The return of Rudd – so now what?

Last night everything came to a head – the constant speculation, the outrageous op-eds, and the inevitable cries of ‘What the hell is going on here?’ from the Australian people. Faced with a petition calling for a Special Caucus meeting to decide the Labor leadership, Prime Minister Julia Gillard called a spill for 7pm. In an exclusive interview with Sky News’ David Speers, she invited ‘challengers’, and insisted that the loser leave politics at the next election.

Of course, she didn’t utter the name ‘Kevin Rudd’, but there was only ever one contender. This was to be nothing less than a final showdown. And – unlike the bungled attempt by Simon Crean in March this year – Rudd stepped up. His style could not have been more different. The Prime Minister gave a quiet, exclusive interview. Rudd held a press conference in the Caucus Room, effectively sending a message that he already held the high ground, and was reaching out to all viewers.

As the time wore down, rumours and leaks were everywhere. Rudd had the numbers. Gillard had the numbers. This person was switching allegiances. Nothing new, really – but then there was a bombshell. Bill Shorten, widely regarded as the ‘kingmaker’ of the Labor Party, head of the National Right and instrumental in removing Rudd in 2010, announced that he would be supporting Rudd. He brought around seven votes with him, and from there the tide turned. Water Minister Tony Burke, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Finance Minister Penny Wong, both stalwart Gillard supporters, also decided to support Rudd.

The result: 57-45. Kevin Rudd was sworn in – again – as Prime Minister this morning.

For some, this was something for which they’d been waiting since 2010. For others, it was nothing less than a coup – and here I confess myself entirely bemused. Gillard supporters – themselves the beneficiaries of a leadership challenge that toppled a sitting Prime Minister – cried foul. Turnabout, it seems, is not fair play when it comes to Gillard being ousted.

It’s worth taking a look at those who changed their votes, however. Why would they abandon Gillard, after supporting her for so long? The answer is simple, and brutal: this was never about anything but winning the upcoming election – or at least, minimising the damage if the Coalition takes government.

Sounds venal, doesn’t it? Self-serving? Grasping?

Of course it is.

Remember those polls? Even the best said that under Gillard, Labor faced decimation at the ballot box. The Coalition would likely hold both Houses by majority, rendering the Greens ineffective in the Senate and Independents like Andrew Wilkie entirely powerless. Labor stood to lose Queensland and Western Australia in the Senate, as well as key seats formerly considered safe. At worst, Labor would cease to have any discernible effect as a political party for a very long time.

Then there were all those other polls, that showed Rudd was by far preferred leader, and might even make a fight out of the election. And finally, internal polling that confirmed the worst fears of everyone in the party. Under those circumstances, any politician is going to think long and hard about not only their own future, but that of their party.

Carr said on Lateline last night that ‘suddenly the next election has become very contestable. … Our achievements … were at risk from an Abbott government’. Wong said it was ‘a difficult decision’, made ‘in the best interests of the Labor party’, to make the next election a real contest.

And what about Shorten, the so-called power behind the throne? As he made his announcement, the Minister looked anything but happy. On his face was the look of a man swallowing a bitter pill. He knew he’d be the target of everything from criticism to outright hatred for changing sides, even making the point himself that his political career would probably suffer, possibly even end altogether. He may well have sacrificed himself for the party. That’s not something any politician does lightly.

Anthony Albanese was elected and sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister, beating Simon Crean 61-38. That Crean ran at all was remarkable. If he expected to be rewarded for his attempt to bring on a spill, he was sadly mistaken. Albanese has shown himself throughout to be someone who works entirely for the party, and stayed loyal to the leader. His appointment will go far to heal breaches, after almost half the front bench resigned their portfolios last night. Likewise the unanimous election of Penny Wong as Senate Leader. The other key position, Treasurer, has fallen to Chris Bowen.

As I write, Prime Minister Rudd makes his first speech to the House, acknowledging former Prime Minister Gillard and lauding her accomplishments. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott delivered a speech almost identical to the one he made when Gillard first took office, changing little other than gender references. There was even a reference to the ‘faceless men’, backed up a few minutes later by Immigration Shadow Scott Morrison, who referred to Shorten as ‘the Kingslayer’. Back to normal.

Abbott squashed any talk of a no confidence motion, but the electioneering has already started. He’s called for an immediate election (earliest possible date: August 3), recycling the accusation that the Australian people have – again – been cheated of their right to elect their Prime Minister. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Abbott knows full well that we elect our government, not our government’s leader. Of course, any given leader may sway our vote, but once the party is in power (or Opposition, for that matter), that leader can be changed at any time. That’s how a party-based Parliamentary system works.

So now what?

Rudd faces a choice: keep the September 14 election date, and use the time to establish himself as leader of a party capable of bringing the fight to the Coalition; bring the election date forward, and go immediately into full campaign mode; or push the date back to its latest possible time, hold more sitting weeks and consolidate legislation.

As Prime Minister, he gains an incumbent’s advantage; right up until the election period officially starts, he can still act in an executive fashion. He has the time to show how his policies will differ sufficiently from both the Coalition and his predecessor to justify his re-election. This will particularly centre on issues of climate change, asylum seekers and marriage equality (to which Rudd is a recent convert).

Any option has dangers. Rudd’s popularity may well wane with time, leaving Labor’s election chances in the doldrums. Long election campaigns always test the patience of the electorate, and in this case, the Coalition is likely to run an almost entirely negative strategy aimed at destroying Rudd. They have plenty of ammunition – some of the comments from Gillard’s supporters during the 2012 leadership challenges were positive gifts to the Opposition.

