Five Certain WordsBy Chris Kennett
June 29, 2010
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.
You go, Chris! I hope your piece makes op-ed in major global newspapers and magazines.
A USAmerican, I also appreciate learning about your political system in this timely, succinct, dramatic way.
Spot on, K. Bernard Keene wrote something at Crikey about how Howard the Invincible was polling in the negative numbers in his first term. And look what happened.
My anger, worry and fear you know already. It is, of course, lovely to have a female (Hooray! Feminism!), unmarried (Wuht?! Feminism!), childless (Oh noes! Deliberately barren!), migrant (Why are we letting a Pom lead us?!), redhead (NO WAY! A GINGER?!), atheist (SHOCK! HORROR! SHE’LL DRAG US ALL TO HELL!) Prime Minister. But how it came to be leaves me cold.
American readers may be be able to relate to the comparisons between how we got our first female PM and the ascension to power of (fictional) President Mackenzie Allen in Commander in Chief. And we all know how long that show lasted.
If any readers are still lost, this may help: http://dailylolz.lolpolz.com/2010/06/greek-tragedy-of-krudd.html
Simply superb in every way. I think you present the facts (such as they are known and not hidden behind Party room doors) completely accurately. I’d like this to become a call to arms, at least metaphorically, for all Australians–certainly a wake up call. A genuine coup d’etat was staged, and the professional media, caught short by the news, has only gone deeper into slumber, reporting on Gillard’s hair style, completely ignoring the issues which you focus on, including the essential issue–that this is without any possible argument–the most significant political development in Australia in more than three decades.
You put forward in very strong, clear terms why this is also of import beyond Australia. The deposing of leaders in Western “free” democracies should be big news–just as big business is. How can we hope for stability in developing nations and electorates in historically volatile parts of the world, when deeply peculiar things happen (with so little jaw drop) in supposedly focused and prosperous leadership countries like Australia? Two things are clear to me now. When I came to Australia, it had the finest per capita strength of journalism corps in the world. It doesn’t anymore. Two, we continue to see how the collusion b/w govenment & big business–especially energy business works. Your story may have more to do with superfreighters full of iron ore bound for China, but in its implications, it also mixes all too sadly well with the petroleum ooze washing up on the beaches of America’s Gulf states.
What is happening to you Aussies? There once would have been strikes, battles, venomous words spewing forth, blood spilled on the streets… – but you seem to have succumbed to New Zealand-itis.
Interesting. I had certainly found all accounts of Ruud’s demise patently facile, because I also remember the emphatic wave upon which his PMship was founded. I really appreciate a glimpse into the something much deeper that must have been behind this surreal episode.
Thanks for this fantastic insight. It seems that the American media has been struggling with how to explain what happened, let alone how it happened.
We’re really caught up in our “rights” here in the US, although in my experience, people are quick to defend rights that they either don’t understand or don’t have (i.e. “the fifth amendment,” and the non-existent “right to privacy,” respectively).
With an election process that give us relatively direct access to choosing the representatives of two out of three branches of government, I think it’s safe to say that we Americans would be thoroughly fucking freaked if something like that happened here. We might not understand it, but we’d be sufficiently freaked.
Your facts, analysis, and observations are informative much appreciated.
Spot on, Joe. Everything you said.
And re this: “With an election process that give us relatively direct access to choosing the representatives of two out of three branches of government, I think it’s safe to say that we Americans would be thoroughly fucking freaked if something like that happened here. We might not understand it, but we’d be sufficiently freaked”…..I’d add that the whole Bush2 re-election was the scariest Big Brother moment I’ve experienced. I remember on the plane flying home from seeing my son and family in L.A. the day after the national election, writing in my journal: “It’s the day after the election and none of us knows what president we elected.” Weirded out—-and that was the first day of even weirder revelations.
Two points come to mind, both centered away from Australia.
I remember being on Bougainville during Nixon’s worst period, saying “Now I understand the benefit of the Westminster system.” Of course Nixon deserved to be tossed out and, so far as I can tell, Rudd didn’t.
Second, I know you’re not surprised that the multinational mining corporations rose up in some way and got what they wanted (or perhaps didn’t get what they didn’t want). I’m not either. You, as an Australian, will recognize these: Conzinc RioTinto Australia, Bougainville Copper Pty, Broken Hill, RTZ. And we won’t even talk about Freeport-Moran, Ok Tedi, Lihir . . . the list goes on.
CRA and BCP raped Bougainville and Bougainvilleans and no doubt stand ready to do so again if given the chance.
This topic is, of course, of massive interest to many Australians – and understandably confusing to observers from outside Australia, if they are unfamilar with the Westminster system. There’s much in this article that I reckon is spot-on in terms of sentiment. Rudd has been hugely hard-done-by, especially as I reckon he would have won the coming election anyhow. But I do also feel that Chris overstates a little, when it comes to the ‘unprecedented’ nature of what happened to Rudd – and I wanted to add a bit here, for the benefit of those coming from other electoral systems.
