The Labor Leadership: A Time Of Peril And Opportunity

I blame John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser. I was a young schoolboy in 1971 when their brawling inside the decaying coalition government awakened me to politics.

Rudd-GillardTheir struggle culminated in a leadership challenge. William McMahon fought Gorton to a draw, so Gorton plucked a casting ballot out of thin air to vote himself out of the prime ministership. The ridiculous and treacherous McMahon became prime minister, and the Liberals compensated Gorton by making him deputy leader. I was hooked. Who wouldn’t be?

Since then, one of life’s little pleasures has been the surprisingly regular parade of state and federal leadership challenges.

These contests are politics in the open, raw, visceral and unadorned. Electorate, party, factional and personal factors come together. Interests compete. The noble and brave collide with the base and cowardly. Policy meets electoral reality. Conviction and ambition take a good look at each other. Purity withers and survival usually wins.

It is the individual us writ large.

The challenges have patterns. Most begin with denials all-round that anything is afoot. Speculation and underground manoeuvring gather pace. Inevitably, something or someone triggers the formal challenge.

Most challenges take place in opposition parties. Whilst entertaining, they’re nowhere near as dramatic as those that take place in government, where the challenge is oiled by power, preferment and patronage.

Since Fraser gutted Gorton, only two contests have come close in terms of impact and importance. The Hawke-Keating match-up is a clear winner. Their successors, Howard and Costello, were in the running for a while but when push came to shove the pretender wasn’t up to it.

The other is, of course, the Rudd-Gillard battle that has been raging since June 2010. The combatants are providing great drama. Between them, they have the potential to write a completely new chapter in the handbook of leadership challenges.

The contest reached a pivotal point on the weekend. Appropriately for our times, the video of Kevin Rudd declaiming in that uniquely twee style of his was posted on YouTube. One day we may find out who was responsible. It’s a nice little mystery for another time but I like to think it was one of those freelancing munchkins so favoured by the parties and who bring to mind the words of Sam Rayburn, the former US house speaker. Confronted and affronted by President Lyndon Johnson’s supposedly brilliant young advisors, he said: “Lyndon, I’d feel a whole lot better if just one of them had once run for sheriff.”

Before the Rudd video became public knowledge on Saturday night, we knew the contest had ratcheted up a notch because the Gillard camp had been busy bad-mouthing Rudd for days. Simon Crean, in particular, did the media rounds. Attorney General Nicola Roxon was deputised on Saturday to deliver the anti-Rudd message to the weekend media. He did well to get us into office, she said, but he left us with a lot of “challenges”.

Challenges? Even when their very existence is on the line, Labor people today will talk like HR managers. Even so, there was no doubt the prime minister’s people were worried. The past couple of weeks have seen a steady escalation of apocalyptic talk of mass resignations and instability if Rudd were to be returned. When all else fails, play the fear and turmoil card.

The Rudd camp responded on the weekend with Darren Cheeseman, a backbencher who declared Gillard’s leadership was “terminal”.

All this came together on Saturday night and exploded into the television ether on Sunday morning. There are only two outstanding questions. Will it be Rudd or Gillard who calls on the ballot? And when will that be? Next week, next month, or when?

Remember that neither of these Lilliputians is Paul Keating. They won’t confront each other with the challenge and then sit down with Laurie Oakes to explain why. It’s not a quality that appeals to everyone, but Keating’s instinctive understanding that power has to be taken, ripped away if necessary, is reassuring in its honesty. There was never any question of his legitimacy as a prime ministerial usurper. Like Whitlam, he chose to crash through or crash.

By contrast, even yesterday, Gillard and Rudd danced around each other, sniping but nevertheless denying what is obvious to the world. In Gillard’s case, we know from last time that she will need to phone her backers to get her final riding instructions. Rudd is so risk averse he will wait until he is confident victory is his. With these two, it could take a while, although media reports today suggest a ballot sooner rather than later.

All the same, the contest has been joined, albeit by proxies. And it’s been great fun so far, not least because so many people, in addition to the paranoiacs and conspiracists who increasingly occupy the online world, have been denying the reality of this contest for months.

