A quote I think from Polanski, not Shakespeare, and maybe there’s something very fitting about the unauthenticity of that too.
Only seven years ago many of us were tuning into breakfast TV on a network we otherwise didn’t watch, to see two lieutenants of their respective parties, Kevin Rudd and Joe Hockey, make daily celebrity appearances to provide a light-hearted angle on the day’s politics we could chew over with our vegemite toast. Rudd was a great communicator, intelligent, fun, and displayed great showmanship with his light adversarial banter alongside Hockey. If any of us had predicted then that Rudd would be Prime Minister within a year though, we would have got just as many chuckles as the Rudd and Hockey show.
The public loved Rudd and this carried over into his first Prime Ministership, deservedly it seemed for a while. Rudd’s first year or so in the top job seemed frenetic. He was here, he was there, spruiking one watershed initiative after another. In Prime Ministership his persona had turned out to be like the lovable daggy uncle, and for those of us in that general area of the political spectrum, his infectious energy and enthusiasm convinced us we’d got ourselves the spiritual, ultimately more effective descendant of Whitlam. Yet within two years the wheels had fallen off horribly.
The emmissions trading scheme, Rudd’s strategy to cut carbon pullution, which he’d previously described as the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time, the flagship initiative of his Prime Ministership in fact, was dropped like a led balloon. From the day he announced this it was clear the whirlwind had run out of puff. You could see it in his body language.
By the end of 2009 Rudd’s Government was already floundering. Nothing captured this like the home insulation scheme administered by his Environment Minister, Peter Garrett. Like so many Labor initiatives, the idea was sound, but got utterly destroyed in the execution. A rebate to householders for installing insulation bats which would cut household energy bills, and carbon emmissions, was an obvious win-win. But the private contractors installing the ceiling insulation were cutting corners, providing shonky service (a theme I’ve seen repeatedly in more than a decade and a half as a public servant under Labor administrations) which ultimately resulted in house fires and 4 deaths.
Yet instead of holding these contractors to account, making an example of them by ensuring such gross negligence was prosecuted very publicly to the fullest extent of the law, Garrett stood in front of the television cameras and whined that he hadn’t administered the scheme incompetently. It was a pathetic response from Garrett, rightly rewarded by Rudd when he was dumped from the Ministry. For someone like me though, a teenager of the 80s who’d been a fan of Peter Garrett’s music and his activism, and who’d felt honoured in more recent years to have had a more personal connection, Garrett’s performance was deeply disappointing.
Rudd’s second stint as Prime Minister appeared to be following the same pattern. While some in the media speculated, late in the day, that his reputed private personality disorders might be rearing their ugly head again, I don’t recall anyone articulating that the early days of Rudd’s second Prime Ministership seemed reminiscent of the “he’s here, he’s there” whirlwind of optimism and momentum that characterised the early part of his first stint. I could barely watch, sitting here wondering how long until this started to implode like last time.
Peter Garrett’s parliamentary career will sadly go down as fundamentally commiserable. The last memory of it I will forever recall, is Garrett standing beside Julia Gillard at a school in Sydney’s south earlier this year, nodding, blinking, then glancing at her quickly to punctuate every second sentence of her school funding announcement, over and over in some moronic cyclic gesticulation, before being given the floor to add a ten second rhetorical footnote to Gillard’s speech, like some cardboard cut-out of a politician. It was truly, truly pathetic to watch.
Those who blame Gillard’s demise on some sort of inate mysogyny in Australian politics, or on Rudd’s constant white-anting, are, like so many other Labor analysts, completely missing the point. The point at which the 2013 election was lost was Gillard’s pronouncement during the 2010 campaign that there would be no carbon tax should she win Government. After the election, Labor very quickly lost the trust of the Australian people and never regained it.
Another event during that 2010 campaign is very instructive. Who recalls when, halfway through the 2010 campaign, Gillard pulled up and said “alright I got it, from now on you’re going to see the real Julia”. She immediately turned around and proceeded to carry on precisely as before, trying to second guess how to push the right buttons with the Australian public rather than speaking to us from what was in her own heart. This is the reason we switched off to Labor. It’s the Labor modus operandi by which she operated, and nothing whatsoever to do with Gillard’s gender. The mysogyny theorists are just as out of touch as a generation of Labor strategists who think there are dividends to be gained from treating politics like applied psychology. It provides only short lived victories because, as I argued last year, it has, for example, now simply handed Tony Abbott a mandate to repeal the carbon pricing scheme. The Gillard/Rudd era’s apparent legacies won’t last a year beyond their parliamentary careers and that is a direct result of Labor’s political methodology of the past decade.
Our defective media created Labor’s leadership instability, but the Party’s institutional weakness was such that it allowed it to happen. Only a few months ago, as the media ground away at the Labor leadership issue (and it’s their persistence that ensured life imitated art), I felt there was no way Kevin Rudd could seriously be coveting the leadership before the election. It was bleedingly obvious that would have been taking the wheel of the bus as it was going over the cliff. How could he possibly be interested? It was in Rudd’s best interest to just sit back and let the train wreck happen, come in as the guy on the white horse after the election and take the more thankful task of rebuilding. Why would he want to take the hit for Julia? The fact he eventually accepted the leadership possibly speaks volumes about his own ego, but probably has more to do with influential members of the party finally conceding, under sustained pressure from the media, what the rest of us had known a long time. Gillard was never going to regain the trust of the Australian people.
Anybody who thought Rudd could achieve anything more than stemming the flow of blood was deluding themselves. Rudd has at least managed to achieve that, the most Labor could have expected. Yesterday morning, and even into the early evening, the commentariat were predicting Labor to be looking at 45 seats or less, with Queensland and places like Western Sydney leaving Labor en masse. It didn’t happen, and while it would be nice to think the media pundits might learn from their inadequacies, I won’t hold my breath. Instead the number looks likely to be around 55 seats. Yes, the primary vote was historically low, but that’s a means of protest we voters have to communicate our dissatisfaction. In the end, 55 seats is the truest reflection of preference.
It would be nice to think Labor will get the message, but again, I won’t hold my breath. Labor underwent an extensive internal review a decade ago, the lessons learned soon all but forgotten.
As a footnote, I should mention the outcome for the Australian Democrats at the election. A year ago I reported that having lost faith after 17 years as a member of the ALP, I had to my surprise some months later re-discovered the Democrats. Sadly I have to report my enthusiasm was very premature. I soon discovered the Australian Democrats to be utterly riven with stultifying division, borne out of self-interest and petty personality issues, and consumed by the parochial. In my own State, New South Wales, the once third force in Australian politics managed a sub-paltry 0.21 % of the Senate vote at first count. By my estimation, this is precisely where the Democrats belong. The incompetence of those responsible for the Democrats candidate assessment process and campaign was gobsmacking to watch. Despite an enthusiastic infusion of potential new talent in the year-and-a-half I was involved, a measure of people’s dissatisfaction with the major parties and something that should have been exploited, it was crowded out by the self-styled elder statespeople of the Democrats who’ve demonstrably taken the party from nowhere to oblivian over the past decade. To my fellow NSW Democrats, please enjoy the nothingness your position in the Australian democracy represents, you’ve earned it.