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Politics Gets Personal in Australia

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard may have fended off a leadership challenge from former premier Kevin Rudd. But its done Labor no favors at all in the eyes of the electorate.

By James Pach for

“Politics is about power.” With those words, Kevin Rudd opened his first speech to Australian parliament as a newly-elected member, in the early evening of November 11, 1998. He might have gone on to add that for him, power is intensely personal.

Now that we know the outcome of Rudd’s bid to reclaim his job as leader of the Australian Labor Party, and thus prime minister – a resounding 71-31 win for incumbent Prime Minister Julia Gillard (initially reported unofficially as 73-29) – it’s worth asking what it was all about.

It was indeed about power, it was very personal, and it was very much about Kevin Rudd.

For outsiders, its all been quite bemusing: Rudd’s late-night D.C. press conference resigning as Australian foreign minister, the accusations, the unprecedented vitriol, the tearful calls for unity, and the fact that a clear majority of Labor Party MPs refused to vote for the candidate clearly preferred by the Australian people.

On the surface, Australia wouldn’t seem a candidate for this sort of political turbulence. It’s hard to believe, but the country’s last official recession was in 1991, which means that it has made it through the Asian financial crisis, the IT bubble implosion, and the global financial crisis with barely a bump in the road. Australia has by far the highest GDP per capita (nominal; it is second behind the United States on a purchasing power parity basis) among the G-20 countries, and the highest U.N. Human Development Index score. Its cities are consistently ranked among the world’s most livable. Unemployment is low. Its AAA-rated public debt is just 20 percent of GDP. Australian banks are ranked among the world’s safest. The country has a seat at the table of the major regional and global organizations. It does well in sport. Australian politicians by and large have the luxury of debating the future, not how to dig themselves out of a hole of their own creation.

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Sure, much of this good fortune has to do with the China-driven commodities boom, but it’s also clear that by international norms, Australia has been well governed. Not perfectly, by any stretch, but other countries have strong commodities exports, after all, and mining and agriculture still only account for about 10 percent of Australia’s economy.

Nor does the country tie itself in knots on “values” politics, unlike, say, the United States. Social beliefs are rarely politically defining in Australia. Center-left Rudd started his political career leading an evangelist group. His then-Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard is an atheist. Conservative John Howard was a vigorous proponent of gun control.

So surely, you would think, its politics would be stable.

And until recently, that was the case. One of the more significant corollaries of the 1924 decision to make voting compulsory in Australia, is that it has favored mainstream politics. Australia has had its would-be populists (Pauline Hanson and Joh Bjelke-Peterson spring to mind; like Rudd, they both emerged from Queensland) but they tend to struggle for traction beyond the state level. So since Gough Whitlam’s disastrous stab at socialist utopia in the early 1970s, the country has given the top job to a series of professional pols pursuing middle-of-the-road policies.

That’s been just fine for the Australian electorate. Between November 1975, when Whitlam was controversially sacked by the then-Governor General Sir John Kerr, and December 2007, when John Howard finally lost an election, Australia had just four prime ministers (Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, and John Howard).

Enter Kevin Rudd.

Now it’s almost of truism of parliamentary politics that leadership ends in failure, and none of those four leaders left voluntarily. Opposition leaders also came and went, deposed in intraparty challenges if they failed to impress or were deemed past their use-by date. But Rudd has been a saga unto himself.

Driven and self-regarding even by the lofty standards of political leaders, Rudd had ferociously pursued power ever since a period of childhood hardship following the untimely death of his father. Religious and an intellect-on-his-sleeve type, Rudd entered the Labor Party through the rather unconventional route of diplomacy, spending seven years as a foreign policy professional, becoming fluent in Mandarin in the process. Without a natural power base within the party, still today dominated by unions and their lawyers, Rudd’s rise through the ranks was nonetheless impressive. Eight years after that first speech he was leader, and soon after it was evident he would be the next prime minister.

Rudd was elected in December 2007 in a landslide, ending 11 years of conservative government under Howard. Immensely popular with the public, Rudd quickly moved to repeal Howard’s unpopular and highly pro-business Work Choices industrial relations legislation and took the lauded steps of signing on to the Kyoto Protocol and delivering an overdue apology to Australia’s “Stolen Generations.”

But whispers soon emerged that Rudd had some management problems. The early talk was of a frenetic work pace. But then came stories of inefficiencies, an explosive temper, anger, a lack of consultation, and a megalomaniacal obsession with concentrating all power in his hands, yet a reluctance to make decisions.  Staff and colleagues couldn’t stand him. The government was taking on too much and had become paralyzed, they felt.

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For a long time, lips remained sealed. This was the man who had, after all, finally returned Labor to power. He also remained extraordinarily popular with the Australian electorate. This is in itself somewhat of a mystery. Australians, especially those more predisposed to vote for a Labor government, have traditionally liked their politicians to display a common touch. Rudd’s predecessors as Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, and Paul Keating all affected a streak of larrikinism (the professed Australian fondness for larrikinism is our own little War of Independence). Thus the earthy wit of the extremely erudite Whitlam (Country Party member in parliament: “I’m a country member.” Whitlam: “Yes, we remember”), the drinking tales and broad Australian accent of the Rhodes scholar Bob Hawke, and the famous combativeness of antique aficionado and Paris lover Paul Keating.

