Rudd Oversees A Disaster for A.L.P.
THERE may still exist some true believers, such as ALP tragic Bob Ellis, who predict a Labor victory, hoping against hope that Kevin Rudd will stand up tonight to repeat the lines of Labor’s great comeback kid Paul Keating and describe it as “the sweetest victory of all”.
Were he to pull off the unthinkable, after what arguably has been Labor’s worst federal election campaign, Rudd would deserve to be anointed as one of Labor’s immortals.
But if the polls are correct and (as I predicted early in the campaign) Tony Abbott wins convincingly today, then Rudd has little left but to concede defeat, admit he got it all wrong and slink off to the political oblivion where utterly vanquished leaders belong.
The post-mortems will be long and arduous for Labor.
Having spent three years plotting and manoeuvring to bring down Julia Gillard, Rudd was reluctantly restored by the caucus as Prime Minister to at least save the furniture, if not the government. But that, it now seems certain, was a pipe dream.
He probably will argue he was pushed into an election campaign before he had a chance to fully reconnect with voters and re-create those halcyon days of Kevin07. But would more days or weeks have made a difference? Almost certainly not.
This federal Labor campaign has been one of constant disaster for Rudd – and most of it of his own making.
Rudd had few choices on the timing of any poll. Labor hardheads wanted to go early; he wanted to go late. But that would have required federal parliament to be recalled. And this would have involved the uncomfortable sight of Gillard, Wayne Swan and a host of former ministers who couldn’t stomach Rudd sitting on the backbench. This was too much for even Rudd to contemplate.
It may well be true that most voters made up their minds about the Labor Party many months ago. Since early last year opinion polling on a two-party preferred basis across the major pollsters has barely fluctuated from a 52-48 flow in favour of the Coalition, while Labor’s primary vote has hit record lows.
In 2007, Campaign Kevin was the media darling and voters, tired of a Liberal government that had run its term, couldn’t punish John Howard hard enough.
Now the same fate is confronting Labor, but it is hard for Labor parliamentarians and apparatchiks to comprehend.
Having spent years telling Australians they were “economic conservatives” and bragging about the “cuts” they had made (which were actually tax hikes), the ALP found itself in an extremely difficult position. Labor couldn’t brag about the cuts it had made, then in the same breath criticise its opponents by saying Abbott and Joe Hockey would “cut, cut and cut”.
By trying to do this, and indeed by continuing to do so, federal Labor failed Politics 101. As we know, parliamentary politics is about telling a story and Labor under Gillard and Rudd couldn’t settle on their key story and their essential narrative.
One moment Labor was relating a horror story about the budget, the next a romantic tale about how Australia managed the crisis. It just didn’t work and was part of the reason Australians ended up bitter and disillusioned with a party that was meant to represent workers, ordinary citizens and the rank and file.
One could observe that the Liberals’ expensive paid parental leave policy might fall into the same boat. However, the Coalition found a way of neutralising the issue and keeping the economic hardheads that dominate its frontbench happy.
The day the policy was released the Coalition had Hockey, an economic rationalist if ever there were one, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Abbott as he announced his signature scheme. Hockey pitched the plan as one for small business.
Coming from a small business family, Hockey knew firsthand that, without government assistance, small business could not compete with the public service and with the big companies that could afford to offer paid parental leave.
The argument was made all the more persuasive when, days later, Hockey released about three-quarters of the savings that the Coalition would make. Indeed the timing was impeccable: three-quarters of the savings almost exactly three-quarters of the way through the campaign.
The initial release also included key details of how the PPL scheme would be funded, showing it would actually leave the budget more than $1 billion better off across the forward estimates.
Rudd, Chris Bowen and Penny Wong’s clumsy attack backfired and with it went any hope of Labor mounting any credible argument for the rest of the campaign. Whether it was a turning point in the minds of the undecided, only history will tell.
When, as seems almost certain, Labor is consigned to the opposition benches with significantly fewer members, Rudd may well be remembered as the political king with no clothes. Even he must now know that a monumental ego combined with frantic activity and short-time popularity in schoolyards is no substitute for political credibility in the minds of voters and the citizenry at large.
It was a high-stakes game the ALP played with the minds of ordinary, decent Australians, especially by its betrayal of Gillard and its short-sighted reinstatement of the volatile, chaotic and seemingly narcissistic Rudd as Prime Minister.
If today’s election is a wipeout for Labor, Australian voters will neither forget nor forgive for a long, long time all of the betrayal that occurred within the ALP.
This is a lesson that the highly disciplined Abbott, and especially any would-be rivals in his team, would do well to commit for decades to their collective memory.
Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ is now available as an e-book and a Talking Book read by Fitzgerald.
The Weekend Australian September 7-8, 2013, Inquirer p.22