Rudd's Dirty Game Pays Off


The dust has settled, the vanquished departed, and the victor is currently dividing his meagre spoils.

Kevin Rudd has replaced Julia Gillard as Australia's Prime Minister. For the second time in three years, the elected prime minister of the country has been torn down and replaced without the sanction of the ballot box. A democratic system that a century ago was considered a world leader is beginning to show its age. The scent is not one of decomposition, but there is a whiff of decay.

Last night, Julia Gillard resigned her commission from the Governor-General. So did many of her cabinet colleagues, including Treasurer and deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, and  Industry Minister Craig Emerson, as well as the Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. Kevin Rudd was sworn in as the new Prime Minister this morning, along with a new Deputy Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese. A new cabinet will need to follow, perhaps tomorrow.

Of course, all of the key executive personnel also departed – the chiefs of staff, the spin doctors, the policy advisors, many of whom have far more say in the policies of the nation than any ordinary government backbencher – to be replaced by a new team. Depending on your definition of “reshuffle”, this will be the sixth or seventh cabinet reshuffle in this term of Parliament.

In other words, the Government changed overnight. Again. Constitutionally and as a matter of administrative personnel, the government of Australia was replaced this morning. It was replaced without an election. In 2013, that's not good enough. 

Australia's representative democratic system is based on parties, and parties can and do change their leaders. Even so, Australian election campaigns are increasingly presidential, and voters are primarily asked to lend their support to leaders, rather than parties, or, heaven forbid, policies.

The Kevin07 campaign, for instance, was based in many respects on Bill Clinton's 1992 playbook, and Rudd's presence was inescapable during the 2007 campaign. In 2010, Gillard's troubled campaign lurched from honeymoon to the “real Julia” in a matter of weeks. It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't particularly policy-focused either.

The televised remark that would so damage Gillard's prime ministership was unmistakeably anchored around a personal pronoun. “There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead,” Gillard said, and the critical phrase might actually have been “government I lead” rather than “no carbon tax”.

There's no disguising the fundamentally presidential nature of our politics. Ask yourself who you want to vote for come the election. Is it Kevin Rudd, or the Australian Labor Party? Is it Tony Abbott, or the Liberal Party? Leaders matter – especially prime ministers. The opinion pollsters are convinced that prime ministerial satisfaction ratings translate directly to the two-party preferred vote.

The chart we show here is by respected Australian poll blogger Scott Steel, also known as Possum Comitatus. Using Newspoll data up until September 2012, it compares the net satisfaction ratings of Rudd and Gillard as prime ministers with the two-party preferred votes of the ALP. As you can see, Rudd nearly always polled better than Gillard in terms of his satisfaction ratings (the x-axis).

Steel argues that Gillard's leadership ratings can be shown, statistically, to be the cause of Labor's poor two-party preferred vote. “Whether it’s the government, or us, or the media environment (or some combination thereof) that has caused this dynamic, the one thing we do know is that leadership matters more today than it has at any time over the last 25 years,” he wrote last September. “The Prime Minister today doesn’t just lead the government – as far as voter perceptions and voting intentions go, they are the government.”

This helps to explain why Labor parliamentarians finally pulled the trigger on Julia Gillard last night. As the rictus-face of Bill Shorten when speaking to the media yesterday attested, many clearly hate themselves for betraying Gillard and returning to the man they deposed three years ago. Many in Labor have spent the last three years publicly attacking Rudd for his megalomania, his micro-management and his manifest lack of personal courtesy. When push finally came to shove, as Gillard herself admitted in her fine speech last night, the pressure finally told.

With Rudd back in the top job and Labor presumably finally ready to unify behind the victor of this vicious civil war, many voters will be left to wonder whether this is really the best way to decide who gets to run the country. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that voters hate this stuff.

Who can blame them? It's hardly good government when the party governing the country spends more than three years engaged in vicious internal warfare. It can't be good for schools policy when the schools minister resigns on the very afternoon that the key policy he has been negotiating with the states and territories passes the Senate.

So if leadership is so important – to voters, to parties, and obviously to the media – why don't ordinary voters get a say? It's a question that can only be answered with a lengthy civics lesson that refers to Australia's founding fathers (there were indeed largely male) and their antipodean hybrid of British and American democratic institutions. Many Australian voters no doubt realise that by voting for a party, they are delegating their say on who leads that party. But at election after election, they are asked to vote for a person, not a party, let alone a policy.

