The removal of Kevin Rudd from the position of Prime Minister is not a good thing for Australian democracy. This is the first time in Australia’s history that a first term Prime Minister has been removed from office in the absence of a genuine national emergency. The only other examples of a first term Prime Minister losing office are Robert Menzies and Joseph Scullin. Menzies lost support for his leadership during World War II and Scullin’s prime ministership coincided unhappily with the Great Depression.
There was no national crisis this time. Instead there was a crisis of self interest. Kevin Rudd was removed from office because party powerbrokers felt that his decline in the opinion polls meant that Labor could be defeated at the next election. Never mind, that Labor held a 52-48 lead in the two-party preferred vote or that Rudd outpointed Abbott as preferred prime minister by 46-34. Never mind also that Kevin Rudd’s decline in the opinion polls occurred after he took the advice of those same powerbrokers and Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan on such issues as the ETS bill, asylum seekers and the mining tax. Let us also not forget that Gillard, as a member of the gang of four, was every bit as much a part of the subversion of the cabinet process as Kevin Rudd.
So Australia has its first female prime minister. That’s a great thing. But the way in which it has been done has devalued the office of prime minister. It signals that party powerbrokers, both elected and unelected, can turf out an elected prime minister in his first term, or at least, at a time of their choosing and that our elected representatives will follow their orders regardless of whether it is what the people want or not. It also signals that the government can be brought to heel by the mining industry. Neither of those developments is good for Australia’s democracy.
Gillard has kindly offered not to move into the Lodge until after she is elected by the people. That’s good of her - Macbeth didn’t move into Duncan’s castle either.
In a somewhat cynical move, Gillard has offered Rudd a senior job if Labor is re-elected. The subtext is clear; don’t make trouble and you might be rewarded. Given that it has also now emerged that Rudd was actually close to a deal with the miners there are questions about whether his dumping was absolutely necessary and whether Gillard has been as loyal as she suggests. In retrospect the indignation feigned over Alistair Jordan’s checking of Rudd’s numbers does seem slightly excessive for a seasoned politician.
Legitimacy will be a problem for Gillard. If Labor loses the next election one shudders to think how Gillard will be remembered. The legitimacy issue might be cured by Labor winning the next election but it might not. It all depends on how Labor handles the fallout. This is a different situation to Keating’s challenge to Hawke in 1991, which everybody at the time could see was brewing prior to the 1990 election. Nobody anticipated in 2007 that this would happen.
The problem is that Gillard’s ascension will again split the Labor base vote. It seems evident that female Labor voters, particularly educated middle and upper middle class ones, are quite rightly delighted by Gillard’s promotion to the top job because of what it signals to all women in regards to career possibilities. But there is going to be a lot of Labor voters who are very angry about the way in which Rudd has been removed. They will be deeply angry about the way in which Rudd and his family have been humiliated. His last press conference was both moving and hard to watch. For all his faults, Rudd had the makings of an exceptional prime minister. Moreover, his faults could be fixed.
Mark Arbib and the other Labor powerbrokers seem to have taken a leaf out of John Howard’s playbook in relation to wedge politics. But they’ve misunderstood how it’s meant to be applied; you’re meant to wedge the opposition’s base vote not your own. On the ETS, asylum seekers, the mining tax and now Rudd, Labor’s strategic thinkers seem to cumulatively declaring war on their own voter base. Perhaps that is what happens when you panic.
What has happened here is deeply troubling. The culture of changing leaders quickly might be OK for an opposition, it might even be barely acceptable in regards to a state government, but it’s not a good look for Australia. Federal Labor now confronts a question of character. Is it actually a good government that lost its way or has the bad culture of the New South Wales State Labor Government, replete with its unaccountability and interchangeable leaders, come to Canberra? In 2007 those of us who voted Labor wanted a return to an inclusive, reformist government like the Hawke-Keating government. One doubts that anybody really wanted a government like the Carr-Iemma-Rees-Kenneally (Tripodi) government, propped up as it is by four-year terms and a lack-lustre opposition.
In the end it may not be worth taking the risk. Rudd obviously wasn’t a professional politician. But as Michael Kroger noted on the night that Gillard became prime minister, she is a professional politician and has been since her student days. Politics is important. But the business of government requires policy development skills and sound judgment. Those are qualities that Rudd had and they showed on health, welfare reform, the GFC, the actual substance of the ETS Bill and reconciliation. Bearing in mind the Medicare Gold policy and the cost blowouts of the education revolution it’s not clear whether Gillard has those skills. The problem is that those skills are actually essential for good government.
We could have forgiven Kevin Rudd for being himself, provided that he made a few changes and continued to deploy his substantial intellect on important policy matters. But it is a pity that we weren’t asked.
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