Saving the furniture that really matters: the ALP challenge for the next decade

The picture of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership painted over the weekend by former speechwriter Jamie Button ought to be fatal to Rudd’s leadership bid. It jibes with a number of other assessments, including some just this week by senior Cabinet ministers like Nicola Roxon. To the best of my knowledge, Button’s is a pretty accurate picture:

“The truth is, Rudd was impossible to work with. He regularly treated his staff, public servants and backbenchers with rudeness and contempt. He was vindictive, intervening to deny people appointments or preselections, often based on grudges that went back years.

“He made crushing demands on his staff, and when they laboured through the night to meet those demands, they received no thanks, and often the work was not used. People who dared stand up to him were put in ‘the freezer’ and not consulted or spoken to for months. The prodigious loyalty of his staff to him was mostly not repaid. He put them down behind their backs. He seemed to feel that everyone was always letting him down. In meetings, as I saw, he could emanate a kind of icy rage that was as mysterious as it was disturbing.

“He governed by – seemed almost to thrive on – crisis. Important papers went unsigned, staff and public servants would be pulled onto flights, in at least one case halfway around the world, on the off chance that he needed to consult them. Vital decisions were held up while he struggled to make up his mind, frequently demanding more pieces of information that merely delayed the final result. The fate of the government seemed to hinge on the psychology of one man.

“As I watched this unfold in Canberra, I tried hard to put aside my own poor experience of working for Rudd. I had also been a journalist for more than 20 years, and I knew that just because three people complain about something or someone it does not make it true. When 30 or more witnesses do, you can start to believe it.”

That account is all the more compelling because Jamie Button has a deserved reputation as an upright and decent journalist. And he’s the son of much-missed ALP hero John Button to boot.

The move to reinstall Kevin Ruddd as prime minister is frequently described in terms of “saving the furniture”, a way of saying that Rudd will lose the ALP less seats than Gillard at the next election.

But Labor’s biggest problem may not be that it will lose a lot of seats at the next election.

Losing a bag of seats is pretty much a given. The 2012 or 2013 election will almost certainly not repeat the events of 1993, with Labor coming from behind to score an upset win. (If Labor did come from behind, it would probably require the sort of dubious policies – notably those cancelled L-A-W tax cuts – that helped hand Labor such a big loss one election later, in 1996.) Labor’s fate at the next election seems written at this point.

But winning the next election is not the only game the ALP must play. Labor’s biggest problem may instead be something worse.

Consider. Two of its past four leaders – Latham and Rudd – have been in their different ways dysfunctional. In both cases, but especially in the case of Rudd, that dysfunctionality has now been pretty well documented in a way that will linger for years. And still today, many in the ALP are talking more loudly in public about the need to beat Tony Abbott than they are about the need to run a good government.

In short, the ALP now faces a “good government” challenge as big as the “economic management” challenge it faced in 1975. In the wake of the Whitlam government, Labor’s greatest struggle was to convince voters it could be trusted with the economy. After Rudd, its biggest problem may be that voters do not trust it with the machinery of government. After the ructions of the federal and NSW parties, voters may start to worry that the ALP will install someone who can beat the Coalition regardless of whether they can run a government. If that happens, Labor will start to find that it doesn’t matter who they put in the leadership: the ALP brand has been so damaged that voters start to be much less trusting of whoever is leader, and whatever ideas they offer.

“Good government” has never been one of the ALP’s most beloved phrases. When you speak to the ALP, you speak of being a “reforming government” or even a “crusading government”. The party has an underdog mentality: it thinks that when it gets in, it shakes up the place and then, in its favorite tragic story, inevitably loses.

That mentality needs to change now. In the past 40 years the ALP has been in government as often as out of it. It won’t be easy, but “good government” is now a quality the ALP has to add to its brand.

That’s an argument for keeping Julia Gillard as PM, no matter what she polls. But more importantly, it’s the challenge for the ALP to 2020 and beyond.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net), editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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Pedro
Pedro
9 years ago

Well perhaps Button has an ax to grind. Don’t forget Rudd snubbed his dad’s funeral for a photo-op delivering a teddy to Cate Blanchett’s new baby!

Your point is well made. “We’ll do anything to get elected.” is not a quality message, but they’ve been hammering in home in the States and federally.

From early in his leadership I came to the view that Rudd is probably some sort of sociopath.

Michael
Michael
9 years ago

Looking at the polls I would say that with all the hyperbole surrounding the most “dysfunctional” leader in history the public doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about it. Or maybe they aren’t as dumb as you think they are and can sense exaggeration when they are beaten around the head with it.

The apparatchiks in the ALP have achieved an extraordinary outcome of making Abbott into a real electoral threat. He wasn’t even the liberal’s preferred candidate, yet he is now seemingly an unstoppable force and they have all but conceded the election. That’s the predictable outcome of having no policy agenda of your own. Even a crazy half-baked one seems to more attractive than the void Gillard has created.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

Michael, I very much agree that the ALP leadership selection isn’t terribly important. Gillard and Rudd have very different personalities but very similar policies and the policies are what matters.

