This has now gone so far beyond a joke that I hardly know where to start.
So much ink has been spilled by hoary press gallery veterans covering Labor’s leadership soap opera, that there is very little new that LibertyGibbert could possibly add. So I thought instead, I’d simply summarize the state of play for my (understandably bewildered) overseas readers. Feel free to switch off or scroll to the end if it becomes too tedious or repetitive—and believe me, folks, it does.
Kevin Rudd, you may recall, in December 2007 became Australia’s 26th Prime Minister, following a decade of John Howard’s conservative government that was widely considered to have grown stale. Rudd ran on a platform of minimal change under a Labor government, portraying himself as a kind of “Howard Lite”, together with the catchy Kevin ’07 campaign slogan.
So far so good. But Rudd, once in office, decided that circumstances (primarily, the ill-named “global financial crisis”) gave him license to ignore his pre-election promises of fiscal rectitude, and embarked on a wild spending program: $43 billion dollars on a so-called “stimulus package”. It mattered little what the money was spent on, provided that money was spent. A brand new hall for every school (built at up to twice the going rate—and never mind that most schools had perfectly good halls already, and begged the government to no avail to re-direct the funds into other, much-needed improvements); insulation in private home roof cavities (with no due diligence, fly-by-night contractors were given the work, resulting in four deaths and over one hundred house fires, overseen by a former rock singer with zero administrative experience), culminating in a completely superfluous “National Broadband Network” which now threatens to blow out to over $100 billion and bankrupt the nation. The $20 billion in national savings left behind by Howard and his Treasurer, Peter Costello, at a stroke was wiped out in a Keynesian orgy of largesse, the likes which our nation has never seen before, and hopefully never will again.
To pay for all this profligacy, Rudd proposed a federal tax to fleece the Australian mining industry, which at the time was enjoying record high commodity prices, being driven by Chinese demand. Now, in Australia, all mineral wealth is vested in the Crown—specifically, the province of the states, and not the Commonwealth. A regime of per-tonne or ad valorem royalties has evolved over time, which takes into account not only the reality of the exploration and mining cycle (during which decades can pass before significant income derives from a venture), but also the unpredictable fluctuation of international commodity prices. The “mining super profits tax” threatened to short-circuit this regime, the bottom line of which meant that tax income would be siphoned from the states to the Commonwealth. The states were ropeable, and mining companies responded by simply announcing they would be cancelling proposed ventures. It quickly became obvious that the mining tax was not going to come to Rudd’s aid, and that Australia would be saddled with a massive deficit for years to come. That, combined with such failures as Rudd’s massive junket to frozen Copenhagen for the 2009 Global Warming Summit (!), showed Labor rapidly falling behind the coalition in published opinion polls. The only winner appeared to be Rudd’s Education Minister and Deputy PM.
Which is just how it panned out. In June 2010, a few months prior to the scheduled federal election, Julia Gillard leaked internal polling showing Labor under Rudd were headed for defeat at the polls. On 23rd June, Rudd was told he no longer had the numbers in Caucus and Gillard called for a spill motion. Rudd resigned and Gillard was elected unopposed as Australia’s 27th Prime Minister.
What rot. Gillard claimed she only made the decision to challenge on the day of the coup; yet later evidence confirmed her office had been working on her victory speech over three weeks beforehand! The truth is, Rudd was knifed because he had no factional backing. Gillard, from the extreme end of the Victorian Left faction, was installed in a deal underwritten by the New South Wales Right faction (soon to face its own problems with multiple corruption charges) and the Australian Workers’ Union, whose legal affairs in the 1990s are currently the subject of a major ongoing criminal investigation by the Victoria Police Major Fraud Squad.
So, on to the 2010 election. Gillard failed to gain an outright majority in the House of Representatives (Labor and the Coalition winning 72 seats each in the 150-seat chamber) and after 17 days of negotiations, formed government with the support of Marxist scholar Adam Bandt (who won the Australian Greens’ first ever lower-house seat of Melbourne), independent Andrew Wilkie (who won the Hobart-based seat of Denison, and whom LibertyGibbert has visited previously), and former National Party members Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. These last two stuck in the craw particularly, as they represented the two most conservative electorates in the country (Labor polled 8% and 13% respectively) and had no mandate from the electors who sent them to Canberra to support a Labor government.
To gain this support, Gillard was obliged to more or less sell her soul. Firstly, to gain Bandt’s vote, she had to break this iron-clad pre-election promise:
Not that the Greens would have thrown their vote to the Coalition in any case, but no matter: the Carbon Tax was soon after written into law.
To gain Wilkie’s vote, Gillard promised to implement his proposal to introduce mandatory pre-commitment limits in poker machines. She promised this, in the full knowledge that to honour it would be to commit electoral suicide; registered clubs, the centre of social life in many Labor heartland electorates, began a massive campaign against the proposal. Caught between a delegation of twenty Labor MPs who begged the PM to break her promise, and Wilkie’s threat to withdraw confidence should his proposals not be enshrined in law by the 2011 Federal Budget, Gillard pulled a three-card trick with the office of Speaker of the House, neutralized Wilkie’s vote and enabled her to break that promise too.
All of which had, by late 2011, led to a collapse in public support for the government. Opinion polls then showed Labor set to lose up to half their federal seats at the 2013 election. Some Labor MPs began to wonder whether knifing Rudd had in fact been a miscalculation. Rudd, handed the Foreign Ministry after 2010 (presumably to keep him out of the country as much as possible), smelled an opportunity. Holding a press conference from New York, Rudd resigned as Foreign Minister and announced his intention to challenge for the leadership.
