Thursday, 14 November 2013
The nation is calling on us, the politicians, to move beyond our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics and to elevate this one core area of national responsibility to a rare position beyond the partisan divide.
Rudd, The Apology speech 2007
With the exit of Rudd from politics, Labor loses the only leader that has managed to win an outright election victory for the party in the last twenty years. The 2007 election result is now often seen as inevitable with the view that Howard lost to an “It’s Time” factor that comes to all long-serving leaders. Indeed, it is possible that had Beazley stayed on as Labor leader he might have also won in 2007. Who knows. But what we do know is that the polls showed that before Rudd took over, Howard was travelling more comfortably towards the 2007 election than he was towards his previous four victories. It was no wonder at the time that the overwhelming consensus from the commentariat was he was on his way to his fifth.
All that changed when Rudd took the Labor leadership in December 2006 and began what was to be the longest run of popularity of any Australian political leader since they began polling such things. Rudd’s popularity was not only remarkable because of its extent and duration, but perhaps even more so because of how little explanation there was for it. From the beginning it was assumed that Rudd’s honeymoon would fade like Latham’s, then, when that didn’t happen, the narrative was changed to explain his popularity and electoral success by Rudd being just another Howard.
That such contorted logic that claimed voters wanted to replace Howard as a way of keeping him was thought credible suggested the real reasons behind Rudd’s popularity were more awkward. Rudd’s popularity was not only an enigma to the political class, and to much of the media that follows it so closely, but, as suggested by Hawker’s latest book, was not even clearly grasped by Rudd himself.
Rudd’s popularity stemmed from two factors that have always shaped Australian politics but are uncomfortable for our political class and have usually been kept below the surface. The first is the influence of international factors. Despite the delightful conceit that Australian politics emanates from Capital Hill, in reality Australian politics is highly sensitive and reliant on international developments. Howard’s leadership floundered to plumb record depths of unpopularity until 9/11 and only lasted while the War on Terror did.
Rudd was an expert at capturing shifts in international developments, such as he did early in his leadership when he leapt on Howard’s comments about Obama being the preferred choice of terrorists in a speech that was a tour de force in turning into a positive what had been a long-standing negative for Labor. His ability to bring in the outside to disrupt Australian politics was something that he did right to the end as the Coalition continues to grapple with Australia’s northern neighbour today.
One of the reasons this blog was started in 2007 was frustration at what it saw as the under-estimation of international factors that would expose Howard’s grip on the political landscape being weaker than the media suggested. However, within months of this blog starting it became evident that there was a second more unsettling factor behind Rudd’s popularity that had always been present in Australian politics but he was now bringing to the surface – anti-politics.
The combination of a conservative left and a weak right has ensured anti-politics has always been prevalent in Australia. The erosion of the social basis of the major parties in the last twenty years has only exacerbated it and has been accommodated to by the major parties to some degree (especially the Liberals) and utilised by fringe parties and political figures. It is no coincidence that skilled practitioners like Hanson, Palmer, Bjelke-Peterson and Rudd have come from Queensland where, for historical reasons, the two-party system has long been weak.
But what Rudd did that was different to these other figures was to bring that anti-politics mood into the centre of the political system more successfully than anyone before. By pitching himself against the old politics but being firmly centred in it, Rudd was to kick off one of the most turbulent period of Australian politics since Federation.
It was anti-politics that allowed Labor to win an election by subsuming its brand under that of its leader in what Turnbull reminded us yesterday of that most presidential of campaigns, Kevin07. The campaign and victory would have only confirmed in Rudd’s mind that the party was an electoral liability and set him on a collision course that led to his dumping. But it was also anti-politics that meant after they did, and he was ostracised by his own party, it only made him more popular, resulting in his extraordinary return to the leadership despite nearly all of Labor’s power bases being arrayed against him.
The issue that best captured Rudd’s ability to translate both international factors and anti-politics to the domestic scene was climate change. As an international agenda, climate change was a direct challenge to Bush’s War on Terror and Howard’s resistance to signing Kyoto. But in the face of global catastrophe, climate change also more subtly delegitimised sectional interests like organised labour and business that had been the basis of Australia’s political system in the last century.