This uneasy power dynamic occurs in all representative democracies. As John Stuart Mill recognised in the 1860s, voters ultimately give their elected representatives a kind of “power of attorney” to do as they please. And that raises some concerns for voters, who can't be in Parliament every day to check on how their local MP is voting. Should representatives be bound by pledges they made during election campaigns? Mill says no: parliamentarians should be free to change their minds.

Even Mill admitted that this risks disillusioning voters. In his book Representative Democracy, Mill openly acknowledged that voters would largely be split between Tories and Liberals, the two main groupings of his day. Given this, the most democratic option is surely to give voters – or at the very least party members – a real say in who should be the leader.

Many other parties in many other countries do exactly that. Indeed, a comparison with the ALP's closest cousins in Britain and America reveals the increasingly antiquated nature of the Australian system. Neither the US Democratic Party nor the British Labour Party decide their leadership solely on the opinions of elected representatives. In the US, both the Republicans and the Democrats hold primaries, which are often more vigorous and intense campaigns than the final contest for president itself. In the UK, British Labour gives party members and trade unions a direct vote alongside parliamentarians, in a three-part system that is considerably more direct than the federal Australian Labor Party.

Three years ago, when writing about Julia Gillard's dramatic ascension to power, I argued that Labor's decision to change the prime minister was fundamentally disenfranchising for ordinary voters, and would only accelerate the cynicism many feel towards our democracy and Parliament. The events of last night – indeed, of the last three years – have surely shown as much.

Looking back over the three years and two days of Gillard's prime ministership, we can see many policy achievements, but much political failure. The towering pinnacle of Gillard's achievement will be the stunning example of her grace under extraordinary pressure as the first female PM.

Julia Gillard's speech last night was of the very highest quality, calm, collected, steely but also unexpectedly warm. The contrast with Rudd's bewildered and sooky effort three years ago is instructive. In due course, New Matilda will devote the appropriate attention to Gillard's policy legacy, which rivals only Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam's in the scope of its reform.

But we can also see that Gillard's leadership was crippled by a number of factors,  almost from the start. Not least among them was a lurking distaste by many voters for the way in which she rose to the office. There was a vicious sexist undercurrent to many of the sentiments expressed about Gillard, but there was also a real unease with the undemocratic nature of the way she seized the top job, and with the Labor Party's incomprehensible internal hatreds and disunities.

The campaign mounted by Tony Abbot and conservative sections of the media against her leadership was also devastatingly effective, but one of the reasons for its potency was the sense of illegitimacy engendered (a word I use deliberately) by Gillard's rise to power, and by the minority nature of her government.

As the new Prime Minister and the restored leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, Kevin Rudd will have many pressing issues. In the longer term, Rudd is a symptom of the ALP's failures, not a saviour. He may believe, as he reportedly told his caucus colleagues, that he can do more than “save the furniture” in the forthcoming election, but genuinely contest for victory. Even so, a last-gasp Labor win this year will hardly heal the party's deep wounds, or the increasingly broken social contract of Australian democracy.

For me, the most telling aspect of the last 18 hours was the way in which politicians and journalists talked repeatedly about how Kevin Rudd would give Labor a better chance of communicating to ordinary voters. As seems to happen more and more often these days, voters were talked about in the third person, as though we weren't there. For the personalities in the media in front of the klieg lights, ordinary voters still count as the audience, not the participants, in our democracy –  the masses watching this tawdry spectacle from their living rooms.

The relentless self-referentiality of the current Parliament, wrapped up in its intricate power games, has surely disgusted many citizens, and not just those feminists and female voters who identify with Julia Gillard.

Those who wanted to vote for her won't get a chance to. Those who wanted to vote her out won't either. That can't be good for our democracy. Perhaps that's why a recent Lowy poll could not even find a majority of younger Australians in favour of the institution of democracy. More than a quarter said that “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”, while fully a fifth said that “it doesn't matter what sort of government we have.”

Amanda Lohrey had a recent article in The Monthly in which she discussed that poll. “Our political culture has never been more cynical,” she wrote. “It is fraying at the edges, mired in ignorance and negativity.” Lohrey surely speaks for many.

I got a text message from my mother last night along the same lines. “Politics is such a dirty game,” she wrote to me. “Sad for women, sad for intelligence … a victory for bastardry.”

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.