By Richard Laidlaw
Australian politics are just as vicious and factionalised as those of any other polity; it’s just that, as a kind of addendum to the world, the country does not generally rate much notice, so that when big events occur they come as a shock.
The events of last week, then, when first-term prime minister Kevin Rudd was shoehorned out of his office in Canberra and replaced by his deputy, Julia Gillard, were shocking. And not only because they were unusual; you have to go back to 1975 when Gough Whitlam was sacked as prime minister by the governor-general for that sort of adrenaline rush.
They were shocking because the swift execution of Rudd was not, as its perpetrators would like us to believe, an action that arose overnight, without previous preparation or planning over a much longer timeframe.
They were, too, for anyone who thinks that politics would be calmer, fairer, more amenable, or softer – and the process of government with them – with a woman at the helm. Gillard is an attractive individual. But in political terms, she’s a coldblooded killer.
Rudd was removed because those who run his party – and he certainly didn’t – feared they would be out of power themselves after this year’s national elections. It’s that simple, that stark. That he largely brought himself undone, by running things like a one-man show, is beside the point. The faceless backroom powerbrokers in his party and the trade unions would have left him alone if they thought he would win the next election and keep their fiefdoms in the comfort zone.
History will determine the value of Rudd’s two years and seven months in power. The manner of his removal is the current focus of interest – it is a ripping yarn; no doubt about that – but there are no constitutional issues arising. The “Rudd agenda,” while for a time a popular political feast, was a convenient fiction, a public relations presentation, like those of all Australian leaders of government.
Rudd said, in the tearful circumstances of last Thursday, that he had been elected prime minister by the Australian people. He wasn’t. Australia’s parliamentary system does not provide for popular election of the leader of the government. The prime minister is the leader of the party with the majority – or the largest number of seats – in the House of Representatives. Occupants of the office hold power by virtue of their party, not the people.
For Rudd, the circumstances are personally tragic. He needs now to give himself time for quiet reflection, to allow himself a recovery period. What that might involve, in terms of a personal reassessment of his methodology in power and how that might have led him to this sorry pass, is something for him. He may seek to publicly justify himself (that’s natural) but in politics it’s essentially vacuous. He was prime minister; now he’s not.
Gillard is now in the hot seat, placed there by her party room after the factional bosses made it possible for her to win stunningly overwhelming support – and by her own ambition. She didn’t do what she did to save the country; she did it to keep her party in power and to advance herself to leadership.
She said, after last Thursday’s putsch, that she had thought long and hard about it all. Well, perhaps she did. Perhaps she agonised as she would like people to believe. Perhaps she didn’t. It’s really not important. The only real thinking was about how to achieve her objective – her feet under the big desk instead of Comrade Kevin’s.
What’s abundantly clear is that such an event could not be organised overnight. It’s in Gillard’s and her party’s interest to promote the view that it was something hitherto unplanned and made urgent by circumstances. But that’s just their spin, their way of presenting the destruction of a man with whom the party apparatus was increasingly uncomfortable for policy reasons and plain personal dislike. That stew had been bubbling away for some time.
It’s clear that some elements of Rudd’s policy (notably the Treasury-inspired tax sting on the resource sector, which provides half of Australia’s export earnings and underpins the economy) are now being tinkered with. Gillard needs to come up with something that sings and dances well enough to divert the voters’ attentions from the prize cock-up she presided over in an “economic stimulus” school spending programme whose chief result has been to present a bunch of grasping builders with windfall profits.
Gillard got an immediate bounce for her party in opinion polling, but the only poll that counts is on election day – whenever that is; it must be before March next year – and she has said it will be this year. It’s an open question whether a strong woman in the prime minister’s chair will achieve the election victory Labor desperately wants. But it will be an interesting fight.
Last Thursday, the last sitting day of the Australian parliament before its long winter break, she shook opposition leader Tony Abbott’s hand in the chamber and said: “Game on.”
Richard Laidlaw worked for many years in the Australian media and politics and now lives in Bali.