One of the first things I ever posted on this blog, in November 2007, was an expression of my sentiments on the eve of the election which saw the Labor party re-elected and Kevin Rudd become prime minister of Australia. At the time I was ecstatic after eleven and a half years of conservative rule under the much-loathed (by me) John Howard. I’m not about to go over that old ground, suffice to say that I disagreed not just with his fundamental beliefs and policies, but also the tone of his leadership – a brand of dangerously incendiary, flag-waving nationalism that fuelled Australia’s undercurrent of xenophobia and selfishness. Seeing John Howard defeated in that election made me want to return to Australia. I felt a renewed hope that this country might not be so bad after all.
When Rudd became prime minister, his popularity was unprecedented in Australian history. Indeed, he achieved the highest ever positive ratings in polls regarding satisfaction with his leadership and preferred prime minister. It seems almost impossible to believe then that, three years later, in June 2010, he was dumped by his own party in a bloodless coup and replaced with Julia Gillard, the then deputy PM. Rudd’s popularity had certainly fallen considerably in that time, largely on account of the clumsy implementation of otherwise good policy and his failure to get both the mining tax and carbon emissions trading scheme through parliament, yet most leaders lose much of their shine in their first term and come good in the ensuring election. Rudd is such a good campaigner and had, at that time, enough feathers in his cap to defeat Tony Abbott convincingly.
Yet it was not merely a knee-jerk reaction from the Labor party in the face of increasingly bad polls, it was, apparently, also on account of Rudd’s leadership style within the party. Rudd was said to have been dictatorial, inconsiderate, both disorganised and a control-freak, and not adequately consultative. And there were other reasons which say much about the structure of the Labor party – Rudd was unaligned factionally and was often at odds with the unions. This was very much a part of the recipe for his public popularity, yet it did not endear him to many in caucus who felt he was somehow not a true Labor party member on account of his lacking more traditional affiliations. The Labor party had seen that he was an election winner on account of his appeal to a broad section of the electorate and his personable public style, yet once his popularity was called into question publicly, his lack of broad support within the party left him exposed and they dropped him like a hot potato.
I was, it must be said, totally and utterly surprised when this happened and had not seen it coming. How could a party who had been in the wilderness for eleven and a half years, politically assassinate the very man who had got them so emphatically back into government, before he had even served his first term? I was confused in my loyalties, because I had always wanted Julia Gillard to be the leader of the Labor party and was extremely pleased to see the elevation of Australia’s first female prime minister, yet felt deeply sorry for Kevin Rudd and considered the manner of his ousting to be unfair. I failed to realise at the time just how destabilising this would be and, considering the policy vacuum and low standards on the other side of the house, figured the Labor party would be returned to power in the ensuing election. Ultimately, they were, but as a minority government with the terrible taint of illegitimacy.
In many ways, replacing Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard was the stupidest tactical move the Labor party has ever made in office. I am an admirer of Julia Gillard and think she performed admirably as prime minister. She is tough and intelligent and succeeded in pushing some very important and progressive legislation through parliament in one of the toughest parliamentary environments in Australian political history. The sheer amount of legislation is staggering – over 500 pieces in a hung parliament, all of which had to be negotiated – but it is the big ticket items – the Gonski education funding reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Minerals and Resources tax, the Carbon pricing scheme and the continuation of the implementation of the National Broadband Network which will go down in history as most significant – and, indeed, divisive.
Indeed, Gillard succeeded where Rudd had failed, under even more difficult circumstances, yet these successes often came at a considerable cost to the integrity of the policy. The Carbon pricing scheme has proven deeply flawed on account of the collapsing price of carbon on international carbon markets, whilst the mining tax lost so many teeth in the process of being re-negotiated that it raised only a negligible amount of revenue, far short of the what it was supposed to achieve to fund Labor’s other projects.
Despite various set-backs and public distrust, Julia Gillard’s popularity as a leader remained stronger than that of the opposition leader Tony Abbott’s for much of her prime ministership, whilst that of the Labor party gradually languished. Yet she also created many problems for herself with misguided and unreasonable promises, such as the naïve and frankly stupid promise not to introduce a “carbon tax”, despite clear intentions to do so, and the promise to achieve a budget surplus by 2013. The carbon tax issue is a classic example of how Labor lost control of the narrative. What should have been a positive example of Labor taking the moral highground and acting in accordance with the wishes of the public – remember how much Rudd suffered for failing to introduce this legislation – this issue rapidly became the acrimonious curse of a broken promise. Any sense of the righteousness of the policy was lost in the ensuing bun fight.
