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.

Et tu, Julia?

It’s a bit funny how quickly personal fortunes can turn around; just a month or two ago, the putsch was on, and we were all watching Kevin Michael Rudd give his final, painful press conference as Prime Minister. At that point in time, it did not seem likely that we would see Rudd return to the forefront of political debate in this country. Although he was at pains to re-iterate his commitment to continue on the backbenches as the Member for Griffith, before very long the media rumour mill was running overtime with suggestions on what international diplomatic roles might potentially float across the former Prime Minister’s desk.

Now the Rudd Government is history, the campaign is history, the federal election itself is history, and we have a Gillard Labor Government at the helm, assisted by the Greens and independents Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, and Rob Oakeshott. If that wasn’t strange enough, the former Prime Minister has returned as a frontline member of Cabinet as Foreign Minister; one pictures him staggering zombie-like into the room with that Milky Bar grin, daggers jutting haphazardly from his back. We’re a long way from Kansas now. One supposes, given the unpredictability of recent events, that it would not be completely inconceivable for Kevin Rudd to emerge as Prime Minister again in some crazy election campaign in the future.

There is little doubt that Rudd is the best person for the job in Foreign Affairs and that under normal conditions, he would be a big plus for the government. Stephen Smith has run a tight ship but has not really shone either during his time in the role, particularly given that he was always operating in Rudd’s shadow. Suggestions from the Opposition and indeed from Professor Hugh White that the former Prime Minister damaged Australia’s relationships with some of its partners during his time in office are exaggerated. As it stands however, given the circumstances, there are clearly going to be some outstanding personal issues that Federal Labor will need to confront in Cabinet in order to govern effectively. An already byzantine situation, given the reliance of Labor on the Greens and the independents for power, will hardly be simplified by the fact that one of the most senior positions in the government is held by someone who was so recently betrayed by the new Prime Minister.

Matters are so delicately poised that a by-election in practically any seat but the most safest of seats could result in a change of government. I’m not too sure about the stability bit, but this election has certainly delivered political intrigue to the nation – in spades.

The Gillard faceless men putsch

A month ago, I couldn’t see it happening. There has been quite a bit of speculation around the traps in recent weeks about the leadership of Federal Labor, but I’m not sure that too many people took it completely seriously. Then suddenly, in a matter of hours yesterday evening, it all happened. Senior factional figures within the party evidently put forward a case to Gillard for standing against Rudd that she could not refuse. It would be very interesting to know exactly what precisely compelled her to act, to turn on a dime under pressure after months and years of proffering resolute support for her leader. She has been pushed off the proverbial cliff on this, and I think we all deserve to understand why.

Federal Labor has just shot itself in the foot in a dramatic way; one recalls the damage ultimately done to the party by the Latham challenge. I’m not sure what sort of risk assessment was conducted by the folks pulling the strings here. If Rudd somehow clings to power, against all odds, he will be critically diminished. The Opposition will be able to pick at the bones of Rudd’s credibility all the way up until the impending election. If Gillard wins, she will have a lot of explaining to do, and not a lot of time to do it in. An election may be called within days so that Gillard can establish a mandate from the people, nullifying the Opposition’s likely line of attack. What is she going to do differently – what is she offering that is really any different? If she is going to do a number of things differently to Rudd in a policy sense, how can the people trust what Federal Labor say anymore, given that just days and weeks ago she was talking up her leader’s credentials and direction? We have no idea about what Gillard’s personal views are on the RSPT, climate change, or any number of other issues. Presumably, at least in part, her personal views may be deemed irrelevant. The so-called faceless men may well decide what her views will be.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Julia Gillard will make a great Prime Minister – one day. But that day is not today, and I still don’t think this is the right time or the right path, for her, or her party. If the putsch succeeds, it will have been a rise to the top characterised by cowardice and panic, driven by people who care more about polls and the state of the spin cycle than just about anything else. Of course the alternative, now that the putsch has been rammed maniacally into motion, may be even worse.

Happy unbirthday, Tony Abbott!

The new “bell-weather” seat for Rudd Labor

In today’s edition of The Australian, Dennis Shanahan reported the results of some rather interesting marginal seat polling conducted by Newspoll over the last weekend. Of particular interest to me are the reported results in Lindsay, a seat that I have spent over half my life in. The Newspoll results suggest that Labor’s primary vote has collapsed to just 34% in that seat, and that the Coalition’s vote has surged to 47%. The Greens tend to poll rather poorly in Lindsay, and conservative fringe parties such as the Christian Democrats and One Nation tend to poll well, so these results, if they can be relied upon, suggest that Labor’s David Bradbury and the Rudd Government could be in some real trouble.

