The last two weeks I’ve been struck by the depths of absurdity the Australian Labor Party has been hell-bent on plumbing. Blame Nicola Roxon. Her statement this week that Kevin Rudd was not the Messiah (and, ipso facto, a very naughty boy) sparked this idea – that the omnishambles the Federal ALP has created deserves to be viewed through the prism of the brilliant, flawed and greatest proponents of absurdist comedy since Spike Milligan.
Scene One: Mr Creosote, Monty Python and The Meaning of Life
[Rudd, the morbidly obese Mr Creosote, gorges on everything in a restaurant, vomiting until he literally explodes]
If Kevin Rudd’s government was so paralysed, dysfunctional and unbearable for Ministers and caucus – now given as the reason why Australia went to bed with one Prime Minister on 23 June 2010 and had a new one the next day – why was that not explained, clearly, compassionately by then-Deputy Prime Minister Gillard in a press conference that night? Indulge me with a draft form of words:
“Kevin Rudd led the ALP team to an historic victory in 2007. As a team, led by Kevin, we made bold calls that kept Australia largely immune to the ravages of the Global Financial Crisis. Sadly, it has become increasingly clear to our parliamentary colleagues that under Kevin’s leadership, the government is no longer advancing the policy agenda we set out in the 2007 campaign. As Deputy Prime Minister, I have worked hard to bridge the gap between the decisiveness Kevin showed during the GFC and the way Kevin has led the government during the past few months. Our Cabinet colleagues have sought to implement the reforms they were appointed by Kevin to carry out. They have not flinched in the face of external challenges; rather, internal processes are frustrating their efforts, and inevitably, letting you down. As Deputy Prime Minister, I have not resiled from my duty to act as Kevin’s closest adviser. That includes sharing some hard truths about his leadership style. Time and again, senior colleagues have exhorted Kevin to allow them to do the jobs he personally entrusted them with and which we were, as a team, elected to do. Tonight, I made the most difficult decision of my political life. I spoke with Kevin and told him that I intended to challenge him for the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Australian Labor Party because I could no longer bridge that gap as his Deputy. A ballot for the leadership has been called for tomorrow morning. I am confident that I have the support of my caucus colleagues and if elected tomorrow, I will ensure that this good government performs as we have demonstrated we can; and that your local MPs, Ministers and Prime Minister not only speak of a shared vision for Australia, but use our complementary talents to their fullest extent. This is a good team. We have Australia’s interests as our overriding motivation. As leader, I will once again harness our talents, our motivation, with trust and goodwill. That is the marked difference between the Government I intend to lead and the Opposition so soundly rejected by you in 2007.”
Instead, we were told, ‘a good government had lost its way’ in a press conference after the ballot. I found it difficult to reconcile the long list of achievements Rudd set out in his emotional appearance at The Lodge with the actions taken the night before. I am not ashamed to say that I sat in a Ministerial office in Macquarie Street and cried when the leadership spill was called. I didn’t cry for Kevin Rudd; I had been too close to the repercussions of the Federal Government’s failures; enraged at times by the way it operated (or didn’t) and the way our already deeply unpopular State Government was handed shit sandwich after shit sandwich to swallow in public. I cried because in that moment, I knew who the principle architects were; I knew how they worked, and I knew the lazy epithet: the dreaded ‘NSW disease’. Yes, go on; tear down someone who had led the party to victory – because that was working out so well for us. Labor had been in power for 15 years in NSW that June night, and under its fourth Premier. We had lost almost all of our best Ministers – and yet this nightmare was being inflicted upon itself by a first-term Government. I cried because I knew we faced an impossible task; we were serving up Government to another rabble and pouring the wine for them to enjoy with our carcass. Why, why was Federal Labor so determined to follow our path?
Scene Two: The Black Knight, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
[Rudd, the limbless Black Knight goading Gillard’s King Arthur, ‘It’s just a flesh wound!’ As an exasperated King Arthur exits, the Black Knight screeches, ‘Running away, eh? You yellow bastards!’]
