The Debate

Australia’s Political Soap Opera

Public infighting has the Labor government heading for disaster at this year’s elections.

By James Pach for

Well, if that was Act III in the Kevin Rudd drama, it was a fizzer; the equivalent of the main protagonist walking out onto center stage and forgetting his lines. Exit stage left for the entire cast.

First, let’s recap. Australia – a rich, fortunate country that has been one of the chief beneficiaries of China’s insatiable demand for commodities – dispenses in 2007 with 11 years of conservative Coalition rule and hands a landslide victory to the Labor Party, led by former diplomat (and fluent Chinese speaker) Kevin Rudd. It’s a generational shift and Rudd is wildly popular with the electorate. It looks like Labor will be settling in for the long haul.

Except that Rudd proves to be profoundly flawed. By most accounts an indecisive megalomaniac, he leaves his parliamentary colleagues feeling ignored and abused. When his poll ratings finally begin to dip in mid-2010, following an embarrassing reversal on climate change policy and a controversial mining tax proposal, his colleagues topple him, in a coup as unprecedented as it is brutally efficient. Such is Rudd’s lack of support that he doesn't even contest the leadership spill. In his place, the party installs his deputy Julia Gillard, who becomes Australia’s first female prime minister.

In his book The Party Thieves, ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy recounts scenes of Labor MPs breaking out the wine in their offices the night before the coup, confident they have the numbers and that voters will soon forget. History suggests this may have been hopeful.

Gillard soon calls an election, and must confront not only a Coalition opposition rejuvenated under a disciplined Tony Abbott, but also damaging leaks from within her own party. Fingers point to Rudd as the source. The election leaves neither party with a majority, but Gillard is able to cobble together a government with the support of several independent MPs. Rudd is inexplicably given the post of foreign minister.

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The new government is soon in trouble. A popular deputy leader who has a strong base of support within her party, Gillard grates on much of the Australian electorate. She’s helped by the fact that über-conservative Abbott is hardly more popular. Gillard does well holding the government together, but she is dogged by speculation of a challenge from Rudd, who retains widespread voter support.

Finally, in February 2012, the challenge happens. But Gillard is a master tactician, and she forces Rudd to play his hand too soon—indeed, goading him into an astonishing resignation as foreign minister while in Washington D.C., followed by a 36-hour dash back to Australia to contest the leadership spill. Rudd is soundly beaten, 71-31, and moves to the back benches.

The win doesn’t help Gillard, who continues to lag in the polls. Entering 2013 she makes the surprise decision to call an election for September 14, eight months before the date would normally be announced. Widely dismissed as a stunt, the early call ensures that every act of the government will be seen through the lens of an election campaign. The government then fumbles media reform legislation. Speculation of another challenge mounts.

And so we come to last Thursday, March 21. This time the trigger is pulled by party stalwart Simon Crean, who believes he does so with Rudd’s full backing. For his part, Rudd apparently thinks Crean’s announcement will bring MPs over to his side. It does no such thing. Gillard responds swiftly, axing Crean from the Cabinet and calling the spill for the same afternoon. Rudd is apparently close to having the numbers, but not quite there. He’s not prepared to work the phones—he wants the leadership handed to him. As the caucus meeting approaches, he decides not to contest. Gillard leaves the meeting unopposed. A clutch of announced Rudd supporters either resign or are pushed out of the Cabinet, and some profess to be disgusted with their man’s lack of gumption. For his part, Rudd wants to make it “100 percent clear” that he will under “no circumstances” lead the Labor Party again.

That would then seem to be that.

Except that Labor is in even greater disarray than it was a week ago. Gillard is not at the head of government; she’s at the wheel of a slow-motion car wreck and barring some astonishing reversal, Labor faces oblivion come election day. On Monday, Gillard gave a press conference in which she pronounced herself “appalled” at the “unseemly display” of a “self-indulgent” Labor Party the previous week. She also announced a new Cabinet—her fourth reshuffle since the election—that piles new responsibilities onto the few senior ministers she has remaining, one of whom, Anthony Albanese, is a professed Rudd supporter.

Conventional wisdom has it that Rudd cannot and will not contest for the leadership again. And it is hard to see how he could now present himself as a credible leader, although politicians facing electoral death may find themselves prepared to swallow the unpalatable. But it is equally hard to see Gillard sailing into the election unopposed, and Rudd appears the only Labor Party figure who can stop a complete rout in September.

Again, according to conventional wisdom, the real losers from Thursday are those who stuck their necks out for Rudd and now find themselves on the back benches. But one wonders. The back benches may not be a bad place to be given what is almost certain to happen to Labor this year. At least they can focus on defending their own seats this year and then play a role in the rebuilding of Labor in opposition.

Because rebuilding is certainly what Labor will need. As former leader Mark Latham points out in a timely Quarterly Essay, the party is in dire need of reform. A structure so heavily reliant on workers’ unions is anachronistic—an industrial era party in a post-industrial age—and is a factor in much of the infighting that we’ve seen. In part, as Latham points out, Labor is a victim of its own success—the astonishing performance of the Australian economy, which has turned much of the unionized working folk targeted by Labor into an aspirational middle class, owes in large part to economic reforms initiated by the Hawke-Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and 90s. Today, Labor’s base is shrinking alarmingly and power is concentrated into the hands of a very few.

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With a highly urbanized, educated, multicultural population, Australia seems more than able to support a robust center-left party, particularly with the Liberal Party apparently abandoning centrist territory. But with its shambolic display in recent years, Labor in its current form is not that party. The question is whether it can reform itself before change is forced upon it.

James Pach is publisher of The Diplomat.