I disagree that the ALP have no policy agenda. They have a very clear policy agenda which is:

* borrow money
* spend money
* build stuff (regardless of cost, regardless of efficiency, and regardless of whether anyone wants it, build anyway)
* redistribute wealth
* push ahead with emissions trading

I think that for the most part, the people of Australia genuinely understand the ALP policy agenda, and genuinely don’t appreciate it. The ALP have been their own worst enemies when it comes to pushing for an ETS, then re-branding the ETS as a “Carbon Tax” (which is isn’t) and then promising “no Carbon Tax”, and then trying to explain to people that the re-branded Carbon Tax is really an ETS (which is strictly true but lost on 99% of the population).

If they had been a tiny bit honest with the Greens, and put up a genuine Carbon Tax at a modest rate to get the foot in the door and not gone to town on stupid compensation, then they would have shown the world they were doing the “right thing” and as the whole AGW scam starts to lost momentum they could very gently back away from it, point to the Greens and say, “Their idea” and be no worse off. Sure the banks would have lost and opportunity, but the ALP are in the business to please the unions (and the Fabians), not to please the banks.

Mind you, even the unions don’t like the ALP anymore, just ask the Health Union.

As it stands now, should Elvis come back from the dead, and lose a bit of weight and become the new Prime Minister, and give free concerts in marginal electorates… the ALP would still lose.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

@Tel

I think that for the most part, the people of Australia genuinely understand the ALP policy agenda, and genuinely don’t appreciate it.

Bahaha, this is exactly the sort of hand-waving I-know-the-punters-better-than-you-do silliness that sounds glib to the point of illogicality when pollies (of any stripe) say it.

If the people of Australia don’t appreciate Labor policy, how is it that they seem to vote Labor in significant numbers every election to the extent that sometimes (like now!) they form a government?

Must. Do. Better.

Yobbo
Yobbo
9 years ago

They don’t Dan. They only hold government now because 3 MPs who were previously affiliated with the National Party decided to switch sides because having a 2nd election would cause them to lose their cushy jobs.

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

the re-branded Carbon Tax is really an ETS (which is strictly true but lost on 99% of the population)

It’s lost on me too Tel, and I daresay I understand it better than 90% of the population. Where is the trading that I can’t see?

Victor Trumper
Victor Trumper
9 years ago

Patrick it is an ETS with a FIXED price. The companies buy permits. Those permits can be traded. It changes to a flexible price later on.

you cannot trade tax!

If you understand it better than most then we have a quite ignorant electorate.

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

Right, so let me just make sure I understand this. Companies are obliged to pay a fixed amount per unit of carbon emitted. Payment is mandatory and enforceable with financial penalties and even jail, although, the means of payment can be purchased from both the government and private parties.

As for ‘flexible’, unless I missed something it is ‘flexible’ above a certain amount. What amount? Oh, about 2.2 times the (roughly, ie last time I checked) current market value.

That’s flexible like our tax system is flexible – you can either submit a tax return with a TFN and pay your effective rate on your net income or flexibly refuse to participate and pay the top marginal rate on your gross income. Oddly enough most people don’t think of this as flexibility but rather coercion.

Victor Trumper
Victor Trumper
9 years ago

Patrick,

A fixed price is not unusual when bringing an ETS.

It gives the private sector ‘certainty’ ( This was part of the Previous government’s policy and what was agreed to by both the Government and Opposition when negotiating the last ETS legislation.) It also gives them time to understand the policy before they start trading at a later date when the price can change at any time.

Yes you have missed a lot.

Got to go now.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

Yobbo@5:

They don’t Dan.

If you’re disputing that significant numbers of people vote Labor some or all of the time, that flies in the face of common observation.

How do you explain wall-to-wall Labor in very recent times? Widespread electoral fraud?

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

Yes it gives them certainty, much like a tax does.

The price can’t change because it is never going to be above the cap. Presumably you realise this, too, but are just pretending otherwise.

This is not all bad – a tax is probably better, as stupid as either idea is. But it is still a tax.

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[…] though, this is just the necessary prelude to the renewed focus on governing well which is now so vital to the ALP’s long-term success. Governing well is something Gillard is perfectly capable of doing. It also represents […]

derrida derider
derrida derider
9 years ago

Michael, apparatchiks schmapparatchiks. This meme about faceless men doing deals to knife our Kev is a joint product of Abbott and Rudd, both of whom have obvious vested interests. In both 2010 and 2012 it was the CAUCUS – elected representatives, each and every one – who voted on this (in fact in 2010 caucus opinion was so hostile to Rudd that he wasn’t even game to face a vote).

In fact the trouble with the 2012 one is that, far from being an unaccountable process by unknown factional warriors, it was all too open. Both opposition and support for Rudd cut right across all factional lines. Quite simply there were no backroom deals here (perhaps more’s the pity).

