AS reality belatedly dawns on the ALP caucus that Julia Gillard’s ongoing tenure as Prime Minister is unviable — with electoral annihilation looming — Labor MPs seem to be seriously reconsidering their party’s leadership. One candidate they should avoid at all costs is former PM Kevin Rudd.
If there’s one thing I should be clear about — wearing my hat as a conservative — it is that the best interests of the Liberal Party would be served in the continuation of Gillard in her present role until polling day in September; the electoral carnage would be unprecedented.
That said, I should be equally emphatic — if speaking objectively — that if the ALP seeks to record the unlikeliest of wins in September, or to narrow the margin of loss to position itself for a serious attempt to regain government in 2016, Rudd’s name should be the furthest from its deliberations.
Yet the “modern” Labor way is to respond to the prospect of heavy electoral defeat with a change in the parliamentary leadership; just look at its own NSW precedent, where no fewer than four Labor premiers held office in just six years.
And NSW Labor — unlike its federal counterparts — did not have the spectacle of a knifed first-term Prime Minister who had led the party to government after four terms in opposition to justify the revolving door mentality that marked its approach to its leadership.
It is certainly true that a leadership change can be an electoral panacea; Paul Keating and his win in 1993 are evidence of it; some would argue (I don’t, unless referring to a change that might have been made in early 2006) that Peter Costello and the absence of a change also illustrate the same point in relation to the previous Liberal administration.
There are many reasons why Kevin Rudd should not be restored to the Prime Ministership in advance of the looming federal election, and I will examine these in some detail; however, I would observe at the outset that in terms of political smarts as a strategist and tactician, he isn’t a patch on the likes of Paul Keating.
And he certainly isn’t the “messiah” he and supporters portray him as.
It has been argued — not least by those responsible for acting as executioners in the night against Rudd in June 2010 — that alleged acts of treachery, disloyalty and sabotage by the former PM (especially during the last election campaign) should not be rewarded with his restoration to the Labor leadership.
On one level I tend to agree, but on another altogether, could anyone blame Rudd if he really was guilty of all he was accused of doing to derail Gillard’s election campaign?
After all, the accusations against him are hypocritical at best, given the brutal nature of his ousting in a snap coup; in any case, it takes two to tango, not that two wrongs make a right.
But now he’s gone, and — irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the matter — it’s best Labor’s arrangements remain that way; I have said before that the best thing Rudd can do for his party is to leave Parliament; whether the ALP wins or loses, it’s better off without him.
And if it loses — and loses badly — under Gillard, can anybody seriously envisage Rudd as opposition leader for two to three terms, waiting to lead Labor back to office? Such a prospect simply beggars belief.
The first really big strike against a Rudd return now, though, is Rudd himself, and the history of the government he led; shambolic at best and downright incompetent at worst, the Rudd government was no template for efficient, effective governance, nor for any degree of soundness in public administration.
To some extent, Rudd was Labor’s earliest perpetrator of the “say anything to get elected, then do the opposite” disease that has so cruelled Gillard’s Prime Ministership; for example, the solemn hand-on-heart pledges in opposition to be “a fiscal conservative,” when the reality manifested in the worst forms of unreconstructed Keynesianism.
It’s universally accepted that Rudd’s work habits were difficult for his colleagues and staff to tolerate, to say the least; stories of the obsessive, workaholic PM abound of him routinely turning in 20 hour days, phoning up cabinet ministers and advisers at all hours of the night, and insisting they keep to his manic and incomprehensible schedule.
(He is also reputed to be an arrogant bully with an apocalyptic temper, a short fuse, a long memory, and an unrivalled capacity to both hold and follow through on grudges…I digress).
In the shadow of all this “work” and incinerated midnight oil, there isn’t too much to show for the Prime Ministership of Kevin Rudd; the tidal wave of human tragedy that is the asylum seeker/people smuggler issue resumed on his watch, of course, and economic stimulus action in the face of the so-called GFC resulted in tens of billions of borrowed taxpayer dollars pissed liberally up against a post — to say nothing of structural revenue problems the continuing government has nary a clue how to fix.