While I agree with Mark at Larvatus Prodeo and Possum when they suggest that the Lindsay polling results were irrevocably contaminated by the weekend state by-election in the seat of Penrith, I feel its too simplistic to dismiss the poll entirely. Federal Labor is, make no mistake, on the nose with Howard’s battlers at the moment. Tony Abbott’s straight-talking approach intrinsically appeals to that peculiar strata of the population who thought they saw someone fresh with a dab of economic blue-blood in Kevin Rudd in 2007, and switched their vote from the Coalition to Labor. Abbott is seen to be a man’s man in a way that neither Brendan Nelson nor Malcolm Turnbull was, and Rudd, at least to many, has revealed himself to be a bureaucratic ditherer who does not speak their language.

There are no simple answers to this problem; there is little doubt that Federal Labor’s pollsters and advisors are burning the midnight oil trying to find it. The Prime Minister needs to pay more attention to people in seats like Lindsay and endeavour to do a better job of explaining the achievements of his government to them, and why they should vote for him again.

The balm for Federal Labor’s pain points

There is a real danger at the moment that federal politics could descend into a deep cycle of negativism and not emerge until after this year’s federal election. The Opposition has adopted a resolutely negativist approach in recent months, focusing almost purely on attacking the government’s record and in particular, the record and personal character of the Prime Minister. There are now rumblings that Federal Labor will look more thoroughly to the negative as the election campaign draws nearer, attacking the credibility of the Opposition Leader as it seeks to turn the polls around.

While there is plenty of juicy material to draw on when it comes to negative lines of attack on the Opposition Leader, it would be a mistake for the government to rely exclusively on Tony Abbott’s failings for political sustenance. If federal politics turns into a gigantic mud-slinging match, the government stands to lose more from the exercise than the Opposition. Whomever holds government is by association responsible for the general tenor of debate. If things turn really ugly between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, it will be Kevin Rudd who will be ultimately held responsible for the poisonous state of federal politics, not the Opposition Leader.

As I see it, there are a few crucial positive points that Federal Labor needs to address in order to reclaim its ascendancy over the Opposition:

1) Mapping out a credible path on climate change

The government needs to outline a more thorough roadmap towards the implementation of its emissions trading scheme – or in the very least, a credible roadmap on climate change. The current policy – to shelve the proposed scheme until 2013 – is, by itself, a very weak platform to stand on. There has been some suggestion that Federal Labor has dropped the scheme as a kind of fig leaf to Australia’s centre-right base – but in truth, dropping the scheme has only damaged the government’s record and won it no new support.

2) Defusing asylum seeker issues whilst retaining a humanistic approach

The current situation, with boats arriving every other day, is simply not politically sustainable, but nor is the government’s absurd, ad hoc policy of temporarily freezing claims for asylum by Sri Lankans and Afghans. A new strategy is required that mixes fairness with firmness, and is designed to shape the volume of arrivals in tune with the number of asylum claims that Australia can be readily expected to process annually.

3) Finding common ground on the Resource Super Profits Tax

Federal Labor can not wage an election campaign while the mining industry is filling commercial television ad breaks with deceptive, one-sided advertising. Fighting ads with ads is counterproductive and won’t work, particularly given the government’s past angelic stance on government advertising. The only realistic option is for Labor to reach out to the mining industry through its industry contacts and seek to broker a compromise deal that retains the core income-generating potential of the RSPT whilst offering some further reasonable concessions to industry.

4) Reclaiming the government’s record

One of the biggest problems the government has is that many of its achievements are either “works in progress” due to their considerable scope and cost, or are somewhat intangible, such as its performance during the worst of the GFC and its more symbolic achievements. The government’s leadership team needs to make a more conscious effort to defend its record, and explain to the public what it is achieved, and why certain significant items it has promised have not been completely delivered (e.g. the National Broadband Network, the CPRS).

In short, it needs to publish a kind of scorecard which lays bare the government’s record and explains why certain promises have not been delivered on. In numerous instances where promises made have been broken, there are reasonable, rational reasons why that the public need to understand better.

5) Selling health reform

It really is crucial for the fate of its proposed health reform package that Federal Labor reclaims its record. At the moment, the public generally does not feel as though it can trust the Rudd Government to embark on such a costly, complex, and ambitious program of reform, when several of the large policy promises previously made have not been delivered on, three years on. The spectre of the home insulation scheme also still looms large on the national consciousness, despite the fact that culpability for the more disastrous repercussions of the scheme’s introduction does not realistically rest with the government.

