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This is a very exciting weekend for all of us in Australia.

Wait, did I say exciting weekend?

I meant, ‘carnival of idiocy’.

I wish I could say this is because the jetpack I ordered from the internet has finally arrived, and hasn’t, as I feared (and ruefully suspected), turned out to be nothing more than a box of candles sent from an untraceable address in Russia (although, after my recent mail order bride debacle, could the same lightning really strike twice? All that matters is that my box of candles and I are very happy together in our trans-Adriatic wedded bliss). Because, believe me, when that jetpack finally does get here, I plan on playing host to a carnival of idiocy such as the world has never seen.

I wish I could say this is because I have won Italy’s Super EnaLotto, a jackpot that currently stands at US$165,000,000.00. Because the idiocy I would unleash in the wake of that development would make Two and a Half Men look like Einstein’s finest work; the material he released on his own underground label before he went commercial.

I wish I could say this is because I have finally gotten my hands on a US visa. Because as soon as I have carte blanche to zoom out of this country (maybe via jetpack, giant bags of money in both my hands – who’s to say?) and away from the thought – the promise –  of consequences… my God. The sheer level of idiocy I plan on inflicting on an unsuspecting populace makes my mouth go dry.

But, no. This is the much less fun version of a carnival of idiocy.

This weekend sees (at least, we hope – Jesus Christ, we hope – it sees) the final culmination of Australia’s federal political saga, in an ending that, no matter what, will please nobody.

To get to grips with what’s happening, you have to turn the clock back to 2007, which was a good year for Australian federal politics.

In 2007, John Howard had been Prime Minister for 11 years – since 1996, he had lead the Coalition of the  Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia to election victory after election victory in the House of Representatives. The Coalition is one of the two major parties in Australia – the modern Liberals are a conservative, right-leaning party that trade on their economic strengths, their abilities to keep illegal immigration in check, and a lasting appeal to Baby Boomers. The modern Nationals are much the same as the traditional Nationals – they appeal to, and support, the rural, bush, and farm populace of Australia. In Howard, the Coalition had a political streetfighter as canny as Australia had ever seen as a leader, and the Opposition, the Australian Labor Party (historically leftist, working-class and union-supported, but growing steadily more progressive over the last decade) simply could not find traction.

Howard had faced down and beaten three Labor leaders – Paul Keating, Kim Beazley, Mark Latham, and, once again, Kim Beazley. It was after Beazley’s second defeat Labor turned to the rising star and media darling Kevin Rudd, electing him leader and placing him squarely into a showdown with Howard.

And in 2007, Labor, under Rudd, was in no mood to fuck around.

(this photo was taken shortly before the time-honoured Australian political tradition of opposing leaders fighting each other with a Bowie knife in one hand and a rattlesnake in the other)

After years spent languishing in the political wilderness, Labor launched the US-inspired Kevin 07 campaign, and no one was under any illusions. The ALP had come back with all guns blazing – determined not only to win, but to take the Coalition’s mother on a date afterwards.

Rather than fall prey to the wedge politics (a favourite ploy of Howard’s) that had so often divided (and defeated) them in the past when they found themselves on dangerous policy grounds, this time… Labor simply agreed with the Coalition. On issues of progressive politics, they outlined bold new objectives, making the Coalition – and Howard in particular – look like a group of tired old white men. They recruited celebrities and star candidates to challenge the Coalition’s sitting MPs – dotcom millionaires, rock stars, newsreaders. And Rudd himself was everywhere – on daytime TV shows dancing and making chocolate cake, in the paper insisting on televised debates, on the world stage showing up Howard by addressing Hu Jintao in flawless Mandarin in a speech to the assembled political powers of China, right after Howard had done the same… in English.

When the election came, the ALP, as expected, mopped the floor with the Coalition. The final twist of the knife was that, after losing the country, John Howard lost his own electorate to one of the ALP’s star recruits, ex-journalist Maxine McKew.

We, the populace of Australia, voted the ALP into office, and we were promised great things. Rudd seemed superhuman – a man who apologised for the Stolen Generation, who forged new understandings with other nations, who made bold claims about the salvation of the environment, the stewardship of the economy, the certainty of employment for future generations.