But the issue that most directly captured Rudd’s anti-political agenda was the deep sore point and failure of the Australian political project, the position of indigenous people, captured in the Apology speech of February 2008. The Apology speech was widely acknowledged by both sides of the House yesterday, but there are a few things that should be remembered about the speech that are now starting to be buried.
The first was that, despite the strong support for it from Labor at the time, it was a speech never made by either Keating, Hawke or Whitlam even though the Stolen Generation had been long known of since the forcible removal of indigenous children was stopped in the early 1970s. Secondly, while the Apology was seen as the culmination of a campaign of Reconciliation begum with Keating, it actually represented a sharp break from it.
The reason the apology took so long to make was that politicians were trying to work out how to make it without the blame being laid squarely at their feet. It was a problem to which the Liberals under Howard were especially sensitive and a reason why they refused to make it. Labor preferred to grapple with the problem but adopted what could be described as collective guilt, or by Howard as the “black armband view of history”, i.e. that it wasn’t just the political class that was responsible, but we all were (even those not born at the time).
But Rudd’s apology refuted Labor’s collective guilt approach, refusing even to blame those who implemented the policy. Instead he put the blame firmly on the lawmakers in Parliament. For Rudd, the Apology was intended to break up the political arrangement over indigenous affairs that he saw allowed such a policy to come into being. It was also why there was a third factor of the speech that the left today choose to ignore: he could make it while at the same time supporting that other assault on the political arrangement of indigenous affairs, the Intervention.
Attacking the political class while leading it was a contradiction that could not last both within his own party, when he was dumped, but also with the rest of the electorate on his restoration to the leadership. When Rudd returned from Elba, his last Hundred Days showed that he failed to fully understand the appeal in the electorate that forced his party to take him back. Yet despite that failure, what Rudd did do, even in that last short time, is hard to erase.
It was noticeable that the Liberals were far more eloquent in their valedictory speeches yesterday than the Labor side, which was still dealing with the trauma of the Rudd period. The Liberals were especially grabbing onto the Apology as they see it as continuing the shake-up of indigenous affairs started by the Intervention. The interest by Abbott in indigenous affairs is not just on the issue itself, but as a catalyst for a wider shakeup of issues such as welfare that was quietly started under Rudd. It was acknowledgment of the link between the Apology and the Intervention that led to Abbott making his striking criticism yesterday of Howard’s refusal to apologise as a “lack of imagination“.
But the Liberals will struggle to take this further because as Australia’s last political party, and especially under Abbott (as shown by his reaction to the expenses rorts), they are more vulnerable to the anti-political mood than Labor. While Labor’s discomfort is there for all to see, it is being forgotten just how much discomfort Rudd caused the Liberals. It not only led to Howard shedding pretty well everything he was supposed to stand for in the last months of his government, but went even further once they went into opposition.
The Liberals like to claim they were consistent on the Pacific Solution, but they dumped it in 2008-09. Howard may pretend that he was only joking about the ETS in 2007, but Turnbull was deadly serious on it by 2008. In fact by 2009, the Liberals were staring into the abyss and so concerned to protect their brand they elected Abbott, even if it meant forfeiting the 2010 election, which, despite the best efforts of Labor, they effectively did. Now in 2013, they are back in government but with the least popular leader and weakest honeymoon of any new government in living memory.
Labor yesterday preferred to focus on Rudd’s legacy of the party’s internal reform, a perfect summation of where it is at. Rudd’s departure will allow Labor to rest in peace and carry on the process of hollowing itself out even further under the name of “democracy” without the open threat to the power bases that Rudd’s electoral appeal posed.
Yet neither side will be able to recover its social base domestically, nor enjoy the single polarity of an international power as they did in the last century. Rudd’s departure does not mean the Australian political system will be any less vulnerable to an anti-political attack either from within or without. It’s just that it is unlikely next time it will be done with such panache.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 14 November 2013.Filed under Political figures