TOUGH-SOUNDING rhetoric from Kevin Rudd about overhauling the ALP is not only meaningless, but the party won’t brook it; in trying to eke votes from an “intervention” into NSW Labor, Rudd is playing with shadows, and ensuring he will be overthrown as PM again if Labor is re-elected federally.
In 2007, then-opposition leader Kevin Rudd won an election with a campaign, which — stripped of whatever effect WorkChoices had — was essentially predicated on slogans and soundbites.
If Labor won, the Prime Minister would be “Kevin ’07” who, in an effort to assure John Howard’s voters that he was safe, proclaimed himself an “economic conservative.” There would be an “education revolution.” “Kevin ’07″‘s slick, hip outfit would take action against climate change, end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stop the “obscenity” of women and children locked up in detention, and — in a retrospectively laughable proclamation on government expenditure — memorably thundered that “this reckless spending must stop.”
On and on it went, and to the extent such an approach can’t and won’t work in 2013 — there is the small matter of a record of six truly shocking years of Labor government — it doesn’t matter, because born-again Kevin has fixed on a new trick to replace his slogans.
Big ones, little ones, stunts with carefully concealed punchlines and stunts that are too clever by half; cheap, tacky stunts will hoodwink millions of Australians into voting Labor.
It’s the principle in play when it comes to Rudd’s demands that, effectively, Tony Abbott should participate in a debate on economics so Rudd can bully him over Liberal Party policy, whilst putting forward nothing of his own for scrutiny.
People will swallow the Rudd line that Tony is running scared and will vote Labor instead, goes the theory.
Now, Rudd has come up with an equally jackarsed and similarly half-baked stunt to woo voters in New South Wales: a federal intervention into the NSW branch of the ALP.
If there is one thing anyone who has ever dealt with the ALP knows, it’s that it is — to quote Lord Fisher, the head of the British Navy during the first World War — ruthless, relentless and remorseless.
Whatever its faults and whatever its failings, the ALP isn’t commonly referred to as “a machine” for nothing; its tribal nature, its factions and its grounding in the union movement are often its sources of great weakness, but they also underpin the Labor Party’s greatest strength: resilience.
Rudd — a specimen with an excessively established view of his own importance — has been returned to the Prime Ministership by his party for the purpose of winning an election.
And that’s it.
But Rudd harbours different views; he believes that his return is evidence of his party’s ultimate dependence on him for its survival, and this seems to have convinced him that he’s free to throw his weight around wherever he likes.
His target — NSW Labor — is correctly identified as a national embarrassment to the ALP.
But funnily enough, it is also the division of the party that masterminded his dumping as Prime Minister in the first place.
NSW is, of course, the state that had no fewer than four Labor Premiers in six years.
It is the state that recorded the biggest defeat* of a state Labor government in modern political history back in 2011.
It’s the state that has seen a cabinet minister from that government (Milton Orkopoulos) jailed for paedophilia offences, and a parade of others through an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry into corrupt practices that are a daily source of damning headlines for the ALP.
Rudd seems to think that by announcing a federal intervention in NSW, voters will somehow be impressed enough to swarm to his banner at the ballot box in a couple of months’ time.
This view tends to overlook historical precedent.
Gough Whitlam — as federal leader of the ALP — instigated a federal intervention into Labor’s dysfunctional Victorian branch in 1967; Labor in Victoria had long been moribund, out of office at the state level since 1955 and wrecking the party’s prospects federally, virtually costing it government singlehandedly in 1961 and 1969.
It would be 1980 before the effects of Whitlam’s intervention would deliver a majority of Victoria’s federal seats to Labor; and a state election win would take longer, finally coming in 1982 under John Cain Jr.
There are other instances of federal intervention I could just as easily use to illustrate the point; properly undertaken, these interventions are essentially root-and-branch restructures that are completed with a lot of acrimony and a lot of spilt blood, and take years — not weeks — to bed down.
Nonetheless, Rudd is going to have an intervention in NSW in July that will help engineer an election victory by November at the latest, and probably much sooner.
Can anyone believe this? It’s hardly credible or plausible.
