We can start the policy debate

June 24, 2013

In my last post, I took aim at The Age’s contention that it was ‘impossible’ to have a policy debate as long as Julia Gillard remained our Prime Minister. I stand by what I wrote then: as long as the media continues to give space to articles and op-eds which speculate about how long she will keep the top job or how hard it is to write about policy, the less actual scrutiny of policy and ideas there will be.

That said: to suggest for one moment that Rupert Murdoch or Gina Rinehart lurk in the background like megalomaniacal overlords, chuckling evilly as they manipulate the election in order to get the result they want, is patently ridiculous. There are any number of studies pointing to media bias in one form or another (or even that the media roughly evens out), and that’s clearly something that these organisations should acknowledge, and, possibly, correct. This does not prove conspiracy.

I grew up in a media household. My stepfather worked for both Fairfax (as Features Editor) and News Limited (in various roles, including editor-in-chief for the Gold Coast Bulletin). My brother now also works for News Limited. Over the years, no directives came down demanding that editorial content favour any given political party. No subtle discouragements filtered through to reporters that they should ‘go hard’ on one leader, while giving another a free pass. Was there bias? Almost certainly. Was it part of a greater agenda? No.

Attributing what’s going on in our media to conspiracy just avoids the real issue – which is how to make policy the focus of political coverage. It won’t happen by accusing News Limited of being a pawn in Murdoch’s nefarious schemes, or saying that Gina Rinehart’s interest in Fairfax is the ‘real’ reason The Age ran that editorial. It probably won’t even happen by demanding that the media start asking some real questions. The questions have to come from the rest of us in whatever way we can ask them.

Hit politicians’ websites. Write to them. Visit them when they’re on the rounds promoting something – their itineraries can usually be obtained, especially for backbenchers moving around their own electorates – and ask them face to face. Ask about the policies on their websites – or why they don’t have policies easily obtainable.

Get involved.

Heck, start a blog, write about what you want to know, and ping it straight at politicians. Most of them these days have Facebook or Twitter accounts. Make social media work. The most common criticism levelled at social media is that it’s no more than an echo chamber, out of touch with reality. To an extent, that’s true. You only have to spend a bit of time reading the #auspol timeline to realise just how much bandwidth is given over to partisan rubbish – and a staggering amount of truly vile sentiment. It makes ‘Ditch the Witch!’ look like a compliment.

That doesn’t mean these must be the only voices to be using social media, however – or even the dominant voices. Just as the mainstream media is not the only voice.

I wrote that if The Age isn’t writing about policy, they have no one to blame but themselves. The same is true for all of us. We shouldn’t wait to have our electoral choices spoon-fed to us.

If your reason for not voting Labor at the next election is ‘Julia Gillard knifed Kevin Rudd’ … if you take the dreadful, misogynist attacks against the Prime Minister as a reason to vote for her … if you spend your time arguing about whether Rudd or Gillard should be leader, rather than scrutinising policy from all sides … then you’re contributing to an already huge problem. You’re enabling a policy-free zone to proliferate.

We can do better than that. We can stop mindlessly marching to the beat being set for us. Ask yourself: who does it serve to have all the attention focused anywhere but policy?

It certainly doesn’t serve us – the people who will determine the outcome of the next election.

Perhaps Rudd will challenge Gillard tomorrow. Perhaps Gillard will step down, or be forced out. Turnbull might challenge Abbott (yes, I know, virtually impossible). But let’s be blunt: what matters, ultimately, are the policies each party takes to the election. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the leader doesn’t matter: of course they do. It’s why Keating challenged Hawke, and why Costello didn’t challenge Howard. But the leader isn’t the be-all and end-all of an election.

It’s time we all started remembering that. So here’s my proposal: let’s ask the questions that really matter.

Let’s ask the Coalition why most of their stated policies to date involve little more than reversing everything accomplished by the Rudd and Gillard governments. Let’s ask the Greens what they plan to do if the Coalition successfully repeals carbon pricing. Let’s ask the Independents what they would do if we end up with another minority government. And let’s ask Labor for more detail about the Gonski reforms, and how it plans to address shortfalls in project mining tax revenue.

It will be up to us on September 14 – but we shouldn’t wait until then. We should start now.

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Dear media, write about something else

June 19, 2013

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an election coming. It’s about this time we should be seeing politicians nailed to the wall about their record, and their policies. So what do we get from our media?

Do we hear about the 1632 children being held in detention solely because their parents risked their lives to seek asylum in Australia? Children who grow up in an atmosphere of utter despair, in conditions of squalor, and with no realistic hope of escape any time soon? For that matter, do we hear that Parliament’s own Human Rights Committee sounded a note of warning, urging MPs to comply with our international obligations?

