My American friends.
Imagine, if you will, waking tomorrow to find that Hillary Clinton had suddenly replaced Barack Obama as President of the United States. Imagine that, while you slept, a gaggle of shadowy Democrat powerbrokers, spooked by poor polling and under pressure from the powerful energy corporations, had executed a swift and brutal coup. Try to imagine a still-popular leader, a man swept to power on a wave of optimism and desire for change, denied the chance to contest another election – or even complete his first term – by men whose names you barely know.
Fortunately, you don’t have to. Under your system of government, the above scenario could never happen. The worst that could occur is Obama falling under a bus and old man Biden getting the job – a risk that you knew you were taking when you elected him (and one which likely scared a significant number away from the McCain/Palin ticket). The same is not true in Australia.
As you may know, last week Kevin Rudd was deposed as leader of the Australian Labor Party and replaced with his former deputy, Julia Gillard. Under the conventions of our Parliament, the leader of the party with the majority in the House of Representatives is appointed Prime Minister, and hence Australia now has a new head of Government – with no input from the electorate.
Although Australian voters have not technically been disenfranchised by this shift, as we do not directly elect a PM, the reality is that our political parties sell themselves on their leaders (indeed, Rudd himself took ‘presidential politics’ in this country to new heights with his successfully cheesy ‘Kevin 07’ campaign). Australians have a reasonable expectation that their Prime Minister comes as advertised. To be fair, Gillard acknowledged as such in her first press conference after taking the helm, promising an election within months and assuring us that she would not assume official residence in Canberra until having faced the electorate.
As far as I am aware, this sensational and unprecedented turn of events was anticipated by precisely no-one outside of the inner sanctum of the ALP. With no forewarning, our media scrambled, somewhat comically, to get across the biggest political story in a generation. The first wave of reaction, unsurprisingly, focused on the novelty. Australia suddenly had its first female Prime Minister. This was, unquestionably, a Good Thing.
As political journalists started to wipe the spittle from their chins and recover from the initial blindsiding, the second wave of reaction began – putting together the story of How It Came To This. No-one in the press gallery, none of the people paid to make sense of what goes on in Canberra wanted to admit that this really didn’t make sense. So, very quickly, a narrative was collectively cobbled together about how Rudd was the architect of his own demise. How he had engendered resentment in his party with his autocratic style, how he had failed to engage with the electorate, how his backdowns and mishandling of key policies had left voters disenchanted. One particular genius attributed, with great confidence, the origins of Rudd’s poll slide to the release of a children’s book he co-authored in January.
Practically all accounts of Rudd’s downfall painted the picture of a steady downward trajectory over the last six months or so, punctuated with failure after backflip, to the point where the man had now become irrevocably unelectable. Replacing him, most pundits told us, was a dramatic but understandable move in this context. It was a bold – nay, admirable gamble by the ALP to play themselves back into the game before an imminent election.
Now it is nearly a week after the event. And as our short-attention span media begins to move on to more pressing questions such as ‘DO ASTRONAUTS HAVE SEX IN SPACE???’, I find myself disturbed about the absence of five certain words in all the coverage I have read. Those words are: THE, HAPPENED, JUST, WHAT and FUCK (not necessarily in that order).
The general lack of anger, worry or fear about the way this change of leadership has occurred is staggering. Not since the infamous Dismissal in 1975 have Australians experienced such a dramatic political shift, and evidently we have yet to grasp the frightening precedent which has been set.
The fall of Kevin Rudd is in no way convincingly explained by the kind of anemic reporting described above. Yes, Rudd made a significant error when he decided to shelve an Emissions Trading Scheme after describing climate change as ‘the greatest moral challenge of our generation.’ It is true that the Prime Minister had had a generally uninspiring year, and had lost ground to Opposition leader Tony Abbott in the polls. But to make the claim, as Gillard has done and as lazy journalists have been quick to parrot, that Rudd’s leadership was terminal – that the ALP faced defeat at ballot box – is almost outlandish.
No Australian Federal Government has failed to win a second term since the Great Depression.
It is well-founded political wisdom in Australia that it is very difficult to unseat an incumbent Federal government. Before Rudd led the ALP to victory in 2007, power had changed hands only five times since the Second World War. Prime Ministers routinely find themselves behind in the polls prior to an election and still prevailing. In Kevin Rudd’s case, he wasn’t even behind. For an incumbent government to lose an election in Australia after only one term is unthinkable, at least in the absence of a colossal economic crisis – and guess which country is one of only two credited with successfully deflecting the GFC?
No first-term Labor Prime Minister has been denied the chance to fight an election since 1945.
– and in that case Frank Forde was only in office for eight days following the death of his predecessor. It is flabbergasting that a man who ousted the seemingly invincible former Prime Minister John Howard with a tremendously successful election campaign, a man who at one time had the highest ever approval ratings for a PM, a man who had already seen off two Opposition leaders in two years and led Australia almost unscathed through the world’s worst financial crisis in a century had not earned sufficient political capital with his party to lead them to another election.
So, what did Rudd really do wrong? What happened to blow so many commonly accepted conventions of Australian politics out of the water?
Simple, really. Kevin Rudd got on the wrong side of big business. Some very big business. Namely, the massive (largely foreign owned) mining corporations that effectively run the states of Western Australia and Queensland. You see, a few months ago Rudd unveiled plans for a new ‘super profits’ tax on the mining sector, one which would see a few more of the squillions of dollars being made from our collective natural resources going back to the Australian people at large. Predictably, this wasn’t popular with the miners, who began a well-funded, utterly disingenuous (but effective) scare campaign, claiming that the proposed tax would close mines, endanger investment and put thousands out of work. And this is where Rudd made his fatal mistake.
He believed he could negotiate in good faith with the mining companies behind closed doors, and that his party would back him. He believed that a low-key advertising campaign, wherein a man calmly explains the nature of the new tax, would resonate with the public. He failed to hear alarm bells going off as several large trade unions – the traditional power base of the ALP and still wielding immense influence within the party – began to panic, and pulled their support from him.
This was a coup born of gutlessness, and an utter waste of a talented, driven and essentially ethical Prime Minster who deserved the chance to do better. What could have been a long, brave Labor dynasty has, by any measure, been shortened and diminished. I fear that Julia Gillard, via her own complicity in setting this precedent, will be constantly looking over her shoulder rather than looking ahead, as a great leader should.