Tuesday, 17 September 2013 

Kevin Rudd has destabilised the shadow foreign minister Laurie Brereton, opposition leader Simon Crean, opposition leader Kim Beazley, prime minister (Julia) Gillard and, consistent with that behaviour, would be highly likely to destabilise any new opposition leader.

Dr Emerson

In his post political life perhaps Dr Emerson should try his hand at a book on Labor history. He certainly has a different take on it. There is no denying the Great Destabiliser was busy over the last ten years. But he was hardly the only one. Even letting us pretend that Gillard was dragged kicking and screaming on June 24 2010 and had nothing to do with that, we do know she joined others in taking a very active role along in destabilising Rudd’s predecessor, Beazley.

Gillard took to print and the airwaves attacking Beazley, especially over his refusal to deal with the factional system following the attempt by right-wing unions to deselect Crean in 2006. She was part of a grouping that included Crean, Latham and Fitzgibbon that saw Labor’s leadership oscillate between those who wanted reform of the faction system and union dominance, and those, led by Beazley, who were more for the status quo. It formed the basis of the partnership with Rudd in 2006 to overthrow Beazley, confirmed by both leaving their respective factions on assuming the leadership.

Yet while Rudd was on the surface aligned with the reformers, there was a very important difference. Latham in his Quarterly Essay set out the real agenda of the reformers; namely keep the existing power relationships but adapting them to better reflect post-Accord reality of a diminished union base and so improve electoral viability. But Rudd took it one step further. For him, electoral success depended not only reforming the power structures but setting himself against it as part of the old politics. This set him on a dynamic that meant the more he whacked and distanced himself from Labor’s traditional power structures the more popular he became.

It was a project that began unwinding especially when he gave in to them over delaying the ETS, and the rest is history. But nevertheless, it was the surface similarity, yet the critical underlying difference, that gave the Rudd-Gillard feud its peculiar, and lasting, poison.

It was this content behind the Rudd-Gillard feud that meant it carried on even after they have departed. Unsurprisingly Dr Emerson, whose political acumen has made him something of a national joke, still thinks it’s about Rudd v Gillard. But after the election the same debate simply moved on to a new focus, the rules for choosing the new leader.

Most of the arguments against the new election rules made little sense. About the most convincing was Gillard’s argument that it went against Cabinet government and technically she has a point. But it hasn’t stopped it being adopted in the UK and Canada, for example, where the Westminster system prevails. Besides, if a Prime Minister reaches the point where the Cabinet wants to get rid of her/him, there might be other things to think about than the formal rules of a challenge.

Let’s be blunt, there is only one reason those like Conroy and Richardson opposed the new rules, it would have diluted the power of the factional heads that used to run Caucus. Both Rudd’s return and Caucus’s adoption of the rules showed that that power has been largely broken, which is why their complaints have been ignored and the elections have gone ahead.

With the anti-Rudd tirades and the complaints about the rules subsiding, there is now a new-found appetite in the party for unity. There seems agreement from both left and right that the main reason why Labor lost the election was the rancour in the party because, as we all know, disunity is death.

Actually it’s not. The idea that the public automatically hates political disunity is nonsense. It’s been forgotten that all of three months ago Labor put on an historic display of disunity: an acrimonious leadership challenge, the dumping of a Prime Minister who had only been in for a short time and then half the Ministry walking out – and Labor’s primary vote went up six points. And it wasn’t because voters thought Rudd’s return meant closure and the party would unite. Far from it. With half the Ministry glowering at him and all the things said about him by many of those who remained, the perception was so widespread that the party remained disunited that Rudd had to bring in new rules to stop him being removed.

The public doesn’t mind political disunity, as long as it has a point. The problem was that, after some politically savvy early moves, the Rudd return had little in it that suggested a New Way and back down the vote went.

Rudd’s failure in the election has dramatically changed the dynamic in Labor. It now means that there is no one capable of turning opposition to the old politics in the party into an electoral asset. As a result, there is now room for compromise or, to put it more accurately, there is now no one who can break out of it.

There is also another reason why Labor has unity whether it wants it or not. It may surprise some but, of course, if the leadership had not gone to election, there would have been no way that Albanese would have been leader. This is not much to do with anything Albanese believes in or his political aptitude – but simply because he is from the Left and, except in the exceptional case of when they turned to Gillard to oust Rudd, the left do not have a chance of being appointed to the leadership by the power brokers.

Those power brokers were set to anoint the traditional Labor marriage between a man from the Right (Shorten) and a woman from the left (Plibersek) playing the supporting deputy role. The input of the membership leaves the possibility that this may not now happen. Yet the lack of real difference between Shorten and Albanese shows the irrelevance of the old factional arrangements that, like the intricate manoeuvres at a Qing dynasty court, have carried on long after they lost their meaning.

