Rudd the Contender

Here’s my latest piece for The King’s Tribune…

It started as a tiny whisper, keening like a solitary mosquito as I listened to Kevin’s I’m a contender speech before the leadership vote.

“People want a real choice at this election,” said Kevin. “People are genuinely fearful of what Mr Abbott could do to them,” he said.

And the whispery voice inside my head said, “Choice, yes; fearful of Abbott, yes.

“Maybe Kevin can actually pull this off.”

Then Kevin declared war on property developers and Sussex Street spivs, making flamboyant hacking-off gestures in the general direction of the offending limb as he tried to head off ICAC’s inevitable amputation verdict.

As tabloids in print, radio and television heralded this first Rudd review in the inevitable second wave of such considered examinations (but not very much action), the whisper was replaced with a murmur: “That’s clever,” it said. “Possibly smoke and mirrors. But it could save a few Labor seats in NSW.

“Can Kevin actually make Labor competitive again?”

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Kevin, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me

Illustration: Lobbecke
Illustration: Lobbecke

I’m not a fan of Kevin Rudd. This antipathy has very little to do with politics and everything to do with good government.

My view was formed during Rudd’s previous tenure as Prime Minister when I was an industry lobbyist. I witnessed endless briefs being prepared by harried departmental officials who were required to be on-call 24/7 in order to be able to respond to the whims of a micro-manager Prime Minister who nevertheless seemed incapable of making decisions. Meanwhile, ministers shrugged in meetings saying they couldn’t make decisions without Kevin’s imprimatur, which was rarely forthcoming.

I was told by government staffers of an overflowing in-tray on the Prime Minister’s desk where the briefs languished as the PM chased down the latest news cycle or instructed ministers to tell their departments to prepare briefs on his latest thought bubble. I read about the senior government officials who were left gathering dust like the briefs, literally waiting hours outside the Prime Minister’s office for an audience with the man.

The wheels of government virtually ground to a halt during Rudd’s first term. Or perhaps the image of wheels spinning without traction or progress is more apt. My friends in Canberra political and departmental circles openly contemplated whether it would take the psychological breakdown of a staffer or departmental official to end the manic cycle of never-to-be-read briefs being prepared over weekends and late into the night.

Sure, the first Rudd Government had some notable achievements. Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol, apologised to the Stolen Generations and, along with Treasurer Wayne Swan (and Treasury Secretary Ken Henry) successfully steered Australia through the Global Financial Crisis.

But in many other respects, Rudd lived up to the epithet levelled at him at the time. He “hit the ground reviewing” rather than taking action on the issues that were presented to him. The star-studded and ultimately pointless talkfest, the Australia 2020 Summit, was followed by more substantial reviews including the Henry inquiry into the tax system, the Garnaut review on climate change, the Productivity Commission inquiry into disability care and the Gonski review of school education. While Rudd ham-fistedly implemented only one of the Henry Review recommendations – the mining tax – it was his successor Julia Gillard who progressed the recommendations of the others.

In isolation, having a workaholic micro-manager PM with an aversion to decision-making might not have been a serious problem for Labor. This dysfunction was mostly hidden from the general public, who really couldn’t give two hoots about the machinery of government or its machinations.

In retrospect though, the manic and ill-prepared way that stimulus funding was funnelled into the economy through the Home Insulation Program resulted in the mushrooming of an insulation installation industry that included operators who did not adequately protect their workers. We can only be thankful the more established construction industry was better equipped to deal with the OHS ramifications of the Building the Education Revolution program.

What did matter to voters was that Kevin did not deliver on the high expectations he deliberately created during the Kevin07 campaign. I’ve always had the view that Rudd ran as Howard-lite, the “other” safe pair of hands but with bonus features such as Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Last night on Twitter, former PM Rudd’s media adviser Lachlan Harris effectively confirmed this:

In 07 Rudd’s core strategy was change PM but not Govt. In 13 it’s change Govt but not PM. Libs misread 07. So far doing same in 13.

— Lachlan Harris (@LachlanFHarris) July 8, 2013

Rudd may have won the election because of this strategy, but it was also his downfall. It was voters’ disappointment in Rudd that brought him down in 2010. As I wrote at the time:

I believe the Australian community became deeply angry at Rudd because they finally realised they were the victims of a confidence trick … 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.

So Rudd fooled us once, and suffered the consequences. Will he fool us again? And even if he does, will we be able to do anything about it?

In addition to the above illuminating tweet, Lachlan Harris provided an insight into Rudd’s current campaign (although I don’t know whether this is inside information or just an informed observation). This tweet bookends the previous one: last time Rudd was offering voters a change of PM but not the government; this time he’s offering the “change of government they want” without changing the PM:

Rudd’s strategy is giving people the change of govt they want, without having to vote out Labor. Today’s move the heart of that strategy.

— Lachlan Harris (@LachlanFHarris) July 8, 2013

If Harris’ view is accurate, this is a fascinating strategy. And it fits with what Rudd has done since reascending to the big chair.