Do we hear about the Coalition’s plan to flout international law, and Australia’s treaty obligations, by deporting any refugee convicted of a crime with a sentence of 12 months or more back to their home country? To speed up the process, any such refugee would lose their ‘normal rights of appeal’. (Yes, you heard that right. No judicial process for you, refugee person, even if you were wrongly convicted. We’ll put you on a plane and fly you right back into the hands of the country you fled in fear for your life. Bye-bye, now.)

Do we hear about the Coalition’s lack of any substantial education policy, other than to reverse anything the government manages to set in place? Christopher Pyne doesn’t think the education system needs fixing – oh, except for that pesky National Curriculum. That’s got to go. Too ‘black armband’. We can’t have our kids growing up thinking our history contains anything shameful.

How about the major parties marching in lockstep to preserve a duopoly between Coles and Woolworths, which causes immense harm to primary producers and small businesses? The complete silence on Arts funding? The government’s undignified scramble away from legislation to regulate poker machines? The Coalition’s intent to widen an already huge gap between wealthy and low income families through a number of policies, including its misnamed Paid Parental Leave (only available to women) and removing means testing on so-called ‘middle class welfare’ schemes like the Schoolkids’ Bonus?

Do we hear incisive analysis about the issues? Informed, reasoned commentary? Close questioning in interviews?

We do not.

What we do hear is, day after day, the same pap regurgitated.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott visits yet another small business, telling us that the ‘carbon tax’ is killing the country. Or the mining tax. Or both. The script is so predictable that one suspects he may, at times, be talking in his sleep. But that’s perfectly all right, because no one is likely to ask him any hard questions.

Yet another opinion piece pops up, telling us that Kevin Rudd’s supporters are massing for a tilt at the leadership, and that Labor is on the verge of self-destruction. That a challenge is imminent. Ignore anything that Labor politicians actually say – just keep presenting the conjecture as fact. Sooner or later, it’s got to be true, right? Even a stopped clock is correct twice a day.

And then there are the endless, endless discussions of polls – but only some polls. Only the polls that show the government heading towards an unprecedented defeat. Only the polls that show Rudd is more popular than the Prime Minister. Don’t worry about the polls that have consistently shown a different trend, which – at least – suggest that closer analysis might be in order. Don’t worry about polls showing Abbott’s popularity pales in comparison to that of the leader he ousted, Malcolm Turnbull.

Think I’m exaggerating? Watch the headlines on the hourly ABC News24 and Sky bulletins. Go and look at the headlines under ‘Politics’ on the Fairfax or News Limited’s websites. Discount anything written by a politician, and here’s a sample of what you get:

(from Fairfax)
‘For Fix Sake, Someone Sort Out Rudd and Gillard’
‘The Loved and the Loathed’ (Gillard and Rudd, of course)
‘Little Wonder Caucus Mired in its Pool of Tears’

(from News Ltd)
‘Kevin Rudd Can’t Save Labor’
‘Gone-ski, Me? Not Today Anyway’ (Fairfax makes Lewis Carroll references, News Ltd makes puns)
‘G-G on Hand in Case of Coup’
‘Blocking Kevin Won’t Leave Julia a Martyr’

To be fair, there were a couple of articles about issues other than the Labor leadership. One was a very short update on how 457 Visa legislation might not pass the House. Another expressed astonishment at the social media backlash that followed Senator Cory Bernardi’s column yesterday, in which he claimed he’d been vindicated in his assertion that same-sex marriage would lead to multiple marriage and bestiality. By far, though, the majority of media coverage has been the same old same old.

Now, sure, breathless speculation about an imminent Constitutional crisis makes for great headlines. What a story – it’s got action, it’s got conflict, it’s got drama – and best of all, there’s no need to make sure that the facts are correct. Because there are no facts. It’s all one big hypothetical, and if it never happens, well, no harm, no foul, right? The next story can always be about how Rudd’s faction ‘backed away’. Meanwhile, there’s always another Abbott presser.

This is the kind of rubbish that clutters up political journalism, buries – or even outright ignores – substantial policy debate and criticism, and is served up to us. Is it any wonder that people turn increasingly to independent media?

Here’s a heretical thought for the mainstream media. Why not stop writing about how Rudd might challenge Gillard? Sure, keep an ear to the ground, and if a challenge is on, be there on the ground – but in the meantime, there’s plenty of news to go around. Get stuck into the Coalition on their resounding lack of policy. Pin down the government on their appalling asylum seeker legislation. Do some bloody analysis on Greens policies. Hell, spend some time with the Independents – all of them – and find out what they plan to bring to their election campaigns.

For the love of Murphy, write about something else.

