Saturday 20 August 2011

John Howard - relevance depreviation syndrome

John Howard: where Labor went wrong
John Howard
Former Prime Minister John Howard in his city office with the
paperback edition of his autobiography.
Picture: Alan Pryke Source: The Australian

WHEN the members of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party met to elect a new leader after its defeat on November 27, 2007, the outlook for the party and its cause, nationwide, seemed bleak. The gallows humour started early.

Campbell Newman, the Liberal Lord Mayor of Brisbane, was quickly named the most senior Liberal figure in Australia: he actually held elected office.

Not since its formation in 1944 had the Liberal Party been so bereft of political power. Labor was in office everywhere at a national, state and territory level.

The reasonable expectation was that the newly ensconced Rudd government would have at least two terms in office, more if it performed well.

Peter Costello's decision not to seek the leadership confronted Liberal MPs with a totally unexpected leadership choice between Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. Tony Abbott wanted to stand, but could not muster enough votes to make a run respectably; so he withdrew.

Loyal Liberals wished Nelson well, but few believed that he would lead the Coalition back into government -- not because they doubted his ability and commitment, but because history was against "first up" opposition leaders taking a party into government.

On that issue at least, the history books were an accurate guide as to what happened. In so many other respects, they have not been, with political fortunes and forecasts being turned on their heads. Mocking rational expectations, from the dazzling heights of coast-to-coast Labor governments after the Rudd victory, the ALP has plummeted in public esteem.

In the early months of his prime ministership, amid much euphoria, Rudd fulfilled two symbolic promises: the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and the apology to Indigenous peoples. The period of his stratospheric approval ratings had begun.

Most observers (me included) believed, by May of 2008, that Australian politics had settled into a familiar pattern.

The new government was being given a fair go. Indeed the new prime minister was being given more than a fair go. His stellar approval ratings made many of his predecessors look quite pedestrian by comparison.

Yet this was deceptive; Rudd was a clean-skin. He brought no popularity baggage to the Lodge, largely because he had only been on the national political scene for a short while; there was no inbuilt hostility to him; there were no Rudd haters. To committed Labor voters, Kevin Rudd was a hero. He had defeated me.

To many Coalition voters he seemed innocuous enough. They lamented our loss but felt he was a safe pair of hands, and a lot of them would, for a time, give him the benefit of the doubt on the measurements of preferred prime minister and job satisfaction.

Rudd's first big political error was to read too much into his strong personal approval ratings. He didn't understand that although initial public support for him was broad, it was not very deep. Thus began his imperial treatment of the Labor Party.

A taste of this was his arrogant insensitivity to Labor feelings in choosing to visit the newly mothered Cate Blanchett in hospital in preference to attending the funeral of John Button. Button was a revered Labor identity; he had probably been, in overall terms, the most competent minister in the Hawke government.

Rudd's action must have caused many Labor MPs to begin to wonder whether or not their new PM believed that loyalty in a political party should flow both ways.

These were only the tiniest of straws in the wind. Three years on, they are seen as early signs of fatal political character flaws.

So in the shadow of a remarkable political victory were sown the seeds of an even more remarkable and highly dysfunctional relationship between the senators and members who comprised the federal Labor caucus and their leader, which culminated in the abrupt and ill-advised removal of Rudd as PM on June 24, 2010.

Rudd's implosion continues to haunt federal politics. It, coupled with Gillard's failure to win in 2010 in her own right, has denied her a quality crucial for any prime minister -- authority.

Gillard needed to win a Labor majority at the 2010 election to validate the assassination of Rudd. His removal confused and angered Labor supporters, and left other Australians mystified and cynical.

We may not have a presidential system in Australia, but we know our governments by the name of the serving prime minister. Australians voted for a Rudd Labor government in 2007, not a Gillard Labor government.

Given the chance to do just that in 2010, they refused to do so. That is the essence of Gillard's problem; she will struggle to break free from this encumbrance. The broken promise on a carbon tax has added to her burden.

