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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Rudd is taking us for fools

Illustration: Michael Mucci

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.

(My emphasis)

Rudd’s dissembling recalls the ridiculous time he refused to enunciate the word ‘billion’ when describing Australia’s budget deficit.
 
Rudd is taking us for fools. He’s hoping that by not restating those actual words, they will fade over time and will be replaced with a vague recollection that he said he wouldn’t challenge – thereby leaving the door open for him to be installed.

 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.”

#Kevenge2: It’s not on until it’s on

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.

Meanwhile, the political media is acting like a diabetic kid locked in a lolly shop: they know they shouldn’t, but……

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.

Hate mail may drown out real learning from Howard years

Judging by the early mail on Twitter, there could be a lot of pollie-hate brought to light this week by the launch of John Howard’s autobiography. The overturning of this slimy rock is likely to expose a mass of blind and seething hate that may momentarily mesmerise or repulse before it quickly disperses and plunges back into the shadows.

Anticipation of this event has led me to ponder why Australians love to hate politicians. Conversely, it’s occurred to me that not many politicians have ever been popular in Australia, and even less of them have been Prime Minister.

The esteemed journal Wikkipedia shows that, since 1972, only two Prime Ministers have enjoyed what we might call popular acclaim. Hawke’s peak approval rating was 75%, a record that remained untouched until Rudd’s heyday (74%).

Somewhat surprisingly Howard comes in third, with a peak approval rating of 67%. Keating (40%) comes last after Whitlam (62%) and Fraser (56%).

What does this say about Australian voters? Undoubtedly we are a cynical and pragmatic lot, so maybe this is why we don’t particularly like politicians.

Ironically, dislike of a politician doesn’t seem to prevent us from entrusting them with the Treasury benches. The popular Hawke is our longest serving Labor PM, and third longest overall, with 4 election victories under his belt and nearly 9 years in office. However, the fourth longest is the unpopular Fraser who nevertheless won 3 elections and served as PM for just over 7 years.

It’s no secret that Howard was not loved as Prime Minister, indeed at times he was loathed, yet he is the second-longest serving PM ever. Howard remained in office for nearly 12 years and won 4 elections. Why is that? I believe it’s because pragmatic Australians ultimately vote for the politician they think will best run the country.

For many years that politician was John Howard. While he was never a popular politician, Howard had the ability to secure the votes of people who didn’t like him or who didn’t usually vote Liberal. These people didn’t necessarily agree with Howard but trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. Admittedly Fraser also won elections while unpopular, but Howard did so after making some very unpopular decisions.

It’s a matter of record that Howard threw that trust away. He squandered the electoral asset that he’d carefully built over years in high office with acts of indulgence and hubris. People lost faith in Howard as they watched him put personal political philosophies ahead of the public interest, and refuse to consider succession planning in the Liberal Party.

As the hate mail starts to flow next week, it will drown out the real learning from the Howard years.

John Howard’s story should be a compelling and inspiring one. Having failed once as a leader and been assassinated by colleagues, he eventually rallied and brought his party back from nearly 14 years in the political wilderness. He then kept them in office for nearly 12 years.

Perhaps more importantly, Howard showed that a successful leader does not need to be popular, but must be seen to be making decisions that put the public interest first, on every occasion. Howard’s model was studied closely by Rudd but replicated poorly. It will be interesting to see if Gillard chooses to take a similar course.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed.

Symbolism or substance: Will a decarbonised Australian economy fix climate change?

As an old campaigner, I implicitly understand the need to condense complex matters into sound bites or slogans.  The problem with stripping the details out of an issue and reducing it to a memorable phrase is that people tend to defer to their own interpretation of what that phrase actually means.

This can be dangerous territory for a politician or party if the sound bite or slogan implies an undertaking.  While the nature of the undertaking may be clear in the mind of the spruiker, it might have an entirely different meaning to the audience.

Rudd’s lesson

Kevin Rudd learned this lesson the hard way.  During the 2007 federal election campaign, Rudd differentiated himself from John Howard on two points: he would scrap Work Choices and ratify Kyoto.  Neither Rudd nor the ALP made any effort to explain what ratification of the Kyoto protocol meant in practical terms.  They were content with the electorate inferring from this undertaking that Australia’s ratification would fix climate change.

But of course, it did not.  In reality, ratification of Kyoto granted access to a number of climate mitigation activities including a future global emissions trading scheme amongst parties to the protocol and emission credits for businesses investing in greenhouse gas reducing projects in developing countries.

