The End Of Kevin Rudd

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The word “implosion” only barely covers yesterday's events in Canberra. Every time you think it can't get worse for the Australian Labor Party, that's when the party unlocks the shotgun cabinet and invites all the caucus to a foot-shooting ball. Time and again, federal Labor seems determined to snatch catastrophe from the jaws of defeat.

After a night's sleep, Labor's self-immolation only looks stranger. It feels like the morning after a really wild party, where the fuzzy-headed attendees struggle to piece together an improbable train of events.

The bare facts of Thursday's farce can be detailed in a few spare sentences. After months of guerilla warfare waged by the forces of the Rudd camp, an angry — or perhaps desperate — Simon Crean burst into the open, opting to bring the simmering tensions to a head by calling a leadership spill. Julia Gillard retained the support of a majority of her colleagues. Realising that he lacked the numbers to win back the Prime Ministership, Kevin Rudd decided not to stand.

The result was anti-climax. With no bloody denouement in the caucus room, it was the Prime Minister who again emerged the victor.

A triumphant Gillard was welcomed back to her office by cheering staffers, while Rudd supporters scrambled to fall on their swords. Simon Crean, memorably described by Anne Summers this morning as the “mad uncle at the wedding”, was summarily sacked even before question time.

Overnight, a purge of the Rudd camp has begun. Apart from Crean, whose suicide mission is still eliciting bewilderment from colleagues and commentators, a number of junior cabinet members and whips are also departing, including Parliamentary Secretary Richard Marles, and Whips Ed Husic and Janelle Saffin. Tertiary Education Minister Chris Bowen joined them this morning.   

In the short-term, the bloodless non-coup will help Julia Gillard and her government, by finally halting the endless destabilisation of Kevin Rudd and his supporters from the equation. But the toll has been fearful. Gillard has lost two of the government's better performers in Simon Crean and Chris Bowen, and sustained awful collateral damage to the Labor “brand”. 

Labor looked like a rabble yesterday. The arguments put forward by the Opposition since the beginning of this minority Parliament — that this government is chaotic, incompetent and incapable of governing itself, let alone the nation — have never been more plausible. Six months of steady government will not be enough to erase these memories; it will be that much more difficult to win back the voters Labor has already lost. 

Nor can we really expect the destabilisation and the leaking to stop. There will be numerous calls for unity in coming days, but we shouldn't expect Rudd to stop trying to undermine his successor. Hatred in the Labor Party runs deep. The cross-factional nature of the divisions exposed yesterday will only add rancour to an already bitter environment, and there will be considerable score-settling taking place today behind the scenes.

Where to now? As the blood-letting continues, Gillard will get the opportunity to clean out the Rudd supporters from leadership positions, if not from Parliament. She might — might — get a week or two of precious “clear air” to prosecute the government's case. The timetable of government grinds on. Labor has the small matters of a federal budget to deliver, a legislative agenda to complete, and an election to fight. Still, it's hard to see how the party can recover from its many self-inflicted wounds to win a third term of government by September.  

For Kevin Rudd, this is surely the end of his immediate ambitions. Even in the wake of a Labor loss in September, the key factional power bases in the federal party remain resolutely lined up against him, particularly the union-aligned factions like the AWU. His public standing has been harmed. It seems unlikely that he would be trusted to lead the party again in October.

Nor can he be trusted. This is the man that has done more damage to Julia Gillard's prime ministership than Tony Abbott. It was Rudd and his supporters who derailed Labor's 2010 election campaign with a series of devastating leaks. It is Rudd and his supporters who have relentlessly backgrounded journalists for most of this parliamentary term in an attempt to undermine the current leadership. It is Rudd who encouraged this week's crisis to develop, in the hope of finally regaining the prime ministership. Kevin Rudd's achievements as prime minister were substantial. His conduct since losing that office has sullied that record.

A final word needs to be said about the media's role in this dismal affair. It has not been a positive one. By acting as willing conduits for leaks and anonymously sourced stories, press gallery journalists have thrown fuel on the internal fires. In some cases, they can even be said to have taken sides. That's not, in my view, an appropriate role for political correspondents.

But it takes two to tango, and if journalists have assisted the leaking, it is parliamentarians who have often initiated it. “Don't bother ringing me afterwards for off-the-record chats,” Bowen told journalists in his press conference this morning, tacitly admitting that there have been many off-the-record chats in the run-up to yesterday's spill.

That's part of the problem for this government, and indeed the Labor Party in general. The ceaseless leaking and backgrounding against factional and party enemies has been instrumental in creating devastating instability for a government that desperately needs to make every post a winner between now and 14 September. Imagine the delight in Coalition ranks just now.

Labor's internal culture is broken. It will take years of internal reform to rebuild a more democratic, responsive and electorally appealing party.

Spare a thought in all of this for a group of people that haven't much been mentioned in this tumultuous week in politics: voters. We've heard barely a word about policy all week. Indeed, this civil war is not about policy: there are vanishingly few differences between the policy platforms put forward by the Gillard and Rudd camps. If this conflict is about anything at all, it is about which leader will appeal better to voters, rather than which leader has the best policies to improve voters' lives.

Australia's citizens have a right to expect their elected representatives are giving their full attention to working for the benefit of all our society. Obsessed by its own internal divisions, this Labor government is not doing that. Indeed, after this week's events, you could make a good case that party-based parliamentary democracy is not doing that.

Perhaps its time for Australians to consider alternative ways to elect their governments. At least then voters would have a direct say.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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