By any possible measure that you can construct out of the opinion polls, Kevin Rudd has been a more successful first term prime minister than John Howard was. Yet, although there were a few murmurings against Howard’s leadership, he faced no challenge in his first term and was never likely to.
A quick look at history shows that Howard is the rule and Rudd is the exception. Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke both faced leadership challenges as prime minister, but only in their third and fourth terms respectively. Whitlam (in his second term) and Scullin (in his first) faced serious leadership discontent, but their governments were collapsing around their ears — and even then there was no formal challenge, much less a successful one.
So for once the media are right when they say that this morning’s events are utterly unprecedented. The nature of Australian politics really has changed in the last couple of decades.
Until now, the change has mostly been visible with opposition leaders: four in 15 years (Downer, Crean, Nelson and Turnbull) have been toppled in their first term, and there has been similar carnage at state level. One first-term state premier (South Australia’s Dean Brown, in 1996) was also overthrown — without trawling through the records I won’t swear he was the first, but he was the first for a very long time.
The problem is that politics has become dominated by an apparatchik class with incredibly short-term thinking. As I said last year about the Liberal Party Left — the same sort of political animal — they have “horizons that never stretch beyond the next election, and rarely beyond about lunchtime”.
The irony of course is that short-term, poll-driven, contextless thinking is exactly what got Rudd into trouble. But Julia Gillard’s background is more congenial to the factional leaders, and, in a situation of panic, those without principles will do anything — even turn to someone who does have them.
In many ways this is a change for the better: I think Gillard (whom I knew slightly in student politics, many years ago) will be a good prime minister and a strong favorite to win the election. And of course Australia is well overdue for a female leader. But in view of Rudd’s strength in the polls, there was no reason to make the change now, as Peter Brent argued only last week.
Short-term thinking does that to you: unable to put anything in a broader context, you lurch from crisis to crisis, usually making things worse rather than better. This time, it seems to have Labor to take a quite unnecessary risk. But if Gillard can’t wean Labor from the apparatchik world-view, next time the consequences could be much worse.