Labor’s task – unite behind Shorten, and do it quickly

October 13, 2013

It was supposed to be an exercise in participatory democracy. It was supposed to show the country that the Australian Labor Party was open and inclusive when it came to deciding who its leaders would be. Most of all, it was supposed to be a signal that Labor had moved beyond the kind of factional manoeuvring that had turfed out two sitting Prime Ministers.

It captivated news cycles, drawing attention away from the new Abbott government as pundits tried to find the flaw in the system, and waited with bated breath for attack-type electioneering that never materialised. The campaign between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese was civil to the point of being almost boring. The two men praised each other’s record in Parliament, and refused to be drawn when invited to criticise. If anything, they were in danger of being seen as too similar.

The procedure was simple – the candidate who achieved an overall majority of votes would be elected leader. That majority was composed of 50% of Federal Caucus, and 50% of rank-and-file membership votes. In theory, this would achieve the most representative result, and silence those critics who insisted that Labor was entirely at the mercy of its factions, ignoring the membership.

There was an inherent problem in the procedure, however. If the caucus and the membership voted different ways, and the Caucus vote was ultimately the deciding factor, the result could easily be seen as a sign that nothing had really changed. For the procedure to be seen as truly ‘representative’ and free of factional politicking, the new leader needed to be elected via the rank-and-file vote. It’s all in the perception.

Unfortunately for Labor, the new leader – Bill Shorten – was elected on the Caucus vote. His numbers broke down this way:

Caucus vote: 63.9% (55 of 86)
Rank-and-file vote: 40% (12,196 of 30,426)
Overall vote: 52.2%

It’s absolutely clear that Shorten did not have the confidence of the rank-and-file – and with the new procedure effectively weighting the result such that one Caucus vote is roughly equivalent to 350 membership votes, it’s fair to say that this system does not provide a clear picture of the party’s wishes. Nor is it necessarily truly representative. Unless the rank-and-file overwhelmingly votes against the Caucus, their preferred candidate has little chance of gaining the leadership. More likely, factions within the Caucus will continue to exert control.

These flaws leave Labor entirely vulnerable to attack from the Coalition government, on grounds with which the latter are entirely comfortable. The situation is worsened by the election of Bill Shorten, who is perhaps irrevocably tainted by his past actions. His ties to the unions are, perhaps, the least of the problem. Labor has always drawn much of its strength from the union movement. His role as the prime mover in removing first Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard, from their positions as Prime Minister, however, is far more damaging to Labor in Opposition.

Bill Shorten, the new Opposition Leader

Bill Shorten, the new Opposition Leader

The attack ads and speeches write themselves. Labor has handed the Coalition a perfect way to avoid scrutiny. Take the asylum seeker issue, for example. Let’s say Shorten holds a press conference criticising the government over its high-handed attitude towards Indonesian sovereignty. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison need not answer any charge Shorten might bring – he has a script available to him to deflect attention onto the ‘ongoing disunity’ within Labor.

It’s already happening. Within minutes of the announcement, Jamie Briggs fronted the media. As expected, he called on Shorten to vote to repeal carbon pricing – but on the heels of that came the first test of the new script, courtesy of the media. What did Briggs think of the fact that the Caucus and the rank-and-file had voted differently? Briggs obligingly picked up his cue, and the rest was entirely predictable.

Of course, none of this speaks to Shorten’s ability to lead Labor. There’s no reason to believe he will be anything but a good leader – and, however flawed the new system, he was properly elected. The problem is entirely in the perception, and manipulating perceptions is a key strength of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his front bench. Shorten is vulnerable, and there’s every reason to think Abbott will exploit both his history and the leadership ballot result. Had Albanese been elected, there would be no such opportunity for the Coalition, but there is little point in wasting time on counter-factuals.

In the coming days, Albanese’s action will go far towards countering any message of disunity. He’s seen as perhaps the most loyal of Labor’s front bench, putting the party first and wearing that loyalty on his sleeve. There’s no doubt he will attract a great deal of media scrutiny, looking for any sign that his support for Shorten is anything but unconditional – and it’s extremely unlikely they’ll find one.

The heavy lifting cannot be purely left to Albanese, however. One of Labor’s major failings, both in government and during the election campaign, was its inability to clearly communicate its message. It’s true that the media had largely written the narrative, often without even speaking with Labor – or had discounted the party entirely. It’s also true that the Coalition embraces the tactic of ‘repeat something often enough and others will come to believe it’. Nonetheless, Labor did not – and perhaps could not – cut through, and the election result was partly of its own making.

Now, in Opposition, the party has an opportunity to rehabilitate its image – but it must be a party-wide effort. With Shorten as leader, an uphill battle has become that much harder. Labor needs to do everything possible to bury Shorten’s history – not deny it, not attempt to explain it away, but to drown it out with a show of unity that is not undermined by disgruntled factional members or damaged by strategic leaks. (And no, this doesn’t mean Kevin Rudd. People really need to get over it.)