Presently, the public does not really understand all that well what the government’s health reform package is all about, because it is quite a complex, multifaceted package. There is no simple message, because while the Federal Government would take control of majority funding of the public hospital system under the proposed reforms, there is still a 60:40 funding split between the federal and state governments. It is difficult to credibly argue that this set of reforms will “end the blame game” once and for all, but it certainly does appear that it may be a step in the right direction.

In short, I don’t think the Rudd Government can hope to outgun the Opposition in terms of negative political warfare, despite the rich vein of material Tony Abbott has provided it since he became Opposition Leader. To win, Federal Labor needs to retain its essential positivist voice, and demonstrate that it has both a plan for the next three years and the ability to deliver on its plan.

A strategy that centres upon the exaggerated and prolonged slagging of Tony Abbott is a strategy that only hacks the government a path towards political ruin.

Peanut farmers, rocks, and hard places

It’s becoming clear that the Rudd Government never expected the strong level of opposition to its health funding reforms that John Brumby and the Victorian Government have served up over the course of the last couple of weeks. As Michelle Grattan and David Rood reported in yesterday’s Age, the relationship is quickly becoming toxic. Premier Brumby stepped up and addressed the National Press Club on the topic yesterday, and on Tuesday, even drew parallels with the behaviour of the Prime Minister and the behaviour of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1970’s. This was an extraordinary contribution to the debate, considering that Brumby and Rudd are supposedly from the same political party and that Brumby could hardly have cast a greater slur on his northern colleague. The germination of the Prime Minister’s political career in Queensland was arguably in no small part driven by the vulgar excess of the Bjelke-Petersen years.

The Prime Minister seems determined to win the day on health reform, and is prepared to continue upping the ante with more funding and incentives until he gets it, whilst refusing to fundamentally alter the underlying structure of the deal. Whether the Federal Government’s approach in a policy sense is correct seems, sadly, to have degenerated into a second order issue, at least when compared to the political shit fight for ownership over health reform.

This puts Premier Brumby in an invidious position, given the staunchness and nature of his opposition thus far. Brumby has already proposed an alternative plan (e.g. a 50/50 funding split without the 30% loss of GST implied by the Rudd/Roxon plan) that he holds to be a considerably better agreement for all parties. But as the offer on the table from Canberra gets bigger and more attractive, the pressure on the Victorian Premier to bite the bullet increases. The overwhelming majority of the shot in this war is in the Federal Government’s locker. The fraternal politics of the situation for the Labor Party are diabolical. No Labor Premier would want to be remembered as the person responsible for critically undermining a Federal Labor Government about to wage its first election campaign after over a decade of conservative hegemony. Sooner or later, the Victorian Premier will be coerced into caving in by the sheer force of the taxpayer dime on offer, and the broader ramifications of not signing up.

In the next couple of weeks, Brumby is going to have to find a way to be a good little Labor Premier and acquiesce, whilst at least appearing to have won some concessions from those bovver boys and bovver girls from the nation’s capital.

LOSTNEARFOSSILCREEK

It seems as though the entire Opposition has managed to get itself lost near Fossil Creek. At the end of last week, they were riding high on the home insulation scandal, delighting in the prospect of blaming the Environment Minister and the Prime Minister for deaths caused by dodgy insulation start-ups. The “oppose everything” routine was going great guns. The poll numbers for Tony Abbott were looking bad for Labor, and the Prime Minister felt the need to indulge in some extraordinary self-flagellation on Insiders last Sunday.

What a difference a week makes. This week, the Rudd Government has come out playing ball in election mode, announcing major initiatives in education and health. It is looking like Labor’s health reform plan will form the cornerstone of its re-election campaign. Despite some general public reservations about whether this plan was a process that should have already been well underway, people know that big changes need to be made to the way in which health services are provided in this country. When push comes to shove, health as an issue trumps most other issues out there, and the government’s plan is going to prove difficult to counter; unless, of course, the states and territories don’t play nice.

The timing of Tony Abbott’s barmy disappearance into Central Australia could not really have been worse. I’m not sure if his trip was planned significantly in advance or not, but it should have been gently postponed given the political developments of last week. In his absence, the government has had a free-hit, launching policies and looking positive, while Abbott scratches about in the outback, looking unkempt and managing to make an arse of himself by getting lost. His “oppose everything” schtick is starting to wear a bit thin, especially when it is phoned in from no-man’s land and he is offering no serious policy alternative.