I promise it won’t hurt. You might just find your audiences start re-engaging. And those readers and viewers would have some real content to accompany what they get from independent media. Everybody wins.

Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?


Election 2013: A tale told by an idiot

June 10, 2013

It’s time. Time for the media to bring out tired old speculation about the Labor leadership; time for obsessive focus on a single, arguably self-interested poll that indicates an ever-greater victory for the Federal Coalition; time for backbench politicians in marginal seats to become the hottest headlines in political reporting.

Yes, it’s time.

And if you spotted the mangling of an old election slogan here … well, that’s rather the point. The September 14 election looms ever closer. The Coalition helpfully told us last week that we’d passed the hundred-day mark – though why it would bother is a bit of a puzzler. After all, the Coalition hasn’t stopped campaigning since the result of the 2010 election. Notwithstanding, the official election campaign is about to begin, and all parties are getting ready in their own way.

The government is at pains to point out how much legislation has been passed under Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s leadership. Led by carbon pricing, the mining tax, the National Broadband Network, increasing the compulsory superannuation contribution from 9% to 12%, education reform, and the NDIS, the government have passed over 300 pieces of legislation. ‘Obviously’, this points to a stable, functioning government.

Then there are those polling numbers, that so rarely seem to go the government’s way. Gillard seems unable to take a trick, especially when it comes to the Newspoll. ‘Surely’ this indicates the people don’t want another Labor government.

And let’s not forget the Greens and Independents. Without them, the government could not have passed so many bills. They ensured a full term of Parliament, and helped institute Parliamentary reforms that gave a greater voice to cross-benchers. Their influence is ‘out of proportion’.

But you know what? None of that matters.

The amount of legislation passed by the government is irrelevant.

The polling numbers are irrelevant.

The stability of the Parliament is irrelevant.

Oh, and that little thing called policy? Irrelevant.

Why?

Because this election will be about nothing more than ideology.

The facts don’t matter, you see.

It doesn’t matter whether the Federal Coalition refuses to delineate its policies, or to have what little detail it releases costed through Treasury. It doesn’t matter that the two major parties are effectively in lockstep on asylum seeker policy, pursuing an increasingly inhumane agenda. And it certainly doesn’t matter that the Prime Minister has managed to administrate a minority government in an effective, consultative way.

What will matter in this campaign is nothing more than a narrative created by the Federal Coalition. The story it wants to tell is one of desperation; of a weak Prime Minister manipulated by factional ‘warlords’, a government at the mercy of an ‘extreme’ left-wing minor party, and a country at the mercy of crippling taxes levied upon a populace that simply cannot afford to pay for the government’s ineptitude. Add to that a hefty whack of xenophobia (‘the boats, the boats!’) and the hackneyed ‘Rudd wants his job back’ motif, and there you have it.

The Coalition’s description of itself is, of course, far more optimistic. Its narrative boils down to, ‘Under us, you’ll have more money and sleep safely in your beds at night’. It’s all sleight of hand, of course; you’re expected to believe that somehow the Coalition – the so-called ‘party of the free market’ – can force power companies to drop their prices, simply by removing the carbon price. You’re also supposed to believe that refugee boats will stop coming – or, if they do come, that there’ll be no ‘convicted Egyptian jihadist terrorists’ roaming free to (presumably) threaten Our Way Of Life. Never mind the increasing evidence that said ‘terrorist’ may well be nothing of the kind. It’s all about how many times you say something – not whether it’s true.

Labor’s story isn’t much better. It got spooked by the Coalition’s unrelenting insistence on knowing when the Budget would be in surplus – at a time when the majority of the Western world was struggling with deficits of, in some cases, trillions of dollars. It made the critical mistake of promising big, then having to walk back expectations. That’s a gift to the Coalition. The polls are terrible, but rather than eat any form of humble pie and promise to listen to the electorate, Labor’s strategy is to say, ‘It wasn’t our fault’. And out comes the increasingly tattered spectre of WorkChoices and the threat of razor gangs rampaging through the halls of the public service. Labor’s trying to recapture its old image of ‘the workers’ champion’ – whether or not its deeds match its words.

The minor parties, of course, criticise everybody. The Greens and the Katter United Party make for odd bedfellows, but when it comes to ideology, you can’t beat them. Both are light on policy, heavy on rhetoric. So far, that’s working – and perhaps Labor, in particular, should have looked at the election results and seen that.

The voices crying in the wilderness are the Independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. They’re Parliament’s equivalent of the strange uncles that one has to invite to the family reunion, but no one wants to get trapped in a corner listening to them. A pity, that, since they’re the only ones talking policy and making sense. They’re not interested in narratives; they want to hear some policy detail. How quaint.

Duelling narratives. It would be funny if it wasn’t so frustrating.