Rudd’s tackling head-on the things that voters don’t like about today’s ALP. He’s offering a “new improved” Labor Party post-federal election by initiating a review, ahem I mean a clean-out of corruption (and property developers) from the NSW Branch of the party.  He’s proposed to change the Party’s rules so that ALP members get a 50% say in who will be Prime Minister when Labor holds office. And the same proposed rule changes will effectively protect any first term Prime Minister from challenge, so as to provide certainty and none of the leadership musical chairs that has beset Labor during this term. (Yes, you are correct, Rudd is proposing a rule change that would have prevented him removing first term PM, Julia Gillard, from the position. The hypocrisy, it burns.)

In short, Rudd is tossing exhausted dog-paddling non-Coalition voters a life-vest: he’s giving disillusioned Labor voters a reason to stay true and undecided voters a reason to vote against Tony Abbott. If it wasn’t such an over-used term, I’d say Rudd’s approach so far is a game changer.

But …

What if the Rudd-leopard hasn’t changed his spots? What if, like Campbell Newman, he decides that an austerity drive is needed to repair the federal budget? What if his government’s standing with voters goes down the toilet? What if he resorts to pork-barrelling? Or just makes a succession of stupid decisions. What if he took us to war? We won’t know the answer to any of these questions until we elect him and then it will be too late.

Look around the country at the first-term Premiers and ask yourself – should they be immune from removal from office by their party room despite their policy failures or lack of political judgement?

Whatever your answer, the same should apply to Rudd. No party leader should have immunity from the consequences of their actions. Not in a democracy, anyway.

A world without political parties?

The quarterly magazine for thinkiness, Island, recently asked me and a number of other commentators to respond, as an act of political imagination, to the question “What would the Australian political landscape look like in the absence of political parties?”

The question was inspired by this interview with Simon Leys regarding his translation of Simone Weil’s 1943 tract, On the Abolition of All Political PartiesHere’s my contribution. Or you can grab a copy of the mag to read them all.

Coalition women take nastiness to a new low

Last week’s extraordinary attack on finance minister and senate leader Penny Wong by Liberal senator Michaelia Cash raises a number of questions that all women should consider in light of Julia Gillard’s removal from high office.

Cash’s tirade was ostensibly part of the Senate’s debate on 457 visas, but she took the opportunity to vociferously denounce Wong as part of an apparently hypocritical and bloodthirsty “sisterhood” who, in voting to return Kevin Rudd as Labor leader, had stabbed one of their own in the back:

The sisterhood stabbing one of their own in the back. You’ve always got to like that, don’t you? When the sisterhood stab one of their own in the back … I wonder how loud former prime minister Gillard screamed when her own sisterhood knifed her in the back and took her out – minister Wong is now sitting reaping the spoils of the victory, drinking from the chalice of blood …

Putting aside the astonishingly vitriolic abuse levelled at Wong – a woman who has unassumingly notched up so many firsts (first climate change minister, first female Senate leader, first openly gay minister, first Asian born federal minister) – it’s nevertheless fair to question whether it’s more important for female ministers to resign in protest, or stay on to further progress the interests of women and all other Australians. I saw Wong’s decision similar to that of Tony Burke: loyalty to the party and the nation outweighed that to Gillard. It was a tough choice, and I wouldn’t have liked to be in her position.

Cash’s outburst, however, raises another far more troubling question: why do female Coalition MPs descend to such levels of spiteful abuse?

No one was surprised when departing independent Tony Windsorappeared on Insiders yesterday and labelled Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella the “nastiest” member of parliament. Admittedly, this may have had as much to do with an independent running against Mirabella this election as the Liberal MP’s reputation for confrontation in parliament. Nevertheless, the shadow industry minister has a long rap sheet, including having suggested that late-blooming progressive and former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s stance on the war on terror left him open to caricature as a “frothing-at-the-mouth leftie”, ridiculing Gillard for her childlessness, and telling a fellow Coalition member to “pop your Alzheimer’s pills”.

More troubling than Mirabella’s behaviour is that she is not the exception. In what appeared to be a deliberate Coalition strategy since opposition leader Tony Abbott was tarred with a misogynist brush, and one which is based on the deeply flawed logic that a parliamentary attack on a woman by a woman is somehow more acceptable than one by a man, deputy liberal leader Julie Bishop has regularly been wheeled out to attack Gillard (you will also remember her cat claw gesture). And now Cash has joined the ranks of the Coalition’s female attack force.

Sadly, neither of the major parties is innocent when it comes to strategically deploying aggressive female parliamentarians for maximum impact. Labor’s “handbag hit squad” (dubbed so by another of the Coalition’s own attack force, Kelly O’Dwyer) were ruthless in wielding their gender to emphasise Abbott’s misogyny.

But Coalition women have now taken nastiness to a new low. And it really does have to stop. When high-octave abuse and the parliamentary equivalent of girl-on-girl jelly wrestling becomes the accepted way of making a political point, what hope does the average Australian ever have of again respecting our democratic institutions?

This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.