This is as much of a placeholder as anything, intended more to give readers an opportunity to discuss the Labor turmoil more than to offer any profound insights. God knows, there’s opinion enough whooshing around the internet today: in the online age, fast-breaking events provide an almost irresistible opportunity for pundits to blurt out whatever comes into their heads, under the familiar compulsion to say something – anything! – so long as it’s new.
With that caveat about the innate potential for a beclowning, a few initial thoughts on what the Rudd resurrection means.
Not so long ago, the Age infamously declared for a change of leaders on the basis that, with Gillard out of the picture, we might see ‘vigorous, policy-driven democratic debate’. Is that what lies ahead?
Well, it depends on how you understand that phrase.
The Ruddites campaigned for their man primarily on his supposed ability to save Labor from the coming Abbott tsunami. They stressed, in other words, his popularity rather than outlining any particular policy direction to which that popularity would be harnessed. Nonetheless, the leadership changeover provides an obvious and probably irresistible opportunity to recalibrate the party platform as it goes into the polls. Let’s not forget, when Gillard toppled Rudd, the first order of business was a lurch to the Right on policies seen as controversial. One suspects we might face something similar in the coming weeks.
For instance, the Australian’s already posted its wish list for a Rudd government to move ‘back to the center’ (!).
First and foremost, Mr Rudd must break the power of the unions that have tightened their grip on the party even as their memberships have diminished. Ms Gillard’s fraternisation with the union movement eroded her authority and raised the profile of the faceless men. Their influence was evident in Ms Gillard’s industrial relations policy, which has become a sizeable blister on the economy. Mr Rudd must face up to union leadership, publicly and privately, for until its grip on the party is broken, there can be no serious party reform. This has been a trying three years, to put it mildly, for the electorate. Ms Gillard and Mr Swan sought political advantage by waging a minor class war; Ms Gillard played the misogyny card, splitting Labor’s support on gender lines; finally, she sought advantage with xenophobic attack on 457 visa holders. This era of divisive politics must end. Mr Rudd must make clear he intends to govern for the entire country.
At the same time, Rudd, presumably, must seek to stabilise some kind of team to take into the election, a not-so-easy task given the ALP’s resemblance, in recent months, to a nest of snakes caucusing in a sack. Furthermore, Kevin13 differs from Kevin07 in that he hasn’t just toppled Howard and delivered a thumping victory to the ALP. On the contrary, he presides over a shattered administration, in which a substantial minority blames him for the woeful situation in which they find themselves. Under those circumstances, can he marshal the authority to push through substantive changes? Or will he, instead, be forced by circumstances to spend his time salving the party’s wounds – if, indeed, such a thing is possible? Already, he’s announced he intends no retribution against his enemies (though, of course, new leaders always say that even as they reach for the knife).
More generally, Rudd needs to decide the extent to which he defends Labor’s recent record against Abbott and the extent to which he continues to distance himself from Gillard. Either course entails risks. If Rudd talks of the administration’s achievements, he raises obvious questions as to why the woman presiding over them needed to be axed. But if he disowns the last years, he reinforces voters’ existing perception that the ALP’s been one long disaster.
That’s why there’s reason to be skeptical about whether Rudd can deliver the poll boost that was his biggest selling point. The Age, for instance, quotes ‘a senior Coalition source’ suggesting that Rudd will ‘restore part of the Labor base – many of who will greet his resurrection as ‘righting the wrong’ when he was knifed three years ago.’
Well, maybe. But one suspects that there’s now plenty of Labor activists who feel equally bitter about the blade sticking out of Gillard’s back – and, while numerically the ALP cadre people might not count for much, they play a big role in selling the party to its base. In any case, Rudd’s popularity surely stemmed, at least in part, from a perception of him as an outsider, a man of the people aloof from the shenanigans of a party machine that subsequently turned upon him. How much of that image remains after months of plotting, scheming and leaking? It’s surely just as likely that voters now see not a distinction but an equivalency: Gillard stabbed Rudd and then Rudd stabbed Gillard, and they’re accordingly each as bad as the other.
Furthermore, much of the discussion of the Labor saga, there’s been an implicit – and sometimes explicit – assumption as to the idiocy of the voters. Gillard’s critics claimed she could not sell the government to the public; her supporters argued that ordinary Australians were too blinded by sexism to recognise Labor’s achievements.
What, however, if the problem related to substance rather than spin? Is it not worth at least considering the idea that a very conservative government repelled its base not because ordinary people didn’t consider its policies but precisely because they did – that, actually, they looked at what a right-wing Labor administration offered and they didn’t like it very much?
If that’s the case, what will Rudd offer to galvanise voters? Oscar Wilde once quipped: ‘Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.’ That’s a pretty good summation of how politicians are currently viewed, with a general anti-incumbent mood meaning that any political face will spur a poll boost, simply because of the deep cynicism about the status quo. So, yes, Rudd will enjoy a honeymoon – but how will he maintain that sentiment once his novelty fades?
Of course, Abbott’s never been particularly popular either, with the Coalition surging less on the basis of any great enthusiasm and more from scepticism about Labor. That, then, might be Rudd’s best chance. If he can short circuit the sense of inevitability about a Coalition win, perhaps he can build some momentum, forcing voters to consider more deeply whether they really want Abbott in power.
Will that happen? You would not bet the house on it.