Is Julie Bishop our most under-rated politician? Column for The New Daily.
The vexed issue called ‘leadership’. Weekly column for The Drum.
Is MH17 Abbott’s turning point? This week’s post for The Hoopla.
Turnbull is playing the long game. Occasional post for SBS comment & analysis.
The second coming of Malcolm. Weekly column for The Drum.
Until the declaration of the Labor leadership ballot result on Sunday afternoon, the shiny-eyed idealism generated by the process was a delight to behold. It was something I hadn’t seen since my teens when I was involved in the youth wing of a political party.
Democracy, apparently, was what it was all about.
But you see, no it wasn’t. The leadership ballot was only ever about survival: the survival of one K. Rudd. And now the process is over, there are arguably more disgruntled Labor members than before thanks to Rudd yet again creating expectations that could not be met.
Much to the consternation of Albo supporters throughout the land, it turns out having ‘a’ say in the Labor leadership is not the same as having ‘the’ say. Albanese’s just under 60 per cent of the popular vote wasn’t enough to beat Shorten’s almost 64 per cent of the Caucus vote.
Rudd’s decision to give Labor members a say in the election of party leader was just one element in the package of reforms he designed to take power away from the faceless factional foes that tore him from the big chair. A bonus feature was that it would draw new blood (and thereby money and physical resources) to a party haemorrhaging members because of four years infighting over Rudd, Gillard and their increasingly non-Labor stance on some issues such as asylum seekers.
The promise of potential new members and a reinvigorated party helped to take the authoritarian edge off the other part of Rudd’s reform – its true purpose – which was to make it almost impossible for the party leader to be removed from office between elections. Having assessed the pros and cons, factional leaders bit the bullet and approved the changes in the hope they would assist in Rudd’s ‘saving the furniture’ strategy.
But once the election was over, and Rudd despatched, it became quickly clear that the reforms could not quietly be reversed by Caucus (as was being canvassed by some in the party). Labor MPs were left holding the Democracy Baby, and decided to make the best of it.
They did pretty well too, kitting the baby out in fine democracy clothes. Hastily redrawn rules by Labor’s National Executive opened the vote to all party members regardless of time served. Nationally televised festivals of agreement, or ‘debates’, showed the nation how durable and decorative was the wallpaper covering the party’s Rudd-Gillard cracks. And real party members got to ask real questions at real party events around the country – although few received real answers in return.
But behind the scenes, factions were being factional, which is hardly surprising given Albanese and Shorten are both ideological warriors. The party’s factional tectonic plates did not fuse overnight once the Left’s Albanese decided to make the Right’s Shorten work for the leadership (thereby automatically entrenching the leadership ballot process for future years and giving the Left a better chance to compete against the Right-dominated Caucus).
Stories emerged of unions and factions attempting to impose bloc voting on party members. While less successful at the party level this tactic worked in Caucus where members of the Right used the buddy system to show colleagues they’d followed the ticket.
And as at least one political observer on Twitter has pointed out, the leadership outcome is the same as if Caucus had made the choice on its own (as it would have done before the Rudd-survival reforms).
Sadly, Albanese’s claim that a horse’s head has been delivered to factional leaders is nothing more than a gracious loser’s empty rhetoric. This may become more evident as the shadow ministers are elected by Caucus and then allocated portfolios by the Leader.
The tectonic plates remain disparate but constantly agitating. The remaining MPs who supported Gillard or at least opposed Rudd will not easily set aside their condemnation of the colleagues who plotted for his return despite claims of furniture saved. Some make a distinction between Shorten’s ‘honorable’ change of heart in support of Rudd (similar to that of Penny Wong) compared with Albanese being a long-term Rudd lieutenant while standing at Gillard’s side.
While the usual post government election loss recriminations and blood-letting have been avoided by virtue of the leadership campaign, the temptation to hold the Rudd spoilers to account is strong and may endure, damning Labor to many years in opposition.
On the bright side, Labor party members have had more access to, and attention from, senior parliamentarians in the past month than any other time on record. The party machine and parliamentarians can either build on that initial engagement by including members in activities were they can observe their influence on the party, or treat them like mushrooms until the next leadership ballot.
It’s not as easy a choice as it looks, considering that giving members a ‘real’ say in other party matters necessarily means reducing the influence of the unions and factions that just helped Shorten get elected.
Shorten no longer has to worry about the Democracy Baby, but he does now have a grumpy Minority Toddler on his hands – the rump of Labor members and MPs who did not prefer him as leader.
Having a convincing majority of the Caucus behind him, Shorten has the potential to emerge as a strong and compelling Labor leader.
A few favourable runs in the media and resulting modest recovery in the polls may yet be enough to assuage the disappointment of Albo supporters and rally them to Shorten’s cause.
If the party falls in behind Shorten and sticks to its stated principles, it can become an extremely effective Opposition.
If it doesn’t, it will only have itself to blame.
This post also appeared at ABC’s The Drum.
Like so many of Kevin Rudd’s other hare-brained initiatives, this one must have been a good idea at the time.
The thinking may well have been that by changing the rules for electing the parliamentary leader to incorporate the popular vote from party members, Rudd could capitalise on his broader public support in the face of any future caucus antipathy.
The move was audacious at the time of announcement: in a single move the re-invented Prime Minister bolstered Fortress Rudd while giving disaffected Labor Party members and wavering supporters a reason to stay.
Much was made of Rudd’s democratisation of the party but – in perhaps the strongest sign that Kevin truly believed he would win the election and a leadership vote would be redundant – it seems little thought was given to how it would work in practice. The warm inner glow generated by the reform has dissipated in the dark days since the poll.
Now the party’s National Executive appears to be making up the rules as it goes along.