Politicians first understand an unpleasant necessity as a political tactic. The will for unity merely reflects the reality of Labor today after the historic left-right battles and the more recent battles between the reformers and the power brokers have run their course. Personality battles will no doubt continue but are unlikely to have the content, and the passion of before. Contrary to what some might say, it might be unity that may start to look a little bit like death.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 17 September 2013.

Filed under State of the parties

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6 responses to “Unity”

  1. Alan on 17th September 2013 10:33 am

    Gilalrd actually did not have a point about the cabinet being stuck with a bad prime minister under the new rules,although it’s classic of her managerialist approach that she would find it a problem. members of the cabinet who cannot work with the prime minister resign. If they’re bloody-minded they give detailed reasons why they cannot stay (Fraser on Gorton, Keating on Hawke) and then they launch a challenge.

    It seems to me a whole lot of the Gillard problem was that there was never a convincing explanation of the reasons for removing Rudd and that Gillard (or the people who pushed the leadership on her, depending on who you believe) remained in cabinet and took Rudd (and the country) by surprise.

  2. Avalon Dave on 18th September 2013 9:39 am

    Most women I know (and a lot of them vote Liberal), seem mightily pissed off about Abbott’s Cabinet. Among their circle of friends, the ones that didn’t vote for the Coalition, are busy telling them how stupid they were to opt for Tony Abbott. Very much a “we told you so” conversation has broken out on my facebook feed. Some of these women are feeling duped and betrayed.

    But now we have the other side ranting on about returning to Labor values. E.g. standing up for the repressed workers against that awfully mean & greedy boss.

    My instincts tell me that Abbott will run a very middle of the road economic agenda, with only small bits of ideological policy thrown in (to keep the hard right that put him there happy). Abbott’s great vulnerability over the next three years will be his ultra conservative social posture & catholicism.

    The Royal Commission into child abuse by the Church will be releasing their findings during this term in Government. And it won’t be telling the world that Tony’s mate, George Pell is a good guy. As the full nature of what the Church knew and covered up breaks, there will be much outrage in the community. People will demand the Church be punished severely.

    I don’t know which Abbott loves more. The Monarchy or The Catholic Church. But nonetheless, as the government comes under extreme pressure to do something about the sins of the Church, Abbott will feel compelled to defend his beloved institution, highlighting his Social Ultra Conservatism.

    So if Labor return to “core values”, they will become gradually more and more irrelevant as they cosy up to their union base.

    Labor need to maintain some of the old ideals, such as fairness in the workplace and protection for the most disadvantaged. But for the most part, they need to ditch most of their core values (and the Catholic union heavyweights that persist with them) and adopt a socially progressive posture.

    As Social Progressives, not only will they win back supporters from the Greens, but contrast themselves most effectively with Tony Abbott. Then they would have a real point of differentiation to prosecute.

  3. Graeme on 24th September 2013 11:20 am

    At the risk of getting technical… Ah, what the heck.

    These new ‘rules’ have two elements. (Nb they aren’t rules at all yet – they are just a one off convention/trial – any binding/ongoing rules must be adopted by the party proper, so watch that space).

    One element is the plebiscite. That’s the part that is now common across Canada, UK and faintly echoes the US primaries. That part is embraced by your unloved power-brokers like Dastyari, if not by all factional heads: as have both Shorten and Albanese.

    The other part is Rudd’s showmanly insistence on a super-majority to trigger a spill. That part is obviously problematic in any real world scenario. Imagine a leader, mid term, with a caucus vote of 70-30 (or 55-45 if in opposition) in favour of a leadership ballot. How can that leader survive, once the media finds out s/he lacks anything approaching majority support of their colleages?

  4. The Piping Shrike on 25th September 2013 7:08 pm

    It’s a good distinction. But then the whole thing was political and for show really as rules imposed on oneself usually are.

    Interestingly, if, as likely, Shorten wins, then what would have been the faction brokers’ pick will have been given legitimacy (irrespective of whether he wins the majority of members) that he wouldn’t have got being anointed the old way. Perhaps not quite what Rudd intended.

  5. Guy on 29th September 2013 9:54 am

    Why is Cassidy going so soft on Shorten? Albo got ten questions last week on Rudd and Gillard. What is his angle? Hack!

  6. F on 29th September 2013 10:05 am

    Well I guess you are right, Shrike. It will be Shorten. That Insiders interview of Shorten certainly doesn’t compare to the grilling Albanese received last week.

    Bizarrely if you asked the average joe in the street THEY would connect the dots of Shorten/leadership turmoil.

    Apparently this is too complicated for one of Australia’s ‘premier’ political journalists.

    Also no honey-moon for Abbott….what a loser.

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