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Unrewarded Labor - another PM bites the dust

Clip: Unrewarded Labor - another PM bites the dust 

First published at The Oxonian Globalist, July 2013.

It is the 26th of June, and diplomats at Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Malaysia are busy finalising the itinerary for an upcoming prime ministerial visit. They are busy – frenetic, even. But when a sombre-looking, middle-aged man appears on their TV screens, says one diplomat, “everything just goes into slow-motion.” 

The man is Bill Shorten, the Labor Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations. He begins: “What I’m about to tell you I’ve already informed our Prime Minister of.” It takes him almost two minutes to say so, but the game is over – there is only one thing he can be here to say. What he has just informed Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is that she will not be Prime Minister much longer. For the second time in three years, the Australian Labor Party has replaced its leader – and the sitting Prime Minister – months out from an election. Kevin Rudd, elected in 2007 and ousted in June 2010, is back. 

The outlines of the story are simple enough. After 11 years of conservative government under John Howard, Kevin Rudd and the ALP swept to electoral victory in 2007. Rudd promised to repeal Howard’s unpopular industrial relations regime and enact policies to fight climate change, winning a victory in which former Prime Minister Howard lost his own seat. 

By mid-2010, though, a series of slip-ups saw the popularity of Rudd and his Labor government in persistent decline. With an election due before October of that year, and Labor MPs fearing for their electoral survival, factional leaders – including that very same Bill Shorten – moved against Rudd. In a lightning coup, his deputy Julia Gillard replaced him as Prime Minister on the 24th of June, 2010. The move was only partially successful, and the August election produced a hung Parliament. 

Gillard, most agree, achieved a considerable feat in patching together a majority by negotiation and holding it together for three years. But minority government, and in particular the carbon tax proposed in violation of an election promise in February 2011, was not popular. As Labor’s poll ratings once again plummeted, leadership speculation was never far away; in February 2012 and March this year Rudd challenged and was roundly defeated. By the end of June, however, with polls indicating the ALP was on track to lose up to 30 of its 71 lower house seats, the pressure became too much. When Bill Shorten switched his support, he likely brought around eight votes with him. Rudd won the vote, 57-45, and Gillard was deposed. 

It is difficult to identify good and bad in this saga. Gillard participated in an unwarned, backroom coup against the man she was deputy to just days after declaring her loyalty. But after the 2010 election she brought him back into the fold as Foreign Minister. Rudd, for his part, was unquestionably the victim in June 2010. In the run-up to the August election, however, Gillard’s campaign was crippled by a series of leaks which are almost universally attributed to the freshly ousted Rudd. And many argue that the Gillard government’s principal failing was an inability to command public attention and prosecute the case for its reforming agenda – a problem not helped by the constant speculation created by Rudd’s three-stage campaign to regain the leadership. 

So there is no simple black and white. Neither, though, is there any straightforward left or right, any clear sense of what – other than power, and success at the polls – is at stake. The policy differences between Rudd and Gillard are real, but schizophrenic and largely superficial. 

One of the issues which sank Rudd’s first premiership was the opposition to a tax on the profits of mining companies benefiting from Australia’s resource boom. After her takeover, Gillard negotiated a smaller, more business-friendly tax. But now it is Rudd who has promised to abandon “class warfare”, and has met with the Business Council of Australia in the early days of his second stint as Prime Minister. The increasingly frequent arrival of asylum seeker boats, a political weapon aggressively exploited by Tony Abbott, saw Gillard replace Rudd’s kinder policy, step-by-step, with something closely resembling Howard’s old policy of mandatory offshore detention. Rudd, today, shows no inclination to reverse those changes. 

Gillard’s government also, though, brought on progressive reforms arguably much greater in scope than most of what Rudd pursued: a new National Disability Insurance Scheme, the expansion of government-provided dental care, increased funding for public schools. At the same time, Gillard’s government vigorously – at times desperately – pursued a budget surplus, cutting university funding and some welfare payments along the way. On those issues, Rudd’s return seems to be a boon to the left: he has dismissed the notion of a “budget emergency” and challenged the Opposition Leader to debate him over government deficits, whilst declaring his new government open to reversing the welfare and university cuts. 

Most vexing of all is the still-unpopular carbon tax. Rudd’s proposed emissions trading scheme, similar in structure to the carbon tax, was defeated in Parliament in 2009-10. It was none other than his deputy, Gillard, who persuaded him to abandon the policy. Not long later, she was herself bringing forward a carbon tax; the immense unpopularity of that policy was a driver of the ALP’s poor polling and the return of Rudd. It is a marker of the confusion at the heart of the Labor leadership that Gillard should be driven from power because of a policy she had once opposed in favour of a man who advocated it far more vigorously than her. 

Initially, Gillard’s 2010 coup seemed to set the stage for a shift toward the centre-right. The real result has been far more complex. For some issues, the two leadership changes have meant permanent shifts to the right, for others, to the left; still other policy areas have seen backflips and changes in both directions. Some of this inconsistency, certainly, can be attributed to changed circumstances – after 2010, Labor simultaneously faced greater pressure over the budget balance and a greater need to appease its government partners, the progressive Greens. But it remains nearly impossible to place either one of Gillard and Rudd to the left, or right, of the other. 

Perhaps that is unsurprising. Julia Gillard is undeniably ambitious; Kevin Rudd has been described as a megalomaniac, and as “dysfunctional” by his own Treasurer, Wayne Swan. The clash of personalities is strong. And the two leadership changes were triggered, above all, by poor polling months out from an election. We should hardly be shocked to discover that neither inspired a clear, consistent ideological shift in the ALP or the government. That was never what they were intended for. 

Six ministers, plus Gillard and her deputy Swan, have resigned in the aftermath of the leadership change. Several of those, including Gillard herself, are resigning from the Parliament altogether. After all that spilt blood, the parliamentary Labor Party still seems unsure of where it wants to go. With an election looming in October at the latest, that question – at least in one sense – will soon be answered for it.