“Love will tear us apart again” was playing in the caff where I was watching the Night of the Long Needles unfold. Were it any other song, I wouldn’t mention it, but God. The caucus call, the perp walk, Gillard going in with a posse, Rudd going in alone, I knew it was all over then. Shorten taking a quick presser looking a hundred years old. People were watching all over the world like this, it was playing on news sites everywhere. Mordant sound pouring out, vocals submerged beneath the noise: “When routine bites hard/And ambitions are low”. The first couplet perfect for the occasion, as indeed is every line in the whole damn song — ’79 is Gillard’s vintage, not Rudd’s. That hippie is probably an Incredible String Band fan. Or Pentangle. Gillard in her smock, bopping at the Adelaide Student U refectory, maybe not. It’s a long way to 2013, the sharp hair, the schmick glasses, the poise and power. She began in an era when the Australian Union of Students was tearing itself apart over everything from abortion to Israel/Palestine, times of violence from Bob Santamaria’s NCC bully boys and the Left, passed through the Socialist Left during the great final years of the factional battles, and ended it in a political battle to the death against a man with near-identical policies, and supported by said right-wing backroom boys, factions against the “mass”.

She gave the sort of concession speech whose grace seems to come from profound relief, and then, eventually, Rudd came on to give the speech that, for all its mealymouthness, said the sort of things that Gillard never managed to. Gillard, child of Labor, her whole life made within its purview, still found only a rather dun and limited language when she reached for a way of speaking to the masses. Gillard spoke to Labor’s old worlds, of lives bounded by class, of people wanting lives to be made better by more: more schools, more access, more aged care. All admirable, none touching the point that Rudd does, that of a bewilderment amid prosperity, an exclusion from the centres of life.

“But no amount of misogyny can account for the poll slippage. Performance can, and it is bitter bread that the first female PM fell short there.”

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John Howard was redolent of the postwar suburban Anglican church, the brick veener and low row of shops near the station; Rudd, his successor, of further-flung placeless places, the mini McMansion and the mall, the skivvies-and-guitars churches. He was selected in 2007 because he had gone over the heads of the party, to the public, convinced them his relationship to Labor was merely of convenience — he had to get in somehow, to change the way things were done. Kevin ’07 proposed that relationship; the 2020 conference, the apology and other such business cemented it. When he was deposed that special relationship had by no means exhausted itself. If it is true that the mere change of leaders has given Labor a five-point bump, it would be because of that, a relationship resumed after an interruption. Julia Gillard was never fully legitimised, neither in the remainder of Rudd’s term she served out nor in the next one, governing with Green support, consecrated in a photo that looked like a Fitzroy marriage. Pedants will point out that the government is made of a majority in the House, but the monolithic nature of the parties, their lack of internal dissent, has given Australians quite a different understanding, that we elect the whole government in one hit, and anything else is a deal. Rudd’s play for the post-political was, if anything, an extension of that, a claiming back for Labor of the idea — taken from it by Howard — that it represented the whole of Australia, its presiding spirit. The party itself, exhausted and devoid of ideas, had been happy to tag along with his post-party campaign, and too inept to understand what would happen to them when the party very visibly killed it.

Gillard’s depth of belief was so true to the party that she could not see how the manner of her elevation would combine with the carbon tax, with the chaotic and too-clever-by-half handling of the boats, the ham-fisted and cynical media management, and the playing of the gender card, to create a ghastly parody of machine politics. How could anyone who won the leadership with the support of two fat men in blue ties in a backrroom then use such a phrase two years later and portray herself as the victim of such processes? Only someone who genuinely did not see her own accession to power in that way. As the public has disengaged from all parties, Labor, once the great roaring engine of mass class politics, had become steadily more solipsistic. Its arguments between Right and Left are constructed solely in terms of a Labor Right and Left, and within that there is such a degree of factional decomposition that, like a family with too many siblings, there is simply no room to relate to people outside. It cries out in its sleep, all failings exposed. How can a party tolerate such seething hatreds and not fly in all directions, outsiders ask? Because it is bound up in an all-involving love affair with itself that has made all attempt at reform or reconstruction next to impossible.Rudd had found a way to work beyond and beside it, a product perhaps of his greater cosmopolitanism, i.e. leaving the country for more than five minutes at a time, while the remainder remain suffocatingly parochial. The Sinologist’s next move could always be guessed at by checking back on the political career of Chairman Mao. This evangelical Christian’s sudden conversion to gay marriage was enough to get you standing on a chair applauding as you read it. Really, Kevin? Just at this moment you have had a conversion to the cause that whole swathes of the party actually want? What a happy coincidence. How well disposed to you they will now be. Go to the rank and file against the party centre, go to the people against the party. Repeat until you reach the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and your opponent is running a tungsten mine in outer Mongolia.

