Living by the sword

June 28, 2013

By David Hetherington

In the annals of fratricide, Australian Labor bows to no one.  Its scripts would do the Bard himself proud. Last night, three years and three days after its last bloodletting, Labor was at it again.

At his third attempt since 2010, Kevin Rudd defeated Julia Gillard in the Labor party room to retake the Labor leadership and the office of Prime Minister, a reversal of events three years ago when Ms Gillard deposed Mr Rudd.  After the vote, Ms Gillard said she would quit politics.

The departures did not end there.  At night’s end, the roll of the departed included not only a Prime Minister, but the Ministers of Treasury, Climate Change, Education, Trade, Communications and Agriculture.  All resigned, saying they could not serve under Mr Rudd.

The drama was only heightened by the paradoxes surrounding the protagonists.  Ms Gillard is loved by party members and peers, but unpopular with the electorate.  Mr Rudd is adored by voters, but abhorred by Labor colleagues who have publicly decried his chaotic work style and demeaning treatment of those around him.

What is striking is that these colleagues have now been willing to set aside their dislike of Mr Rudd to improve Labor’s chances at the forthcoming election.  Given the depth of their feeling, it is hard to overstate the power of self-interest in this calculation.

Like most modern politics, the calculation is based on opinion polls. The polls held that Labor could not win under Ms Gillard, but stood a fighting chance under Mr Rudd, whose personal popularity dwarfs both Ms Gillard’s and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s.

What no-one knows, of course, is how the polls will respond to yesterday’s events.  One possibility is that Mr Rudd enjoys a second honeymoon period, propelling him ahead of Mr Abbott.  Another is that the public reacts with fury at the ejection of their Prime Minister by the so-called “faceless men”, the factional leaders who dictate numbers in the party room.  This was the reaction after Ms Gillard deposed Mr Rudd in 2010.  This time, no-one can be sure whether he will be seen as aggressor or prodigal son.

The public’s response, in turn, will dictate the timing of the election.  Ms Gillard had set 14 September as the election date, but Mr Rudd has some flexibility.  If a honeymoon period sets in, he may be tempted early to the polls, as soon as 3 August.  If he feels he can best Mr Abbott on the campaign trail, he may wait as late as November.

One of Labor’s few remaining advantages – its strong Cabinet team – has been dramatically reduced by the switch.  The Coalition’s front bench is notably weak, but the loss of half a dozen senior Ministers will test the Government’s depth.  It is critical that Mr Rudd quickly develops good working relationships with his new team.  His minders vow that he has learned from his experiences, and promises to be more “consultative”.  It will be fascinating to see if he can truly overcome the less attractive character traits that hobbled his previous period in office.

What of policy? For the most part, Labor’s internal battle has been of personality rather than policy, so much will stay the same.  Mr Rudd will keep the new national disability insurance scheme and recent school funding reforms.  He will also keep the carbon price, but is likely to move to an emissions trading scheme sooner than planned and may well delay the price increase planned for 1 July.

His biggest test may well be on the issue of asylum seekers.  The number of boats arriving on Australia’s northwest coast has increased dramatically, and comments from the Foreign Minister Bob Carr last night suggest that Labor might again toughen its treatment of these refugees. While this might win back some more votes in the centre, it will further alienate Labor’s progressive wing.  Mr Abbott promises to simply “stop the boats”, but no easy solution exists.  Mr Rudd knows this, and will travel to Indonesia next week in an attempt to strengthen regional approaches to the issue.

And finally, it is timely to reflect on the legacy of Ms Gillard.  Her farewell speech last night encompassed all her best attributes – tough, eloquent, personable, funny.

There is no doubt she contributed to her own demise.  She made crucial missteps on asylum seekers, media reform, and parliamentary tactics.  Her place as Australia’s first female Prime Minister earned her both support and vitriol, revealing a darker side of modern Australian society, and her famous misogyny speech will reverberate long after she leaves.  Above all, her policy achievements will define her legacy – a carbon price, a disability insurance scheme, enormous investment in education.

As Prime Minister, she lived and died by the sword.  And tough as she is, Julia Gillard wouldn’t have had it any other way.