Let’s not forget that both the mining tax and the carbon tax — in different formats perhaps, but still essentially the same policies — were both original sins of Kevin.
I could continue with a great long list, but the ultimate question is a very simple one: who would back up for more of the same under a resuscitated Rudd?
To anyone who wants to rattle on about Rudd’s great and enduring popularity, or point to opinion polls showing him overwhelmingly preferred as Labor leader instead of Gillard, I have but two words.
I have opined repeatedly over the past year about the dangers of allegedly indicative polls showing a hypothetical replacement for a party leader being x more popular/preferred/likely to win an election than the existing one.
Such polls have two main flaws: one, they don’t reflect reality, which means respondents can literally say whatever they like; and two, there’s no guarantee the hypothetical replacement would perform satisfactorily if given the leadership — even if, as in Rudd’s case, they had held the position previously.
The example I have used from time to time is that of Andrew Peacock and the Liberal leadership feud with John Howard in the 1980s; Peacock was well-liked but an ineffectual opposition leader, who scored some kudos by winning back half a dozen seats against Bob Hawke in 1984 when conventional wisdom suggested the Coalition would be slaughtered.
Peacock lost his leadership to Howard in unusual circumstances the following year and, almost instantly, the whispering against Howard began.
Ultimately, in a snap coup in May 1989, Peacock reclaimed the Liberal leadership. But it was Howard (once dubbed “Mr 18%”, a reference to his approval rating) who ultimately triumphed, becoming a long-serving and well-respected Prime Minister, whilst Peacock went on to lose an unloseable election to Hawke in 1990 that finished him politically.
The point? Almost from the minute Howard replaced Peacock in 1985, polls very similar to those purporting to show Rudd preferred over Gillard by a 2:1 margin began to appear; by the time Peacock finally returned in 1989, their message was irresistible to Liberal MPs.
But Peacock went into the booth on polling day with an approval rating of 21%, a preferred PM rating even lower, trailing Hawke in the polls, and weighed down by the residual baggage of his coup plotters’ appearance on the ABC’s Four Corners program, four days after knifing Howard, to brag about their exploits.
Make no mistake: a restored Rudd would also carry baggage — most likely in the shape of recriminations against those with their fingerprints all over his demise as Prime Minister three years ago.
Rudd is a fractious and vindictive character; just ask any civil servant in Queensland who fell out with him in the 1990s, when he effectively ran the public service under former Premier Wayne Goss.
It’s one of the reasons so many serving ministers have made it known they would refuse to serve again under him; Nicola Roxon has already (and thankfully) removed herself from Cabinet, but a raft of others — Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy, Tanya Plibersek and more — have made it abundantly clear that working with Kevin Rudd is not going to happen.
Indeed — among the wider ALP caucus — many would prefer to risk the loss of their seats and/or opposition than again serve Kevin Rudd.
Three MPs caused a stir last year when it was revealed they had threatened to immediately quit Parliament, causing by-elections, were Rudd to be restored; Victorian Darren Cheeseman in Corangamite (Labor’s most marginal seat) and Queenslander Graham Perrett in Moreton (another knife-edge marginal) were identified as two of the three; the third was never conclusively identified but has been widely speculated to be the Treasurer, Wayne Swan.
Such a move — likely, in my view — would immediately plunge a restored Rudd government into even more turmoil than currently afflicts the ALP; even if one accepts Rudd is legitimately popular in an electoral sense — and I don’t — it must be remembered that Australians have had a gutful of turmoil and instability and crisis in government.
So reviled is Rudd, in other words, that the government is likely to simply disintegrate around him; and far from an immediate election to capitalise on his “popularity” being a masterstroke, it’s more likely to exacerbate the defeat, given Australians have for decades punished institutionalised disunity in political parties at the ballot box.
It brings me to another risk Rudd would face if restored to the Prime Ministership: the “Queensland factor.”
