Labor’s Crisis

Tony Abbott was a pretty good amateur boxer in his day, so he knows a thing or two about the brutality of the ring. But even he must have been surprised by the pugilistic stoush that recently took place within the ranks of the Australian Labor Party. Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and their respective allies certainly engaged in one heck of a political humdinger, as the two principals went head-to-head on February 27th to decide who would lead the ALP to defeat at the next Federal election. Abbott, I imagine, would also be rubbing his hands with glee, since the government seems to be serving up some primo material for Coalition election advertisements. We may laugh, certainly; on some level, the soap opera before us acted as a (twisted) form of voyeuristic entertainment. However, that is precisely the problem: one may well argue – and with some justification – that this fight, this conflict between two political egos, was reflective of a wider malaise in Australian politics. I shall return to that theme in a moment, but not before reflecting on some of the other things I have learned as a result of the Labor Party’s leadership stoush.

The first thing I noticed about the ALP’s internal power struggle is that the two candidates who vied for leadership of this once-great and noble party seemed to have adopted the belief that the one who could heap enough verbal opprobrium upon his opponent would have the best chance of emerging victorious. Parliamentarians have nipped at the heels of sitting Prime Minister’s before: Rudd and Gillard, though occupying opposite roles in slightly different circumstances, have been here already. One also thinks of Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, way back in 1991. There, the Treasurer made a bold play for leadership of the ALP, and hence, the country. In doing so, he deposed a PM that had been in the position for over eight years. So, challenging the leadership – even if the leader is the prime ministerial incumbent – is far from unheard of. What distinguished this latest round of political infighting (to my mind, at least) was the barrage of criticism being hurled at the respective rivals. Ms. Gillard’s supporters seemed to turn this practice into a fine art, flinging verbal barbs at Mr. Rudd that, had they been offered elsewhere, could well have landed their authors in court defending themselves against charges of slander.

By contrast, the public heard very little about actual policy or contrasting political visions. That kind of intellectual acumen was noticeably absent in what had degenerated into a schoolyard scrap. If two people are going to vie for the leadership of one of Australia’s two major political parties (and the one that is currently holding the reins of power), then they need to offer far more than verbal abuse and crude epithets. As far as I can see, neither Mr. Rudd nor Ms. Gillard presented a coherent argument as to why either of them is fit to lead the ALP. It’s already quite clear that Gillard lacks a cogent narrative to carry her through to the next election and beyond (about which I will say more). Even more disappointing was the fact that Mr. Rudd seemed not to possess one either. Instead, he relied on a populist campaign in an effort to apply pressure on the Labor caucus.

Caucus members were in a bind – would they vote for the Prime Minister, whom they knew the public disliked and mistrusted? Or would they vote to re-instate a man whom they knew to be insufferable as a boss (as well as a major source of all their present ills)? In the end, they went with the former, but not because of superior ideas or policy wisdom. Indeed, one could argue that both candidates were afflicted with an acute case of political myopia: with sights narrowed and vision blurred, they were unable to see beyond the leadership bout and the caucus ballot. Granted the fact that such a stoush would have exercised the minds of both Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard to a great extent, it was disappointing (though unsurprising) to see them focus so much of their energies on the aggrandizement and subversion of personality – a poor and vapid substitute for the construction of a persuasive political-policy narrative and the intellectual rigour such a project requires. Stripped of these assets, the two rivals had only themselves to try and persuade their colleagues before the ballot. That, however, exposed one of the deep-rooted problems that presently besets the ALP, and one that seems to be an implicit part of contemporary Australian politics. Political egos and personalities loom so large, particularly in the Labor Party, that considered and rational policy positions, diligent attention to the minutia of government, and a commitment to a compelling ideological/philosophical narrative have been squeezed out.

Individual thirst for power and a consistent commitment to the unity of the party – two qualities that are both, sometimes in simultaneous and contradictory fashion, willed upon politicians – need to be held in a tight balance if a party is to thrive. Both are certainly necessary. Individual ambition is required from politicians, since it compels them to pursue excellence in their chosen field. Properly channelled, such ambition is a boon to party success. But, like an unpredictable river or waterway, which may be given to periodic flooding, individual ambition can become swollen – morphing into a turgid egotism that is interested in little more than personal glory. The very quality that brings life and verve to a party can, if unchecked, lead to its ruin. It is this phenomenon that has, shamefully, been on display within the ALP recently. I think especially of Mr. Rudd and his campaign to win back the leadership. He epitomised what I am referring to – namely, the unadulterated desire for power. His was a destabilising presence within the ALP, and has contributed to the impression that this is a party that is fractious and divided, filled with people who have gained skills in the arts of electoral management and political machinations. Mr. Rudd’s attempts to win back the leadership of the Labor Party were based, it seems, on little more than a thirst for the prize. But his plot was merely the latest episode in an ongoing saga for the ALP, marked as it has been by a consistent fixation on plain electoral advantage and the naked acquisition (or retention) of power.