After formally ratifying the Kyoto protocol, Rudd subtly shifted his language to the need for Australia to adopt an emissions trading scheme to fix climate change.  Having trusted the Prime Minister on ratification, and feeling no adverse effects, Australians were comfortable in the belief that adopting an ETS would be equally painless.

Green words not green deeds

It is important to understand that while people say they want environmental action, and that they are prepared to pay for it, their actions disprove their words.  Australian green energy schemes continue to languish in the single-digit percentages because people do not want to pay a premium for a product that has no discernable difference.  Surveys of grocery shoppers have found that the actual contents of their trolleys undermine their previously- stated preference for green products.

Why penalise Australians for their quality of life?
Why penalise Australians for their quality of life?

In reality, most people don’t want to pay more to be environmentally friendly – unless the expense can be expressed in a way that can be seen such as having a water tank or driving a hybrid car or carrying a green canvas shopping bag.

This is where Rudd came unstuck.

The point of an ETS is to wean an economy off fossil fuels.  This is done by putting a price on carbon so that fossil fuel based products become more expensive and the renewable based products start to look competitive in comparison.  That’s the economic theory.

Problems with decarbonising Australia’s economy

There are several problems with this theory for Australia.  Firstly, 80% of Australia’s electricity is generated from coal and we have coal reserves that could last for several hundred years more.   Our plentiful coal has allowed electricity prices to remain consistently low, and as a result we currently have the third lowest electricity prices in the world.

Not only have these low electricity prices brought energy intensive industries to Australia, they have contributed directly to the Australian community’s quality of life.  Around 11.5% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions come from households and another 14% from transport (most of which is cars, trucks and planes).  An ETS would place cost pressure on the households to move them away from the activities and products that use fossil fuels.

Once voters began to realise this, they felt conned and unhappy.  This unhappiness has clearly been picked up by party polling, evidenced by both major parties moving to distance themselves from an ETS before the impending election.

While the ETS is now on the backburner, we will nevertheless continue to hear the latest slogan promoting the need to decarbonise the Australian economy if we are to fix climate change.

As point of substance, this contention is patently absurd.  Australia contributes less than 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  No amount of reduction in Australia will make a material difference to the phenomenon.  Even if every Australian house had solar panels, and every family drove a hybrid car and grew their own vegetables, there would hardly be a perceptible dip in global emissions.

So, as a point of symbolism, should Australia decarbonise its economy to show leadership and coax other developed nations into doing their fare share to mitigate the problem that they originally created?

If leadership leading to deep cuts in global emissions is the real objective of Australian action on climate change, then penalising Australians for their quality of life will not achieve that objective.

An unconventional solution

There is no way to stop the developing world from using coal in the foreseeable future.  These nations are rightly focused on bringing their people out of poverty and will use the most reliable, affordable and safe means of electricity generation available to them.

The International Energy Agency has projected that from the year 2000 to 2030 around $16 trillion dollars will be spent on developing and providing energy to the global population.  Over that same period, the number of people with no access at all to a reliable/commercial supply of energy will reduce from two billion to one billion.  Those of us sitting in our air-conditioned homes and offices need to bear this in mind when we nod sagely about the need to decarbonise the economy.  In 2030 there will still be people on this planet burning cow dung to heat their homes and cook their dinner.

Where does that leave Australia?  I believe we can take credible climate action that has both substance and symbolism.  Firstly we need to take the economists out of the equation – they have no interest in the human cost of their proposals.  Stop focusing on the business case too – there are too many vested business interests on either side of the climate change debate for the market to sort this out.

My solution lets all Australians feel involved, with minimal financial pain, and with greenhouse gas reductions being deployed where they are needed most.

Firstly, impose a greenhouse levy on all taxpayers in the same manner as the Medicare levy, which currently raises around $8 billion each year.  Attaching the levy to income ensures that those who earn more will pay more, and those who are disadvantaged or unemployed will not pay at all.

Secondly, use the funds to develop and deploy clean energy projects in the developed world – particularly those countries that have the potential to contribute the most greenhouse gas emissions in future.  In doing so, the Australian people would be getting more global greenhouse action for their dollar than they could ever hope to achieve at home.

Does this proposal make economic sense? No.  Does it make business sense? No.  Does it make sense in terms of Australia being a leader and making deep cuts in greenhouse emissions? Yes.

Maybe its time we changed the way we looked at climate change in Australia, and even the world.

We are ashamed but must accept that politics eats its young

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.