And the media are enthusiastically complicit. Here’s a sample, just from recent news.

Dennis Atkins is particularly good at this game. ‘Labor sent packing by nearing gallows poll‘! ‘Federal Labor a dead government walking as September election approaches‘!

The Sydney Morning Herald zeroed in on the Labor leadership. Tony Wright opined that Labor MPs are under a self-imposed vow of silence. That article was helpfully accompanied by a poll asking readers who they’d like to see as leader. Jacqueline Maley urged the ‘Ice Queen’ to thaw. That article featured the following astonishing description of Federal Labor:

‘Some are traumatised and attacking each other, some are so depressed they’re literally packing up in anticipation of their ruination at the polls, and some have just gone bonkers.’

Bonkers. There’s some hard-hitting analysis right there.

It goes on. Latika Bourke, on ABCNews24’s Breakfast News, spoke solemnly of a ‘mood of despair and despondency’ in Labor, this morning. And last week Chris Uhlmann threw around phrases like ‘death rattle’ and ‘the September poll feels more like a coronation’. Mind you, that article did, at least, point out that Education Shadow Christopher Pyne was telling porkies about the Prime Minister – although Uhlmann didn’t quite go as far as to call Pyne a liar. He said, carefully, that Pyne ‘really needs to get better Labor sources’.

So there you have it. No substantive discussion of policy. No policy, for the most part. Just endless regurgitation of old ideas and advertising slogans served up to us disguised as meat. Why not? It worked in 1972, when Whitlam, with little more than a catchy tune, convinced the Australian people that record low unemployment and a high Australian dollar were dire circumstances that required them to vote in a new government.

And we’re expected to swallow it all. We’re not supposed to ask questions, or demand detail. Silly electorate; anyone would think this election was something serious.

This campaign is already nearly three years long. The final days will be, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Unless, of course, we make it clear that we won’t settle for that. Unless we demand something more. Something better.


When is a knife not a knife?

March 7, 2013

When it’s a sword, apparently.

Remember back in 2010, when Education Minister Julia Gillard and the Faceless Men of Labor ‘knifed’ then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd? The lurid headlines trumpeting, ‘Assassination’? The pundits crying, ‘J’accuse!’ at everyone from Labor junior Ministers to union officials?

Of course you do. After all, it’s not like any of us have been allowed to forget it. As recently as two weeks ago, we were treated to yet another reminder courtesy of the Coalition, complete with dire warnings that federal Labor will ‘inevitably’ see Gillard suffer the same fate as her predecessor.

Back up a second. Let’s remember something. Rudd may have been urged to go, but he didn’t lose a leadership challenge. He resigned in the face of loss of confidence from his party room. Splitting hairs? Maybe, but hold that thought.

Last night, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu also resigned from his leadership position. An earlier leader, Denis Napthine, emerged from the party room as the new Premier as a tearful Baillieu made his farewells.

The headlines made it clear. Baillieu ‘walked away’. He ‘fell on his sword’. In the face of loss of confidence from his party room (not to mention potential corruption charges and a continued slump in the polls), he resigned.

Sound familiar?

Oh, but wait.

It’s not the same at all, clamoured the Coalition. Rudd was ‘executed’. And anyway, he was a bad PM. Baillieu was a good Premier, a ‘man of integrity‘ who had ‘put Victoria’s finances on a sustainable footing and made significant investments in infrastructure,’ to quote Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Never mind the fact that earlier the same day, Victoria officially slipped into recession. It’s not nice to say bad things about an outgoing leader – unless that leader happens to be from the Labor Party, according to the Coalition playbook.

So let’s get this straight. When a Labor leader resigns under pressure from his party, he ‘gets knifed’. When a Liberal leader does the same thing, he ‘falls on his sword’. Is it just me, or is there something just a little ridiculous about that?

Kevin Rudd's tearful resignation

Kevin Rudd’s tearful resignation

Ted Baillieu's tearful resignation

Ted Baillieu’s tearful resignation

The Coalition will now reap everything it sowed when it sought to capitalise on the resignation of Rudd. The new Premier, in power under the same circumstances, is well and truly open to allegations of ‘assassination’ and ‘execution’ – and let’s not forget, Napthine himself was rolled as leader after poor polls and a split in the Coalition. Already, the accusations are flying thick and fast in the Victorian Parliament.

At least The Australian, ordinarily a bastion of Coalition support, didn’t go along with the ‘when-is-a-knife-not-a-knife’ spin attempt. Peter van Onselen was frankly incredulous at the turn of events in Victoria, describing the state Coalition as ‘rats in an experiment that did not learn from their mistakes’.