Bringing on an earlier election, however, has its own risks. Rudd and his new Ministry need to clearly show themselves as a cohesive team. The new Ministers only have a short time to establish their credentials as things stand, which allows the Coalition to argue that their side (populated by many of former Prime Minister John Howard’s cabinet) has the necessary experience.

I suspect Rudd will leave the election date at September 14. It’s the best compromise. It won’t be an easy three months, though; the Opposition will be relentless, and the government needs to push its message through the debris of last night’s challenge. Rudd will continue his tactic of stumping for local members. In fact, he’ll be all over the media – pressers, interviews, QandA, various current affairs programs. He’ll face innumerable questions about the leadership challenge, as will those who changed their votes to support him.

It remains to be seen if the media will finally stop asking those questions, since now – in the words of The Age – they can have a debate about policy and ideas. (Sarcasm definitely intended).

And for the rest of us? There’s no doubt Labor has a new spring in its collective step. We may well actually see a contest in September, not a fait accompli that delivers us at least three years of rubber-stamp government.

Regardless of whether you support Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, the Greens or anyone else, that has to be a good result.

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7 Responses to The return of Rudd – so now what?

  1. JenniferGJ says:

    Dear Conscience Vote, looking forward to hearing more from you.

  2. As I said on my Facebook page on that fateful night I am disappointed in principal about Julia being ousted due to the sexist landscape that has been the setting of the past couple of years….she could get no oxygen in the media and Tony Abbot has shown his true colours. However, at least this will provide a better chance of Abbot not getting in, which would be disastrous!

  3. Bill says:

    Excellent analysis.
    I had nothing against Rudd and I had nothing against Gillard in 2010. I saw no need to replace Rudd but when it happened, I accepted it. I think it takes a fair amount of gall for anyone who supported the 2010 spill to talk of unfair treatment this time around. Gillard may not have actively undermined Rudd in 2010 (although I don’t know that she didn’t either) but she certainly benefitted from those that did. They all know the game they’re in.

    It’s always been my view that Labor shat themselves over a couple of bad polls in 2010 and have been pretending they didn’t ever since. Gillard has done some excellent work under the most difficult of circumstances but the fact remains that her best numbers have been just above Rudd’s worst and there’s bugger all point in being the most righteous opposition in history.

    Of course the media agitated for this, but we should remember they had been agitating for a spill for a long time before it happened in 2010 as well. When it’s easier to report on personalities than policy, we should not mistake lethargy for strategy, to quote Sir Humphrey.

    • JenniferGJ says:

      Very interesting and intelligent. What now do you think of the policy announcement on asylum seekers who get on boats to try to get into Australia? The Green senators annoyed me when they were interviewed at length (check out the press conference in full) because they went on in emotional tones of condemnation and forgot to get stuck right into the detailed questioning of the Labor leaders. There was a policy announcement. It was available in full to watch if one has ABC News 24 or A-PAC on the cable channels. The full intent of the policy was to deter people from getting on boats and risking their lives at sea. Of course there were political benefits in that people who lack compassion would like Labor more and maybe vote for them. However, where are the questions about looking after the new arrivals in PNG and speeding up processing and resettlement of those already detained in Australia? The Labor leadership can handle that sort of detailed questioning, so everyone should get up and make sure that compassion does not disappear. We can hold them to account if we use our brains as well as our emotions. After all we live in a democracy and have the right to lobby our pollies and expect them to do the right thing!

  4. VoterBentleigh says:

    It is not a good result at all. It is a capitulation to the very methods used by the Coalition and mainstream media to undermine Labor’s chances of winning. While there may not be “a conspiracy” by Murdoch and Rinehart, they have banded together to oppose Labor and they do exercise enormous influence over the corporations they control, and this filters throughout their organisations just as most management influences the work ethic in workplaces. They are certainly influencing the political dialogue and the policies of the Coalition. To claim otherwise is disingenuous.

    The latest change in Labor leadership is different from the first in that Gillard did not undermine the Labor Party policy platform from the sidelines as the Rudd camp has done. The Rudd camp both fuelled and played directly into the Coalition and MSM’s non-policy agenda.

    Yes, we will have a contest at the election, but since the Coalition and the MSM having succeeded in using polls to bandwagon against Gillard and have scared Labor into ousting Gillard by their relentless character assassination, sloganeering and refusal to provide detailed, costed policy, this means that they have succeeded in making Labor look unstable and disunited using tactics which can in turn be equally successful with the public against Rudd. If Abbott had failed to oust Gillard before the election, he would have been forced to discuss policy with her, but as his methods have been successful, he now knows, as does the MSM, that they do not need to discuss policy at all. They just have to do to Rudd what they did to Gillard. This is not a good thing for politics in Australia.

  5. Mike Barnes says:

    In my always-humble opinion – with Rudd and Albo up front – if they can seriously make a strong attempt to run on same-sex marriage support, throw in some carbon price assurances, disengage from the stop-the-boats debate and talk up the NBN … they might have a shot at getting some of their former left-wing support base back from the Greens and could actually pull this off.

    If they spend ONE MORE SECOND trying to prove they can be just as good at conservative politics at the LNP and try to get the Right on side, they are doomed and I will happily dance on the ALP’s grave.

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