Ultimately, however, it was Labor’s handling of the issue of people smuggling, refugees and asylum seekers that brought the most discredit to both the Prime Minister and the party. Faced with a rapid increase in the number of boats carrying asylum seekers coming to Australia, the Labor party was caught between a rock and a hard place and seen to be making policy on the fly, without due consideration or consultation. This is of course a very complex and logistically difficult issue, as much as it is a moral and humanitarian issue, and Labor handled things poorly on all counts. From the perspective of the right, they were far too soft in failing to “stop the boats.” From the perspective of the left, they were far too draconian in insisting on off-shore processing and then adding insult to injury by “housing” refugees in a tent-camp hell-hole. From the perspective of anyone looking on, they were hopelessly incompetent and morally bankrupt.
I’ve been pretty disgusted with the attitudes of both sides of parliament on this issue, and whilst I don’t have all the answers myself, believe humanitarian concerns must trump all others. Of course I want to stop the boats too – because no one should be putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers who stick them in decrepit and overcrowded vessels and send them to their deaths on the high seas – but that we should show such a callous lack of generosity in looking out for those who do come into our care and ask for our help, makes me sick to the core. Whatever happened to the “fair go” for fuck’s sake? Can not one of the world’s richest countries afford to find a place for more refugees in our community – especially when so many good and kind-hearted Australians would be willing to dedicate their time and money to helping them?
To further this digression, it is astonishing how this has become one of the biggest political issues in the country. Yes, it is a moral issue of epic proportions, make no mistake, but to hear people out there echoing Tony Abbott’s shrill wailing about “stopping the boats” – not because people are drowning, but because we don’t like “queue-jumpers” who abuse our hospitality – is alarming. There is little difference between this mentality and the “taking our jobs and fucking our women” paranoia of traditional xenophobia. How many of those voters’ lives have actually been affected by this issue? Almost none, I would venture.
So yes, Julia Gillard struggled immensely with a degree of vituperation usually reserved for people who poison their children. Much of this was legitimate disappointment with policy, but there is no doubt her gender played a significant role. Men are far less fair to women once they decide they don’t like them, and each of Gillard’s mistakes or inconsistencies only amplified the perception amongst many men that she was a “stupid, incompetent bitch,” a variation of which quote I’ve overheard many times in reference to her. With the increasingly rotten albatross of illegitimacy hanging around her neck after the manner of her elevation to the top job, the perception that she didn’t really win the 2010 election anyway, and the widespread belief that she was a tool of the union movement and a product of the “faceless” men, the powerbrokers of the Labor right who had orchestrated similar coups in New South Wales, there was always a lingering distaste in the electorate and potent ammunition for the opposition.
Julia Gillard also suffered considerably from internal destabilisation. Most of this came from supporters of Kevin Rudd or from Rudd himself, who never relinquished the limelight nor accepted his deposition. There were leaks, rumours and the backhanded compliments of his tepid and often deliberately ambiguous expressions of support for his usurper. His failed challenges for the leadership – one in which he was soundly defeated and a second in which he never fronted – caused considerable damage to Labor’s vote and Gillard’s popularity. Indeed, support for the party and PM tanked during and after both of these challenges and only added to Labor’s woes. Whilst Kevin Rudd failed to reclaim the leadership on those occasions, the cumulative damage would eventually make it possible for him to reclaim the office that was taken from him.
Throughout all this, Julia Gillard never flinched nor showed any sign of personal weakness. She was tough as nails and exuded a confidence that is a testament to her fighting spirit. There is no doubt that she came under a dramatically increased level of pressure and scrutiny on account of the tenuous nature of Labor’s hold on power as a minority government, and her being a woman. I said years ago that Australia was too immature to have a female prime minister and feel vindicated after having witnessed the shameful way in which she has been pilloried by both the media and the electorate. There is no doubt that Julia Gillard was subjected to questions and attacks that would not have been directed at a male prime minister, and whereas she was hailed as a wonderfully strong feminist icon by the international community when she spoke out against the evident sexism in parliament and the media, in Australia she was considered to be making excuses and hiding behind these assertions as a means of deflecting attention from her unpopular policy and underlying illegitimacy.