When Obama was elected, Rudd was right there on our screens congratulating him, reaffirming the ties between Australia and the USA.

When the GFC hit, Rudd, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and Treasurer Wayne Swan pumped cash into the economy, steering Australia past the recession that engulfed so much of the rest of the world.

When the Cophenhagen forum opened to discuss global emissions targets, Rudd threw himself into an attempt to secure a binding agreement between the countries of the world.

On water, on health, on education… Rudd was there. And his popularity surged and surged again.

Until it became apparent Rudd was there a little too often. After the first few years in office, a wavering picture began to emerge of a man who slept few hours a night, who refused to delegate even the smallest decisions, who burned out staffers with demands for ever-more work to be done, who threw tantrums and who became increasingly isolated in the corridors of power.

In the meantime, the Liberals churned out and discarded new leadership candidates in the hopes of finding a new messiah. Brendan Nelson succeeded John Howard. Malcolm Turnbull succeeded Brendan Nelson. Finally, Tony Abbott, a man regarded as unelectable due to his religious beliefs, his lack of belief in climate change, his statements on women and his perceived arch-conservative position on just about everything, came to lead the Liberal Party.

As it turned out, Abbott, a political brawler and favoured son of the previous Coalition government, was just the man to unite the shattered Opposition. And, just as his star rose, Kevin Rudd’s, spectacularly, imploded.

Rudd’s failures began to stack up in the headlines, and, subsequently, the polls. A government-backed home insulation scheme that had tragically lead to house fires and deaths. A failure to introduce an Emissions Trading Scheme after declaring climate change ‘the greatest moral challenge of our generation’ (more than a failure, a capitulation). A proposed new resources tax that proved hugely unpopular and brought the Government into direct conflict with Australia’s powerful mining industry. These disasters gnawed at Rudd’s popularity until, finally, his own party conspired to bring him down. The Labor Party is known for its factionalism – one such faction, the New South Wales Right, found the inter-party numbers to cut Rudd from office and install his Deputy, Julia Gillard, as Australia’s first female Prime Minister.

Gillard called an election, and the race began.

And then when it came to the election itself… both parties lost.

As Chris Kennett has pointed out.

Neither the Labor Party nor the Coalition gained the necessary number of seats to form government in their own right. And it became clear that in order to become the next Federal Government of Australia, either party would need to enter into a power-sharing agreement with the few independent candidates who had won office.

Which has left us with the situation of the past two weeks.

Adam Bandt, the first elected MP representing the Greens party in the House of Representatives, has thrown his lot in with Julia Gillard.

Andrew Wilkie, ex-spy, Independent Member for the seat of Denison, Tasmania, has done likewise. In doing so, he has turned down the promise of one billion dollars in funding for his electorate from Tony Abbott.

Now, Gillard and Abbott are falling over themselves to throw money at the three undecided candidates who will form a minority government with either party and become the next government of this country. Gillard only needs the support of two of them; Abbott, all three.

Or, of course, we could go back to the polls and vote once more.

Because now three men control the fate of the country.

Three men. From one electorate each.

One of whom is this man.

Did I say jetpack?

Shit. I’d swim.

The populace of Australia has roundly rejected both options in the two-party system. Because they’re both awful. However, the Westminster Parliamentary System has no option for what to do after this happens. And so no one has any idea what’s going to happen next.

Apart from one thing.

Whoever loses (more so than they already have)… the bloodletting will be ferocious. Already, knives are being sharpened in Labor Party back rooms on both sides – from those who believe the backstabbing of Kevin Rudd played so badly (and it did, especially in his home state) that the public turned against Labor, and from those who believe that the disastrous leaks that exploded through the Labor campaign in the early weeks were Rudd stabbing at Gillard from hell’s heart via the media.

Australian politicians will always be ready to devour each other if they think it will bring them even slightly closer to the Prime Ministership of the country. This week, which the independents have flagged as being when they make their decision… dinner is served.

 

Julia Gillard

In one of the wildest 72 hours in backroom politics in Australia’s history (which is saying something), Kevin Rudd has been deposed as leader of the Labour Party, and Julia Gillard has taken the helm as the nation’s first female Prime Minister.

The news has shocked the nation and many political insiders as well. While it was no secret Rudd’s popularity had been falling drastically in the polls, no one officially predicted such a leadership spill, and certainly not so suddenly or so decisively.