The frantic efforts to paint Baillieu as some kind of courageous and noble Roman general (notably absent from Parliament today) just won’t work. And the Coalition only has itself to blame. It wrote this script back in 2010, and ever since, have hammered it into public discourse without once stopping for breath. What goes round, comes round, as they say.

The big question, of course, is what – if any – effect this will have on Federal politics. It’s possible there will be none. Abbott’s very good at deflecting media attention, and Gillard risks a backlash from voters if she adopts the dramatic language usually directed at her. Neither stands to gain much (pending an early change of government in Victoria), and Abbott’s ‘sustainable finances’ gaffe is already the stuff of ridicule – so it won’t be long before he drowns it out with yet another criticism of the ‘carbon tax’ or the mining tax.

There is, though, one crucial lesson that we should take to the next Federal election – the knowledge that neither party can claim any sort of moral high ground in terms of loyalty to the leadership. Whether it’s resignation through coercion (as in the case of Rudd and Baillieu), or loss of position through a leadership spill (Nelson and Turnbull), ultimately doesn’t matter. Both parties are ruthless, and will do whatever it takes to gain (and hold) power. No leader is ‘safe’.

That’s something to remember next time you hear a politician wax lyrical about the stability of their party, or the instability of their opponent’s. In the words of Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar, just after the real assassination of Rome’s leader:

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er,
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!
(Julius Caesar, 3.1.111)

How many, indeed?

Just a little bit of history repeating

Just a little bit of history repeating


The PM strikes back

February 24, 2012

Prime Minister Julia Gillard didn’t waste time firing back at Kevin Rudd after he finally announced his decision to contest Monday’s Labor leadership ballot. And she came out swinging.

This contest, she said, was all about ‘who has got the character … the temperament … the strength’ to not only go up against Tony Abbott, but to carry through significant, long-term reforms. ‘This isn’t Celebrity Big Brother,’ she said, repeating an earlier swipe aimed at Rudd’s exhortations to the Australian public to pressure their Labor representatives. She was confident and reassured by the promises of support she’d received from her colleagues.

She talked up her government’s legislative agenda to date – means testing on private health insurance, the Mining Resource Rent Tax, job creation and carbon pricing. In a classic incumbent’s campaign speech, she spoke of her desire to deliver further reforms in these areas, adding ‘a new approach to school funding and skills training, the proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme and assistance for threatened industries such as manufacturing.

In a further reminder that she was the person currently holding the office of Prime Minister, she noted that she’d spent the day out and about visiting schools and industry, and consulting with the public. It was almost as though she was slotting this conference into a busy daily schedule, but had much more important things to do – if only she could get this leadership nonsense out of the way.

‘Talk is easy. Getting things done is hard, and I am the person who gets things done,’ she said – and here she made her first misstep. ‘Who delivered carbon pricing? I did. Who delivered means testing for private health insurance? I did.’ And on she went, apparently taking personal credit for a whole slew of policies.

Now, I don’t think she really was trying to tell us that she had single-handedly accomplished everything her government had done – but it was a bad look. In recent days, her supporters have made a point of attacking Kevin Rudd’s non-consultative, micro-managing style, citing it as one of the reasons they had pressured him from office. To have Gillard now speaking only of what she had accomplished – particularly when Rudd had been careful to speak of ‘his government’ – looked churlish at best.

Like Rudd, Gillard spent a good deal of time attacking Tony Abbott, branding him a nay-sayer with no real interest in pursuing a strong future economy. This was a familiar refrain to any viewer of Question Time, and one of the Prime Minister’s strengths. She tends to be at her best when she has a clear target, speaking with both conviction in her own policies and contempt for Abbott’s ‘wrecking’, and she didn’t hold back here. In a leader’s debate during an election campaign, the Worm would definitely have approved.

She managed to avoid mentioning her challenger by name until she opened the floor for questions – but then she let loose, with the same vitriol she’d directed at Abbott only a few moments before.

Rudd was untrustworthy. He was ineffectual – he lacked method, purpose, or ability to get things done’. He had failed to deliver a price on carbon even when he had a majority government. As Prime Minister, he had so little support that he was allowed to resign rather than be humiliated in a challenge. He ‘undermined’ and ‘destabilised’ her government (I lost count after the fourth time she used those particular words in those few answers). She implied he could not be trusted to keep to his undertaking not to seek a further challenge to her leadership. Most damning of all, she asserted that he had not denied engaging in confidential briefings with media undermining the government.

‘Australians can have confidence in me that no matter how hard it gets, I’ve got the determination and the personal fortitude to see things through’, she said.

The list of accusations stood in stark contrast to Rudd’s remarks a little earlier. Rudd had asserted that Gillard was unable to lead the party to victory against Abbott, and that she had convinced him to shelve the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. He implied factional heavies might try to intimidate his supporters, and called on her to guarantee that wouldn’t happen. His major criticisms were reserved for her perceived inability to win the election.

