“Was there a retrospective lesson for Gordon Brown in the rise of Julia Gillard?” a UK newspaper asked a couple of days ago. The thought seems predicated on the idea that Australia hasn’t yet got that inter-tubes thingy which allows us to see what’s happening in other countries.
For it seems likely that the one decisive factor in the final decision to sack Kevin Rudd was not the factions, or the polls, or his lack of allies – it was the hideous example from the UK of what happens when you don’t act decisively. Anyone who watched the decline and fall of Gordon Brown isn’t likely to have much truck with Labor sentimentality.
Brown and UK Labour made two big mistakes..
The first, at the time of his accession, was to allow public discussion of whether he would go to an early legitimating poll, or serve his full term. Brown should have either had the poll – which he most likely would have won (perhaps requiring Lib Dem support to govern), or he should have firmly asserted the principle that parliament chooses the prime minister, and that people elect a local member, not a President. He did neither, and the rot set in.
The second mistake was by the party – not acting decisively when it was clear that Brown was a poor leader and was perceived as such. The party allowed the right-wing media to put Brown’s leadership into play, and then lacked the wherewithall to resolve it. The speed and decisiveness of the removal of Rudd took many by surprise (even those who had predicted he would go) because there was little precedent. It was a shift in the way Labor operates, ie a small historical moment. If you assume that the future will always behave like the past, then you’re bound to be surprised.
The media Right certainly have been. Prime Minister Gillard, and the speed and smoothness of her accession was the last thing they wanted – and they may be wondering if they have now not overplayed their hand. Their ideal was to destabilise Rudd’s leadership, and rely on Labor’s traditions – loyalty or sentimentality depending on your perspective – to do the rest. Having used Brown’s predicament as a model, they appear to have forgotten that other people read the newspapers.
Having dealt with that effectively, will Labor also deal better with the other offside trap – the question of legitimacy? They are going to have to come out of the box really quick with a clear, distinct and single message on the nature of political leadership – either affirm the Westminster principle of government in a culture where leadership is seen as increasingly presidential, or announce an election within a week or so at the latest.
Should they dither or give mixed signals, they’re gone. They’ve already tipped it one way with Gillard’s announcement that she’ll stay in her Melbourne house – a move which already suggests she’s a candidate for being prime minister, rather than the actual PM. Maybe it’s smart symbolic politics, striking a contrast with Rudd’s monarchical style, but it also sends a mixed message on leadership. It only works in the context of a more or less immediate campaign. And it’s going to look weird if a real crisis eventuates, and Gillard has to actually be a PM.
Labor has about three more days, a week tops, before News Ltd start throwing the kitchen sink at her, and the ovine commercial TV media follow their lead. For the conservatoriat and the Murdoch machine, the stakes couldn’t be higher going backward and forward. Should Abbott win , and set the Coalition up for six years in power then the Howard government’s interrupted project to change the character of Australian life can be continued and extended. Should Labor triumph and renew itself as the natural centrist party of 21st century Australian government, then not only is the Liberal Party thrown into flat-out identity crisis, but the character of the Howard government is settled as well.
It becomes not the harbinger of a new period in Oz history, but an aberration in a half-century of progressivist social democracy (admittedly, of a fairly tepid sort). And for a second time, the conservatoriat’s power – or lack thereof – to determine the government will have been laid bare (even if they can have an effect on shifting its leadership).
There are a few people who wish Rudd had never been deposed. If Labor play the second part of this transition properly, Tony Abbott and Chris Mitchell might be two of them.