Apparently, guidelines being laid down in NSW as part of the Rudd intervention include “a zero tolerance of corruption.”
Does this mean corruption in the ALP is OK until it gets in the way of winning elections?
Why isn’t “a zero tolerance of corruption” a standard and non-negotiable principle of the Labor Party across the country, rather than just in NSW?
Is it for the same reasons the union movement is ready to fight to stop a Liberal government imposing the same standards of governance required of business under the Corporations Act on their organisations in the wake of the scandal engulfing the Health Services Union?
Anyone who thinks what Rudd is doing in NSW is anything other than a charade is kidding themselves.
And populist Kevin — the so-called People’s Prime Minister — is attempting another reform within the ALP too: election of the parliamentary leader by its rank and file members.
As the story goes, Rudd is seeking to adopt the system used by Labour in the UK, whereby MPs, the trade unions and the membership all get a vote on the leadership that is evenly weighted.
Allowing branch members a say in electing the leader is popular, yes? In theory, yes.
But in practice, it doesn’t work: British Labour is saddled with a leader in Ed Miliband who seems destined to allow an unpopular Conservative administration to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat; too timid, too left-wing and too facile, Miliband was heavily backed by unions against his more urbane (and electable) brother David, who has since left politics and deprived British Labour of what could well have been its next Prime Minister.
That Conservative administration, in turn — led by David Cameron — is dominated by a Conservative Party that opened its own leadership election arrangements up to the rank and file in 2003.
In that system, MPs select two candidates who are voted on by members to elect a leader; Cameron and his predecessor Michael Howard were presented to the membership as unanimous choices, avoiding a ballot, but it doesn’t take a political genius to see that such a practice is heavily geared toward the triumph of populism over substance and competence.
In fact — if we stick with the UK for a bit — those changes on both sides to strip MPs of the exclusive right to elect a parliamentary leader were introduced by unpopular leaders who potentially stood to gain from diluting the influence of their colleagues in future leadership contests (Iain Duncan Smith on the Tory side, and Gordon Brown in the Labour Party).
Oddly enough, that gearing is precisely the reason Rudd wants to go down such a path.
Rudd wants to ensure that never again can he be stripped of his leadership as a result of faceless party thugs controlling the votes of union-allied MPs in a party room vote.
At face value and to the outsider, it all sounds wonderfully democratic and inclusive — as, of course, it is meant to.
But the reality is that it will never happen.
Like the sternly phrased intervention in NSW, Rudd’s attempts at reform of Labor leadership ballots will not be tolerated by the party machine he leads.
The machine men destroyed the leadership of Simon Crean ten years ago in response to reforms he enacted, and that was simply to dilute the union share of votes at party conferences from 60% to 50%.
What Rudd is trying to do is exponentially more far-reaching.
Crean, at least, is and was a born creature of the Labor Party, its tribal ways, its factional structures and its union history. Rudd is nothing of the sort.
And just as it was capable of chewing Crean up and spitting him out, so too is the ALP machine capable of doing exactly the same thing to Rudd.
Obviously, it has already done so once.
And whilst Rudd clearly thinks what he is up to will curry favour with voters, the reality is that it won’t; people are fed up with Labor, and rather than attract votes, Rudd risks a charge a la Bob Hawke of “if you can’t govern yourselves, you can’t govern the country.”
If Rudd somehow manages to pull off a surprise election victory, his moment of glory will be brief; the faceless men of the ALP — sensing the danger he poses to their established order — will quickly and ruthlessly dispatch him from the Prime Ministership, safe in the knowledge that three years are available to work out how to win a fourth term in 2016.
After all, they will have done it once before — in 2010 — and ultimately have gotten away with it.
Nobody should believe Labor is beholden to Rudd if he wins this year in any case, but by his actions Rudd is making it a virtual certainty that he will be knifed, again, in a midnight coup should he secure another term for his party.
So much for Kevin Rudd. So much for his slogans and stunts and smart answers.
When it comes to the Labor Party, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
*based on Labor’s share of the two-party preferred vote, not its proportion of seats won.