am

    It’s crazy times.

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