Above all, Labor needs to do it quickly. It can’t afford to let the government gain any momentum with a disunity message – it has to take the fight right up to the coalface of policy, and show itself entirely unmoved by the insistence that it has no choice but to fall into line with the Coalition’s platform. If the party falls in behind Shorten and sticks to its stated principles, it can become an extremely effective Opposition.

If it doesn’t, it will only have itself to blame.

The return of Rudd – so now what?

June 27, 2013

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.

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.

Kevin Rudd resigns as Foreign Minister

February 22, 2012

After a week of feverish speculation, triggered by a leaked video, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd tonight resigned his post in a late-night media conference from Washington DC.

He didn’t mince words, either. ‘I cannot continue to serve as Foreign Minister if i do not have Prime Minister Gillard’s full support,’ he said, adding that Gillard had refused to unequivocally support him against particularly vicious comments from Parliamentary colleagues, notably Regional Minister Simon Crean. By contrast, Rudd had indicated support – though it was definitely lukewarm – with his statements that there was no leadership challenge on, and re-affirming her position as Prime Minister. The current situation – with MPs and advisors popping up at every possible opportunity was a ‘distraction from the real services of government’, and having a damaging effect on business. It was also, he said, taking the focus away from the current Queensland election campaign, and Premier Anna Bligh deserved better.

He had some harsh words for factional players within the Party, referring to his own sudden forced resignation from the top job as removal ‘by stealth’, and that it must never happen again. That was, he said, the reason he’d made his resignation announcement now, and that he would make a further announcement on ‘his future’ before Parliament sits again next week.

Most damningly, he gave us this scathing opinion of the media frenzy that’s surrounded the question of the leadership, seemingly since the day after Gillard came to power:

‘The Australian people regard this affair as little better than a soap opera, and they are right; and under the current circumstances, I won’t be part of it’.

And it has been a soap opera. Sky News referred to the speculation as going on for ‘weeks and weeks and weeks’ – as though it had nothing to do with that at all. Which is, of course, utter rubbish. The media are, perhaps, more responsible for creating the soap opera than any tensions between Rudd and Gillard. It’s undeniable that Rudd is still incredibly angry about the way he was removed – but it’s equally undeniable that the media have taken every opportunity to suggest an imminent leadership challenge. And not just for weeks, either.

After all, a soap opera is nothing more than private drama without the cameras, the reviewers and the ratings people, is it?

So, of course, speculation is now rife as to Rudd’s next move. The bulk of commentators are convinced he will spend the weekend making frantic phone calls and alliances, and challenge Gillard for the leadership on Monday. In this respect, he would be following the same plan he carried out when he deposed Kim Beazley in 2006. What’s more, the playbook throws his actions into sharp contrast with Gillard’s. Rather than orchestrate an eleventh hour ultimatum delivered from a position of power, Rudd publicly submitted his resignation and went to the back bench.

This time, though, commentators believe that Rudd doesn’t have the numbers. If he fails, he goes to the back bench, and the pressure will be on him to resign from politics altogether – or at least announce that he will not stand again for the seat of Griffith. The idea that he wouldn’t, according to Sky’s David Speers, is ‘farcical’.

There’s another possibility. Rudd may not challenge. He might go to the back bench now, and bide his time. His resignation, together with other issues on which Labor has lost traction (largely thanks to relentless campaigning from the Coalition), could be the final element that ensures Labor loses power at the next election. At that point he could easily convince the Party that Gillard was unfit to keep the leadership; that – to quote him on Beazley in 2006 – what is needed is ‘a new style of leadership’, to save the country from the damage that might be done by a Coalition government.

It’s a strategy that worked well for former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Of course, this assumes that Rudd is willing to Labor be soundly defeated. Is he quite that Machiavellian? Sure enough of himself that the Australian people would forgive him such a cold-blooded strategy, and that Labor voters would be willing to vote for him after living under a Coalition government? The suddenness of today’s announcement, coming as it did in the middle of the night while Rudd was in the capital of our most powerful ally, can be read as Rudd deciding to blindside the Prime Minister just before the evening news, ensuring he would be the story for the weekend. Or, as Graham Richardson suggests, there are articles due to be released tomorrow that are potentially very damaging for Rudd.

Or it could simply be that he snapped, unable to take any more pressure from both the party and the media. Which, given his temper, isn’t that unlikely.

There’s no doubt this is a gift to the Coalition – and an earthquake for Labor. It’s the Independents who’ll come in for close scrutiny this weekend, however.

