We idealists don’t much like to be reminded of it, but the common saying is true: politics is the art of the possible. So Kevin Rudd’s plans to shake up the Labor Party have to be assessed not just against the nobility of his intentions, but his chance of actually achieving them.

Mark Latham, in his Diaries, had promised that if he won the 2004 election he would “launch World War III on the factional warlords, each and every one of them” (page 251). It would have been a spectacle worth seeing, but it was not to be.

Rudd’s ambitions seem more modest, but nonetheless significant. On last night’s 7.30 Report he was clear about his intention to get the front bench that he wants, regardless of the factions: “I’ll be leading this show and when it comes to the outcomes that I want, I intend to get them. I don’t particularly care if anyone has opposing views, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Unlike Latham, Rudd shows no signs of wanting to radically alter the balance of power within the ALP. But he knows that the working of the factional system has become a serious drag on the party’s performance, and that things will have to change.

For a number of reasons, he is better placed than Latham. His mandate is stronger: ten votes rather than two and, importantly, his own choice of deputy (Latham had wanted to depose Jenny Macklin but couldn’t be sure of his numbers). Beazley is no longer a credible leadership alternative, and the three “roosters” have lost ground since Latham’s day.

What’s more, the problems of factionalism have become more evident in the intervening years; John Faulkner and Robert Ray have both spoken out against them, and Simon Crean took on the machine in the Hotham preselection and won.

The big obstacle is still the election: everyone agrees that John Howard will be hard to beat. But his government is three years older now, and the desire for change may yet assert itself. The very modesty of Rudd’s reform agenda may also help keep the factional leaders within the tent between now and election time.

Rudd also benefits from lower expectations. Latham had to crash through or crash, not just because that was his personal style but because Labor was so close that nothing short of victory would be acceptable. But Rudd needs to gain 15 seats to win government; if he gets close, he can plausibly argue that he’s done his share but he needs meaningful party reform in order to get the extra distance.

Peter Fray

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