So Kevin Rudd was greeted in Perth by hordes of passionate demonstrators, outraged by the damage his proposed mining tax was going to do to their livelihood, their state and the Australian way of life.
They were well organised, beautifully co-ordinated and most carried professionally printed placards embossed with well-crafted slogans, following identical patterns. A fine display of solidarity.
Years ago a Labor Prime Minister was facing a political crisis of similar magnitude. In 1949 Ben Chifley went to an election on a platform of nationalising Australia’s private banks. Again, there was well-organised outrage. Fred Daly, then a humble backbencher, used to tell the story of addressing a meeting in Sydney where ranks of well-dressed bank employees arrived to heckle him mercilessly.
Exasperated, Fred accused one of them: “I’ll bet you’re getting paid time and a half for this.” The indignant teller responded: “That’s a terrible lie. We’re all on double time.” And the might of the banks eventually proved overwhelming. The high court ruled their nationalisation unconstitutional; and Labor lost the election anyway, ushering in 23 years of conservative rule.
The miners are no doubt hoping that history will repeat itself. Their financial clout is comparable to that of the banks, their rent-a-crowds equally well-disciplined and for the moment at least it appears that a decisive section of the voters are persuaded that they, rather than the elected government, are the ones acting in the public interest. In the mining states of Western Australia and Queensland, Labor’s polling is bleak, and elsewhere the mood is verging on panic.
And at least some of the attack is coming from supposedly friendly quarters. Rudd’s old mate Twiggy Forrest has told the Prime Minister that this time the miners are serious, they’re not bluffing. The tacit admission that in the past they may indeed have been crying wolf ought to have helped the government, but in fact it has worked the other way; like Tony Abbott, the statement that they do not always tell the truth has been taken as evidence that this time they just might be.
Then a former Queensland treasurer, Keith de Lacey, now himself a mining executive, declared that Rudd had become an object of ridicule and should make way for someone who really cared about the country. The problem here was that de Lacey himself has long been an object of ridicule both inside and outside the Labor Party, and is in any case a long-time enemy of Rudd dating back to the days when Rudd ran Premier Wayne Goss’ office. No one has ever taken him seriously.
Far more damaging was David Marr and his Quarterly Essay concluding that there was anger at the core of Rudd, and that he was driven by rage. The implication many drew from this verdict, coming as it did from a friend, was that Rudd was not entirely rational, that perhaps, just perhaps, their trusted leader was turning into a bit of a psycho. Unwanted memories of Mark Latham came flooding back. Perhaps all Labor leaders came from the same distorted mould, and under a little pressure would crack.
This was not what Marr meant at all, and he said so loudly and publicly. I thought I understood what he was getting at: there was indeed anger in Rudd, a hatred of injustice that went back to his childhood and that manifested itself in occasional temper tantrums, but also in a reforming zeal, a passion for change that old Labor men and women referred to as the fire in the belly. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that, and indeed the major criticism of Rudd was that he did not have enough of it: he was the Ruddbot, programmed by self-control and spin.
But in the circumstances it did not help. Abbott was supposed be the erratic one, the wild man too risky to elect. If Rudd was also some kind of a loose cannon, what was the point of keeping him? After all, his reformist zeal didn’t seem to have achieved all that much. Indeed, it seemed to consist largely of stumbling from one allegedly world-shattering crisis to another, with humiliating back downs the punctuation in the process. This, at least, was the view of the commentariat at News Ltd.
But out in the real world, even in backblocks of Queensland, the reaction wasn’t quite as clear-cut. I spent the Queen’s Birthday weekend (Queensland still holds it) in the gulf country, where the punters were pouring in to the Normanton Rodeo, and the miners of Mt Isa were congregating at Karumba for the fishing. If the pundits were right, this should have been the heartland of the revolt. But in fact the mood was more one of bewilderment than of betrayal. When they could be persuaded to talk about politics at all, which was not often, they said that they felt that they really didn’t understand Rudd, and that he didn’t understand them either.
He didn’t talk to them and he didn’t consult them; all they ever got was bumped-up little shiny bums from the public service telling them what to do. There was anger and indignation, but most of it was aimed at the state government rather than the feds, and there was still an underlying sense that if only Rudd could see what their problems were, he would do the right thing and they would trust him again.
As for Abbott — well, as one woman who described herself as being on the conservative side put it, he really didn’t seem to have the charisma to be Prime Minister. She probably meant gravitas rather than charisma, but the point was clear: Rudd might be a bit of a letdown, but the alternative is still unconvincing. Labor’s plan A might still be in place, but only just. It is time — long past time, in fact — for Rudd to pull his finger out.