Former NSW Premier Jack Lang once famously said “always back the horse named self-interest…It'll be the only one trying”. This adage has generally proved true in politics until an extraordinary day on 21 March when the Labor Party caucus effectively voted themselves out of office. It would be frankly unbelievable to think the caucus avoided a leadership change to Kevin Rudd because they believed Julia Gillard could lead them to victory on September 14. Either they just couldn’t come to terms with the idea of admitting they made a mistake and taking Kevin Rudd back or, fearful of a repeat of the bloodshed from the 2010 coup and associated recriminations, simply lacked the courage to do what had to be done.
Apart from the conclusion above, it’s difficult to make much sense of the events of that day which resulted in a victory for the Prime Minister, the end of any chance of a Kevin Rudd return to the leadership, the sacking of respected Minister Simon Crean, the resignation of several Ministers and MPs from their parliamentary positions and the Labor Party facing electoral oblivion following the September election.
With the polls as they were, a leadership challenge that day was definitely on the cards. The eight-week parliamentary break before the Budget meant it was time to put up or shut up.
But no-one could have foreseen how it would come about or end, starting with the bizarre/crazy brave actions of senior Party statesman, Simon Crean. When he called his second press conference for that day, stated there should be a leadership spill; that he would support Kevin Rudd and would be prepared to serve as Deputy Leader all without having actually spoken to Rudd in over 48 hours, the political mind boggled. What was he thinking?
Simon Crean and Kevin Rudd are not what you’d call mates if his vicious anti-Rudd rhetoric in the lead up to the 2012 leadership ballot was anything to go by. But Crean recognised that Rudd had the best chance of winning the election for Labor. On that basis he was willing to put aside his personal feelings about Rudd and put the interests of the Australian Labor Party first. Something the majority of other Labor MPs refused to do.
And what about Rudd himself? He’s been criticised for not running, for not putting his name to a campaign he and his supporters had been running for months, but the fact is, he was never going to contest the leadership unless an overwhelming majority of Labor MPs had publicly declared they wanted him back. This is understandable given the humiliating defeat of the previous year. So when Simon Crean took the ball up for Rudd, and none but a few had the courage to back him up, Rudd would have nothing to do with it. He then declared that under no circumstances would he return to the Party leadership.
The leadership ballot that wasn’t demonstrated how irrelevant the Labor factions have become.
The Labor Party factions as we knew them in the days of Hawke and Keating are gone. The NSW Right, so well-known historically for the making and breaking of leaders was completely split. So too the NSW Left. There were no Party factional leaders working behind the scenes, talking to one another to ensure the Party was not damaged as happened in the Hawke/Keating leadership contests in 1991. The diminishing influence of the factions has been happening over some time and while many will rejoice in their demise, the vacuum left by the absence of strong factional leadership allowed the chaos of March 21 to happen.
While it’s become fashionable for political and economic commentators to compare the current Gillard/Swan government unfavourably with the halcyon economic reform days of the Hawke/Keating government, little insight is given as to how it was all possible when so many of the reforms were not exactly high on the Labor platform’s must-do list in 1983.
The fact is, effective leadership, not just Hawke and Keating’s, but strong, intelligent factional leadership lead by the likes of Graham Richardson and Robert Ray from the Right, Mick Young from the Centre Left and Bill Kelty from the ACTU ensured the reforms could be delivered. These individuals and other senior leaders understood the necessity of economic reform and how to communicate to the wider public. More importantly, they knew how to manage their own MPs and ensure the Prime Minister carried the day. In the absence of the major ideological splits that have historically defined what it meant to be from the ‘Right’ or ‘Left’ in the Australian Labor Party, the factions have become loose groupings of convenience for individuals to progress their careers with no obligations to a particular set of policy beliefs.
Finally, the Prime Minister once again demonstrated just how tough under pressure she is. Having to walk into the House of Representatives shortly after sacking a senior Minister who had previously been one of her trusted allies and announcing a leadership vote that very afternoon, to not only face her regular opponents in the Liberal/National Party for Question Time, but the ones in her own party sitting behind her and say defiantly “Give it your best shot”, was a memorable moment.
That she survived the day without a challenger, reshuffled her vastly depleted Cabinet and Ministry and three weeks later returned from one of the most successful diplomatic missions to China from any leader since Whitlam, will be a matter of history.
Whether any of that will make the slightest difference to her result come September 14 is yet to be determined, but highly unlikely.