If you are going to take the axe to a leader, you make damned sure they are dead. You have to be prepared to wreck what you have helped build if you want to take the top job; and the wreckage must include the deposed leader. Instead of letting KRuddMP stay KRuddMP until he was so debilitated he resigned from Parliament, Prime Minister Gillard gifted him a purpose: ‘go forth, Kevin, as Australia’s chief diplomat’. It sent out a dual signal: here was a new Prime Minister so frightened by the prospect of a by-election loss that she came to the conclusion that it was better to have him piss inside her Cabinet than in the Siberia of the backbench; worse still, she said on her first overseas trip as Prime Minister, that she had no passion for international affairs, that she felt more comfortable in a classroom. Yes, she went on to say that she would be a, ‘feisty advocate’ for Australia’s interests, and recognised that sitting in meetings in Brussels was part of the package, but it didn’t ring true. Different things drive people to enter politics – the Prime Minister made it clear that education is her passion; Rudd got out of bed each day determined to make Australia a respected middle power – an effort rewarded with a place at the G20 table. While it’s not rare for Prime Ministers to make former party leaders Foreign Minister – Howard did it with Downer; Hawke with Hayden – why allow a former Prime Minister who loved nothing more than to strut on the world stage to do it full-time? It gave Rudd a perfect platform to play statesman; ‘hey folks, I might have had my arms and legs lopped off, but I’ve still got the head to mix it with foreign leaders while Gillard has photo ops in kindergartens’. The negative perception of the amount of time he spent travelling (‘Kevin 747’, anyone?), is, in my view, counter-balanced by the odd way the Prime Minister chopped up her former portfolio of Education and Training in her post-election Ministry and subsequent reshuffle into ‘Tertiary Education, Skills (Chris Evans)’; ‘School Education and Early Childhood (Peter Garrett)’; ‘Early Childhood and Childcare (Kate Ellis) and Jacinta Collins as Parliamentary Secretary. I found it ironic that Gillard released the Gonski Review (which she commissioned as Education Minister), but is nowhere to be found when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin. Am I reading too much into this – a clear distinction between the ability of the two Ministers must play a part – or is she as much a micro-manager as Rudd, but only when it comes to her passion? Is the Prime Minister on the phone to foreign leaders searching for ways to stop the carnage in Syria? The only engagement in foreign policy I remember – and I am an international relations obsessive – are from her visit to the White House, punting a Sherrin in the Oval Office and President Obama’s whistle-stop last year (both involving photo-ops in … yes, schools). I was reminded yesterday of her visit to Afghanistan and that it may have been a relief for everyone involved that she didn’t feel the need to prove she was ‘the smartest guy in the room’; but I want the smartest guy in the room to lead this country. That may not be Rudd or Gillard.
Scene Three: The French Taunter, Monty Python and The Holy Grail
I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.
I could just cut and paste transcripts of any number of interviews given in the last two weeks, from Simon Crean’s first radio blast at Rudd, to the retiring (and hence, nothing to lose) Member for Bendigo, Steve Gibbons’ charm school cry that the Foreign Minister was a ‘psychopath’, through to the abject disgrace to his office that was Wayne Swan’s spray. It must be noted that other Gillard supporters have acted with class; Tanya Plibersek’s remarks spring to mind. Initially, Rudd sought, smartly, to claim the moral high ground and urged his supporters to do the same. By and large, they have: even Doug Cameron, (who I am sure would prefer to have played out a pub fight, Motherwell rules) sounded like the voice of reason compared to the bile being poured on Rudd. Bob Brown was right to say that Rudd should not have resigned from Washington; but Rudd was running out of time to mount any sort of defence, let alone challenge for the leadership. It’s been reported that the Prime Minister quickly voiced her displeasure at the Unhappy Member for Corangamite, Darren ‘Blessed is the’ Cheeseman for going on record and firing a shot against her leadership in a Sunday paper. Similarly, she should have put a muzzle on Crean. Asked, repeatedly, whether she had done, she responded, ‘I’m focused on doing my job’. It was the phoniest call of all. Whatever was going on, Crean deserved a clip around the earlobes just as Cheeseman did. Rudd seized on her failure to do so and pulled the trigger from DC.
Scene Four: Brian on the Cross Monty Python’s The Life of Brian
[Rudd, martyred. The chorus of the crucified breaks out in song ]
Life’s a piece of shit,
When you look at it.
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true.
You’ll see it’s all a show,
Keep ‘em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.
