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.
Mark Latham ran an unconventionally hokey campaign in 2004 that almost got him elected. He focussed on populist issues such as MPs’ superannuation and reading to children, when the rulebook says that oppositions should stick to the big policy issues like the economy and health.
That same election, John Howard unashamedly and un-ironically used “trust” to beat Latham. The rulebook says he should have avoided this political battleground when the community clearly had their own trust issues with the then-PM.
New rules were written in 2007 when Kevin Rudd barnstormed the election with his “me too” campaign, promising to be Howard-lite with added features like the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Never before had a politician offered to be “the same, but better” than his opponent. It was however the perfect pitch for Howard-weary voters looking for another safe pair of hands to run the economy.
And now, Tony Abbott is defying all known rules on negative campaigning by running the longest anti-campaign any of us have ever witnessed. The success of that strategy is yet to be borne out.
Perhaps the most “bent but not broken” rule in the political playbook to date, is that which says history is written by the victor. I mention this because of the concerted effort being made by the Rudd camp to re-play the Howard trust card, and claim that Julia Gillard lost the trust of the Australian community by wresting the Prime Ministership from Kevin Rudd in 2010.
This narrative might suit the combatants’ purposes, but it’s not backed by the facts.
Support for the Labor Government increased after Julia Gillard became leader, from 52% before the change in Prime Ministership, to 53% after the change and 55% two weeks after that. Similarly, support for PM Rudd as preferred Prime Minister was 46% prior to the change, and then for PM Gillard was 53%, increasing to 57% two weeks later.
So, up to three weeks after the “coup”, the Australian people were swinging back to the Labor Government and Julia Gillard as PM. Surely if there was outrage or resentment about the way in which Kevin Rudd was dispatched, it would have emerged in the opinion polls. But no, it did not.
The polls did dive three weeks after the change in leadership, but not because of any perceived poor treatment of Rudd. The polls dived because the Australian community realised they’d be sold a pup. Not once, but twice.
I’ve written before that people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be Howard-lite proved to be empty. Rudd created the expectation but did not deliver. While he promised to be a man of action, he proved to be a man of indecision, committees and reviews. Rudd proved to be nothing like Howard, showing none of the former PM’s ability to provide a narrative to give meaning to the government’s efforts. Nor could he speak like Howard to the community, in a language they understood.
So, in June 2010 the Australian community were well on the way to understanding that they’d been conned by Kevin Rudd. That’s why there was no uproar when he was deposed. Instead there was a cautious optimism that maybe the Labor Party had made a necessary course correction.
The shattering of that optimism is the reason why Julia Gillard no longer has the faith of the Australian people.
Julia Gillard became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne asylum seekers.
On 2 July PM Gillard announced a resolution to the mining resource tax that was reported by the media as being a backdown. Then on 6 July 2010 the PM made a strong speech to the Lowy Institute committing to solve the issues relating to boat-borne asylum seekers. Even though her asylum-seeker solution was scuttled shortly after, the public remained optimistic and the PM registered her highest approval rating (57% on 16-18 July 2010).
But on 23 July 2010 PM Gillard announced that her government would create a citizens’ assembly of ”real Australians” to investigate the science of climate change and consequences of emissions trading, under a plan to build a national consensus for a carbon price. This proposal was widely derided as setting climate policy by public opinion instead of science, and a further repudiation of the emissions trading scheme shelved by Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.
This was the point at which the penny dropped. Voters realised that they’d not only been gypped by Rudd, but also by Gillard, and so the opinion polls began to fall.
At the time of the citizens’ assembly announcement, PM Gillard’s rating as preferred Prime Minister fell from 57% to 50% (23-25 July) and the Government’s standing from 55% to 52%. A week later, the parties stood at 50% each.
The rest, as they say, is history. On this occasion, the facts are borne out by the numbers and can’t be bent to show anything other than the truth. Attempts to recast them for political purposes should be exposed for what they are – blatantly misleading and condescending to all of us.
(All opinion poll data is sourced from Newspoll).
This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum
Like many people, I was deeply moved by Kevin Rudd’s final press conference this week. I held my breath each time he paused, silently willing him to hold it together. I shed a tear when his voice trembled. And I also felt ashamed to be excited by the momentousness of the occasion, when I could see in High Definition the immense anguish it had wrought upon a man of faith and conviction, who was clearly loved by his wife and family.
Kevin Rudd’s world changed irrevocably in a matter of hours. That is the nature of politics – it is a huge and relentless beast, constantly in motion and oblivious to good intentions, time-honoured philosophies and the frailties of humankind. It hungrily and indiscriminately consumes hours, words and souls, all in the name of public good.
Some members of the commentariat have indulged in confected rage over Rudd’s treatment by “faceless apparatchiks”.