When Gillard replaced Rudd, the task open to her, a necessary one, was to beat back the factions that had elevated her, to open the party up, and change its processes, to draw some of the Rudd-style big picture thinking (content-free though it often was) into the centre, to summon up that greatest of political virtues, ingratitude. The task was beyond her — both her willingness or her abilities — and it quickly became clear that she lacked leadership qualities in a whole range of areas. There had been a fair few slip-ups large and small under Rudd, from the ETS to Grocerywatch or whatever it was called, but under Gillard nothing seemed to go right, from inept and indecisive handling of rising numbers of boats to small things like the “trip to the people” visit in western Sydney — housed in a chain hotel that looked like it had been airlifted in. Taking a stand against misogyny and s-xism was followed by that knitting photo shoot that looked like the cover of a Pam Ayres album. As designed by Jeff Koons. Who….? What….? There are no words for the ineptitude. For a female PM to remark in passing that she had knitted a thingummy for the royal thingummy would have rounded her out; to pose in that ghastly ensemble was tantamount to saying “I will sit anywhere I’m told”. Reportedly, she even had misgivings on the spot about the shoot — at which point any decisive person would have her minder fake-receive a call saying we’re at war with Japan again.

Yes, the right-wing press was vicious — but it had been far more vicious to Rudd when the mining tax had been proposed in a form that would gain some real revenue, not the squib that resulted. Yes, the misogyny started and then grew, but its full provenance has been misremembered to a degree. After all, it was none other than Germaine Greer who first said that the PM’s bum was too big for the dresses she wore, thus breaking a taboo of sorts that had pretty much held. Yes, many of things said to her would not have been said to a man, but there has also been a degree of special pleading as well. After all, there’s nothing inherently s-xist about saying you want to drown someone in a bag, slit their throat, that she dishonours her father, etc. To label them as s-xist takes you from anti-s-xism into the outskirts of Victorianism, where different standards of forthright language apply to men and ladies. When you stepped over a warm body, knife still in the back, to get to the top job, you can’t complain. You can, of course, and quite reasonably so. But the furious debate around these events is indicative of a wider question — we haven’t yet worked out whether being fair to women in public life involves thinking of them as not merely equal, but identical, to men, thus dictating an identical treatment — or whether we regard them as equal, but different. In the latter case, it is reasonable to say that metaphorical talk of “slitting throats” has a different meaning when a man says it about a woman than about another man. But — and here is the real complexity — that might be the sort of point that a conservative like Tony Abbott could make.

But no amount of misogyny can account for the poll slippage. Performance can, and it is bitter bread that the first female PM fell short there. The movement she joined in the era she joined it, could still talk of reconstructing Australia, and host a communist socialist forum. Gillard exits at a time when, outside of Australia, politics has spilled into the streets and the wires, in a thousand different ways, and the party forms that many gave their lives to have become husks. Neither parties nor the wider polity are prepared for the two great roads we will take — either a greater prosperity further transforming our way of life — or the sudden end of that prosperity, when the world will come roaring back. This utterly strange event today, sad and bitter and sweet, the best and worst of love and politics, has a meaning beyond its mere spectacle, but we do not yet know what it is. Why is it something so good can’t function no more? Chorus …

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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