Rudd says he has changed, that he recognises his mistakes; that he wants to reform the party – statements almost universally scorned. I have few doubts he has concertedly campaigned to challenge for the leadership, leaked information and briefed against the Prime Minister – all sackable offenses; yet the Prime Minister chose not to sack him. That said, the Wikileaks cables allege that Senator Mark Arbib had briefed the US Embassy and speculated about Kevin Rudd’s job in 2009. People have selective memories. If anyone has changed, it is Julia Gillard, who has gone from one of the Government’s most effective communicators and skilled debaters to negotiator-in-chief. People make mistakes. Then there is just the stupid shit. Who didn’t cringe at the Prime Minister’s interview on 4Corners a mere two weeks ago? Where was the nous, the political intelligence, the intuition which says, ‘I don’t need to do this’? Without interviewing her, the programme literally had no legs. Rudd didn’t need to give an interview, would never have agreed to it with things as they stood. Yes, it would have featured vision from National Conference, where a stony-faced Rudd sat through a speech which praised each of his predecessors and wiped him from the collective memory as clumsily as Stalin erased Trotsky from photographs, but without Gillard, it was a laughing stock – who would line-up to watch the combined wit and wisdom of Con Sciacca, Alan Griffin and his noodles and Janelle Saffin? The Prime Minister’s rejigged office, by all reports, works well – yet the appointment of a new and well-respected Chief-of-Staff and a Director of Communications from the UK hasn’t stemmed the stupid. The frequent cry is ‘she’s over-managed’. As an adviser, you have to possess the internal fortitude to take it to a boss who sometimes doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. You also have a duty to be on top of your brief and offer sound advice and back your boss even if they are a bastard to you sometimes. As a Minister, it’s incumbent on you to hire good people who will die in a ditch for you even if you are a bastard to them sometimes and challenge them, constantly, to set out solid arguments which you must then make a decision on. Sometimes people find themselves managing upward. That happens in all kinds of workplaces. The difference in politics is that you can blame a staffer, sack them, even; but if there is a perception that your staff are running the show, then you will be judged weak as piss. I don’t believe the Prime Minister is over-managed by her staff. She wouldn’t command the level of respect she does from people of the calibre of Greg Combet and Penny Wong, Tony Windsor and Bob Brown if she was. At the same time, respect must be earned. Trust follows. Rightly or wrongly, many Australians neither respect nor trust the Prime Minister, just as the majority of his caucus colleagues don’t trust or respect Kevin Rudd.
Scene Five: The Parrot Sketch, Monty Python’s Flying Circus
[The ALP is no more. It has ceased to be. It is bereft of life. It rests in peace]
The party (indeed the public) deserved the full release of the Bracks / Carr / Faulkner review of the 2010 election campaign – not the strategic leaks made in the aftermath of the 2011 National Conference (which infuriated the trio). Real reform needs to happen. The ‘faceless men’ is a tiresome term but it is not ‘offensive to members of caucus’, as the Prime Minister has said. I know who Mark Arbib is; I recognise Bill Shorten and his undoubted talent; but I couldn’t pick David Feeney or Don Farrell out of a line up. What is offensive is the power of bottom feeders like Bill Ludwig and Joe de Bruyn, and yes, Paul Howse, although he’s more chinless than faceless. They are the elected heads of unions. They are not elected members of caucus. Even the good Senators are elected by virtue of a place on the party’s Senate ticket (bloody unrepresentative swill). Union bosses and ‘machine men’ can make a tremendous contribution to public life. Shorten and Combet are excellent examples; but it is well past time to make wholesale change to the voting system which gives union delegates many advantages over branch delegates at conferences, and the way preselections are conducted.
Yesterday, Anthony Albanese, choking back tears, set out his reasons for supporting Rudd, while paying the Prime Minister the respect her office is due. His emotion stems from the great damage he knows this spectacle has done to the party’s survival and the very real danger that the ALP will be consigned to the Opposition benches for a very long time, perhaps annihilated, electorally in a fashion similar to NSW in 2011. He reminded me that if this happens, a generation, maybe more, of Labor talent will be discarded. The party needs the Shortens, the Combets, the Clares, the Wongs, the Bowens, the Husics, yes, it needs Albo, to survive this internecine war not only for what they can contribute, now and in the decades to come, but to inspire others to actively engage. It saddens me to think of the reprisals and recriminations which will inevitably flow from this sorry mess. I thought I had seen it all in NSW, but this is the most publicly vitriolic political fight I’ve known. The things that have been said cannot be taken back. This is now the ‘Canberra disease’. The policy-free zone led by Tony Abbott can remain just that if the seething and spite continues within the ALP, for they will serve up Government to an undeserving bunch of no marks, and pour the wine for them to enjoy as they pick over the carcass.