Rudd's removal was without precedent in Australian politics. Only three Labor leaders since World War II have defeated the Coalition from opposition: [Gough] Whitlam, [Bob] Hawke and Rudd. Yet Rudd was struck down before he had completed his first term.

The demise of Rudd, compounded by Gillard's weakness as a leader, has crippled the morale of Labor supporters. Campaigning for Joanna Gash, the Liberal MP for Gilmore in the Shellharbour shopping centre just before the 2010 election, I encountered a Labor supporter who said to me, "I am strong Labor. I couldn't stand your policies, but I don't know about this Rudd business.

I voted for him, not Gillard. I am cranky. They didn't ask me."

Those comments encapsulated the alienation felt by so many Labor people about Rudd's downfall.

The Labor MPs who knifed Rudd displayed political naivete, acting, quite literally, in the dead of night. Party activists accept that it is for MPs to choose the leader, but they want the opportunity to at least express a view.

There was all the more need for this when the leader being dispatched was a prime minister yet to finish his first term. The whole episode served to reinforce the sense of irrelevance felt by ordinary party members.

If Rudd had stayed PM then Labor would have won the 2010 election. Those who organised Rudd's demise not only panicked, but showed contempt for Labor's foot soldiers.
The Labor caucus may have blundered in ousting Rudd, but he carries immense blame for becoming vulnerable to his colleagues' brain snap.

He treated them and the public service contemptuously; he travelled abroad far too much in his early months, thus creating the impression that he had no serious domestic policy agenda.Ironically, so far from Rudd saving Australia from the global financial crisis, the reverse was almost certainly the case.

Reacting to the economic plunge of 2008 gave him a challenge to respond to. Before that he had begun to appear as a prime minister in search of a rationale.

As early as June 2008, there were rumblings that Rudd had no reform agenda and reports emerged of the chaos in his private office. In a little over six months he had shown a capacity to establish inquiries but not bring about change. Nelson put it aptly when he described Rudd as "all backswing but no follow-through".

The Gippsland by-election, on June 28, 2008, should have warned Rudd that he had a problem. When Brian Loughnane, the Liberal federal director, texted through the Gippsland figures to me in London, I immediately rang Nelson and said, "You should compare this with the Parramatta by-election in 1973, just nine months after Whitlam won."

The swings against Labor in the two by-elections were very similar.

I hoped I was providing Brendan with a useful political debating point. Little did I imagine that comparing Rudd with Whitlam would come to have more than a grain of truth.

Rudd likened the GFC to a "rolling national security crisis" -- an absurd description, given the fiscal strengths of the Australian economy (bequeathed by the Howard government) and the advantaged position Australia enjoyed by dint of China's demand for our resources.

Rudd's overkill response to the GFC caused Labor ongoing damage. Not only were millions wasted on pink batts, school building programs and ill-directed $900 cheques, but in the process this Labor government acquired the indelible mark of profligacy. The Australian people believe that it wastes money. Their cynical response to the recent budget proposal for set-top boxes for pensioners illustrated this.

Gillard is regularly defied by Rudd; the public senses this but she is powerless to act. She can't risk a by-election in Griffith, but I doubt that Rudd would leave parliament. He fantasises about a return to the leadership. If Gillard sacked Rudd, then he would go
to the backbench and even more actively undermine his leader. Rudd would, however, find the bleachers much lonelier than he might hope.

He is deeply unpopular with Labor MPs. He ignored them when he was riding high and, moreover, many think that he has been treacherous towards Gillard.

It is probable that Gillard will lead Labor to the next election: so bad is the legacy of Rudd's personal arrogance that it is unlikely his colleagues will have him back, and changing to yet another leader would evoke comparisons with the revolving door disaster of NSW Labor.

No doubt Rudd is mesmerised by the polls, which rate him ahead of Gillard. He should take a reality check. Those polls reflect the public's disillusionment with Gillard more than enchantment with Rudd.

The paperback edition of Lazarus Rising will be published on September 1 by HarperCollins, $35

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