Some years ago Philip Roth wrote a book which culminated in the assassination of a fictional — well, semi-fictional — American president named Trick E Dixon.
The police had a lot of trouble with the case, not because it was hard to find suspects, but because it was too easy: every man, woman and dog was anxious to claim some of the credit.
And thus it is with the political assassination of Kevin Rudd. Who could have guessed that there were so many killers lurking in the wings of Parliament House?
First up, of course is Tony Abbott: he has a scalp, and a major one it is. He is joined on stage by those who installed him in his own position: Nick Minchin who leads while Eric Abetz, and the rest of the push who knifed Malcolm Turnbull.
Then there are the miners, who have spent about $7 million in bankrolling the job, and there’s plenty more where that came from if the new prime minister won’t play ball.
But none of these could have succeeded without the pollsters, a bizarre cult whose rise to prominence is paralleled only by that of their fellow witch doctors– the economists.
And of course there was the media, most notably the hit men and women of the Murdoch press, whose relentless campaign eventually turned their endless predictions of Rudd’s downfall into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Australian gave its own team, particularly Dennis Shanahan and Peter van Onselen, top marks in this regard. Inevitably the faction leaders played their role, as did loud-mouthed unionists like Paul Howes who announced to the world that his own withdrawal of support meant Rudd was finished.
And we cannot leave out Julia Gillard herself: in the end there had to be a candidate, and when the time was right she made herself available.
But it was Labor’s parliamentary caucus that pulled the trigger. Rudd insisted that he had been elected by the Australian people, and in the broad sense that is true: the last election was all about Kevin 07. But it was only the electors of Griffith who actually voted for him personally, and it was the vote of the caucus which gave him the leadership. And what the caucus gives, it can take away, as it showed last week.
True, the manner of the execution was as ruthless as it was unexpected: Gillard’s loyalty persevered to the last minute, and might have lasted beyond that if it had not been for the public revelation that Rudd’s chief minder, Alister Jordan, was testing it out.
Jordan and Rudd’s other whiz kid, Lachlan Harris, have been among the few not to claim credit for their boss’s decease, but they are being overly modest. Their arrogance and thuggery, their ignorance and scorn of Labor history, tradition and processes did as much to isolate Rudd from his colleagues inside and outside parliament and to turn a potentially friendly press gallery into enemies as Rudd’s own abrasiveness and his monomaniac belief that he could do it all himself.
And it was this, of course, that finally brought things to a head. The Australian Labor Party is a collective, formed as a huge political union end embodying the union ideals of equality, mutual loyalty and mateship. It will tolerate and even welcome strong leaders, but there are certain rituals which must be observed.
One is to show respect to the tribal elders, however bumptious and unpleasant they may be. One line Rudd’s critics used to justify his destruction was: ‘the people have stopped listening to him’. But a couple of weeks ago Mark Arbib, the godfather of what Tony Abbott picturesquely describes as “the Sussex Street Death Squad”, saw the problem rather differently: “He’s stopped listening to me.”
There were others who felt equally snubbed and they had no trouble mobilising resentment among the lesser figures who had never enjoyed privileged access in the first place. And thus the scene was set.
The speed of the execution was indeed unprecedented, but the circumstances were not. Rudd was a prime minister deposed by his party after winning just one election and in his first term in office; and so was John Gorton when cut down to make way for Billy McMahon in 1971.
In both cases the party’s powerbrokers felt their own base was threatened by the leader’s unorthodox behaviour, his failure to consult and his willingness to ignore time-honoured (some would say hide-bound) procedures. They felt that they needed to return to a safe, traditional leader who would follow their rule book. But not only did they pick a dud in McMahon; they elected Gorton as his deputy, a handicap too great for any leader to bear. It is a memory Gillard might bear in mind when she is considering a role for Rudd in her government.
And while on the subject, she should be very wary of rewarding the chief plotters in her forthcoming reshuffle. She can probably get away with promoting Bill Shorten, who is both competent and popular, but any gift for the sinister senators behind him would lead to justified accusations of puppetry. The loss of Lindsay Tanner, who in a better world would have been prime minister himself, is grave enough; to load the ministry with apparatchiks and time severs would be suicidal, as would any apparent acquiescence to demands for a policy change, particularly on the delicate matter of asylum seekers.
And one final piece of gratuitous advice: the honeymoon is on, so use it. A new leader has every excuse to call an early election to confirm a new mandate. If they hadn’t started already, the opposition’s shit-unit and the gutter trawlers of the media will be raking through her past in search of scandal. They will probably find nothing much; as with Bob Hawke’s drinking and womanising, Gillard’s status as a single woman with a left-wing background and the consequences thereof is already known and accepted. But she might remember what the tabloids did to her old mate Mark Latham, and not take the risk.
And a final piece of history for Abbott: the last Liberal leader to claim the scalp of a prime minister in office was John Hewson, whose Fightback! package provided the opportunity for Paul Keating to bushwhack Bob Hawke. Abbott was working for Hewson at the time, and saw the triumph crumble to disaster. The nightmare must now be very vivid.