Watching a once-great party self destruct – messy, sad, and worrying. Will they wake up in time?

Posted: June 25, 2013 in Political musings

Labor's funeral pyre is lit and flames are licking around the edges. What is uncertain is how many people will climb aboard.

Labor’s funeral pyre is lit and flames are licking around the edges. What is uncertain is how many people will climb aboard.

I am oft criticised (usually by those who disagree with me anyway, and rather than argue the substantial case prefer to muddy the intellectual waters by claiming that one should only comment, bizarrely, on events within one’s own country’s borders) for focusing my attention on political events too much in the USA and the UK, and not enough on Australia.

Very well. Here goes:

Watching the current laughable situation in the ALP (laughable were it not for the fact that it will deliver a massive majority to Tony Abbott that he does not deserve) I am reminded, of Cromwell’s words to the Rump Parliament on 20th April 1653:

“You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

As in 1653 (time doesn’t change things much, does it?) Blind Freddie can see it is way past time for Ms Gillard to step down as Prime Minister, even if enthusiasm for the previous PM, Kevin Rudd is tempered (both within his party and in the public) by a clear understanding of his previous failings.

The alternative to a change now will be the inevitable transformation of Australia into something akin to a one-party state, with Labor federally holding as few as 30 seats nationally, (close to political irrelevance and making functioning in the parliament a real problem), which will be every bit as deleterious for our country’s prospects as the last three years of marginal competence have been.

I have had a lot to say about Rudd in the past, pointing out that he is a man harshly served by a massive, over-weening ego, an inflated sense of his own intellectual capacity, and a failing to understand the need to be popular and consultative. There is also the live question of whether he really has the stomach for the job.

But in those articles, I also argued that Gillard had a vanishingly small chance to remake her Government and save Labor from an utter rout. I said then:

These are qualities we value in a Prime Minister, and Gillard, despite other failings, has them. But she now needs to learn Rudd’s lesson. She is widely disliked – mistrusted – and this time by the public. And they will be meeting in their very own caucus before too long. Many of Rudd’s criticisms of her will have rung true with people, even as they admire the way she stood up for herself. She has a tiny window of opportunity – which will start closing immediately – to radically re-make her government.


… most of all, she should employ new speechwriters, and professional speaking consultants, to utterly transform her dreadful, whining, monotonic delivery of both formal speeches and her performances in the Parliament.

It is always hard for pollies to hear this, (I speak from experience), but the public has long since gone past their gentle amusement at how staggeringly irritating her delivery is, to reach a point of genuine annoyance. Quite apart from any policy disagreements or trust issues, her flat, nasal tones, distractingly repetitive and unhelpful hand movements, lack of light and shade, and holier than thou seriousness make her genuinely disliked.

So much promise, so little delivery.

So much promise, so little delivery.

Gillard’s window of opportunity has slammed shut. Now, as then, Gillard’s failing is emphatically not one of ephemeral style issues over substance, but it is the arrogant disregard for the need to transform her style that has turned her patchy performance as PM into a rolling disaster scene, for the ALP and the country.

After his last pathetically inept failure to seize the leadership (when Simon Crean had engineered an opportunity for him) I wrote Rudd off.

Now, I am prepared to change that judgement.

If – and it is still if, although I expect it to happen – later this week (on Thursday, in all probability) the Labor caucus extracts its collective head from its communal arse and re-engages with the former PM, I suspect he will take the job on offer.

And I have been involved in electoral politics long enough to know that if he did, well, then, unlikely as it might seem, all bets will be off for September, or at the very least, the odds will tighten sharply.

As both sides of politics know, although he would be on a hiding to nothing, Rudd remains stubbornly, grudgingly, popular with the public, leveraging mostly a strong sense that Labor acted appallingly in removing him after such a short time in office.

His tedious and tendentious self-importance also comes over to some people as gravitas, against a peer group for whom gravitas could not be claimed on either side of the Speaker’s aisle.

He could be forgiven being the most nervous man in Australian politics this week. He knows what's at stake.

He could be forgiven being the most nervous man in Australian politics this week. He knows what’s at stake.

It would be wrong to assume that Rudd cannot beat Abbott, as unlikely as it may appear when one observes the current polls.

In any two horse race – and parliamentary politics is sadly increasingly Presidential in both style and substance – any one of the two horses can always fall flat on its backside.