Something many of us on the conservative side of politics remain incensed about — six years on — was the failure of sections of the press to apply the blowtorch to Rudd on the basis of his time running the public service in Queensland: so keen were they to finally be rid of the detested Howard, many journalists were only too pleased to allow Rudd an easy passage through 2007 to the election and the Prime Ministership.
I discussed this with a very senior Liberal frontbencher some months before the 2007 election; it was a source of great frustration to us both. “There’s a rich seam of shit on Rudd (in Queensland) to mine,” were my exact words. “We can’t. Nobody is interested in publishing any of it. We’ve been trying for months,” came the response.
I tend to think the left-leaning press pack — far more loyal to Gillard than they ever were to Rudd — would have a great deal of trouble motivating themselves to repeat the favour.
And Rudd, despite the persona portrayed in public, isn’t a very nice fellow, to put it mildly — a reality all too well-known by his parliamentary colleagues.
For any reader digesting that statement in disbelief — just like the millions of ordinary folk who only know of politics what they see on the news — I can only suggest you do a little further digging if you don’t believe it.
Or ring the offices of some of Julia Gillard’s staunchest adherents, who’ll no doubt fill in the blanks for you (their public character assessments of Rudd, ironically, are one instance in which every word uttered should not only be believed, but be regarded as a colossal understatement of the facts of the matter).
In summary, Rudd’s popularity — if it even exists in a form to generate votes at a polling booth rather than a hypothetical opinion poll — is illusory, and unlikely to last.
Certainly, Rudd wouldn’t make it as far as September without Tony Abbott tearing him apart: the Coalition might not have bested Rudd in the polls by the time he was deposed, but after six months in the Liberal leadership at the time Abbott had destroyed the huge ALP poll lead, Rudd’s approval rating, was closing in as preferred PM, and had all the momentum.
And were Rudd to bolt to an immediate election for the House of Representatives only, necessitating an expensive and unwanted half-Senate election before July 2014, the Coalition campaign against the tactic would be savage enough (and rightly so) to ensure a sizeable Labor defeat.
It brings me to a few other reasons Rudd isn’t a feasible choice to replace Gillard.
For one thing, he’s insecurely seated; his seat of Griffith might look safe enough with an 8.5% margin, but it has been won by the Liberal Party (often for multiple terms) whenever a big conservative election win occurs — most recently in 1996, when Rudd was beaten by former Brisbane City Councillor Graeme McDougall, and in 1966, when prominent Liberal Don Cameron held it for 11 years.
There were plenty of earlier occasions.
The anecdotal evidence suggests Queensland voters are smart enough to see through the ruse of Labor’s attempt to portray Campbell Newman as a reason to vote Labor federally; there appears to be a further substantial swing against the ALP brewing in Queensland to build on the one recorded last time, and if that happens, Rudd could be gone anyway.
And for another, it’s a little rich to even expect Rudd to accept the leadership in the circumstances. If readers accept my arguments, Labor will lose anyway, and lose badly; having been torn down by Gillard in the first place, I would expect that even his (colossal) ego would be insufficient to stop him recognising that fundamental political reality.
Why would he let her off the hook for her own share of the blame for the loss?
Then again, it is Kevin Rudd we’re talking about here, after all.
Yet if Rudd were to regain the Labor leadership, somehow hold the party together, fight an election campaign of at least five weeks and ultimately win re-election, nobody — nobody — could have the slightest confidence that having used and exploited Rudd, his party wouldn’t simply discard him a second time and replace him with another candidate beholden to its union base: probably Bill Shorten.
Of course, the entire discussion could be academic: it is likely that the electorate has had a gutful of the Labor Party, and of this government especially; that its exit papers really are already stamped — and that it won’t matter a can of beans who leads it to the slaughter in September, or at some point sooner which it believes offers a better prospect of winning.
But when the ALP is cornered, it tries something; it might not work, but it tries. And right now, Labor is cornered.
It’s one more reason the ALP — if it knifes Gillard — should opt for a candidate other than Rudd; if the decimation is going to occur anyway, choosing a leader at such risk of losing his seat would be the cherry on top of the icing on the cake for Tony Abbott and the Liberals.
Just ask John Howard.