I can’t recall such vituperation and lack of respect for a prime minister, and it seemed largely at odds with the narrative of the economy or the success of policy. How could a prime minister be so unpopular when presiding over such a successful economy in its 21st consecutive year of growth which had grown 14% in the five years since Labor came to power? A nation in which real wealth was slowly but surely growing on account of low inflation and wage increases increases above inflation; a nation with 5% unemployment; a nation which hardly blinked while the rest of the developed world fell into deep recession, high unemployment and austerity-driven stagflation, a crisis that has now lasted longer than the Great Depression. It disappoints me to think how unaware or ungrateful Australians are of their good fortune, both in living in such a lucky country, and in having sufficiently good governance not only to survive the Global Economic Crisis, but to thrive in it.
Yet, of course, there is much complexity to Julia Gillard’s unpopularity, but underlying everything was the sense of illegitimacy that came with the manner of her elevation. Katharine Murphy at the Guardian recently quoted the Irish existentialist Samuel Beckett – “the end is in the beginning, and yet you go on.” Labor’s tactical folly in failing to see how tainted her office would become through the “undemocratic” ousting of Kevin Rudd was their biggest mistake of modern times, short of putting Mark Latham in charge. Ironically, of course, in removing Kevin Rudd, the Labor party was exercising its own internal democracy, and yet its actions revealed that whilst we ostensibly vote for parties and not leaders in Australia, in reality the public very much chooses on account of the person of the party leader. Take away their choice and you, in effect, disenfranchise them. In August 2010, the people took back their right to exercise democracy and showed their displeasure in no uncertain terms. Yet this did not satisfy them. Nothing short of the re-installation of Kevin Rudd as prime minister would close the wound. Now, exactly three years and three days after Julia Gillard became prime minister, the party has acknowledged its error of judgement and handed the crown back to Kevin Rudd.
Wednesday was one of the most extraordinary days in the history of Australian politics. It began with the dramatic announcement of the retirement of two prominent independent members of Parliament – Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor – both of whom came especially to prominence in the wake of the last federal election in August 2010. The result of that election was the loss of the Labor party’s majority and a lengthy series of negotiations to form a minority government with the support of the Greens and independents.
For a while there it seemed as though the conservative opposition might have snatched power, but fortunately Julia Gillard was able to convince Oakeshott and Windsor to support her agenda over Tony Abbott’s. This was a coup of sorts in that both of these independents occupied traditionally conservative seats, and it seemed, at the time, to be a testament both to Gillard’s capacity as a negotiator, and also the fact that, looked at objectively, Labor’s policy was far superior to that of the jokers sitting opposite. Windsor and Oakeshott were the “queen-makers,” and both men impressed me with their refreshingly non-partisan rationality and apparently careful consideration of the nation’s interests over their personal interest, especially as their support for a Labor government went against the wishes of many in their electorates.
So the day began with a farewell to these two prominent independents – fine examples of how important it can be to keep the doors of parliament open to those not affiliated with any of the major parties. They likely made as many enemies as friends, but a large portion of the Australian public have shown appropriate respect for the way they have conducted themselves – with apparent good sense and plain-spoken straightforwardness. Though, it must be said, Oakeshott certainly does bang on a bit.
These resignations soon paled into nothing, however, when it became clear that on this second-last day of parliament before the September 14 election, Kevin Rudd was not only moving to challenge for the party leadership, but that he had the numbers. The so-called Ruddmentum had become so great, so inexorable, that the Labor party had no choice but to accept its inevitability. Realising what was afoot, with rumours of a petition circulating in caucus to call for a vote on the leadership, Julia Gillard called a 7 PM ballot, and the rest is history. Roughly an hour later, Rudd emerged as leader of the Labor party and Prime Minister elect, having secured 57 votes to Gillard’s 45. Six prominent cabinet members, including deputy PM and treasurer Wayne Swan, promptly handed in their resignations. Just under three months before the now doubtful election date, it seemed a change of government had already taken place.
