Back In Control Of The Game


Yesterday’s elevation of a left-winger from Melbourne to the prime ministership signals that Labor’s factions are back in the game. Colourful media talk about faceless powerbrokers manipulating and directing hapless Labor members of parliament is a mixture of truth and hyperbole.

The names we’ve heard most frequently since the bloodless coup — NSW Senator Mark Arbib, Victorian Senator David Feeney, Victorian MHR Bill Shorten and National Secretary Karl Bitar — are hardly faceless. They have asserted the powerful will of the organisational and factional arms of the Labor Party against a Prime Minister they could only tolerate while he was on top.

Other names, such as Australian Workers’ Union Secretary Paul Howes, perhaps the most prominent public face of the anti-Rudd coup, represent the contemporary face of trade unionism, fighting as it is for survival and the traditional causes of their members on the shop floor.

The byzantine workings of the Labor factions are a mystery to most, not least to members of the Labor Party — or those that remain. The factions haven’t had a good ideological fight in years. The factions and their affiliate union sponsors are often little more than organising tools for a political party with very practical electoral aims. The focus of the factions is now patronage, especially placing loyal bums on assorted parliamentary seats, and electoral success. Political interplay is only occasionally leavened by policy debate.

Kevin Rudd’s accession to the federal leadership of the party threw a spanner in the factional and union works. To attain office, Rudd took on so-called union "thuggery" — either reprimanding offenders or insisting on the expulsion of union figures who might tarnish the Kevin07 brand.

Rudd sidelined the factions in his insistence that he choose his own Cabinet, discarding the century-old custom that the caucus chooses the personnel and the leader allocates the portfolios.

In practice, the Rudd Cabinet displayed a stunning mathematical symmetry with the Right and Left factions balanced exactly, even down to the sub-factions within the larger entities. But this grated with union and factional warlords whose reason for being rests on their perceived power to anoint candidates, leadership contenders and ministerial aspirants.

We now know that Rudd also alienated ministers, the caucus and the wider party by centralising decision-making in his office. The well-placed newspaper stories about adolescent advisers over the past couple of weeks contributed to the impression of Rudd’s remoteness and arrogance. The so-called Gang of Four, the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee of Cabinet, consisting of Rudd, Gillard, Swan and Tanner, seemed to exist to humiliate and sideline other ministers.

Rudd could get away with it while he was riding high. As has been said many times this week, as soon as his personal factional power base, the Newspoll, fell away, he was left exposed and stricken.

It would, however, be a mistake to think that the new Prime Minister is wholly the creature of the arcane union-factional domination of Labor Party decision-making. The modern Labor Party is far too pragmatic for that — and so is Julia Gillard.

Gillard told the House of Representatives yesterday that when Abbott congratulated her she told him it was "game on — and I meant it".

Her confident and assertive message would have cheered Labor supporters who have been wishing for more aggression and fighting spirit. In Kevin Rudd, all they got was the next announcement, the next issue, the next mouthful of irritating verbal sludge. Worse, they got pronouncements they were uncomfortable with — from sidelining the Emissions Trading Scheme and backsliding on refugee issues, to the nuttiness of an Internet filter.

For a long time now, Labor supporters have cringed at Kevin Rudd. Most didn’t doubt his reform credentials, his energy or determination to win, but they saw a creature who was not of the Labor Party. He didn’t seem to be a Keating, bursting with policy and stirring invective. He wasn’t a Hawke either, with attractive, flawed character and unforced ockerisms. And he certainly wasn’t a Gough, of glorious, imperious vision.

And among themselves, Labor members and supporters noted that those three great men of Labor didn’t have a bible-bashing bone between them.

Labor now has a leader who took the affirmation when she was sworn in as Prime Minister. She’s a single, childless female, a welcome change from the grinding and monotonous worship of suburban banality. She’s modern Labor — not some pale imitation of Howard’s white-picket fence era.

Gillard can explain things, Labor supporters believe. She’s tough. She has the common touch. She can talk football. She scares the Libs. Listen to her speaking in the House of Representatives yesterday and you hear a person who can transmit a potent political message. The miners, those rapacious managing directors of Labor’s political opponents, were told her door was open to them but they’d better open their minds before they entered.

Gillard embodies the qualities that people want to see in their politicians. She is distant but warm, fiercely intelligent but down to earth, conviction driven but willing to concede to practical realities. That’s why she became the nation’s 27th prime minister yesterday.

Certainly her victory was overlaid with "first female PM" sentimentality but at heart, the day that made her Prime Minister was all about Labor retaining power. The ruthlessness of the coup shows the modern post-Whitlam Labor Party at work. The removal of Bill Hayden in 1983, the tearing down of Bob Hawke in 1991 — these are the precursors of the Gillard coup.

But Gillard faces high danger too. Just as the NSW Right moved against Rudd, stitching up a deal with the Queenslanders and the Victorians, who really believes they wouldn’t move against her if it was deemed electorally necessary? A dangerous precedent has been set. If the leader who brought his party out of Opposition after nearly 12 years of the detestable John Howard can be removed after a mere 30 months then no leader is secure.

That is why some members and supporters of the ALP have a nasty aftertaste in their mouth today. Kevin Rudd’s gut-wrenching soliloquy revealed a man motivated by much more than the simplistic notion of rage advanced in recent weeks. His recitation of the government’s initiatives was actually quite impressive. What have they done, some must be asking today.

Yes, the factional powerplay was conducted in the usual secretive manner. Imagine those Labor caucus members, including ministers, who knew nothing of the challenge until they saw it on television, got a text message or dipped into Twitter. Manipulated they surely were, but they were also complicit in tearing down a man they found bearable only as he kept them in office.

Gillard’s job is to find the nexus between consensus politics, good policy and Labor’s idealism. It is not yet clear whether she can do this. Some Labor people and ordinary voters might have been disheartened by her comments yesterday about emissions trading. Gillard may be a climate change believer and she may believe in putting a price on carbon — but what action is she prepared to take?

More importantly, what action is Gillard going to take on this side of the election? On a range of issues, Gillard has only a couple of months to establish a clear direction, most notably on climate change policy. She also has to manage expectations and fears on refugees and defuse the electorally disastrous view that the government is too incompetent to deliver its programs.

If she can succeed, Gillard will cement her hold on the Labor leadership. To borrow her words, if she disappoints more than she delights, the union and factional apparatchiks won’t be needed to remove her. And if she succeeds, she will have more power in the Labor Party than Kevin Rudd could ever have hoped for.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.