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How can anyone take a benign interpretation from Kevin Rudd’s interview on 730 last night?
If Rudd’s genuine intention was to extinguish the smoking embers of his supporters’ expectations, why insist on grandstanding for half the interview on matters relating to China and the US?
What on earth does the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister’s views on Sino-American relations have to do with an earnest campaign to keep Tony Abbott out of office?
Not much, unless it is about reminding voters what a clever clogs One K. Rudd is and how his party is superior on foreign matters.
Or something, something.
And if Rudd’s genuine intention was to demonstrate his complete and utter disinterest in being recruited, dragooned, enlisted or otherwise begged back into the Prime Ministership, why did he not repeat the actual words of the commitment he made after the faux coup non-ballot in March?
Before entering the Caucus room for the non-leadership coup this year, Rudd said:
I have said that the only circumstances under which I would consider a return to leadership would be if there was an overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party requesting such a return, drafting me to return and the position was vacant…I am here to inform you that those circumstances do not exist.
After the meeting he strengthened this commitment (through a spokesman):
Furthermore, Mr Rudd wishes to make 100 per cent clear to all members of the parliamentary Labor Party, including his own supporters, that there are no circumstances under which he will return to the Labor Party leadership in the future.
They’re clear and unambiguous. So why the weasel words now?
LEIGH SALES: And a final question: I just want to make sure that nothing has changed in your mind. Is there any scenario in which you would take the leadership of the Labor Party?
KEVIN RUDD: Leigh, my position on that hasn’t changed since February of last year. The caucus had an opportunity to vote then and they voted two-to-one in favour of the Prime Minister and against me. I’ve accepted that position. My job is to go and argue the case for Labor and that’s what I’ll be doing around the country between now and voting day. It’s a good case and we should not be hauling up the white flag.
LEIGH SALES: So the answer is there’s no scenario … ?
KEVIN RUDD: As I said before, my position hasn’t changed since February of last year. You know what I said then. I’m not gonna enter into word games with you. The caucus voted. I accept their response.
LEIGH SALES: If you don’t say a blank no, people of course interpret it as you leaving wiggle room.
KEVIN RUDD: Well, you know exactly what I’ve said in the past to these questions time and time and time again and you’ll play word games all the way through. Last time I said in February of 2012 that I would not be challenging the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister won that caucus ballot by two-to-one. It was a convincing and strong win. I’ve accepted the result.
Rudd’s latest attempt to ‘clarify’ gapes wider than a barn door. He is quoted as saying:
I have said very plainly that I am not a candidate for the leadership. And I have said equally plainly that I do not see any circumstances under which I would return to the leadership.
I can see the KRuddster drafting his acceptance speech now….. “I did not see any circumstances under which I would return, nor was I a candidate, and yet my Labor colleagues have persuaded me to listen to the people of Australia. And so I reluctantly agree to being installed by the caucus as Prime Minister. This is not about me, it’s about keeping Tony Abbott from the Lodge…..”
I can’t help but agree with Mark Latham, who’s said Rudd is deliberately sabotaging the PM. While I used to track Rudd’s interventions, and those of his supporters, to see if they tried to influence Newspoll results I don’t bother any more because any foray by Camp Rudd into the media will impact on one pollster or another’s results.
Someone should give Kevin Rudd a piece of paper with the words his spokesman conveyed on his behalf after the Caucus meeting in March and ask him to repeat them now.
Only then will I believe he is supporting Julia Gillard.
As Rudd said last night “A leopard never changes his spots.”
That’s the problem with leadership challenges: they’re not on until they’re on. The twice-spurned-but-hopes-to-be-vindicated-Prime Minister-in-waiting, Kevin Rudd, won’t declare his hand until he has the numbers.
And right now it appears that he does not have them.
That’s the reason for the flurries of speculation we’re seeing in the media. Rudd supporters are using every known technique to dragoon disillusioned and despairing Labor MPs into knifing another unpopular Prime Minister, in the interests of having at least a fighting chance at the upcoming federal election.
For weeks MPs have been hinting that the showdown would take place this fortnight, being as it is the last parliamentary session before the Federal Budget. Some even went as far as to name the date, although at least two different dates were nominated. This lead to the political equivalent of dry humping last week when the spill did not eventuate, a turn of events that was frustrating and unedifying for pretty much all involved.
But the main game was always due to take place this week. If it does. And then again, it might not.
All will depend on whether a sense of momentum can be created, setting off a wave of inevitability that would sweep the required number of caucus votes away from the listing ship Gillard to the dodgy lifeboat called Kevin.
A number of today’s events can be seen clearly as the Rudd camp working hard to create this momentum:
- The day kicked off with an opinion piece by overt Rudd supporter and political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher, claiming “the Gillard Government is suffering a gathering crisis in its leader” and that two Cabinet Ministers had deserted Gillard.
- Meanwhile, on ABC’s The Drum, Rudd’s unofficial campaign manager Bruce Hawker, criticised the “government’s” handling of the media reform issue.
- Hawker’s theme was then taken up by Rudd numbers man, Joel Fitzgibbon, during Labor’s caucus meeting and duly leaked to the media afterwards.
They know they are being drafted as active participants in this saga, and rather than miss out on a story or – heaven forbid – a scoop, they comply with differing degrees of willingness. As we can see from Laurie Oakes’ non-breaking story this evening, not even mighty Walkley Award winners are immune to the lure of a potential leadership spill.
And so, the rest of this week will play out. There will be a challenge if Rudd can get the numbers. But there will not if he cannot.
If the numbers fall Rudd’s way, it will be academic whether he challenges, is drafted or whether Gillard stands down. But then again, it may not…
Post script: The momentum builds.