So, what to make of all this? Firstly, it’s bloody exciting. As sad as I am to see Gillard go, and what her treatment by the public says about this country, I’m happy that the whole nature of this election has now changed. Under Gillard, there was no doubt that the Labor Party was facing catastrophic defeat in the upcoming election. They stood to lose almost all their seats in Queensland and western Sydney, along with a whole range of seats across the board. With their primary vote at a miserable 29% and the two party-preferred offering equally discomforting margins of 16 and 18 percentage points, not even the most optimistic Labor pollsters believed there was any hope of avoiding a colossal defeat. Such is life, such is politics. The party quite simply could not go to the election with Julia Gillard on the ticket.
This is also a victory for democracy, of sorts. In the public imagination, where polls have unceasingly shown very high levels of support for Kevin Rudd as an alternative prime minister, and that voting intentions would change were he re-installed as Labor leader, there has long been a perception that democracy was taken out of their hands. I don’t generally like “populism” and it is a dirty word for a reason, because these days it is associated with the base, ill-informed desires of the “lowest common denominator.” Yet there is no denying that in this case, the public has had a legitimate grievance.
Despite deep reservations about how he has conducted himself over the past three years, I am pleased to see Rudd back in office. Only Kevin Rudd is capable of changing the narrative of Australian politics and only Kevin Rudd is capable of giving Labor a chance of re-election. No one was listening when Julia Gillard or Wayne Swan spoke, irrespective of the content or quality of their message. Consequently, Labor could never articulate its successes. This wasn’t helped by an apparently incompetent PR machine – after all, who could fail to sell a mining tax, which creams off the profits of the super rich to fund important public infrastructure and welfare projects, which the public support? – yet in reality, so unpopular had Labor’s leadership become that it no longer mattered what they said.
Kevin Rudd will have a willing audience to whom he can, in his broad-church manner, make a case for Labor’s many successes and its proven record of progressiveness. He has the charisma and rhetorical skill to change the narrative and bring the public debate back to questions of policy, where those opposite will be found seriously wanting. More importantly, however, he also has the moral high-ground. This might sound ludicrous in the light of his deceitful “white-anting” of Gillard’s prime ministership, yet the public, in truth, don’t give a stuff about that, because they have always hailed him as a martyr. Kevin Rudd was wronged, the people were wronged, and now that has again been made right – that is the dominant public narrative which will trump perceptions that he has behaved deceitfully. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and Kevin Rudd is seen to be the latter.
I’m aware of how unfashionable it is to support Kevin Rudd in my own circles. I understand all the reservations and disappointments of many of my friends and peers, most of whom are good lefties with a strong social conscience, and many of whom are women who feel understandably disgusted by how Julia Gillard was treated. I too feel some discomfort about Kevin Rudd’s so-called “humility” and his at times insufferable smugness. But it was Rudd who won the great victory in 2007, it was Rudd who made the apology to the Stolen Generation, it was Rudd who got us through the GFC and it was Rudd who deserved a chance to lead the Labor party to election in 2010. I can hardly blame him for retaining his ambition – he was cut off far too soon and deserved more of a fair go himself. He should have been disciplined from within, warned that his style was alienating people and making internal enemies, not summarily dumped in a midnight coup.
I also genuinely believe that Kevin Rudd will make a good prime minister. There are expectations that he will strengthen the mining tax and make changes to carbon pricing to make it more effective in the long-term, and he has made clear his support for same-sex marriage. Otherwise, what we have is continuity in regards to most other Labor policy, which I broadly support, with some serious exceptions. The difference is that, whilst Rudd has one of the longest shots at winning election in political history, in his case, it is actually possible, whereas in Julia Gillard’s – dream all you like – it most certainly was not. If Kevin Rudd can keep the Liberals out of power, or at least check the degree of power they have upon entering office and save the Labor party from political annihilation, then that is enough for me to endorse him.
Yes, this all sorta stinks, and despite having voted Green for years now, the Labor party is the only credible chance the left have of governing in Australia, which means they have my tacit support. I was for many years a strong believer in the Labor party and though they have disappointed me many times, they will always be my preferred choice in our rather limiting, two-party preferred system. At least now I have some hope, both for their future, and, though it sounds overly dramatic, for ours. And so I say, Go Kevin! And now, can we at last drop all the bullshit and have a real policy debate…