Inside Story

The churn goes on

The leadership vote only underlines the fact that the Labor Party is more or less broken, writes Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno 27 June 2013 1562 words

Kevin Rudd talks to the media after his win in the party room vote against prime minister Julia Gillard at Parliament House last night. AFP

ON THE ABC’s coverage of the showdown between Gillard and Rudd on Wednesday night, we were frequently and predictably told how “historic” the night’s events were. In fact, they constituted nothing more than the most recent instance of leadership churn; the Labor Party – and if the events of 2007–09 are any indication, the Liberals too – discard leaders with the same alacrity that Billy Hughes went through secretaries. When the Canadian authors of a recent book on the selection of leaders in Anglo parliamentary democracies came to write a section called “Machiavellian tactics,” most of their examples came from Australia.

There is nothing surprising about the trend. The sovereignty of the parliamentary party in each case ensures that bad polling inevitably produces leadership speculation. When that polling is persistently bad, the average backbencher will naturally come to fear for his or her seat, and will act out of self-preservation. In Australia, we take this situation for granted as if, by right, members of a parliamentary party should be allowed to discard leaders in order to save their own skins. In reality, it represents a gross conflict of interest in which the parliamentarian’s career is foremost and the interests of party and nation merely dragged along, as if they always coincided with an essentially individual interest.

William P. Cross and André Blais, the authors of Politics at the Centre: The Selection and Removal of Party Leaders in the Anglo Parliamentary Democracies (2012) show that Australia and New Zealand are unusual in having major parties that allow their rank-and-file members no say at all in the selection of party leaders. The Canadian Liberal Party, by way of contrast, shifted the authority for such decisions to its party convention just after the first world war. This trend towards using a vote of the party membership itself – a trend bucked in Australia outside the minor parties – is of more recent vintage, gaining momentum from the mid 1960s. The British parties moved to give members a vote in leadership selection from the mid 1970s, beginning with the Liberal Party but later extending to Labour and even, in a limited form, to the Tories. I reported on the 2010 British Labour Party leadership contest in Inside Story in August of that year.

The events that we have seen in recent days – which in many ways reprise those of June 2010 but with a simple reversal of victim and victor – are likely to be repeated for as long as we have a potent combination of continuous opinion polling, a twenty-four-hour news cycle, sovereign parliamentary parties and easy removal of leaders by a simple majority of MPs. It is not clear that Labor is more vulnerable to this trend than the Liberals, although its operations have clearly been more disfigured in the recent past. But if anyone imagined that an Abbott PM, facing a ten percentage point deficit in the polls not long before an election, would not be vulnerable to a successful challenge, they would – as one of The Castle’s Kerrigan family would have said – “be dreaming.”

As for the importance of last night’s change of leadership, it might be no more significant for the result of the coming election than the brawl over the Liberal leadership in September 2007. That was largely over the question of who would be the losing leader at an election which, the polls showed all too clearly, Labor was a certainty to win. The idea that Peter Costello could have retrieved this situation was pure fantasy. Given the performance of federal Labor in opinion polling for all of the period since the 2010 election, one would need to be a fairly optimistic supporter to imagine that we’re about to witness a reversal of fortunes. Of course, Labor has been doing so badly that caucus members will have calculated that they could hardly do worse at an election under Rudd, than the massacre they faced under Gillard. To this extent, their actions were wise.

But in another sense, the vote only underlines the fact that the Labor Party – as a critical organisation responsible for mediating between ordinary voters and the institutions of parliament and government in Australia – is more or less broken. Even if Labor were to win the 2013 election – surely still a most unlikely outcome – it is far from clear that its machinery or personnel are actually capable of performing anything like their proper democratic function. As Rodney Cavalier has argued, the collapse of the party as a democratic organisation means that decisions about something as significant as who will occupy the office of prime minister are made by tiny numbers of people who are more or less disconnected from the mainstream of Australian life. There are few checks and balances within the party itself; with whom do these caucus members actually consult before deciding whom they’ll support in a leadership ballot? A few faction bosses, perhaps a union official here and there; but let’s not confuse such methods with democracy.

As for Rudd, one would need a highly developed faith in the capacity of people to learn from the past to imagine that he is a changed man. There is nothing in what we know of his character, nothing in anything he’s said on the public record, nothing in his frequently appalling behaviour over the last several years, to indicate that he is capable of doing better now than he did last time. He is loathed within the party, including by many of the fifty-seven caucus members who voted for him out of an instinct of self-preservation.

There are many reasons why Rudd is hated, but I can give no better illustration than the speech he delivered late last night after the caucus delivered him a majority. In its opening lines, he talked of resuming where he left off before being so rudely interrupted in 2010. There was not a word of acknowledgement that he might have made mistakes the first time round from which he had learned. Worst of all, he feigned gratitude to Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, not by saying anything complimentary about what they had done in the last three years – such as legislating national disability insurance or the Gonski educational reforms – but by praising their achievements while they had served under him as prime minister. In other words, he was really praising himself. That such a man will bring unity to the nation, let alone a deeply divided party still scarred from his first prime ministership, is a ludicrous proposition.

Just where he will take that party is anyone’s guess because this was a purely personal struggle in which policy considerations were, for him, merely weapons in the struggle for power. On the deeply divisive issue of refugees, foreign minister Bob Carr has been hinting for some weeks at a harder line. On Lateline, following the vote for Rudd, he had the temerity, in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, to tell Tony Jones that people seeking asylum in Australia were economic refugees. Here is a reminder that Carr has an atrocious record as premier of playing to Sydney shock-jocks and tabloid editors, and it will be a test of Rudd’s integrity to see whether he is capable of marking out a position on this issue that retains some shred of the decency that used to be identified with the Labor Party – or whether he follows the cue of a superannuated NSW premier trying to reprise his glory days. On the other issues that have leeched Gillard of political authority, such as the carbon and mining taxes, what Rudd will do is anyone’s guess. But we are most unlikely to hear anything, let alone climate change, described as “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time.” Or perhaps we will; because the man is shameless.

Gillard spoke with greater dignity than Rudd, and it was hard not to sympathise with her. Up to a point, anyway. Many of her wounds have been self-inflicted. She was badly injured by the circumstances of her rise to the prime ministership, and she did and said things from the outset – like the absurdity of the “real Julia” comment – that made matters worse. Other hurts have been inflicted by others, including Rudd and his supporters, but also a large coterie of vile misogynists in the popular media and blogosphere who will now be satisfied. She lost me when she knocked over a sitting Labor senator in the Northern Territory in order to elevate a former sports star and Indigenous woman whose commitment to the Labor Party was so deep that she didn’t even hold a membership ticket – and then called it “a captain’s pick,” in a grotesque thumbing of the nose at both the discarded senator and anyone who complained about such outrageous behaviour. The proverb about living and dying by the sword is relevant here. Nonetheless, she has a legislative legacy of which she should be proud, and a reputation for personal decency that is perhaps becoming rarer amid the vitriol of national political life.