It was doomed to fail. Rudd simply didn’t have the numbers in the party room. Former colleagues, convinced Rudd had been behind a number of damaging public leaks prior to the 2010 election, started backgrounding journalists, describing their former boss as “psychotic” with a “giant ego”, impossible to work with, given to ignoring his cabinet, terrorizing junior staff and ruling as a one-man autocracy. This out-take of Rudd rehearsing a policy announcement fortuitously hit YouTube at the same time and went viral:
Defeated 71-31 in the party-room spill, Rudd chose his words carefully: I can see no circumstances under which I would return to the leadership. A bit weaselly, true, but hey, he didn’t start it. It gave him some wiggle room, just in case things went so pear-shaped in the following year that his parliamentary colleagues just might give him another shot.
Surprise, surprise, they almost did. Gillard’s attempts to surpass even Rudd’s reckless spending abandon centred around two “big ideas”: The Gonski Report into school education, which argued (in the face of much published research) that the injection of billions of dollars of additional public money was necessary to improve educational outcomes for Australian schoolchildren; and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), a concept which, though agreed to by the Opposition in principle as “aspirational”, remains grossly underfunded and is not scheduled to progress beyond the trial stage until 2019 at the earliest.
Meantime, the steady flow of arrival of illegal immigrants by boat (held down by the Howard government’s “Pacific Solution” of mandatory detention on Nauru, to 2 or 3 boats per year) had turned under Rudd and Gillard to a stampede: currently running at around 100 arrivals per day, and increasing. Unable to cope with the sheer volume of arrivals, Gillard simply allowed the immigrants, many brutalized by war and hailing from barbaric cultural backgrounds, into the general community, where they now pose serious health, social and criminal problems on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne.
The failure of the Gillard government to protect our nation’s borders, combined with the expected massive blowout in the 2013 Federal Budget (Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan had staked their reputations on delivering a budget surplus, which ended up as a $20 billion deficit) fuelled yet more media speculation of another Rudd challenge. Refusing to call a spill himself, it fell to party elder and former Opposition Leader Simon Crean to sacrifice his Cabinet position by calling on 21st March for a leadership spill; Rudd, realising he once again did not have the numbers, declined to stand, and Gillard was re-elected unopposed.
But now, of course, we are at the pointy end of it all. Parliament’s last sitting before the election is scheduled to recess on Thursday (now extended to Friday, in an attempt to bulldoze through a raft of legislation while gagging debate), before Labor MPs return to their electorates to campaign in what at least half of them know is a doomed attempt to remain in Parliament. Faced with the imminent prospect of losing their seats, and in all likelihood their political careers, not a few of them are getting desperate enough to once again contemplate returning to a man they loathe, and have twice rejected. Polls show Rudd consistently at least 20 points higher than Gillard as preferred Prime Minister, and some number crunchers believe he could conceivably save at least some seats that would otherwise be lost under Gillard.
Incredibly, the polls continue to worsen for Labor; today’s Newspoll has Labor at 43-57 on a two-party-preferred basis; Essential Media has them at 45-55. What’s more, the swings are uniformly greater in Labor-held seats. Put in context, these numbers translate to maybe thirty Labor-held seats left in the House of Representatives come 15th September; more significantly, it is looking like Tony Abbott will command an absolute majority in the Senate, meaning he won’t have to negotiate with anyone in order to repeal the Carbon Tax and the Mining Tax, as well as reinstate Howard’s Pacific solution to deal with illegal arrivals; and the Australian Greens will be finished, as anything more than a noisy but impotent minority party.
Rudd himself is more guarded, though his position has been ever so slightly altered; it’s now I believe there are no circumstances under which I would return to the leadership. In other words, he has left the door slightly ajar to his colleagues. But he has privately set conditions for his return: he will not challenge for the leadership; Gillard must resign, and Rudd must be drafted by the entire party. Which won’t happen: there is simply too much enmity towards him, indeed, many ministers have stated publicly that they would refuse to serve in a Rudd cabinet. Nothing short of a party-room bloodbath would give him the Cabinet he wants, which will in all likelihood consist of rusted-on Ruddlings and neophytes; hardly the team he would want to expose to the likes of Abbott on the floor of the House prior to an election. And there are now just four days left in which to decide.
A Rudd coup on the last day of sitting would also precipitate a constitutional dilemma unprecedented in Australian history. The independents, Wilkie, Windsor and Oakeshott, have maintained that their guarantee of Supply and Confidence is with Gillard personally. Which means the Governor-General cannot swear Rudd in as Prime Minister unless she is sure he can command a majority on the floor of the House. There would be, however, no way of testing this without recalling the parliament. Only the Prime Minister can do that (well, technically, the Governor-General – but she can only do so on the PM’s advice). But—Catch 22—until Rudd is sworn in, Gillard remains PM. And she has every reason not to allow Rudd to test his support!
It gets worse. Bill Shorten, Gillard’s Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and former National Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, was a key mover in Rudd’s 2010 knifing; many Labor MPs are now looking to him at this eleventh hour to switch support to Rudd, for it is believed he controls a bloc of party-room votes large enough to swing the leadership in Rudd’s favour. However, if you aren’t already aware of this, Shorten has a very personal reason not to place the Governor-General in such a constitutional bind: he is married to Chloe Bryce, daughter of Michael and Quentin Bryce. That’s right: the G-G is Shorten’s mother-in-law! Really, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
My own view is that either a) Rudd is so intoxicated by the adulation he receives in shopping malls that he believes that Labor under his leadership could actually snatch the 2013 election, against all evidence to the contrary; or b) he ultimately has no intentions of challenging for the leadership—rather, he is so consumed with revenge against Gillard, Shorten and the rest of the 2010 plotters against him that he is happy to take them all down, even if it means Labor spends a generation out of office. I don’t know which is true. I am totally over it, and so is the rest of the country. Throw the bastards out and start again. Saturday, 14th September, can’t come quickly enough.