Monday, 17 June 2013
The Kevin Rudd threat has now gone.
Barrie Cassidy 24 March 2013
I’m now very strongly of the view that Julia Gillard will not lead Labor to the next election.
Barrie Cassidy 9 June 2013
The mechanism for leadership change remains unclear.
So here we are again. Three months after journalists were saying Rudd was finished and should resign for the good party, they are now saying that Gillard should hand over to him – for the good of the party. The contortions of political commentators over the last three months should give a clue that a transition from Gillard to Rudd will be no smoother than it has been in journalists’ heads. Nor, as it happens, necessarily electorally desirable.
The Labor Party is facing the potential of a historic internal rupture. Unsurprisingly, interested parties will be trying to obscure that rupture. They may be helped by some in the media who are still struggling to work out what’s going on.
Let’s start at the basics. Behind the Gillard v Rudd contest is an institutional conflict between the traditional power bases of the party and those around Rudd. The source of that conflict is the declining social relevance of the union movement on which Labor had organised itself for the last century. While unions have been marginal now for over 20 years, Rudd was a catalyst for bringing it out through his ability to make an electoral case for dissociating from the traditional power bases of the ALP and all the ‘argy-bargy’ of the old two-party politics. Rudd’s dumping was an attempt by the power brokers to recover control of the party that they were in danger of losing.
At the time it happened, despite a move that was generally well regarded by the public (both Gillard’s standing and Labor’s polling significantly improved, something we seem to have forgotten) this blog argued that the experiment would go wrong because the bankruptcy of the power brokers would eventually reassert themselves. It didn’t take long. By the end of the first week of the 2010 campaign, after the Climate Change Assembly, the botched Timor solution, all wrapped up under an inspiring slogan of “Moving Forward”, the polling honeymoon was already over – no matter how much Labor stalwarts like to pretend it was a result of the leaks in week two.
The problem was that having put Gillard in the top spot, the power brokers had no agenda to give her. As this agenda would have had to come from Labor’s historic mission that was long since over, Rudd had the same problem. The difference was in the response.
Whereas Rudd presented the problem as the old two party politics, for Gillard and the power brokers, the problem was the electorate. What we saw on the Gillard take-over was all the insecurities about the electorate come to the fore, which had been building up in both the left and right of the party to explain the defeats of the last twenty years.
The result was a cack-handed attempt to “relate” to some mythical view of the electorate. Anything mildly controversial was watered down, like the mining tax, or delayed, like the ETS. In its place Gillard upped the ante on asylum seekers by talking about a solution to asylum seekers when there wasn’t one. Gillard was careful to speak slowly and not use high falutin’ words like “specificity”. International trips were a bit of a bore, at an early visit to a NATO Summit in Brussels to get support for the Australian military presence in Afghanistan she was telling the cameras she would rather be home watching kids learning to read at school.
Unfortunately all this “relating” only exacerbated the real underlying problem – the erosion of authority from the lack of an agenda from a party whose historical mission was over. Rudd faced a similar problem that he tried to compensate for by making a virtue of it by throwing it open through events like the 2020 Summit, and then adding some moralising and climate change to fill the gap. In contrast Gillard’s attempt to stoop down to the electorate’s level only undermined her authority even more (for this blogger, one of the grisliest examples of this was the sight of one of the country’s smartest politicians being dressed up like a bimbo for the cover of the Women’s Weekly, a move that has a certain poignancy today).
This is why those who blame sexism for Gillard’s lack of authority today are reading things the wrong way round. Gillard hasn’t become more of a woman, nor Australia more sexist, since her popular start. Rather Gillard’s declining authority comes from the institution she represents; it’s just that as a woman it has taken a sexist form.
Their differing relations to political institutions also explain their differing popularity. Much has been made in the last few days of Rudd’s superior campaigning skills (Shanahan reported it “shocked” the Labor leadership). But Rudd is no better than Gillard at campaigning (in fact might be worse), it is simply that he is popular, and that popularity rests on his identification as outside the disliked mainstream political establishment, an attribute ironically helped by his party’s continued attacks on him. While Rudd tried to turn this into “People’s Power” in the 2012 challenge, in reality it more taps into the insecure relationship of the parties to the electorate than a groundswell of electorate support itself.
It is because this is ultimately about the redundant party institutions, and Rudd’s relationship to them, that calls by journalists for a “seamless transition” is probably the last thing he needs. For Rudd to be seen as representing just a more popular leader would recreate all the problems of legitimacy that Gillard had when she took over.
It is clear the party’s institutions are now in disarray. What was striking about the latest round of speculation is that it came from quarters that had previously dismissed Rudd’s chances due to their strong associations with the party’s unions that firmly backed Gillard. It was the admission from Barrie Cassidy, who has been a virtual mouthpiece for the party bosses for the last three years, that something had changed which kicked it off a week ago. But it was noteworthy too that Dennis Atkins, also not a fan of Rudd, and with close ties to Queensland unions, admitted this time something had changed.
But to translate this disarray in the party bases for a straightforward switch to Rudd is something else. The Australian is no doubt trying to make up for its poor links to Labor by talking up the AWU’s supposed distancing from Gillard. But Howes appears to be saying no more than what he always says, claiming not to direct MPs, when in reality, as he was reported to be doing last March, he always does.
For the unions to switch will not be easy because their main concern is not losing the next election. A Coalition government may make it more uncomfortable for them in the workplace, but then they were marginalised there already. Unless the Coalition closes down the super fund industry there is probably little else that the Coalition can do that will have any support from the employers, let alone electorate.
For the unions, and the power brokers, the main concern is the control of the party, something that has been breaking down even during Gillard’s time and that has been an unmentioned destabiliser of her leadership that has been exclusively focused on Rudd. If the unions switch to Rudd, it will be for the same reason they dumped him in the first place – whatever is best to retain control of the party. In this case the trigger will not be because they are concerned about electoral defeat, but to hold their dwindling control over the Parliamentary Party who are. If that happens, no doubt like Crean tried in March, they will bring in Rudd but try some way of restraining him. If it happens, watch who the deputy is.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 17 June 2013.Filed under State of the parties