What happened to Kevin Rudd last week really isn’t quite as unprecedented as it might seem here (though I’ll maybe grant you ‘sensational’). For a start, it’s very problematic to make too strong a comparison between the American presidential system and the Westminster system, no matter how ‘presidential’ the style of our leaders. Changing the US President – directly elected as such – is, constitutionally, nigh on impossible; changing the leader of an Australian political party (even one who is currently PM) is not only perfectly possible, it’s relatively common.
It’s one thing to say that Australians might feel aggrieved that an elected PM hasn’t been given a fair go, but it’s quite another to suggest that many Australians would ‘feel’ disenfranchised (despite, as Chris says, this technically not being so) – or even very surprised. Already in the current term, the Leader of the Opposition has been deposed in a mid-term party-room vote; Rudd himself gained the position of Leader of the Opposition by deposing Kim Beazley mid-term. In 1983 the ALP installed Bob Hawke as Leader immediately before an election, despite the current leader (Bill Hayden) having the party in an election-winning position (the so-called ‘Drovers Dog’ election). In terms of party leaders as current PMs, in 1991 Keating deposed Hawke in a party-room brawl, after a failed attempt a few months earlier. More recently, though it never came to pass, the previous PM John Howard was subject to a highly publicised campaign by those seeking to replace him with his then deputy Peter Costello. Changes of leaders happen in the same way at a state level (Bracks to Brumby in 2007, for instance, in my and Chris’s state of Victoria – though this was a resignation not a vote). What happened to Rudd is far from unprecedented for a party leader, or even for a PM – albeit unusual in a first-term PM. But even here, it wasn’t really a ‘surprise’ – Julia Gillard had been receiving questions about her Prime Ministerial ambitions in the media for months beforehand.
On the influence of the miners, I reckon Chris is absolutely correct, and more fundamentally, I share with Chris a huge sense of concern about the seemingly poll-driven nature of the ALP’s decision to depose Rudd at this point in the electoral cycle. I only hope, if Gillard as leader makes the ALP seem more likely to win later this year, that the miners will have a greater incentive to do a deal than they would if they had sense they could actually unseat the government.
Thank goodness someone has taken the time to point out some of the problems with Chris’s analogy. There is no way that what happened to Rudd is comparable to Hilary Clinton suddenly deposing Obama!
I also disagree with the rest of Chris’s argument. Rudd rode to popularity on the back of a couple of big policy ‘gimmes’ — the apology to the Stolen Generations and signing Kyoto. These were things that should have been done long before and whoever was leading the Labor Party would have done — even Peter Costello had said he’d have done both if he’d taken the leadership from John Howard. After that he helped steer us through the GFC, thanks in huge part to the large budget surplus Australia was enjoying at the time, but he was only doing largely the same things as plenty of other countries were doing, there was nothing visionary or unique about the actions he took. And since then he’s done bugger all except stuff up the very basics of good administration and backflip on rock-solid promises. His ‘low key advertising campaign’ was an abomination. He had gone to the election promising to stop such advertising and then at the first hurdle he turns around and does it! Unbelievable. He truly was his own worst enemy in so many ways and I am not at all sorry to see the back of him.
I also think the presumption that Labor didn’t need to act because it’s so rare for a first term government to lose the next election is flawed. It is just as unprecedented for a PM to lose his own seat, but look what happened to John Howard! It would be extremely foolhardy to rely on the fact that something rarely happens as protection against it ever happening — particularly when the prospect of Tony Abbott as PM looms large!
And Rudd ethical and talented? I beg to differ. If he was, he wouldn’t have performed so badly in fundamental ways like consulting properly on major policy, ensuring public money is spent appropriately (and without indirectly causing death and destruction) and keeping promises that he made.
Thanks for a well-needed, well-written education.
Shit, aren’t you writing a script?
This is great stuff!
I think Kris Saknussemm secretly fancies you.
I was over in the States when I got the email: Rudd’s out, Gillard’s in.
And, you know, fuck. What do you even say?
I love that everyone has suddenly become an expert on personal political psychology: ‘Oh, Rudd, you know, he alienated his party, and that’s what happened…’
The backflips hurt him. I mean, they really hurt him. But not that much.
A report (I can’t remember which one, but it was well-written, and intelligent) spoke about the spooking effect – how Rudd’s ratings dipped, but were still good – but because they weren’t at the SuperRudd07 stratospheric levels, the party panicked and brought out the knives.
Me? I was for the mining tax, on many fronts.
And seriously: what. The. Fuck. Just. Happened.
Where was the say of the population in this?
This article makes me feel far less stupid and less televised than my previous self-deprecations. What the hell is going on in Australia is what I think?
Apparently, what’s been manicured on Lindsay Lohan’s middle finger is all the more relevant, and so I stew in my own ignorance.
Appreciating all the feedback, guys, and particularly the contrary arguments. Some interesting insights into how much of a shock the Ruddectomy was in Washington here –
“The economist David Hale, who is based in Chicago and is an adviser to the Commonwealth Bank, among others, said: “Kevin Rudd was very well respected and well known in Washington.
”He seemed to be managing the global financial crisis very competently. You’ve had no recession in Australia and there was no sense that he was under serious threat. For him to be suddenly removed like that was just shocking.””