Andrew Wilkie has already withdrawn his support from Gillard, and, as usual, is playing his cards close to his chest. His hatred for the Coalition is well-known, though that’s no guarantee. Since earlier this week, when he was briefly embroiled in the soap opera by way of a misreported conversation with Rudd, he’s been quiet.

Tony Windsor, speaking to media tonight, suggests an election might be necessary, but a change of leadership now was very risky. Judging by his performance in Parliament to date, whatever decision he makes now will be exceedingly well-considered.

Rob Oakeshott is nowhere to be seen.

Interestingly, Bob Katter may be the wild card. His refusal to support Gillard as PM was based, in large part, by his distaste for the tactics used to remove Rudd. Should Rudd challenge and win, he may change allegiances – or at least be more inclined to listen to Federal Labor. We still haven’t heard from him, either.

The question for Labor, then, becomes whether its members can set aside personal animosity and vote for the person they feel has the best chance of beating Abbott at the next election. Although there’s no specific current polling, Labor’s miserable figures on both Two Party Preferred and Preferred Prime Minister questions suggest that Gillard can’t do it. Her own unpopularity with the public compared to Rudd only reinforces that. (And interestingly, take a look at the informal poll in the link above from The Age.)

But it’s the caucus who’ll decide the leadership, in the end. They’ll have to weigh up whether they want to preserve the kind of factionalism that ousted Rudd in the first place – or take their chances with someone they treated appallingly for the sake of retaining government, and hope his words of needed party reform are just that – words.

The Prime Minister will be releasing her statement later tonight, but won’t front the media until tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

The contenders - Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the man she forced out, ex-Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd

Brendan Nelson – the knives are out

April 4, 2008

You know, I almost feel sorry for Brendan Nelson. No, scratch that – I do feel sorry for him. He’s being comprehensively hung out to dry by his own party.

His approval rating is in the toilet. Just when he thought the tide was turning, it plummeted again – to a record low of 7% as preferred Prime Minister. His deputy, Julie Bishop, is about as unlovely and unsupportive as it’s possible to get. Think about it – how often have you seen her fronting the media at all, let alone shoring up her leader? These days, you get her occasionally in Parliament doing her best impersonation of the Peter Costello smirk/sneer (snirk? smeer? smeerk?), and that’s about it.

Then there’s the ‘whispering campaign’ being conducted by unnamed Liberal MPs up in the Press Gallery at Parliament House. Nelson’s lost the confidence of the Party. Poor old Brendan just can’t seem to pull it together. ‘People’ are wondering if he really has what it takes. ‘People’ are wondering if it’s time for him to go.

Now there’s the ‘concerned comments’ being made by one-time supporters like Alexander Downer and Tony Abbott about how much ground Nelson’s got to make up. Never mind that Downer’s practically abdicated and seems to be little more than a bloody seat-warmer at the moment – he can still claim some press credibility by simple virtue of having been one of Howard’s top ministers and a failed leader. Of course he’s going to get asked for his opinion. After all, he knows how hard it is to try to lead the Liberal Party.

Even Nick Minchin, who’s credited with being the architect of Nelson’s successful election to the leadership, has been giving little sound-bites suggesting that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here. Things are being set up for a leadership spill. Nelson won’t resign of his own accord. He still thinks he can turn it around. I’ll say this for him – his commitment seems real, regardless of what you think of his politics. If he won’t go, then eventually a challenger will ‘reluctantly’ appear.

That challenger? Malcolm Turnbull. The ‘young gun’ who was only narrowly defeated by Nelson after the 2007 election. All this whispering and commenting is designed to do one thing only – create an atmosphere of desperation within the Party. Nelson is made to look so weak, and the Party in such dire straits, that MPs will feel that they have to take a risk. One of the things that counted against Turnbull in his 2007 challenge was his youth. It was felt he was too inexperienced to effectively lead the Party. In their Hour of Need, though, he’s going to look decisive, charismatic, and a risk worth taking.

Nelson appeared live on The 7.30 Report tonight – surely a perfect chance to come out looking like a strong leader who will pull the Party together. Instead, he seemed to have been taking a peek into Julia Gillard’s playbook. He stayed on message the whole time, and that message was a wishy-washy, general statement and re-statement of his commitment to running an effective Opposition. He repeatedly stated he wasn’t going to discuss polls or rumours, and dodged every question from Kerry O’Brien. Most damningly, he wouldn’t confirm whether he’d rung Downer, Abbott and Minchin to confront them on their lack of support.

He’s just played right into their hands. Now he not only is being described as weak, he looks weak. At a time when the Opposition have the opportunity to hit the Government hard over the Northern Territory intervention and the proposed new email surveillance laws, the focus is on whether the leader can cut it against SuperKev.

My guess is that the consensus will be he can’t. The press will help matters along, but we’re going to see a spill sooner rather than later.

And then things are going to get interesting.

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