MEDIA commentators hauled out their weightiest adjectives to capture the significance of Kevin Rudd’s fall and Julia Gillard’s rise to replace him as prime minister. “Historic” and “momentous” were given solid workouts to mark the emergence of Australia’s first female prime minister.
But the events of last week were also historic and momentous for reasons that received less media attention. First, the speed and ruthlessness with which Rudd was dispatched marked an historic change in federal Labor’s attitude to its parliamentary leader; second, the rise of Gillard marked Labor’s return to conventional consultative cabinet government; third, and perhaps most significantly, the events showed the limits of Labor reformist zeal in the face of sustained hostility from wealthy and powerful mining interests.
As historic and momentous as the emergence of the first female prime minister was for Australia, it is salutary to recall that some thirty-eight countries have had female prime ministers since the end of the second world war. They include Britain, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, Germany, France, Portugal, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Israel, Turkey, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. So Australia has hardly led the global charge towards equality of political opportunity for women. In fact it has slouched along behind Moldova, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Sao Tome and Principe, among others. A decent modesty might counsel muted national self-congratulation over Ms Gillard’s rise.
Two other words, “brutal” and “ruthless,” were widely deployed last week to describe the speed of Rudd’s forced exit. There seems little doubt that Rudd had lost direction and that his flaws had been magnified and were glaring. But until he was brought down swiftly and mercilessly Labor had tended to have some sentimental regard for leaders, even flawed leaders. Gough Whitlam struggled to dislodge Arthur Calwell who, like Evatt before him, lost three elections; it took Paul Keating two attempts to oust Bob Hawke. Kevin Rudd’s move against Kim Beazley perhaps anticipated the events of last week, but the caucus was unquestionably more ruthless with Rudd than it has been with any other winning leader. The man who led Labor back to power was not given the chance to fight and lose an election.
So Labor has changed, although perhaps not as much as former leader Mark Latham claimed in the Australian Financial Review on Friday. Latham suggested Gillard’s tenure was guaranteed only until the next election, after which she would be dumped if she did not lead Labor to a convincing victory. Yet the ability of faction leaders to move against Rudd was certainly assisted by his peculiar relationship with the party and the caucus: he was a man in the Labor Party but somehow not of the party. He sought to defy its culture; he made little attempt to be inclusive and consultative. He sought to impose a Führer-prinzip on the party. When he sailed (stupidly) into heavy political weather, he had no reserves of loyal support to sustain and protect him from the putsch. So Labor has signalled its embrace of a more ruthless, less forgiving, attitude towards leaders – especially those who defy its conventions and do not respect its complexity.
One of Gillard’s first public acts as prime minister was to acknowledge the importance of collective consultative leadership and of strong cabinet government. She knew that was what caucus wanted to hear; she had seen and been the beneficiary of Rudd’s failure to adopt an inclusive leadership style. So the first female prime minister importantly (if not quite momentously) restores more conventional, traditional Labor government to the nation. Leadership will be balanced with consultation; the prime minister will have to be a chair of cabinet and not merely a presidential leader with an inner cabal of advisers. Gillard herself said, “We are all enhanced by working as a team together.” The election result alone will, for Labor, decide whether caucus was right to install her and to remove Rudd.
Of course, as well as his brusque personal style there were complex policy factors working against Rudd. Among the most prominent were decisions to shelve the emissions trading scheme, to toughen asylum-seeker policy and to impose the resource super profit tax on mining companies. Rudd’s downfall revealed the limits of Labor’s ability to achieve reform when opposed by wealthy and powerful interests. This has momentous national implications.
However badly the resource super profits tax proposal was managed, the principle was sound: Australians are reasonably entitled to a fair return from miners exploiting their valuable resources for massive profits for shareholders, many of whom have no stake in Australia other than as a source of dividend income. But the mining industry revolted, effectively challenging the nation’s right to get an equitable share of its profits. On becoming prime minister Gillard moved immediately towards achieving a compromise deal acceptable to the mining interests. She thereby acknowledged the limits of the national government’s ability to effect a meaningful redistribution of the wealth being blasted from the nation’s soil and shipped to resource-hungry world markets.
There is no doubting Prime Minister Gillard’s commitment to better education and health services and to improvements in infrastructure, retirement income and other national Labor priorities. But her ability to deliver on these commitments will be compromised by Labor’s inability to maximise returns from the super profits of the nation’s wealthiest and most privileged mining firms and individuals. Gillard’s anxious overture to the miners was Labor’s white flag of surrender, signalling to the miners that they, and not the national government, will decide their ultimate tax liability. This was at least as momentous as the emergence of the first female prime minister.
Finally, it isn’t unduly pedantic to point out that Kevin Rudd was absolutely wrong to claim that he had been elected by the Australian people and not by Labor factions. Rudd was elected as the member for his parliamentary seat of Griffith in Queensland. Nothing more. He took the leadership from Kim Beazley by putting together the numbers within the caucus. It is the caucus that creates and destroys, that gives leadership and takes it away, and it is false and fanciful to try to suggest otherwise, notwithstanding the media focus and presidential style of party leaders. Prime Minister Gillard is showing from the start that she is in no doubt at all about this reality. •
Geoffrey Barker is a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.