History’s damnation a Labor trait: Dennis Glover’s Friday AFR Column

It takes a lot for a seasoned partisan pro like Dennis to react like this. It means he’s not ‘in the tent’ and that’s not much fun, especially if you still work for these guys on a freelance basis – though Dennis has plenty of other clients for his writing business. In any event, I published his last Cri de Coeur here recently, and here’s the next one: NG

How do we explain the catastrophe now overtaking the Labor Party? Has there ever been an organisation so conscious of the foolishness of its behaviour but so unable to prevent itself from plunging to destruction?

We all watch on, horrified but transfixed, waiting for the next blood-soaked scene to be played out on News24 or Sky News. Like a great stage play, it’s utterly mesmerising – even more so, knowing that the government of the country and possibly the fate of a great political party is at stake. I can’t help but be reminded of the essence of tragedy: a royal house being laid low by a previously concealed but inevitably fatal flaw. So the question is: What is that flaw?

Watching Labor from close-up over recent years, I’ve reached the conclusion that it has something to do with the rise of a leadership generation spectacularly intellectually ill-equipped for government because it has little historical sense. Too many MPs and senators, one thinks, spent more time at university counting the numbers than attending lectures; learning the dark arts of politics instead of gaining the sort of deep political knowledge necessary to really change the world.

It’s the right of the young to be shallow, but not the right of the middle aged and looking at the assorted 30- and 40-somethings who forced Julia Gillard’s hand and who are responsible for the party’s current mess, shallowness is what comes to mind. The very idea that they may inherit the party is almost unthinkable.

Let’s face it, only people who had never read Macbeth or Julius Caesar could have thought that any good could possibly come of the slaughter of Kevin Rudd, not yet through his first term. It could only ever lead to one thing: revenge and endless internal civil war.

Yet this wasn’t even the start of the madness. It is important to remember that Rudd’s brutal removal was simply the latest in a series of similar political executions. Kim Beazley jumped before he was pushed. Simon Crean was knifed in revenge but managed to pass the leadership to Mark Latham. Latham then made way for Beazley again, who was removed on the flimsiest of pretexts by Rudd and Gillard, who, having helped install Rudd, unwisely overthrew him. Blood will get blood, as Shakespeare wrote. Or as Crean put it, the revolving door leads to the wilderness. It keeps spinning, despite his warnings.

It all amounts to the destruction of an entire cohort of people who, together, would likely have combined to make an exceptional Beazley-led cabinet. Having weathered the global financial crisis, one suspects that such a government would now be on the brink of a third term, leaving the Coalition a smoking ruin. How much better would that have been?

One struggles to find a comparable exhibition of collective madness in which an entire generation hacked itself to pieces in this way – although the fate of Lenin’s original Politburo comes to mind. By 1938 all but Stalin had been executed or exiled in the crazy belief that one more bloodletting, backed by one more crazy policy lurch, would make the party’s hold on power safe.

It may very well be that Australians wake up on the morning after a possible Rudd return to office and love him as in the Kevin ’07 days. But it’s equally likely they will shake their heads in astonishment and ask: How could Labor do it again? How could they not have learnt from the last time? Then there are other catastrophic possibilities, like sudden resignations from Parliament, or a cross-bench rebellion that could bring the whole house toppling down upon the new Rudd administration.

It all adds up to a big risk for Rudd. Lose the next election by all but the narrowest of margins and there’s little chance of becoming PM again. But stay in Parliament, learn from your mistakes, heal the wounds and there’s still time to come back, as Robert Menzies did, and as John Howard similarly did. Allow the Labor Party under Gillard to enact a few more big social reforms and emerge with some dignity from this mess and it may arise again much sooner to take back office.

History is full of lessons. Will Labor choose the right one?

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11 Responses to History’s damnation a Labor trait: Dennis Glover’s Friday AFR Column

  1. Persse says:

    That is what we need; more chin stroking from our politicians. Thank you. A room full of Bob Carrs, I am feeling queasy and faint already.
    Another skill that is useful, particularly for writers, is to avoid a thing called hyperbole. That’s where we learn to avoid making a comparison between someone having to seat themselves a few rows back from where they would like to sit: with being dragged out at dawn and executed by a Cheka firing squad

  2. john r walker says:

    ‘Stalin’ , ‘blood baths’ what is he smoking?……. whats going on in Canberra is pure Monty Python .

  3. Pedro says:

    I’ll admit to being transfixed, but I’m not really horrified. It won’t be a common sentiment here, but I think this is the worst govt I’ve seen. The attitude is appalling. Has there been a govt more addicted to abuse and sliming? It’s just lucky that there’s a lot of ruin in a nation. Pretty much all their vaunted achievements fall into 4 categories:
    1 the easy and oversold, like apologising for stuff and taking on “big tobacco”
    2 the pointless and stupid, like the carbon tax and the MRRT
    3 the never never
    4 the wasted opportunities, like education funding reform.

    Glover’s own history knowledge seems a bit scanty. The Stalin purges were wonderfully effective at securing his and the party’s leadership. They did last another 50 years and could have kept going with a similar stomach for murder.

  4. John Foster says:

    There are close similarities between the crisis that is now besetting the ALP and that of the British Labour Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a party that was riven with conflict and dogged by trade union influence. So four ex cabinet ministers said enough was enough and formed the SDP. Will we see a similar thing happening here in Australia? It did not lead to the demise of the Labour Party in Britain, it only kept them out of power for a very long time. But, with a such an obvious vacuum in Australia in the middle ground of politics, the implications are more serious.

    • derrida derider says:

      Na, the UK Labour Party split over ideology. However stupid some of that ideology was, and however stupid some of the participants, individual ambition while present was not the motor..

      The current split is much more like the Howard-Peacock wars of the 1980s – it’s about personal powerlust and antipathies. That makes it even more newsworthy, with many more quotable quotes, but also means that once a few of the contending careerists disappear into political oblivion the party can recover surprisingly quickly. This aint the 1956 split.

      • John Foster says:

        DD, your point is well taken. But I would argue that there is, indeed, an ideological split in the ALP. It is not so sharply obvious as in the British case because the union movement in Australia prefers behind the scenes ‘smoke filled rooms’ rather than visibly heading for the street and the picket lines, as was the case in the UK. Those cabinet ministers who have resigned tend to hold a Hawke-Keating ideology, in contrast the the ‘redistributive’ ideology of Paul Howes and co. I suspect that we shall see this ideological divide becoming more obvious in the coming months as the train wreck gets closer.

        • murph the surf. says:

          No no no John Foster!
          The people who have resigned are old and products of the paternalistic and patriarchal power structures which are being swept away by the talent and vigour of the professional politicians we see occupying the front benches.
          Life and work experience gained by immersion in the corrupting power relationships of the last century is out.What did they learn apart from how to govern?
          I ‘twitter’ therefore I am a minister!

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Strange to call Paul Howes ‘redistributive’. Redistributive to his members perhaps, but not beyond that. It was the unions that got us a flat tax on superannuation! Some redistributionists!

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Agreed DD,

    But that kind of internecine warfare has one other necessary ingredient – perhaps two – that neither of the two (or more) leaders has dominance, so they’re not the obvious choice and backbenchers can be tempted to chop and change and go for the ‘bounce’ (by ‘bouncing’ their incumbent leader), and that the party is travelling badly.

    The Libs would be in that position if the ALP had not been so woeful at communicating.

    • John Foster says:

      To ‘murph the surf’

      I agree with what you say but this does not mean that there is no ideological divide.

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