I don’t doubt that the Opposition Leader could learn a lot from engaging more closely with Aboriginal communities, but it was very, very questionable politics to do so while he had the government looking like it might collapse on the canvas after a tough week. Federal Labor has now regained control of the news cycle, and I would not be surprised if the polls in the next couple of weeks reflect that.

Whatever you do, don’t say billion

It was getting a little absurd and starting to backfire dramatically, so the Prime Minister and the Treasurer were forced to halt their “billion ban” charade in parliament today.

As has been previously observed:

It’s been suggested Kevin Rudd would not utter the phrase ”$300 billion” for fear his words will be used in coalition advertisements during the next election campaign.

Mr Rudd said debt would peak at “around about 200, our gross debt at about 300” in 2013-14.

Asked to explain 200 or 300 of what, Mr Rudd responded: “These are billion figures.”

The genius (whoever they are) in Federal Labor’s leadership team who seriously believed that the government could get away with its senior members not saying the word “billion” for the next 18 months or so must be living on Planet Wacky. It’s a little disturbing that this wacky idea was even successfully sold to the men who are overseeing the nation’s response to the financial crisis, and that they ran with the “billion ban” for a day or two. The Coalition would be nuts not to make fun of the Prime Minister’s use of “200” and “300” in their election campaign next year.

Madness.

Ideology is such a lonely word

Kevin Rudd’s 7700 word essay on the global financial crisis, published in this month’s edition of The Monthly, was a remarkable contribution to serious political debate by a sitting Prime Minister. What isn’t remarkable given its length and lack of humor is that it appears to have gone down like a lead balloon. Mentions of the essay in the media seem generally restricted to pointed criticisms of it from members of the Opposition or their sympathisers. A few journalists (such as The Australian‘s Matthew Franklin) have even had a go at “Julie Bishoping” the Prime Minister, on the somewhat flimsy pretense that 26 words of the essay’s 7700 words were almost identical to a passage that appeared in an recent Foreign Affairs article. Err… ouch [wet noodle limply falls to ground].

For the benefit of those who haven’t splashed out on the magazine, I am going to try and offer a hopefully more level-headed summary over the fold.

Continue reading

Rudd’s reaffirmation of the Third Way?

There’s been quite a bit of buzz in the media over the weekend about a 7700 word essay on the challenges posed by the global financial crisis that the Prime Minister has produced for the next edition of The Monthly magazine. Apart from being quite a uniquely direct intellectual contribution to debate by the sitting leader of a nation, the essay looks set to revive hostilities along traditional ideological lines. In seeking to frame the global financial crisis as a signal that the neoliberal economic doctrine popular in recent years is fundamentally flawed, the Prime Minister is opening the door for Federal Labor to make a return to its social democratic roots. One could almost believe that Tony Blair’s nerdy antipodean brother is alive and well and living at Kirribilli House.

Those lovers of ideology over at The Australian have already produced not one but three opinion-based pieces on Rudd’s essay, together with a video analysis from Dennis Shanahan. Both Paul Kelly and Lenore Taylor see the essay as an opportunity for a new era of distinction between Australia’s major parties to begin, with Rudd’s Federal Labor visibly leaning a little towards socialism, and Turnbull’s Opposition staunchly defending the free market liberal agenda. There is more than a hint of the suggestion in both pieces of an unspoken truth; these guys really want Turnbull back in the game, and Rudd’s Labor tarred with the old-school, old Labor brush. Of course, they don’t really give away whether or not they have actually seen the complete essay.

As someone with a fairly inherent social democratic bent, I don’t really see a problem if the Prime Minister makes an attempt in the essay to use the fallout of the global financial crisis to push for a more balanced economic agenda. In an time when the leader of the free world is engaging in large-scale nationalisation programs and propping up insolvent giants, surely only the most deluded observer could believe that something was not a bit rotten in the state of the global economy’s regulatory regimes. At least for me, the need for greater balance in the nation’s economic affairs has been apparent for some time; it’s just plain common sense given the problems we know the world is facing today – an absurd patchwork of rich and poor, and a subliminal devaluation of the common good. To a large extent, Rudd may be seen as getting on the bus far too late, if he really does believe that it is only the global financial crisis that has engendered a need for significant systemic change. I will however reserve judgement on the essay until it is published in full.

The magazine will be available in newsagents this Wednesday. You can read the first 1500 words of the essay online here.

ELSEWHERE: Mark has more at Larvatus Prodeo, as does Jason Soon at Catallaxy.