And there was one crucial element of Gillard’s spray that is frankly untrue. Her recitation of the history of carbon pricing legislation failed to mention some crucial facts. The Greens never supported the CPRS, and refused to compromise. That forced Rudd’s government to seek support from the Coalition – and he gained it. Right up until the time Tony Abbott, backed by former Senator Nick Minchin and long-serving MP Bronwyn Bishop, challenged and won the leadership by one vote. At that point, all deals were off. It was only after that time that the legislation was shelved.

To make matters worse, Gillard did not rule out the possibility that she might dismiss Rudd’s supporters – notably, Martin Ferguson – from Cabinet, if she won the ballot. She would appoint her Cabinet on merit alone, she said. That’s a fair statement, but in the context of Rudd’s ‘olive branch’, delivered earlier to her supporters, looks ungracious.

The final stumble occurred when Gillard asserted that, ‘You shouldn’t be dragged down by someone who is on your own side’. Social media monitoring the conference exploded with cries of ‘Pot, meet Kettle!’ and accusations of hypocrisy.

It’s difficult to understand how Gillard could have handled that situation so clumsily. She appeared genuinely angry throughout whenever she spoke of Rudd or the challenge, in a way that she’s never directed at Tony Abbott. That anger’s shown through quite a bit in the last few days. All indications are that she has more than enough support to retain her position as Prime Minister, but she seems to be fighting this ballot like a general election – and that she believes her real opponent is not Tony Abbott, but the colleague she ousted.

In the light of the public campaign against Rudd from her supporters, it does nothing for the Prime Minister’s cause. She needs to stay out of the mud and concentrate on her strengths – the fact that she has held a minority government together in the face of unrelenting attacks by the Coalition, pushed through a huge amount of legislation and endured opposition from some of the biggest special interest groups in the country. She can stand on that record, and should do so. Attacking the man makes her look worried and ungracious, and obscures her achievements.

With the exception of Nick Champion, there’s a conspicuous silence from Rudd’s supporters today. I’m sure that will change over the weekend – and we’ll see members of both camps going head to head. It will be interesting to see if the contenders can keep above the melee.


The return of Rudd the campaigner

February 24, 2012

Kevin Rudd just announced that – as expected – he will contest the Labor leadership on Monday. And his first open move in this contest was a series of political master strokes.

In what was less a simple informative media conference than it was a stump speech, Rudd said he wanted ‘to finish the job he was elected to do’. His government’s political agenda was interrupted by the machinations of the factions, and he has a vision for a ‘better Australia’ and a ‘better Australian Labor Party’.

Although he talked up his chances of taking the leadership, Rudd made a point of ruling out a second challenge. He’d go to the back bench and represent his electorate.

The factions came in for quite a kicking, as Rudd repeated his accusations that factional ‘heavies’ had attempted to intimidate backbenchers by threatening to dis-endorse them at the next election. He called on Gillard to guarantee that ‘no Australian Labor Party member of the House of Representatives or the Senate will have their pre-selection changed as a result of how they vote on Monday’. Additionally, he called for a ‘truly secret ballot’, implying that the usual practice involved those same heavies using standover tactics. And he fired a shot across the bow – if he gets the leadership back, he intends to undertake broad party reform, including reducing the power of the factions:

‘That power should be transferred to its ‘rightful’ position – to each and every member of the elected members of the party’.

Party reform also featured his first mea culpa: that he was wrong to take away from Caucus the power to elect the Ministry. He promised to return that power if he regained the leadership.

With that out of the way, he moved on to the major thrust of his job application – his declared ability to beat Opposition Leader Tony Abbott at the next election. ‘I’m not prepared to stand idly by and see our nation’s future wasted by an Abbott government,’ he said. ‘If we don’t change, the Labor Party is going to end up in Opposition … we will all end up on the back bench, and the Opposition back benches at that … this is the cold, stark reality’. He went on to lay out exactly how dreadful Abbott – who he described as ‘having his feet firmly in the past’ – would be as Prime Minister.

Lest anyone think the task was just too daunting, he added, ‘Beating Mr Abbot is vital … and it is achievable … he is entirely beatable’.

It was an incredibly slick piece of political theatre. The attention to detail was amazing – almost certainly choreographed by Bruce Hawker, who could safely be called his campaign manager for this ballot. The conference took place in a government building, against a backdrop of a deep blue curtain. The lectern was flanked by two large Australian flags. It could only have looked more Prime Ministerial if the Governor-General had been standing by Rudd’s shoulder.