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One might have hoped that with Ms. Gillard’s comprehensive victory over Mr. Rudd, the business of government could go on, and Australia’s oldest political party would be able to emerge from its crisis with a new sense of purpose and unity. That hope, I suspect, is held in vain. Of course, it takes time for a party to recover from something as destabilising as what we have observed, but the signs are already ominous. The ALP, it seems, is characterised by “instability of…government, smallness of…vision and…mediocrity of…performance” (Greg Sheridan, “Carr Drive-by a Loss for Gillard”, The Australian, 1st March, 2012). It had already proved itself to be woefully inept before the leadership battle between Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard. Now that this latest chapter is over (for now), the public is left to believe that Labor is truly bereft of the very qualities that are required for good government. Individuals who are politically and intellectually naked are all that’s left. Far from rescuing the ALP’s image with the electorate, the recent leadership stoush has consolidated an already-accurate narrative regarding its current structural and philosophical problems (in other words, that it has no structure and is bereft of a unifying political philosophy). It has exposed completely the deep-rooted problems that have plagued it for several years now. Greg Sheridan’s words were written in reference to the damage wrought on Australia’s international image as a result of the leadership conflict. This is no doubt true. But I would also suggest that those words are equally apt in a domestic context. What the nation has witnessed over the past few weeks has simply laid bare the lack of any kind of substantive vision that would make Labor a compelling and attractive party. Its fallback position – the force of personality – has done nothing to counter the impression that present-day Labor is intellectually and politically barren.

Ms. Gillard’s bungled attempt to invite former NSW Premier, Bob Carr, to take up Mr. Rudd’s old post as Foreign Affairs Minister, demonstrates the party’s chronic ineptitude nicely. Although he has now been installed as Mr. Rudd’s replacement, Ms. Gillard made a hash of the process. After sounding out Mr. Carr on the possibility of taking over Mr. Rudd’s old portfolio, Ms. Gillard denied ever having proposed such an idea. But Mr. Carr, when asked directly, contradicted his (now) boss. Ms. Gillard continued to play with the truth in a cavalier manner, when all the while, senior ministers such as Stephen Smith and Simon Crean, threatened a revolt if Ms. Gillard were to press ahead with recruiting the former Premier. Now we see him in that very position, but only after a rather circuitous route that seems to confirm suspicions this current crop of politicians are – to put it kindly – amateurish. One may have thought that, with the leadership question settled, Ms. Gillard and her team would be able to work in a professional and unified manner; I mean, after such a protracted and rancorous affair, one might think that the ALP had learned its lesson. Sadly, the opposite appears to be the case. The ineptitude, chaos and artless politics that characterised the ALP before the leadership stoush are still present.

But it is not just the ALP generally that seems to be suffering from a certain kind of malaise. The Prime Minister herself seems to be afflicted with the same propensity to bungle the art of government and politics. If the apparently “answered” leadership question has done little to change the direction of the Labor Party (if initial signs are anything to go by), it has done little to transform Ms. Gillard. The “Carr-bungle” (oh the wit!) has underlined several elements that serve as themes for her leadership, and which were not excised by victory at the caucus ballot: the air of dishonesty that has clouded her tenure; a distinct lack of political nous; and an absence of authority.

On the first point, it seems that ever since Ms. Gillard stepped into the role of Prime Minister, the circumstances by which she did so have cast a pall over her integrity. Now, it isn’t the first time a sitting PM has been deposed (see above), so I can’t comment on the act itself. But recent revelations seem to suggest that Ms. Gillard knew of plans to oust Mr. Rudd when he was Prime Minister earlier than she initially suggested. If true, it is fishy enough. However, it appears that her obfuscation over what she knew of Mr. Rudd’s fate prior to his being deposed as PM is just one of several examples of what appears to be a consistent, and artless, form of political skulduggery. Think of her welching on a promise not to introduce a carbon tax, which has hung over her since its announcement. Fudging the details of what she said to Mr. Carr simply contributes to a sense that she lacks integrity. Nothing stemming from her victory last Monday seems to have changed that. On the second point, Ms. Gillard seemed to betray a certain lack of political finesse when handling her attempt to recruit Mr. Carr to the ministry. Her reaction to media questioning (this, after senior ministers threatened revolt if Mr. Carr were installed as Foreign Affairs Minister) suggested a lack of political maturity – not just dishonesty, but also to an inability to respond calmly under pressure. Her initial instinct to fudge the issue suggests she panicked, which in turn suggests that she is not a “good driver in heavy traffic” (to borrow a phrase from the late football coach, Alan Jeans). Again, this is not an isolated incident. From the aborted “cash for clunkers” scheme, to promises that the “real Julia” would appear, Ms. Gillard has, time and again, demonstrated a fundamental lack of sound political judgment.

