Labor In Freefall As Rudd Challenges


Poor old Labor.

The grand old party of the Australian political system — one of the oldest working class political parties in the world, in fact — is facing one of its bleakest moments in perhaps half a century.

At this stage of the electoral cycle, Labor should be moving along calmly, passing key elements of its legislative agenda and preparing marginal seats for in-depth defence.

Instead, it is tearing itself apart.

We have open warfare in the Labor Party. We have the former prime minister battling the current Prime Minister. We have duelling press conferences, non-stop news coverage, Twitter in meltdown, and Labor figures trashing each other’s reputations at every chance.

And what are they fighting over? As I and others have argued, it’s not the policy or philosophy of the party. It’s about nothing more nor less than the spoils of office.

The message that Julia Gillard and her supporters are sending is that the government under Rudd was "chaotic" — that at a certain operational level, Rudd was imperious, high-handed, perhaps simply incompetent. He couldn’t run a meeting. He lost his temper regularly. He would turn up to press conferences with Nicola Roxon without even telling her what was in the policy she was scheduled to announce.

The message Kevin Rudd is sending is just as stark. It is electability. As he broadcast to his colleagues from Mexico and Washington, the key point is that he can beat Tony Abbott in a general election.

Neither Rudd nor Gillard’s pitches are statements of philosophical position or outlines of policy platforms. This is, in effect, a popularity contest. It is a Machiavellian intrigue. As Malcolm Farnsworth writes today, "For MPs, it is a two-fold question of what will save their seat and what will save the Government."

"Everything else," Farnsworth writes, "is fluff."

Julia Gillard’s press conference this morning was an extraordinary performance in difficult circumstances — perhaps Gillard’s most composed and animated effort as Prime Minister. Gillard was combative, determined and dogged. But even a convincing slapdown of an interrupting journalist can’t disguise the deep dissatisfaction that characterises her standing in the electorate. Julia Gillard has never been a popular prime minster. It’s hard to see how she could become one now.

Rudd, on the other hand, is vastly more popular, and everyone knows it. He is an effortlessly skillful media manipulator. His command of Twitter and Facebook would embarrass many a communications professional or ad agency exec. He gives great television, too: who could forget that June 2010 press conference on the morning of his resignation as Prime Minister? In narrowcast or broadcast, Kevin Rudd is by far the best campaigner Labor has got.

The result is that Labor’s most effective inside operator is engaged in open warfare with its most mediagenic and popular campaigner. So are their respective forces. Peter Beattie was only just stretching the metaphor when he compared it the War of the Roses on Lateline last night.

The last time the Australian Labor Party split so decisively was in the 1950s, when the Democratic Labor Party broke away from the parent party, effectively condemning Labor to 20 years of electoral wilderness.

The 1955 split was about matters of high principle as well as low revenge. It revolved around the supposed influence of Communism in the labour movement in the middle of the Cold War, and was driven by powerful intellects like that of B.A. Santamaria, founder of the so-called "Movement".

Other Labor splits have also been matters of principle and politics. The 1916 split, perhaps the most bitter of all, was about conscription. It occurred in the wake of Gallipoli, at the height of World War I. The 1931 split was about economic policy. It occurred in the depths of the Great Depression.

The Kevin Rudd-Julia Gillard split occurred in a time of peace and prosperity, midway through the first term of a Labor government, with Labor actually leading in the polls. Despite or because of this, the party is divided along internecine faultlines, with old enmities and factional alliances counting for everything, and policy counting for nothing.

Broadly, the right factions continue to support Gillard, while at least some of the left have thrown their lot in with Rudd. But there are individual tensions and sub-factional manoeuvres at play too. Much is often made of how many enemies Kevin Rudd has. But many in the left of the ALP also hate Gillard, who used to be one of them, but moved seamlessly towards the power base of the right when the opportunity came. Similarly, Rudd seems to have few supporters in Queensland, where bitter hatreds date back to Rudd’s time as chief of staff for former premier Wayne Goss.

The division of the party within and between factions, alliances and branches underlines the corrosive nature of this civil war. For instance, one of Rudd’s key supporters is Bruce Hawker, from lobbying firm Hawker Britton. Hawker is generally considered to be one of the smartest campaigners in politics, left or right. He had been working on Anna Bligh’s re-election campaign in Queensland, but he’s had to step down to work full time as Rudd’s consigliere. That’s thrown Bligh’s already turbulent campaign into chaos. The collateral damage of this leadership showdown will continue to grow.

It’s interesting to examine how matters came to such an ugly denouement. Tactically, both sides have made mistakes, allowing the situation to spiral out of control.

Rudd, for instance, might have been better served to wait quietly in the cabinet as Foreign Minister, while Julia Gillard’s popularity slowly crumbled away. The optimal time for Rudd to inherit would be around June 2013, a few months out from the 2013 election. If Rudd had been patient enough, he might won back the prime ministership without a fight.

But, as a friend of mine in the Queensland Labor Party told me, that’s not Kevin’s style. "Kevin goes hard and early," he wrote in an email. "He’s a whirlwind of fists and fury." So Rudd allowed himself and his followers to open a shadow campaign for the leadership. The backgrounding to press gallery journalists was ceaseless and ferocious. So constant did the media speculation about leadership become, it started to create its own reality, as Tim Dunlop argues today.

The goading worked almost too well. Gillard and her supporters, particularly her cabinet colleagues like Simon Crean and Nicola Roxon, lost their patience and started to return fire. As a result, the situation quickly escalated to a point where a leadership challenge became unavoidable, if only because Gillard felt forced to pull the trigger and call a spill herself.

Now Rudd has been caught short in terms of the numbers in caucus. He does not appear likely to win the leadership ballot on Monday morning, and some are even speculating that he may decline to contest.

Either way, it seems that Gillard will retain the prime ministership, and that Rudd will exit to the backbench. Both will be further damaged by this episode. Gillard’s authority will be further eroded, if that is possible, while Rudd will be free to destabilise from the backbench. Contrary to the hopes of the Gillard camp, it seems unlikely the breach can be healed quickly. This will not "end matters". The turmoil will continue. The bleeding won’t stop.

I think this soap opera will be disastrous for the ALP in the long term. It may damage the Labor brand for a generation. The only winners are the Coalition and the Greens.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.