Rudd’s manner was relaxed. He looked utterly at ease, friendly when the words called for it, stern on the subject of party reform, and full of grim conviction when stating his utter opposition to Abbott. He frequently made eye contact with the media in the room, and the cameras in front of him. Although he was reading from a speech, he’d clearly practised the delivery.

And speaking of that speech … as an announcement of candidacy, it was a great piece of campaigning. The language was simple, straightforward – none of the tongue-twisting, ‘programmatic specificity’ type phrases which were such a gift for comedians during his tenure as Prime Minister. This wasn’t a speech for a small group of Parliamentarians; it was an appeal to the dream of Labor, invoking Chifley’s ‘light on the hill’. Rudd seemed to be saying to the faithful who’d drifted away, disenchanted, that they could return to a Golden Age (real or imagined).

He put the focus squarely on the next election. Much of his speech had little to do with Gillard – it was all about the looming threat of a Coalition government, and the terrifying possibility of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. With that rhetoric, Rudd didn’t have to mention Gillard at all; it was enough to talk up both the fear, and the ‘solution’.

Ruling out a second challenge was perhaps the most cunning piece of Rudd’s strategy. It will be particularly easy for him to keep to this undertaking, should he lose – because he never ruled out being ‘drafted’. He can lose, go to the back bench, work hard in an election campaign and, likely, keep his seat in Opposition. His presence there will be a reminder that he was an alternative, who might have had a better chance against Abbott. And, like Caesar, he can be offered the crown again and again, until he can legitimately claim he is acceding to the will of the party.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Rudd conference was the reaction of the media. It’s fair to say that the questions were blunt, and the tone assertive, bordering on aggressive. Rudd smiled, answered some questions, dodged others and generally controlled the room. He dropped another bombshell by confirming that Gillard and Wayne Swan had pressured him to shelve his original carbon pricing scheme, and further, that Gillard had urged him not to re-visit the idea until Abbott accepted climate change as a reality. Then he added that nonetheless, he accepted full responsibility for the decision.

Something strange happened then. From questions about leadership, leaks and ‘white-anting’, suddenly the media started asking Rudd policy questions. What would he do about carbon pricing? How would he fix the asylum seeker system?

And Rudd engaged them on every question. If he didn’t provide a lot of specifics, he showed he was abreast of broader issues well outside his former Foreign Affairs portfolio. He sounded like a Prime Minister.

Is this going to make any difference to the numbers? Probably not. He’ll still almost certainly lose. But with this announcement, he may lose a lot more narrowly than the Gillard camp is proclaiming. Already media speculation is daring to contemplate the outside possibility of a Rudd win.

Perhaps more importantly, Rudd just reminded people that he’s a very, very good political operator, and a formidable campaigner.

Gillard’s presser is due momentarily. Her response is sure to be fascinating.


Win-win for Rudd

February 23, 2012

As expected, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has called a leadership ballot for Monday, citing a need to settle the issue ‘once and for all’. Rudd is still to declare whether he will contest that ballot, although it’s likely.

With that in mind, let’s examine some scenarios.

Scenario 1: Rudd loses with the support of more than a third of the caucus.

Result: Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem for Gillard. To have the support of two-thirds of the caucus should be conclusive. In fact, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott won his challenge against Malcolm Turnbull by only one vote, he spun the narrowest of victories as indicative of party unity.

There is a problem, though. Gillard’s supporters are out there talking down Rudd’s support as vanishingly small, well short of having enough numbers to even mount a challenge under party rules. If they are proved wrong, it raises the question of whether Rudd is a viable alternative to Gillard – perhaps not today, but soon. The Keating model. And once the question is raised, Rudd becomes a focus for discontent with Gillard.

Gillard tried to stave that off in her speech today by effectively challenging Rudd to a dare. She announced that if she lost – adding quickly that she did not expect that to happen – she would go to the back bench and promise never to challenge again, and called on Rudd to make a similar undertaking. Of course, that’s nonsensical. Any such undertaking isn’t worth the bytes it’s recorded on (oh dear, the old print metaphors really are the best). There are any number of get-out clauses, from the tried-and-true ‘I know I promised but people are begging me’ to the weak but difficult to refute ‘that was then, the world has changed’.

So she’s left with Rudd on the back bench as a credible alternative who’s free to speak his mind, not bound by the usual constraints on Ministers.

Scenario 2: Rudd loses comprehensively.

Result: This should spell the end of Rudd’s leadership ambitions. But again, he could employ the Keating model. This time, though, he keeps his head down. He publicly supports the government when called on to specifically do so, but looks pained about it. He reminds the media at every turn that he is a back bencher, and refers them to appropriate Ministers or to Gillard herself.

And, as in the previous scenario, he becomes a focus for discontent among back benchers. A leader ignores the possibility of a back bench revolt at their peril – after all, there are more of them than the Cabinet, many with personal axes to grind on behalf of their individual electorates.

