How The Comeback Kid Plays The Game


Two weeks into the Rudd Reboot, and the comeback kid's strategy is doing rather better than expected.

If the polls are to be believed, Kevin 2.0 is proving popular with voters. Labor's vote, which languished for years in unwinnable territory, is now back to a highly competitive position, with a recent Morgan poll even putting the ALP in front. As politicians love to remind us, polls go up and down, and time will tell whether Rudd's honeymoon will last. But given that Rudd's return as leader is totally and completely about Labor's electoral fortunes, polls are probably the best way to measure the current experiment.

It's an experiment that is already producing unexpected results for the Labor caucus that so reluctantly returned the leadership baton to the once-and-future king. Rudd was never a plaything of the factions in his first stint as ALP leader, and his return to the top job has ceded him wide latitude to pursue an agenda of internal party reform.

In the past week, we've already seen two significant announcements along those lines. First, Rudd has seized temporary control of the New South Wales branch of the ALP, in order to push through some modest reforms to party governance there. Yesterday, Rudd moved to inject some direct democracy into the ALP federal parliamentary leadership.

The first measure, to intervene in the NSW Labor Party, is an incremental reform. As Wendy Bacon argued here last week, the move is not exactly a “take-over”, given that it is being thoroughly supported by several factional bosses, including the current New South Wales party secretary, Sam Dastyari, and the deputy Prime Minister (and leader of the NSW left), Anthony Albanese. As veteran NSW journalist Alex Mitchell observed for the ABC, “the NSW bureaucracy will remain intact — indeed, state secretary Sam Dastyari is tipped to replace Foreign Minister Bob Carr in the Senate if Labor loses the upcoming election and Carr hands in his resignation".

On the other hand, it did give Rudd a series of headlines that will well suit his developing election strategy of running against his own party, particularly in New South Wales, where the stench of Eddie Obeid's corruption hangs heavy.

The move to open up the leadership vote to party members is much more significant. It will dramatically broaden Labor's democratic process for choosing the parliamentary leader, and potentially re-energise Labor's sclerotic branch structure. It also introduces a measure of stability into Labor's party leadership – a stability that the party has desperately needed over the last three years.

The new measure is a type of UK Labour-style vote, which would see ordinary party members get a 50 per cent say in the Labor parliamentary leadership, with the other half of the vote coming from caucus members. The vote would ensconce leaders for a three year term, and a sitting leader could only be deposed during a term if three-quarters of the caucus moved against her. “Make no mistake, this is the most significant reform for the Australian Labor Party in recent history,” Rudd intoned at the media conference.

Many will see the irony in a leader pushing through a reform which would have prevented his removal from office, had it been in place in 2010. But opening up Australia's political parties to more direct democracy can hardly be a bad thing, as I've long argued here at New Matilda and elsewhere. The record of Labor's factional system is producing good government is not an encouraging one; Labor itself has recognised the need for internal reform. Interestingly, two of the ALP's key factional bosses, Bill Shorten and Paul Howes, have come out in support of the reform this morning.

Many will remain cynical about Rudd's moves to democratise the party until ongoing reform of the party's structure ensues – especially in regards to the power wielded by trade unions in the committee and conference structure of the party. While it has the power to intervene in key party decisions like seat preselections, the party machine will always be tempted to exercise that power – as we may say in coming weeks.

But the political value of Rudd's moves against the factions will be much more immediate. Rudd has opened up a two-front war in his campaign to win a third term for Labor. He is fighting Tony Abbott, of course – and on current polling he is trumping Abbott in preferred prime minister ratings. But, as George Megalogenis recently argued, Rudd is also going to run against the Labor Party itself, particularly in New South Wales.

With Labor's brand damaged by the turmoil of recent months, Rudd will try to present himself as a figure who can rise above the “negative politics”, to use one of his favourite catch-phrases: a reformed man who has learned from his errors and who can put the faceless men in their place. 

The playbook might well be the one used by Queensland Premier Peter Beattie in 2001, when the Queensland ALP had become embroiled in a corruption scandal. Beattie presented himself as a party reformer running against the unions and the factions. Aided by favourable comparisons to an unpopular opposition leader, he won handsomely.

In fact, the reference to Queensland's political history may be more than simply a handy factoid for those looking to construct a path to victory for Kevin Rudd. The sunshine state again looms as a crucial bellwether in the coming election.

Queensland has long been a more volatile electorate than southern states, with more swinging seats and fewer safe seats. This year's election makes it even more important than usual, because of the slew of Labor seats won by the Coalition in 2010. The Coalition picked up five seats in and around Brisbane in 2010, plus four in north Queensland. Under Julia Gillard, Labor looked likely to lose every seat in the state except Rudd's own electorate of Griffith. Now, with a federal vote north of the tweed approaching 50-50, Labor could be in the running to win back as many as eight seats.

Labor's chances are of course hugely assisted by the local popularity of Rudd. But the Queensland LNP government of Campbell Newman is also starting to lose ground, due to some unpopular spending cuts in its first term. During his time as a backbencher, Rudd campaigned hard against Newman and his budget austerity. Labor is now hoping to pick up Brisbane marginals like Brisbane, Forde, Longman and Bonner, and hold its own swing seats like Rankin and Moreton.

This is where the electoral maths get interesting, as a number of poll bloggers have observed. In contrast to the 2010 wipeout in Queensland, the ALP held the line in New South Wales and actually gained votes in Victoria. This gives it a little bit of protection in seats the Coalition needs to win government, such as in western Sydney and outer Melbourne. If Labor can win big in Queensland and hold its ground in New South Wales and Victoria, Rudd can win in 2013.

Much will depend on whether Labor's strong polling under Rudd is a “sugar hit”, or a lasting realignment. If it's the former, the Coalition should be able to reassert its anti-Labor narrative. If the latter, Tony Abbott should get ready for some serious headaches.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.