Australian Labor Changes Leaders: Is This Politics Or Melodrama?

Shayn McCallum

Shayn McCallum

It is a rare matter that international attention turns to events in Australia, yet, recently, there has been quite a surprising degree of interest in our (now ex-) Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s battle to stave off the latest leadership challenge from Kevin Rudd. In a kind of embarrassing full-circle, we have witnessed Gillard depose Rudd and now Rudd has returned to depose Gillard once more. What could possibly have possessed the Labor Party to engage in such a three-penny soap opera so close to an election?

The truth is; this leadership change is but the tip of the iceberg, the final step in a tragicomic melodrama taking place both inside the ALP and within Australian society. Sadly, for those of us identified with Labor, it is very likely to cost us the coming election, although, the ostensible reason for Kevin Rudd’s coup against Julia Gillard was his “noble” desire to save the election from certain defeat. What seems to have really been going on however, is a story worthy of A Game of Thrones (of which Julia Gillard is apparently a fan). Rudd’s personal ambition, frustrated when he was pushed aside by Gillard herself not long before the last federal election, the fractious culture of the Labor Party and the gleeful sniping by Australia’s mainstream media have all worked together to ensure that Gillard faced a Hobson’s choice between trying to stay in the job and facing certain defeat at the polls or ceding her position and (according to Rudd and his supporters) giving the party a fighting chance.

The “khaleesi” chose to fall on her sword.

In fact, Julia Gillard has faced an unenviable set of obstacles since she took over the job. Firstly, there was the manner in which she came to the position in 2010. It was certainly not unprecedented in the history of Labor governments for the Vice PM to challenge the PM. We saw the same happen in the 1990’s when Paul Keating successfully pushed aside Bob Hawke, but the changeover in 2010 seemed to come as a result of a lot more than just a bit of repositioning within the party. Rudd’s popularity had been flagging, the media had already been attacking him over a failed government-funded housing insulation scheme intended to make Australian homes more energy-efficient as part of the government’s program on climate change. Moreover, groups within the party were grumbling about his micro-managing, authoritarian style of working. What really finished Rudd off however, was the Mining Superprofits Tax aimed at attempting to channel some of the massive wealth being generated by the country’s mining industry back into the public. Fuelled by media hype and a massive scare campaign by the mining lobby, Rudd was pushed into the same persona non grata status that has now been imposed on Gillard. At the time, Gillard herself claimed to be acting in the interests of the party and the government by deposing Rudd. The key to her election however, seems to have had a lot to do with her concessions to the mining industry and watering-down of the original proposed tax.

Another obstacle faced by Gillard, apart from the lingering stain of “Judas” that never fully left her in the party, was, of course, her gender. The election of Australia’s first female PM has come rather late in history and shouldn’t, one would expect, have caused much of a ripple. Since the beginning however, Gillard has been subjected to the kind of criticism and scrutiny that is never visited on male leaders. Issues such as her common-law relationship with her long-term partner Tim Mathieson, and his profession as a hairdresser, were exposed to far greater public scrutiny than the relationships of previous Prime Ministers. Moreover, the Australian culture of sexism, which has been tamed in the last 30 years but not fully domesticated, came out in full force in the media and in the discourse of the opposition. In her resignation speech, Gillard said that her gender “did not explain everything but also did not explain nothing”. She was being modest, in fact, it explained a great deal. It is hard to imagine a male politician having to endlessly face hyaena-like cackles about his physical attractiveness, breast-size or sexual preference of the type Gillard has been constantly exposed to.

Another important factor in Gillard’s demise has been the unhealthy culture which has, unfortunately, taken root in the Labor Party itself. The Labor Party operates on an elaborate system of factions and alliances that make the wheelings and dealings of a mediaeval feudal court seem straightforward. Rudd, it seems, never truly forgave Gillard for deposing him the first time and challenges (and rumours of challenges) have dogged her entire prime-ministership. Not once has Julia Gillard been able to simply focus on the job ahead of her without fear of being undermined from within her own ranks. Elected in 2010 to a minority government relying on support from the Greens and a handful of independents, Gillard has been in a weak position since the beginning and forced to battle simultaneously on a number of fronts. Forced to contend with her government, her party, the opposition, the mostly hostile and conservative media, in truth, she has not been able to count securely on anyone.

Under these circumstances, it is therefore quite extraordinary what the Gillard government was able to achieve. In truth, there is a strong continuity between the Gillard and Rudd governments with Gillard completing projects initiated under Rudd’s leadership. Impressive gains have been made in health and education reform, disabled care, paternity leave, infrastructure development (especially the development of a national broadband network) and the environment (especially the unpopular but necessary carbon tax). In most respects, Rudd was actually doing quite well in 2010 when Gillard saw fit to challenge him and now, in 2013, despite all the hype and back-biting, Julia Gillard has, in most respects, proved a very successful Prime Minister. The leadership challenge in 2010 was unnecessary and engineered by the media and mining lobby, it should not have happened. Once it did however, Julia Gillard went on to do a good job continuing to implement the Labor program. Now, again, a Labor leader is being hustled out the door by the same combination of media hostility and intra-party bad blood and ambition. The tragedy of all this is public attention is focused on the drama and infighting and public airing of dirty linen, what is being forgotten is the solid record of the Rudd-Gillard years in government.

Rudd is back in the position he has coveted throughout these three years since he was pushed off his throne. He hasn’t, strictly speaking, been biding his time as he’s challenged Gillard twice (or really once-and-a-half) before finally managing to pull off the deed. Sadly, for those of us who care about the future of Labor, he may not get to sit on his hard-won throne for long as the beneficiaries of all this wasted energy have been the Liberal Party who, despite an utter paucity of ideas or talent, have needed to do nothing but sit down and watch the show as Labor publicly burns down its own house.

Labor needs to get its house in order and grow up a little. All this ego and unseemly ambition has done nothing but stained what is actually a very respectable record in government. When the media makes irresponsible pronouncements like “Labor is doomed as long as Gillard stays PM”, a healthy party would know how to respond and counter such propaganda rather than sharpening the knives for a ritual sacrifice. All this blood-letting to appease the polls and the media is undignified and, ultimately, fools nobody. Once the media gets the scent of blood things turn into a feeding frenzy, appeasement does not work. Except it is not just appeasement. The inner-party boys have their own long knives and their own axes to grind. If it was just the media facing a united party, there’d be little to fear but, sadly, the party itself is a worm-filled apple.

Labor has shot itself in the foot right before the battle when they could have stood strongly on the basis of their record. Perhaps Labor was going to lose under any circumstances, it is clear much of the media (owned almost entirely by two corporations in any case) have turned their favour from Labor and a bit of last-minute soft-shoe shuffling is not going to regain the sympathy of the oligarchs, but at least we could have lost with a certain dignity, on our own terms, standing behind the record of the government. Now, if these elections are lost, Labor will be remembered for a long time as the party of rats trying to change the captain of a sinking ship. If we win, and that would be a wonderful, if unexpected miracle, we will still have to bear the scars of these events and the weight of a party machine driven by ego, personal ambition and intrigue. Shame Labor, shame!