Both of these scenarios presume that the Coalition wins the next election. On the strength of polling trends, this seems likely. Rudd losing a challenge now and going to the back bench sets him up as someone to lead Labor out of the electoral wilderness. He has a proven track record in winning elections – and not via the skin of his teeth, either.

Scenario 3: Rudd wins.

It’s an outside chance, at best. Although Centrebet reports that Rudd’s odds are shortening (no link provided, in the interests of avoiding spam trackbacks, but it’s easy enough to find), enough Labor figures have already declared support for Gillard to make it unlikely that he could snatch victory. But let’s look at it anyway – just for fun.

Obviously, there would be a huge sense of personal achievement for Rudd, not to mention a fair amount of ‘best served cold’ satisfaction. It might also bring disaffected, left-leaning voters back to the party – those who objected to the way Gillard became Prime Minister in the first place, or who reject her policy stances (which can be described as Centre Right at best). If Rudd bullies through his stated aims on party reform, constraining the power of the factions and unions, it removes a key plank from Abbott’s anti-Labor platform. And he just might squeak an election victory, if enough voters forgive him for the political manoeuvring he undertook to get back the top job.

Even if he doesn’t win the next election, he can argue to keep the leader’s job in Opposition, on the grounds that he needs time to consolidate reforms.

An outside chance, yes – but it has to be one he’s considered.

Scenario 4: Rudd does not challenge.

This is by far the least likely scenario. All the rhetoric suggests Rudd is positioning himself to contest the leadership on Monday – and possibly that he expects to lose, setting up the groundwork for a later challenge (at least, according to Labor strategist and Rudd backer Bruce Hawker). In the interests of completeness, though …

It’s a very, very dangerous strategy. Rudd risks looking like a coward, talking big about the need for good leadership and touting his own credentials, then not following through. He also risks having his supporters – both public and Parliamentary – turn on him.

On the other hand, if he’s clever enough, he can spin it. His speeches weren’t a job application – he was defending himself, and warning people of the need to work hard to (a) defeat Abbott and (b) come through the looming Eurozone financial crisis. It would take some brilliant speechifying – and while he’s capable of it, I think it’s too great a risk.

So there you have it.

But no matter what scenario ends up being played out, Rudd’s already won. He’s drawn out into the spotlight the venom with which Gillard’s supporters regard him. Steve Gibbons called him a ‘psychopath’. Simon Crean said he was a ‘prima donna’. Nicola Roxon advised us to get over the idea that he’s a ‘messiah’. And from Treasurer Wayne Swan (also Treasurer under Rudd) came an extraordinarily petulant spray that his media advisors clearly never saw until it was too late.

This morning, Rudd spoke about the damaging nature of those comments, how they showed disunity and helped only the Coalition. He urged those speaking out on his behalf not to be drawn into the same kind of personal comments, confined his remarks to policy decisions, and talked himself up rather than criticise of Gillard herself.

By contrast, Gillard – already under fire for not chastising her Cabinet and supporting Rudd as Foreign Minister – engaged in similar personal attacks this morning. She accused him of everything from deliberately sabotaging the 2010 election campaign to single-handedly paralysing the government through his ‘chaotic work patterns’ to responsibility for her government’s inability to communicate its agenda (something she’s previously ascribed solely to Abbott).

Rudd also gave credit to Gillard’s government for pushing through reforms – with the reminder that these were begun by his own government. Gillard characterised the Rudd government as entirely ineffectual, and claimed solely for herself those same reforms.

The language was clear. The contrast was clear. And yes, you can say that Rudd was talking in private, leaking to the media, undermining Gillard privately. Maybe he was. Politicians do that. Remember Gillard arguing against Rudd’s proposed pension increases? Remember the leaks against Rudd? And still, no one has yet come out and categorically stated that they were briefed in a de-stabilising campaign by Rudd, or named any followers who have allegedly done so.

Rudd’s not a white knight, by any means. He’s a slick political operator, as is Gillard. You only have to look at how they’re handling this issue. It’s a textbook in politics.

But Rudd’s the clear victor in one sense. He exposed the vicious side of Gillard’s team. He blindsided her by resigning from Cabinet without warning. He’s reminded people of why he became Labor leader, and why the Australian public elected him the first place.

And now he’s effectively barricaded against the media for around 24 hours. It does give Gillard a clear field – but it also means that the media will zero in on her wherever she goes. She already displayed her temper once this morning at a particularly insistent journalist.

You can bet the pressure won’t let up until Monday morning. And in the meantime, Rudd can monitor, strategise and assess the situation.

He may not have the numbers, but so far, he’s ahead on points.


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