The Kevin and Julia show has wound its way to the latest denouement in an increasingly messy saga. As expected, Gillard has won comfortably, even overwhelmingly.
Many will be shaking their heads and wondering how it got to this, both inside and outside the Labor Party. It’s a tale that encompasses much that is wrong with our political system.
Principally to blame are of course the protagonists themselves, who apparently can’t distinguish personal animus from the national interest. But underlying the corner office psychodrama are some very real structural issues. Teasing them out will help us understand the broader trends of this unseemly imbroglio for our democracy.
The issue of character cannot be ignored. On one level, the mess that Labor has got itself into resembles the worst kind of office politics. The current impasse is one largely about personality, rather than policy. The crisis has thrown key aspects of each of the two protagonists’ characters into stark relief.
Gillard has again shown her toughness, discipline and organisational nous. Rudd has again demonstrated his superior media skills. But the crisis has also shown the two leaders’ flaws. Gillard has allowed her own supporters to engage in an astonishing display of public anger and resentment against the former leader. Rudd has again shown that his boundless ambition and self-regard are untethered from the reality of numbers in the party room.
Serious consideration must be given to the role of the media in this affair. It’s certainly true that the disunity, the infighting and the relentless backgrounding is driven by the politicians, not the journalists. But that only makes clear just how useful friendly journalists are to politicians wishing to push their own agendas.
The ethical constraints of journalists prepared to protect the identity of anonymous sources aids and abets this manipulation. The result, as Michael Gawenda has argued, can potentially be stories in which journalists carry on-the-record statements from politicians that are completely incompatible with the backgrounding they’ve also reported, anonymously, from the same source.
The enthusiasm with which the media has carried rumours of leadership speculation has undoubtedly contributed to the destabilisation of the Gillard government in 2012. As I’ve argued here and elsewhere, the ramp-up in the amount and pitch of media coverage meant that that neither the Rudd nor Gillard forces were able to keep matters under control.
The reason I confidently — and wrongly — predicted that Kevin Rudd would not challenge was that his support base within the caucus always appeared slim. And today’s result confirms it. Kevin Rudd’s challenge now looks vain, even quixotic. The final margin of 71-31 proves Mark Latham’s point that Julia Gillard can count, and Kevin Rudd can’t. It seems as though Rudd never had more than a handful of disaffected MPs behind him. A less vainglorious man would have recognised the reality and withdrawn his challenge. Rudd preferred to play out the drama, perhaps revelling in the wreckage accumulating around Labor’s brand.
Of course, it’s not just about the personalities. Other trends tell us about the inter-related nature of our political system. There is now a media-lobbying-political complex that encompasses much more than merely parliamentarians and parties. Things like 24-hour news channels, lobbying firms and think tanks, political parties, pollsters, unions and industry groups and the blogosphere all interact in the complex public sphere of contemporary politics. The way these various agents and forces interact can shape the way politics is carried on, and ultimately the sort of policies and laws governments execute.
We saw a perfect encapsulation of this in the way the leadership result was first reported by the media. The figure of 73-29 was not officially announced; in fact, the doors of the party room remained closed. But someone from inside the party room leaked the figure to Fairfax’s Phil Coorey, who in turn tweeted.
Because of Coorey’s prominent position in the Canberra press gallery, most of the rest of the media assumed it was correct, and quickly reported it. When Deputy Whip Chris Hayes emerged to announce the official result, it was actually 71-31. It’s an example of how modern communication technologies are speeding up political reporting, but not necessarily improving its accuracy.
Bruce Hawker’s role in this affair is another illustration of the wheels within the wheels. Hawker is a hugely influential figure in contemporary Australian politics, able to move seamlessly between the worlds of Labor factional politics, polling and campaigning, and the media spin-cycle. His role in the current turmoil as a key campaign manager for Anna Bligh has not stopped him from acting as Kevin Rudd’s consigliere and as a ubiquitous talking head on the 24-hour news channels.
And yet Hawker is obviously not a member of caucus, and has no official role in the Labor Party. His influence is a factor of his ability to swim in the choppy waters of the political soup. However, given the crash-and-burn nature of Rudd’s challenge, Hawker will be persona non grata for many in the party.
