The Party Thieves, while strangely named, is a thorough reporting by Barrie Cassidy of the replacement of Kevin Rudd as the Prime Minister by the parliamentary wing of the ALP, the first days of Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership and the 2010 election campaign up until the decision of September 7 that made Gillard Prime Minister in a minority government.
The book dives right into the detail. It’s a great book for someone who wasn’t in Australia at the time. It’ll be a great reference for future generations of students of political science and journalism. The people who lived through it probably won’t want to relive it, although the political “tragics” will find this book nourishing.
The book begins looking into the recent history of the federal parliamentary party and its leadership: with Mark Latham and Rudd’s campaign for the leadership. That Gillard had the numbers to replace Beazley with Rudd is an eye opener for me. Gillard didn’t simply have the ability. She also had the numbers. Rudd was the bridegroom, one that, unfortunately, disappointed the parliamentary party as well as the citizens of Australia.
And the book is also about the Liberal Party’s discovery of their dire position and its succession plan for John Howard, although this is lightly covered as it has been covered in other books. Turnbull’s leadership is examined, though again, lightly. The emphasis in this book is on the 2007 government, the 2010 election and the ups and downs in the parliamentary parties.
One glaring omission is the public service and the constitutional conventions that it appears Kevin Rudd flouted. The function of Cabinet was usurped by young staffers in Rudd’s office. Roles and functions were ignored and Ministers were cowered into submission. Cassidy reports that it was not the Ministers who turned against Rudd, it was the backbench
Cassidy writes of the ephemeral: the images accepted by non-verbal agreement of the citizens of Australia. He teeters on the brink of agreeing with Party campaigners that it is the campaign that determines who governs Australia and that the “punters” are fickle. He acknowledges this attitude, one with implications for Australia’s constitution (written and conventional). The book is an argument for readers to keep faith in the Australian political system and, using Hawke’s words, asserts that “the electorate almost always got it right at election time”. Cassidy reports that the 2010 electorate “refused to take the best of a bad lot, and instead took deliberate aim at the very narrow window that would deliver a hung parliament. And bullseye!”
The delight of this book is in the detail. Cassidy had a front row seat to much of the political machinations. He can quote statements from most critical meetings. Gillard is not one of his sources. Neither is Rudd. Hence they appear more as chess pieces than actors, responding to events rather than shaping them. This, and the absence of the public service as a source of policy advice, limits the scope of the book.
When others address the impact of this period on executive government in Australia they will be well served by this book. Certainly a fuller analysis of the impact on Australia’s working constitution is needed.
The title refers to the ALP and Liberal party leaders’ exercise of executive power independent of and indifferent to their respective parliamentary parties. It is as if the university-educated generation, in response to new technical toys and methods, espoused ministerial bureaucracy to be superior to democracy. Malcolm Turnbull and Rudd both believed in their superior grasp of “facts”. The book describes the acts of a new generation with absolute belief in the superiority of the technologies available to it. It doesn’t describe a newly adult generation able to take and exercise political power, but a generation ignorant of the levers of political power, none-the-less willing to press the buttons and see what happens.
Australia’s constitution is a carefully crafted organism. It is alive. Cassidy describes through a microscope a detailed part of that organism. But what the key political players seem to have missed is that their section is but part of a whole. If Australian politicians are to help us respond to environmental degradation, an impoverished Aboriginal population, a powerful China, developing Asian neighbours and a foundering United States economy with new technologies being part of both the problem and the solution, they need a good team. The public service is the team paid to provide advice. If politicians lose their ability to sell the message, to create a political space among the citizens of Australia for the solution to many of our pressing problems, then we all lose.
This book indicates that not only have they lost the ability to open a larger political space, one that includes prosperous Aboriginal communities, a haven for battle weary and shocked immigrants, opening Australians to the cultures and languages of Asia and the future that includes a debt ridden US ally, but they have also lost the sense that this creativity is part of their job description. Managing focus group responses is but input. It is not the answer and, as Cassidy so lucidly reports, focus group technology has led “political parties (to) give sustenance to uninformed prejudices”.
This book is a major contribution to the citizens of Australia if we are to be active in creating our future as equal adults in this land that gave our ancestors their opportunity.
Perhaps a better title could have been Australia’s brush with tyranny.