Beyond Kevin, beyond Julia, beyond Kevin

It was the morning of Saturday, 24th November 2007, in London. A powerful sense of impending euphoria had made it difficult to sleep. There was no plastic Christmas tree in the corner of the room, and no presents to rip open (and I wasn’t seven years old), but that remains for me the only comparable feeling. I can recall some anxious fumbling through the channels of a friend’s Sky-connected flatscreen TV, a gleeful visit to the local Starbucks; I confess: I was almost certainly wearing a Kevin07 shirt at the time. The results, as they rolled in, were delicious. It felt as if a great weight had been lifted. It was the end of a small-minded, cold-hearted era that had gone on far too long for Australia’s good.

At the time, in Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, it seemed that Labor had elevated and united its two brightest talents: the folksy, popular communicator with the feisty, intellectual firebrand. Perhaps they did, but a lot can change in six years. Go on, search for “Rudd and Gillard” in your preferred search engine. See if you can find a trace, a morsel, a crumb of their initially productive partnership. Try to think to yourself for a moment about the achievements of their governments, without finding yourself waylaid by the leadership innuendo and soap opera froth; the brutal replacement of Kevin Rudd in June 2010 with Julia Gillard, the subsequent relentless hounding of Gillard by the man she replaced, the eventual rational yet absurd caucus admission that Gillard must in fact be replaced by the man she replaced. At this point I am not sure if it would have really mattered if Labor had, during its time in office, eliminated poverty in Australia, built an impervious boat-frying force field around the nation’s circumference, and managed to transcend time and space by colonising Jupiter. Stirred on by the media, the situation with the leadership had become incredulous – a laughing stock – and I am not sure you can blame some voters for being sick and tired of that.

In this context, perhaps it is not surprising that an open, democratic leadership contest between two factional heavyweights feels like a breath of fresh air. As it turns out, the faceless men have faces, and this time, we’ll even let you pick one! Politically, you might agree with one more than the other, but the beauty of this contest for Labor is that either Bill Shorten or Anthony Albanese is wholly capable of leading the party forward. But yet, the spectres of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd cycle, like some god-awful ten-volume fantasy book series written by cult author Mackenzie J Clouddancer, very obtrusively remain. Kevin of course will remain in parliament, but almost certainly not stewing and seething and plotting a return to his throne, not that anybody would dare put it past him, given priors. Julia, by marked contrast, has acted with consummate dignity since being dumped from the leadership, putting the Labor Party’s fortunes at the election ahead of any natural instinct to defend her political legacy or to seek some form of revenge against those who discarded her.

Well, until now, anyway. In a coup for the Guardian Australia, Julia Gillard has written a 5000 word essay that seeks to remind us of Labor’s historic achievements, why the party is important, why the party got it wrong by replacing her, and why the new leadership rules are wrong-headed. To be perfectly honest, I think the piece is misjudged; perhaps it is just too soon. A fair proportion of the essay re-iterates the historic achievements of Labor and revisits arguments waged during the election campaign – which if people are not familiar with by now, they really haven’t been paying any attention at all. To be honest, even I have had enough of this sort of shit. The people Julia is reaching out to are not likely to read a 5000 word essay. Indeed, much of the piece reads like the long post-campaign speech of the ghost of a leader who was but will no longer be.

The central argument of the essay is that Labor needs to embrace “purpose”, which Gillard best defines at the start of her piece:

Purpose matters. Being able to answer the question what are you going to do for me, for my family, for our nation, matters.

Believing in a purpose larger than yourself and your immediate political interests matters.

Labor comes to opposition having sent the Australian community a very cynical and shallow message about its sense of purpose.

This “cynical and shallow” message, of course, refers not particularly subtly to her removal from the leadership by the Federal Labor parliamentary caucus. She picks up on this again towards the end of the essay:

The answer to the question, “Why do I support this Labor leader?” should not be because he or she polls well or because the rules say I am stuck with them. The answer has to be found in actual and informed consent that this person represents what I believe in and has the leadership capacity to pursue it.

I don’t think many people would disagree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, but on the other hand I think it is plain silly to ignore the fact that one of the most powerful and compelling possible answers to the “Why do I support this Labor leader?” question is: “because I think he/she can capture the support of the Australian people, and I think he or she can win”. Personally, it goes without saying that I agree with most Labor members of parliament, most of the time. In general, their beliefs overlap in a satisfactorily proportional way with mine. It remains the case that one of the most important tasks of a Labor leader is to win elections, as cynical and as pragmatic as that sounds. The greatest of Labor leaders have tended to be those who have won the support of the Australian people to such an extent that they have defeated the Opposition at several elections and earned the right to pursue their political agendas over multiple terms. This is not a quirk of history or statistics. In politics, leadership is not just about policy, or having the most moral virtues, or the best one-liners, but earning and keeping the support of the public.

Julia Gillard achieved a lot during her time as Prime Minister – proportionally, perhaps as much or more than any other Labor leader in history. But she cannot deny that particularly towards the end of her term this year, she lost the support of a decisive proportion of the voting public. She would have lead Labor to a crushing defeat in the election two weeks ago, a defeat at least as decisive as the one it suffered, but most likely even more so. The polls proved beastly for Labor’s first female prime minister – as did Kevin Rudd – but it would be churlish of her not to realise that those catastrophic numbers she was getting were not just numbers. They were not just spin and electoral gimmickry. The sad truth is that all along, there were real people behind those polling numbers, and those people had lost faith with what Labor was offering. They had lost faith with Julia Gillard as Prime Minister.

For better or for worse, the Australian people wanted Julia to leave, and Kevin Rudd only hastened that process. Labor must not allow itself to be dictated to by opinion polling, but turning the other cheek out of pride or in the vain hope that polls are immaterial would be equally as egregious an error.