Finally, on the third point, one might say that Ms. Gillard’s lack of authority is the source of her other problems. Or perhaps they form a vicious cycle. Who knows? But what is clear is that senior ministers felt able to openly contest her attempts to recruit Mr. Carr to the ministry, despite the fact that she had won a comprehensive leadership victory just days earlier. Moreover, Mr. Crean’s repeated calls for Ms. Gillard to be more “assertive” simply underline the depressing truth that she has been unable to exhibit this quality thus far.  True, she has now managed to force through Mr. Carr as foreign minister, but not before engaging in rigmarole that has subverted her leadership credentials. Once again, the stoush with Mr. Rudd, though ending in victory for our Prime Minister, has done nothing to enhance or galvanise her authority. Indeed, as Tom Switzer of the Institute for Public Affairs recently said, “authority is draining away from the PM as if from an open wound” (“Now Love Lost Between Rudd and Labor,” The Wall Street Journal, 28th February, 2012).

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What has caused the incremental implosion of a once-great party? What has led the ALP, so long known for its commitment to the working class, to put power ahead of principles? And where to from here? One can offer all manner of answers, but in the end, it’s conjecture. In many ways, the problems afflicting the ALP seem to be symptomatic of Australian political culture generally. The endless news cycle, which can drain the life out of a government and compel it to rely on the vapidity of “spin” in order to hold the gaze of a relentless media, may be partly to blame. But one wonders whether this reliance on spin and appearance has more to do with the specific problems that are afflicting Labor at the moment than they do the profusion of media channels and the ceaseless glare of the spotlight.

Perhaps the rot set in years ago, and is now so deep that naked power plays are all that’s left. I mean, the ALP has been drifting further left for some years now, leaving behind its traditional working-class roots (which reflects a more fluid social and economic structure) and taking up inner-urban left-wing causes. The political marriage with the Greens after the 2010 election consummated a de facto relationship that had been gestating for some time. But with this change, tension was bound to arise between the old guard and the new – tension that has undoubtedly led to a loss of politico-philosophical unity and a corresponding increase in the reliance on spin, personality and power politics to survive. We should not forget, too, that the cynical application of such tactics to Federal Labor stemmed from a culture embedded in the NSW right faction of the party. I am uncertain why this strategy has been adopted at a national level, though I’m sure others more knowledgeable than me could answer that question. But it’s clear that short-term victory has been won at the expense of long-term political and philosophical ossification.

As to the question, “Where to from here?”, the short answer is, “I’m not sure”. It’s unclear what the latest developments within the ALP signify in terms of Australian politics. I can only hope that the party is able to quickly put aside these divisions and internal crises, and re-focus its efforts on the business of government. Taking a longer-term approach, I wonder whether Labor’s internecine conflict has simply reinforced the jaded opinion a lot of Australians have of their elected officials. The ALP, over the past few years, seems to be at the mercy of two, paradoxically juxtaposed, forces. On the one hand, so-called “faceless men” – back-room party bosses who seem unaccountable to no one – have wielded a great degree of influence over the direction of the party. On the other hand, however, the ALP has often reduced itself to the most artless and cynical form of electoral populism, allowing the caprice of polling data to govern its trajectory. All parties have to adopt a certain degree of pragmatism to retain (or acquire) power; the ALP, however, has taken this to new extremes. Our current Prime Minister seems to embody Labor’s current dilemma: she appears to possess few core convictions, and her shifting views and pronouncements only galvanise suspicions that she, and the party she leads, are without a unifying narrative. If Labor continues down the path upon which it currently finds itself, then I suspect the electorate will only grow more exhausted and cynical. And an exhausted, disinterested and cynical electorate is, I submit, the very antithesis of a robust and thriving democracy.

I said before that many might have laughed at the political soap opera of the past few weeks. It’s hard to deny them that opportunity. Nevertheless, the petulance and rancour on display is a blight on the character of one of Australia’s major political parties. We ought to be saddened – even those of us on the conservative side of the political divide – by the demise of the ALP. I am certainly not suggesting that it is dead; not at all. But failure to arrest the decline and stem the rot bodes ill for Labor and for the prospect of Australian democracy in general. Regardless of one’s political convictions, this should concern us all.