The press gallery’s obsession with personality politics reached an impressive new low over the weekend, with Kevin Rudd’s “assassination party” a topic of fascination for the News Ltd tabloids. Sam Maiden — presumably taking time out from preparing the same savage treatment for Elisabeth Murdoch she dished out to Cate Blanchett — declared the party, “just a stone’s throw from the Lodge” at Rudd’s “lavish mansion” (actually a new two-storey house a couple of kilometres from the Lodge in suburban Yarralumla), “bizarre”.
Some people evidently have a low “bizarre” threshold.
Last night we learnt by Twitter from Ms Rein that the function had been postponed because it had become a “media event”. This morning we were treated to detailed discussions of the postponement and its implications.
And people wonder where we’ll get our quality journalism from when newspapers die, eh?
The obsession of many in the gallery with personalities is not new; if anything it’s a defining characteristic of Australian political journalism. If journalism is the first draft of history, most of our political journalism is firmly in the “Great Man (and occasional woman) in History” school, in which politics is entirely the story of individuals and can be explained through a mixture of racecalling, personal anecdote, half-baked journalistic psychoanalysis and who-hates-whom personal dynamics. After all, that’s a lot easier a story to tell than trying to get to grips with complex and often subtle forces driving social and economic change.
Then, of course, the blogotariat can join in and get meta on the whole thing — what is the meaning of discussing the meaning of Kevin Rudd’s postponed shindig?
That all said, politicians’ willingness to cater to this fixation empowers it. Plainly we’re on the cusp of a new round of media hysteria over the Labor leadership, but it’s not all coming from News Ltd’s regime change campaign or personality-obsessed journalists — it’s being eagerly fed by Labor itself.
I mean, figure this out — only a few days after Julia Gillard, in an orchestrated moment with the Right faction, chided unnamed MPs for engaging in public debate, implicitly criticising not just Doug Cameron but John Faulkner who is publicly pushing the case for party reform, she embarks on a series of anniversary interviews that, whatever the intention, naturally became an opportunity to rehash the Downfall-like last days of Kevin Rudd.
Rudd needs no encouragement to speak out on his own behalf, of course. And anything Rudd now says will be seen through the leadership prism — look no further than Shaun Carney’s effort in Saturday’s Age where Rudd’s emphatic rejection of leadership talk last week was carefully parsed by Carney to demonstrate that he really was interested in the leadership. At this rate, Rudd suggesting Muammar Gaddafi and Bassar Al-Assad need to be removed from power would be interpreted as code for his desire to knock off Gillard.
But when his replacement discusses how “we had lost a sense of purpose and plan for the future” under him, it’s a bit much to see Rudd as the only one at fault.
That wasn’t all; indeed, that was just the warm-up. The unnamed Rudd hate squad in the party emerged on cue to call him a “bully” and demand that he be sacked (again?); a senior minister told Andrew Probyn that Rudd’s return was inevitable, and various figures emerged to call for calm. Even Peter Beattie weighed in from South Carolina to harangue Rudd — although Beattie’s successful 2000 tactic of appearing to take on his own party over the Shepherdson Inquiry probably informs Rudd’s own belated conversion to the cause of democratising the ALP.
Labor needs to shut up at the moment, and it can’t stop talking. Gillard didn’t need to to conduct any anniversary interviews; her office could have simply said she’s getting on with the task of implementing major reform and not interested in indulging in anniversaries. One thing Rudd’s PMO was good at was knowing when to go quiet- – usually when the Liberals were making a spectacle of themselves and Labor wanted the media to focus exclusively on Brendan and Malcolm or Malcolm and Tony. Instead, Labor now has logorrhoea, and apparently wants the spotlight kept exclusively on its own problems.
The rational view is Labor has nothing to gain by a leadership change — indeed, would make itself a laughing stock, and that there’s more than two years to go until an election, with all that time to bed down some major reforms. But this version of the ALP is fragile. It is easily scared by the media and lacks the resilience needed to endure spells of bad polling. One of the Liberal Party’s strengths in office was that, after John Howard survived his near-death experience in 1998, MPs had confidence that they could weather bad periods — even as the party entered 2001 trailing Kim Beazley massively in the polls, even as Mark Latham wrong-footed Howard in 2003.
Labor hasn’t learnt such resilience. Last year was its chance to do so, and it never did — it changed leaders instead. That’s the collective character flaw informing what is likely to be a painful period in which the Rudd-Gillard relationship dominates the political conversation. And much of that conversation will come from Labor — a party talking itself to death.