It’s de rigueur now to profess disgust at this turn of events. Serious minds decry the brutality, the ambition, the lack of policy debate. They bemoan a political system that has somehow failed. They proclaim a weariness with politics as usual.

But I’m having none of it. These are marvellous times for politics. These are the times when you see how things really work. This IS the system working, not failing. These are the times when character is revealed, when political judgment is on the line, when boldness potentially pays big. As Barack Obama would say, it’s a teachable moment. It’s time to revel.

This challenge is like no other before it. Even the hallowed Menzies had to form a new party and fight his way back through two elections from opposition to reclaim the prime ministership he lost in 1941. It took him eight years. Yet we’re looking at Rudd retaking the prize from the deputy who grabbed it from him a mere 20 months ago. Whether he succeeds or fails, this is a rare moment in our political history, one which will be written and talked about for years to come. It’s a great battle and a great human drama.

Think of the potentially satisfying consequences.

If Rudd wins, there will be many public and quite a few private cheers if Shorten, Arbib, Farrell, Feeney and Howes have their high-handed disregard for the electorate thrown back in their faces. Somewhere in Crown Casino, Karl Bitar might even feel the disdain blowing his way.

In a caucus that is more akin to a giant protection racket run by competing political families who resort to the hit as much as they sit at the negotiating table, these men epitomise the ossified political culture that is killing the ALP from within and shredding its membership base.

Remember the comical but pitiful video of that June night in 2010 when MPs were seen to be ignorant of the decision being made in their name? This is the opportunity for the caucus to upturn that world and restore its lost dignity.

This moment is a chance for the Caucus to take back some of the power stolen from it, an unexplained theft that soured the public’s attitude to Gillard from the beginning. It’s not Rudd they hanker for, it’s what he represents about how the Government has operated, his own idiosyncrasies notwithstanding. It is what underpins and magnifies the hostility to Gillard on a range of issues.

They may not do it. They may not do it yet. Whatever they do, they may bring the whole edifice down around them. This may yet be an election year.

Watching – or even just finding out – what they all do and say over the coming weeks will be compelling. Yes, there is an economy to worry about. There are serious issues that need attention. But this matters too.

Some points can be awarded for the weekend. The hitherto unknown Darren Cheeseman has distinguished himself by becoming the first Labor MP to tell the world what all his colleagues know or won’t admit: that Gillard is a walking political corpse, a portent of massive electoral defeat. Perhaps it was a carefully orchestrated appearance in the Sunday newspapers, but let’s not be churlish – when the time came, he did it. I’m struggling to think of other occasions during the life of this Government when a backbencher stood up in the public arena and said what was on his or her mind.

With masterly understatement yesterday, Health Minister Tanya Plibersek acknowledged that Cheeseman is “a bit worried”. That he is. His was the last electorate to be decided in 2010. He won by 771 votes and now holds the most marginal seat in the nation by 0.41 per cent. His seat stretches from the suburbs of Geelong, snakes through coastal holiday towns, and extends into rural areas such as Colac. In some ways it is a snapshot of suburban, provincial and rural Australia. Cheeseman would know better than most how ineffective and discredited is Gillard. He is, as an online wit observed, “not a happy little Corangamite”.

On the other side of the Caucus divide, we can give a cheer to Bendigo’s Steve Gibbons. Well-known online for speaking his mind free of the management-speak that characterises his ministerial betters, Gibbons released a statement yesterday morning castigating Kevin Rudd’s “chaotic and deeply offensive style of leadership”. Later, he accused Rudd of being “a psychopath with a giant ego”.

Like Cheeseman, at least we know where Gibbons stands. Maybe over this coming period we will hear from more of them. They might find the electorate appreciates it, however much the media trivialises it. They might just earn points for standing for something.

Between them all, those who believe they were dudded in 2010 and those who think there’s no going back, this is a moment of peril and opportunity. The electorate will judge them on the decision they make and the way they make it.

For the rest of us, this is not a time to turn away. It is a time to pay attention.

And perhaps to be heard.

This article was first published on The Drum.

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