With his R2-D2 demeanor and slightly awkward, slightly pompous manner of speaking (a manner not entirely unknown, in your correspondent’s experience, to the Australian foreign policy community), the common touch wouldn’t seem to be one of Rudd’s strong suits. But he’s a highly effective campaigner and extremely adept at using the media, evident in the last several days when he provided images of him being “mobbed” in his local electorate, which the media obligingly ran repeatedly. And he’s a master at getting the public involved in his personal narrative.

This popularity protected Rudd, until in 2010 it began to slip. Policy missteps, most notably a decision to defer action on a previously pledged carbon tax, saw his government take a hit in the polls. Still, this was a dip, not a collapse. So it came as a shock to most Australians when on June 23 of that year, Rudd was deposed in a remarkably brisk and ruthless coup. Deputy Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister.

That was Act I. This week was Act II: Rudd’s Revenge. Apparently, Labor Party powerbrokers in 2010 decided that the less said about the abrupt leadership change the better. Rudd’s alleged failings were not at the time convincingly presented to the public. Nor was an explanation given as to why an unprecedented removal of a popular first-time prime minister was the only possible course of action. (Nor indeed why someone allegedly so flawed would be permitted to represent Australia as foreign minister).

That left the Australian people baffled and angry that their overwhelming choice for prime minister had been fired. And it gave Rudd cover. The fact that his replacement Gillard has struggled to connect with the electorate gave him an opportunity. Gillard is the anti-Rudd: popular with her colleagues, consultative, not afraid to make the tough decisions (she passed the unpopular carbon tax legislation), but also profoundly unloved among the broader Australian population. Undoubtedly, this is partly because of the way she came to power – many Labor faithful haven’t forgiven her. In a country where men like to think they are real men, there’s also more than a hint of misogyny in many of the criticisms. But she has also made her own policy missteps and awkward reversals, and some of her public performances – say, during the Queensland floods last year – can most generously be described as wooden. Yet, she has effectively managed a minority government, the best that Labor could manage in the 2010 elections that followed the coup.

So we have a classic case study in parliamentary democracy. Australian’s prime minister isn’t directly elected by the people, but is chosen by his or her colleagues in the party room. Rudd can – and did – call for “people power,” but if you can’t work and play well with your parliamentary colleagues, your popularity doesn't count for much.

Or does it?

In fact, this challenge probably came too early for Rudd. Yes, the Labor Party under Gillard appears headed for defeat at the next election, but that election isn’t due for another 21 months. A week, as they say, is a long time in politics. Twenty months may well be long enough for Gillard to find her feet and improve her poll ratings. If not, then the party has the time to consider an alternative, whether that be Rudd or a third candidate.

Rudd may have done better to wait until closer to the election. Impending oblivion may have made MPs willing to forgive and forget old slights. He, of course, may have been following the playbook of Paul Keating, who as treasurer challenged then Prime Minister Bob Hawke in June 1991, lost 44 to 66, went to the back benches, but then challenged successfully a second time in December of that year. Perhaps Rudd hoped to view this first challenge as a similar sort of beachhead, and if Gillard continues to underperform, then he may have felt he could successfully woo additional supporters and set up a second challenge closer to the next elections. But Keating never faced the intense dislike that the majority of the caucus evidently feels for Rudd. And frankly, 71-31 is likely too emphatic a defeat to allow Rudd to think about challenging again anytime soon.

Either way, the psychodrama over the last week has done the Labor Party no good at all. Founded during Australia’s industrial revolution, Labor has a proud record of improving the conditions of ordinary Australians. With union membership in decline and traditional labor issues receding (when school leavers in Western Australia can make $100,000 for driving a truck, it’s hard to get exercised about class struggle), the party has been remarkably successful at pivoting on policy. As Rudd himself said Friday, Labor is the party that can deliver both green and growth. Forget Blair/Clinton and the ballyhooed “third way” of the 1990s, Labor had this down in the 1980s, with deregulation under Hawke-Keating that helped pave the way for Australia’s superior economic performance of the past two decades.

So while latte-sipping progressives can be lured away by the Greens, and while the white collar noblesse oblige types can feel comfortable with the moderate wing of the Liberal Party, Labor has successfully taken its policies into the 21st century, appealing to centrists and the center-left alike. By picking moderate leaders, it has held power for nearly half of the post-Whitlam era.

Unfortunately, the party’s structure remains firmly entrenched in the last century. Dominated by factions and riven by petty squabbles, Labor too often airs its dirty laundry in public. This past week has been a case in point. Party reform will be a critical task if Labor is to convince a disgusted electorate that it deserves to hold onto government.

For all the talk of party unity that will inevitably follow this imbroglio, it will take a remarkable turnaround for Gillard to sail into the next election unchallenged. And despite being thumped in the ballot this morning, it is an open question whether Rudd will retire quietly to backbench obscurity. For now, the winner would seem to be Opposition leader, Tony Abbott. But effective though he has been, Abbott’s über conservative stance makes it hard for him to lock in a majority of the electorate. Inevitably, there will be those within Labor who think they can take him on; the emergence of a third candidate remains a distinct possibility.

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This drama, then, is very likely to be a three-act play.

James Pach is publisher of The Diplomat.