Then, too, Gillard has her failings and has committed some blunders, but it is obviously and grossly untrue to say she has no policy agenda. Why don’t you look at what she has DONE in the face of a minority parliament, rather than relying on vague impressions formed by her inadequate public communication? Legislation talks, bullshit walks.

Michael
Michael
9 years ago

derrida derider, I didn’t use the term “faceless men” for a reason – apparatchiks don’t preclude elected representatives. I don’t agree that the whole process is open to the public, maybe you have never gotten involved with politics.
I think Gillard is an effective manager and negotiator. So far she has proved to be an inept communicator as judged by her inability to sell whatever agenda she does have to the public.
In the last week we have been witness to just how much of a tin ear and how little electoral nous key figures in the ALP have. For whatever faults Rudd has, which I’m sure are exaggerated, he ran a much more savvy campaign in the media than the other side.
I’m afraid the best that can be said for the current government is that it’s a minority, may that continue whoever wins the next election.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

Patrick,

The price can’t change because it is never going to be above the cap. Presumably you realise this, too, but are just pretending otherwise.

That’s a likely guesstimate of future events, but no particular guarantee of that. So should some financial organization decide to put a lot of investment into setting up a trading desk and buying a whack of certificates as a speculative position to get it started, and then should some fresh incoming new government decide to pull the plug (or even significantly reduce the price cap) then one huge stink would start brewing over compensation issues.

Who would do such a thing? Someone with lawyers on permanent staff I expect.

This is not all bad – a tax is probably better, as stupid as either idea is. But it is still a tax.

Of course it’s a tax, but the ETS is a tax with lock-in potential. The idea being to bind the hand of future governments and make it expensive and complex for them to unwind the position. An ordinary “you dig you pay” tax has no lock-in and can easily be adjusted or removed.

observa
observa
9 years ago

I think David’s notion of ‘good govt’ is an important one for Labor with its left lean as distinct from the ‘Tories’ if you like. Both need to occupy the middle ground and be careful of their natural fringe pull. Perhaps there is a bigger risk for Labor with economic management because it is largely manned by those who haven’t had to sing for their supper in the marketplace(perhaps the Hawke/Keating Govt being a notable exception to the rule?)As such it can easily allow the heart(Albo blubbering?)to rule its head when the very essence of good govt is an appreciation of the tradeoff, the level playing field (ie not the knee jerk, emotional, divine right of elected kings)as well as living within taxpayer’s means. For Tories naturally schooled in the marketplace, they quickly understand that their bright ideas don’t put food on the table for they and their workers, their customers do. That is the quintessential, underlying Tory advantage in politics.

From that springs an intuitive understanding and appreciation of free markets and ignore it at your peril. Looking back we can easily see the fatal attraction of Kevin07 playing to the gallery with Fuelwatch and Grocerywatch. Unless he was delusional and wanted to actually control prices, all he was going to do was blow millions on more public servants for no measurable outcome. As well indulging in an ideas fest(cf Hawke’s necessary Economic Summit) would produce a similar wasteful outcome. After all there’s never any shortage of suggestions in the box, but it’s management’s job to know exactly where they are going (that’s your job in Opposition) after an assessment of the resources at hand and a sensible business plan, with due allowance for contingencies. Federal Labor naturally went downhill from there.

Here’s the classic example of the outcome of the heart ruling the head for Labor at the State and Federal level. If the handout divine right of elected kings and ignoring the level playing field has led to inevitable recriminations for Federal Labor,for State Labor trying to hide the cost of what it was implementing with reshiftable power bills would inevitably produce the same. Emotional ‘free’ pink batts or STBs for pensioners achieves the same inevitable envy as those who have just shelled out their hard-earned for same, look on in dismay, as do those who miss out when the inevitable boom is lowered to manage costs. That’s Labor’s free lunch mentality all over and it should cease forthwith for the obvious.

The obvious is Fed Labor is hungry for more taxes to fuel its emotional outbursts and the carbon tax has nothing to do with fixing the planet. After 4 years of emotional indulgence they have racked up over $200bill in communal debt. Around $20K per eed worker or their cost calcs for for getting fast fibre to 93% of Australians more than 4 times over. That aint hay comrades and sometime somehow those pet working families of yours are gunna have to pay it back.

observa
observa
9 years ago

edit-Around $20k per employed worker..

observa
observa
9 years ago

To Labor emotional types everywhere, I’d simply put it to you that you can’t run whole nations like the Salvos or Mother Theresa and the nuns. Logical fallacy of composition in that eventually they’ll have no-one left to donate to the good works. Spell the word tradeoff and look it up in the dictionary if you’re struggling with it. Just like you struggled with not being able to stuff the world’s problems into Wesern Sydney befor Xmas when you couldn’t handle all the emotion of a bit of lip sewing and children overboard. Apparently we rational hardheads had to rationalise away your alternative drownings, burnings and kiddies on the rocks. Just like we have to rationalise away typhoid now apparently. Sometimes you make your own problems and other times you have them thrust upon you and sometimes it’s a mixture of the two.