Only a year ago, Rudd’s approval ratings seemed rock solid and many pundits described him as unbeatable. Of course, twelve months is a very long time in politics. Still, his ousting is historic in itself, as a stellar example of a falling star.

His response to the World Economic Crisis was seen as satisfactory. His experience in foreign affairs and fluency in Mandarin pleased many who hoped to see Australia have a stronger international presence, and definitely more prestige and influence in the larger Asian region. What brought him undone?

His greatest faux pas has been a perceived abandonment of the hard line and forward thinking climate change legislation that he rode to electoral victory on. The public doesn’t like broken promises, especially when they are big broken promises.

His most recent millstone was a proposed tax on the boom profits of the mining industry. It got the rich mining companies upset and the public confused when the numbers didn’t seem to add up.

Naturally, he faced other hiccups along the way. But few leaders have ever been seen as such a liability, so relatively quickly, without having a major catastrophe or personal morality incident.

The Opposition Party he has faced off against has been inept at best, and virtually in constant disarray themselves since the election, with turnovers in their leadership that screamed disunity and confusion to the public. It can hardly be said that they played any role of consequence in getting him knocked off.

Nor can it be said, despite the history making aspect of the country’s first female leader, that the startling developments have anything to do with gender. A much repeated stand-up comedy line goes, “I didn’t know Julia Gillard was a woman.”

In my view, Gillard was Deputy and the Labour Party wanted Rudd out. Period. More about her in a minute.

It seems to me that no one failing or political decision brought Rudd down. Even the disappointment and anger over the climate change flip-flop can’t account for his tumble in the ratings. This was a seasoned politician who experts predicted would be in power for years to come. Now the wires are running hot with speculation and analysis of just what broke down. I don’t think the answer is going to be easy to find. In some crucial sense, it’s no more mysterious than the public losing interest in him. The luster wore off. While he wasn’t blamed for the financial turmoil of the last year, he hasn’t been seen to have the solutions either. Almost every major category of consumer purchases has seen heavy price hikes. People are doing it harder these days, and they need someone to be held accountable. In the words of President Obama regarding the BP debacle, they want an “ass to kick.”

But of course the voters weren’t the ones to kick Mr. Rudd out. It was his own party, behind a closed door. One of the little niceties allowed in the Westminster System. It may be that his career is over because he simply didn’t do enough politicking with his own team mates. So, out came the knives.

To be sure, Labour will now call for an election just as soon as they are allowed under law to do so. They can’t let a Prime Minister who has taken power within the party stand in office very long without the public approval of an electoral victory. Especially not the first female PM in history. They will also want to move fast while the Liberal Party is still in a volatile, rumpled state itself.

The result will be a bitter policy-free campaign that offers two choices in leadership personalities, despite the fact that the nation has just witnessed how fragile the personal aspect can be!

I wish I could express some enthusiasm for Julia Gillard as the country’s new head. But I can’t.

She was born in Wales and came to Australia as a child. Her background is as a trade unionist lawyer. She cut her teeth in that field working for a tough industrial law firm called Slater & Gordon (known colloquially as Slug ’em & Grab ’em).

Her mindset is very much back in the 1960s when there was a sharp divide between workers and big business management. Today, Australia, like many other Western countries is a totally different place. 75% of all Australians are employed by small business-and 75% of all new small businesses fail within the first three years.

As in America, where there is government assistance for (and collusion with) those enterprises “too big to fail” and failing spectacularly, no political party in Australia has offered any real vision or tangible support for small business. I think it can be reasonably argued that in no technologized country on the planet, is it more difficult to launch a small business than in Australia.

Julia Gillard is one committed to making things more difficult still. She will further retard initiative at the smaller levels and undermine business and economic confidence at large. She also brings no foreign affairs experience to her new job, and indeed seems to have a very strange perspective of Australia in the world.

I’m all in favor of women taking leadership roles. Particularly capable ones. There’s no question that Gillard is a capable politician. She pulled off a backroom decapitation. It remains to be seen if she is any real kind of leader, and what policies I’ve seen her champion so far in her career suggest a desire to turn back the clock, not to move forward with vision and innovation.