This is not so much because of empathy for Rudd, but because they feel affronted by the ruthless installation of an unelected Prime Minister purely in order to win the next election. This indignation is quite amusing to those who have worked within party machines. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a party cannot serve its electorate without first winning and then holding the Treasury benches. As my teenage daughter would say, “well, duh!!”
Rudd was not so much a victim of his party, but of politics itself. It is the undeniable preoccupation of any incumbent side to want to retain government and of the other side to wrench it from the incumbent’s grip. It is the undeniable preoccupation of the fourth estate to convey this struggle with as much drama as possible, while securing stories (or scalps) that differentiate them from their competitors.
Therefore the political beast can best be illustrated as something conjured by Dante. It is the sum of its many parts: politicans, parties, the parliament and media. Perhaps the irate journalists need to look in the mirror before they accuse others of having Rudd’s blood on their hands.
In conclusion, I want to say that I’ve been thinking about others who’ve been mauled by the political beast. Whether they first taunted the creature is another question altogether.
Does anyone ever spare a thought for Godwin Grech? I was distressed to hear recently that he is still hospitalized and that his house and possessions have been auctioned off.
I feel sad for people like John Brogden and Nick Sherry who will always carry the scars of their encounter with the beast.
And relieved that others like Grahame Morris and Cheryl Kernot survived their skirmishes relatively unscathed.
And finally I am in awe of people like Lindsay Tanner and Geoff Gallop, who have resolutely stood before the slavering creature, stared into its red maw, and then calmly walked away.
A confidence trick or confidence game (also known as a bunko, con, flim flam, gaffle, grift, hustle, scam, scheme, swindle or bamboozle) is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence. The victim is known as the mark, the trickster is called a confidence man, con man, confidence trickster, or con artist, and any accomplices are known as shills. Confidence men or women exploit human characteristics such as greed and dishonesty, and have victimized individuals from all walks of life.
It seems that many people are stunned by the swiftness with which Kevin Rudd was despatched. Events over the past couple of days have diverted us from being stunned by the speed with which the Australian public turned on the Prime Minister.
I believe the Australian community became deeply angry at Rudd because they finally realised they were the victims of a confidence trick.
It’s interesting how we all love a Hollywood con artist but not the real thing. We delight in watching tv shows and movies that depict an unsuspecting but usually deserving schmuck being skilfully taken for a ride. Our anticipation ratchets with every deceptive twist and turn until we give a satisfied chuckle as the realisation dawns on the “mark” that their perception of reality is far from the ugly truth.
We’re entertained by the glamorous con even though we know that grifters who operate in the real world target the gullible, the weak and the unprotected. When faced with stories of real exploitation, we take the side of righteousness, nod in agreement when the ghouls of the foot-in-door media expose the conmen and cheer when they are entrapped or hunted down.
I believe it’s this righteous undercurrent in Australian voter sentiment that led to the dramatic drop in Kevin Rudd’s popularity, as measured by both public and private opinion polls. Voters felt angry and wanted retribution because they felt like a mark struck with the growing realisation they were the subject of a long con.
Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to the 2007 election as Howard-lite. The significance of this strategy cannot be downplayed. Howard did not retain government for nearly 12 years because of his popularity. His electoral appeal was, ironically, grounded in trust. Whether voters liked him or not, whether they supported his policies or not, they trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. And Howard did not betray this trust until he let the power of Senate majority go to his head and he self-indulged his philosophical yearning for IR reform.
Rudd studiously capitalised on Howard’s strengths as well as his weaknesses. He framed himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.
Tragically for Rudd, and surprisingly for an experienced diplomat, he made the grave mistake of exaggerating the difference that Australia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol would materially make to global climate change. He should have known full well that ratification meant putting a price on carbon, that this could lead to painful structural change in the Australian economy, and that China and India would not countenance climate action until they had brought their people out of poverty.
Rudd could never deliver on climate change but he promised the Australian people that he could and would. This is only the most prominent of several examples. Like any confidence man, Rudd convincingly promised things that would realise voters’ dreams and others that would allay their fears. The fact that voters eventually saw the small man behind the curtain will always overshadow the fact that he actually did deliver on some of those promises.
By playing a confidence game with the Australian people, instead of being honest with them, Rudd squandered their trust, optimism and (somewhat begrudging) respect.
Perhaps this anger would not have been so intense if the electorate had felt they had been provided with a credible alternative at whose feet they could throw their protest vote. However, voter antipathy for Abbott shows they felt both conned and captured by Rudd’s sleight of hand.
Clearly the ALP apparatchiks who took action this week saw the truth of the matter. They saw the growing number of voters, once vividly depicted by Premier Wayne Goss during Keating’s reign, waiting on their verandas with baseball bats to deal with the Prime Minister who had let them down. So they took their bats to him first.
This post also appeared at The Notion Factory.