The spill also tells us some interesting things about the Labor factions and their declining power, particularly on the right.
Once upon a time, the New South Wales Right faction was an all-powerful force in the party, able to deliver dozens of caucus votes in a bloc that could swing most leadership ballots. That’s not the case this time round, with baby-faced NSW right supremo Sam Dastyari reportedly giving factional members an open vote. As it turns out, quite a few lined up in favour of Rudd, probably because they believed he can help them retain their seats.
Similarly, while Anthony Albanese, Doug Cameron and a few other prominent members of the Left have declared their support for Rudd, there was still plenty of support in the Left for Julia Gillard — for instance, Tanya Plibersek. Thus, the spill seems to have further fractured an already splintered ALP, pitting colleagues against each other across different states and philosophical positions. It will be difficult to convince voters of party unity should Gillard make it all the way to a 2013 election.
There’s a further interesting point to note about the power of the factions, which is that at a structural level some kind of insurgent campaign by a Labor leader (or former leader) against the factions was inevitable. The lack of talent within the power-broking class of factional leaders (Mark Arbib for PM, anyone?) means that parties generally turn to charismatic leaders to deliver electoral appeal. After all, while caucus decides the leader, and factions in large part determine who gets into the caucus, when it comes to a general election, political parties run presidential campaigns. We were asked to vote for Kevin07 in 2007, and the removal of that charismatic figurehead in the middle of the night continues to baffle and unsettle Australian voters.
Indeed, Labor has a record of choosing charismatic leaders who do not necessarily themselves enjoy significant support inside their own party. In 2004, for instance, Labor presented Mark Latham to voters, a man who quickly showed himself in possession of just as many character flaws as Kevin Rudd’s cabinet colleagues complain of in their former leader. Both Latham and Rudd were elected on the back of a belief that they could win an election and deliver Labor from the electoral wilderness. In Rudd’s case, he did.
But in modern politics, winning elections is no longer enough. Staying ahead in the polls appears to be just as important. It’s a fortnightly test of political legitimacy that creates constant pressure on under-performing leaders and parties. Few leaders can survive a sustained run of bad polling without at least some rumblings within their own party. If Labor was leading the Coalition in primary vote polling, Julia Gillard’s position would never have been in doubt.
There is a fundamental disconnect here with the broader Australian electorate, which tends not to worry overly about politics between general elections. If there can be no doubt of the importance of leaders as political figureheads for voters to latch on to, there can also be no doubt that the constant intrigue experienced in the inner circles of Canberra politics is largely irrelevant to the large majority of voters.
Where does that leave Rudd and Gillard, the Labor Party, and indeed Australian democracy? For Rudd, it’s a disaster. But then again, seeing as the man doesn’t seem to notice personal failures too closely, he may not consider it the crushing defeat it clearly was. Further destabilisation from the backbench seems almost certain. At the very least, Rudd can keep leaking juicy secrets to friendly journalists for the remainder of Julia Gillard’s time in office.
At worst, he could have yet another tilt at the leadership in nine or 12 months time, as absurd as that seems now. For Gillard, it’s hard to see this as much of a victory. She has certainly proved the support of her colleagues. But while her polling figures remain dire, her position will always be in doubt. The gossip about a third candidate challenging before the 20123 election will now gather steam. Given Labor’s apparently inexhaustible capacity for internal intrigue, you’d be a fool to rule out such a challenge.
For the ALP as a party, the damage has been massive. Two talented leaders have been used up within five years of gaining office. Labor continues to govern, but it has thrown away what little reservoirs of public trust it might have retained. Politics is an unpredictable business, but it seems almost impossible to imagine that Labor’s poll figures could recover to an election-winning position.
As for our democracy, that too has been damaged. Precious little governing has gone on in the past fortnight, and our Foreign Minister has resigned in the middle of an overseas trip.
More durably, many of the worst stereotypes held by the public about the petty motivations of those pursuing public office have been confirmed. Politics should be about more than who has the numbers, and who is best equipped to beat the other team. Perhaps now this episode of the soap opera has ended, we can all go back to thinking about the best policies for Australia as a whole.
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