Part of the received current wisdom amongst the chaterati is that Abbott did a great job in fighting Julia Gillard to the brink of defeat last time, and is somehow a consummate campaigner.

This is arrant, intellectually lightweight nonsense.

Gillard performed awkwardly and unconvincingly, constantly undermined by leaks on her own side (and we all know where they came from), and most of the time looked nothing more nor less than a stunned rabbit caught in the headlights on a freeway she never really intended to walk across. Remember the strategic nonsense of “Real Julia”? Uh-huh.

She stumbled over the line on the votes of women (and feminist men) that were still amused and encouraged by the fact that our studiously chauvinist and conservative society had somehow contrived to get a woman into the top job, however much we doubted her abilities and worried about her motives.

To anyone who analyses his popularity levels carefully both at the time and since, Abbott didn’t nearly drag her down, although he did stick rigidly to his extremely limited and negative message, giving him at least the appearance of a serious man.

Rather, Gillard took aim at her foot so many times it is remarkable she could get her sensible shoes on by polling day.

"You start."  "No, you start." "No, you start."

“You start.” “No, you start.” “No, you start.”

But Rudd is not Gillard.

He didn’t just beat John Howard, he turned a very likely Labor win – people were by that time thoroughly sick of the Coalition, and the hagiographical reverence for Howard’s electoral performance in both the press and his supporter base ignored the many times in his past when he had, too, plumped the depths of electoral irritation – into something approaching a triumphant result.

Whatever else he was or may be, Rudd proved then that he could argue, engage, convince.

If Labor this week stops prissily pussyfooting about the obvious and goes back to Rudd in sufficient numbers for his ego to allow him to take the job, then it’s game on again. That’s why, of all the people watching Labor this week, you can be sure the most attentive will be Tony Abbott.

Is there a reason Labor won’t go back to Rudd this week?

There is, indeed. Faced with the certainty of one’s own death, one goes through the well-worn stages of dealing with bad news. Denial, Anger, Acceptance, and so on.

Any Labor MP in a seat with less than a ten per cent margin has already spent the better part of a year contemplating their own future, looking for post-Parliament positions, and many of them have long ago become resigned to the fact that the party’s over – by which they mean, not just their own cushy job tenure, but also the likelihood of their own party ever again presenting as a party of Government in its own right.

Labor is broke, has hardly any members, has thoroughly disappointed and offended its own core supporter base, and worst of all it lacks a clear and coherent vision of what it is and why it exists. Parties can and do disappear – even when they theoretically represent one half of the common political schism between right and left – and there is nothing that says that the Australian Labor Party’s hold on the centre-left is permanent or somehow pre-ordained.

When it was the mouthpiece for a truly mass-based, solid and powerful trade union movement it was irreplaceable.

But the trade union movement in Australia is no longer either massive, solid nor especially powerful, and whilst they will always be relevant and represented, they are now a sectional interest with nothing like the electoral clout they once had.

A significant part of the ALP’s raison d’etre has been removed, and its own leaders are busy dismantling what’s left of the other reasons – specifically, competence, compassion, and electability.

That’s why some Labor MPs this week will prefer to fling themselves on the pyre with Julia, rather than sully their consciences by going back to a man who they viscerally detest, and who they also consider an outsider, a man way outside the Labor mainstream, and untrustworthy in his own right.

There is still time for a mass demonstration of suttee from Labor members, and it may be that this is how this once-great party will, indeed, be remembered. If we get to Friday or Saturday and Julia Gillard is still Prime Minister, we will know that this is the option they chose, instead of putting the country first and making themselves as competitive as possible, and the country will duly judge them accordingly come election day, and, possibly, irrevocably.

  1. colin haycock says:

    Gillard really has done a singularly magnificent job – disenfranchised the majority of Australians & killed a major political party in 3 years flat.
    Well at least she’s got a nice fat retirement deal plus a drawer full of designer goggles….
    Well done Jools.


  2. My objections to you trying to influence matters outside of Australia are entirely confined to your efforts to try and influence DOMESTIC matters in overseas democracies. Although I will admit that you have probably not changed one vote. I just find the practice somewhere between ‘curious’ and ‘obnoxious’.

    Now, if you were campaigning to improve matters in the closed societies of China and North Korea, for example, I would applaud your efforts.

    It is just that I think DOMESTIC matters of the USA, UK and other democracies should be left to the residents of those countries without external interference. Now, that is nothing like how you describe things in your little self-important puffing at the start of this article now, is it?


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