2013 in politics: the power of three

Considered the holiest of numbers by Christians and Wiccans alike, the number three has eerily presided over our past political year. From people to politics and policies, the rule of three was ubiquitous.

Considered the holiest of numbers by Christians and Wiccans alike, the number three has eerily presided over our past political year. From people to politics and policies, the rule of three was ubiquitous.

The most obvious triumvirate was Gillard, Rudd and Abbott, three prime ministers in one year, which is not as uncommon as one might think. In fact, this was the fifth time that we have had three PMs within one calendar year: the others were in 1904, 1939, 1941 and 1945.

Not only did the nation have three leaders in quick succession, so did the Labor Party. Kevin Rudd’s dark revenge fantasy played out to its inevitable end, with Rudd finally stalking Julia Gillard to ground and Bill Shorten arising from the bloody remnants of the party to bring Labor’s tally to three party leaders in four months. The worst the Liberals could do was three in eight months when the party shifted from Hewson to Downer and then Howard, the then-touted ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’, in the 1990s.

But even before we were graced with our third PM for the year, Australians were well-familiar with the rule of three in political communication. Not a day had passed without us being bombarded with the Coalition’s three word slogans, vowing on the attainment of government to stop the boats, axe the tax and eliminate the debt. Apparently the necessary caveat – but only if the Senate will let us – couldn’t be condensed into three words and had to be ditched as a non-core slogan.

Rudd’s quest to be a thrice-anointed PM – after his elections by the Australian people in 2007 and the Labor caucus in 2013 – was thwarted. For yes, the man’s ego was so immense that he thought he might actually win. But he was prevented from doing so by three not insignificant matters: voter concerns about Labor’s unity, competency, and adherence to core Labor values such as equality and social justice.

The dominant factor was competency, though, and in electing the Abbott Government, voters quite justifiably assumed they were getting the grown-up government they were promised.

In the gloomy days that followed the not-as-much-of-a-landslide-as-expected, Labor dusted itself off and for the first time in history had not one but three leaders simultaneously. While the two contenders for election to the Labor leadership, Albanese and Shorten, traversed the country doing and saying leadership things, acting Labor leader Chris Bowen was doing and saying leadership things too. Labor members loved the new-fangled ‘democracy’ imposed on the party by Rudd (to prevent any further coups like the one he’d just pulled on Gillard), while the rest of Australia’s political classes looked on in bemusement.

And then finally, over 60 days since being elected and after early stumbles on women in Cabinet and the wedding-rorts saga, the members of the Abbott Government placed their shiny arses on the green leather benches and showed us they could do chaotic and incompetent just as well as the previous mob.

Since then the carbon tax has not been scrapped, the boats haven’t stopped, deficits have become an acceptable necessity and debt is no longer a dirty word. Public service cuts may or may not continue because they may or may not have already been counted. It’s become acceptable to say sorry to pretty much every nation in the region unless it’s one that Australia has been caught spying on. And a broken promise is not broken even if there’s physical evidence that you made it and that you broke it.

Even amongst the detritus of this incompetence, the power of three continues to rule. Australian businesses have faced the challenge of keeping up with three climate action policies (Gillard’s carbon price, Rudd’s ETS and Abbott’s Direct Action). The combined wrath of the nation’s teachers and education ministers brought about an extraordinary triple-backflip from Pyne on Gonski. And those who don’t have the cojones to take responsibility for unpopular decisions establish a Commission of Audit, Productivity Inquiry or Royal Commission to take the flak for them.

Meantime, the indignities wrought on asylum seekers defied even the rule of three and became almost too horrifyingly numerous to count.

Kevin Rudd may have entertained the fantasy that he could win the 2013 election by sheer force of will and popularity. Tony Abbott would have never suffered from such a delusion. He knows full well his success was more dependent on voters being sick of the other side than them preferring him and his policies.

In the end it came down to perceptions of competency – Labor was seen (whether fairly or not) as chaotic and ineffectual while the Coalition was seen as holding the promise of a dependable and competent government.

So, as the remainder of 2013 is measured in long summer evenings and the ruling triumvirate is the beach-barbie-cricket, Prime Minister Abbott would do well to ponder one last three word slogan. Without delivering “a competent government” in 2014, Abbott’s own days may well be numbered.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

Albo, Shorten and the Democracy Baby

Once the election was over, and Rudd despatched, it became quickly clear that the reforms could not quietly be reversed by Caucus. Labor MPs were left holding the Democracy Baby, and decided to make the best of it.

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.

As the excellent blog, The Conscience Vote, says elsewhere:

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.

Can Labor afford another leadership stoush?

Like so many of Kevin Rudd’s other hare-brained initiatives, this one must have been a good idea at the time.

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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