Monday, 5 July 2010

Changing Prime Ministers

Us Aussies are still a little dazed at the sudden replacement of our Prime Minister on June 24th. After a few weeks of low level rumours about a challenge to his leadership, it was announced on Wednesday and was all over by Thursday, with Kevin Rudd not even contesting the vote in the end as he realised he was a long way off having the numbers. The coup is unprecedented in that Rudd is still in his first term, was hugely popular up until the last 12 months, and hasn't been caught out in any sort of misconduct. His failure is purely political - his party just decided that they couldn't win the next election with him as leader. Our new PM, Julia Gillard, has immediately set about getting rid of the various issues standing between her and success.

A lot of people have expressed admiration for Julia Gillard as both the first woman and the first redhead to become Australian Prime Minister, and at her apparently more personable, natural style of relating to people. Even when Rudd was still popular we all loved to laugh at the way he lurched between incomprehensible jargon and lame attempts at Aussie idiom (fair shake of the sauce bottle, Kev!).

Others have expressed outrage or even bafflement at how our elected head of state could be deposed mid-term. I've dealt with this one before in relation to the Queensland parliament. A quick recap - Australia has no elected head of state, it has the Queen of England, represented in Australia by the Governor-General. Short of an armed revolution, we can only depose the Queen through a referendum and last time we were offered the chance to do so we refused, mainly because the offered alternative was so lame. Since the Queen's role is mainly ceremonial, the power actually rests with the Prime Minister (literally, the First Minister of the Queen) who is elected by the dominant party in parliament, not by the people. The party placed him there, the party can remove him. Strictly, his only elected position is that of parliamentarian, and last time I looked Kevin Rudd was still the Member for Griffith, just a couple of kilometres down the road from my house.

So how could it all go wrong for poor old Kev, and why did his party decide not to give him a fair shake of the sauce bottle by allowing him to lead them to another election? Theories abound. He was seen as dictatorial, not communicating with his ministers, centralising control in his own hands, sidelining Cabinet in favour of his four-person Strategic Priorities Committee, being a bottleneck for all sorts of decisions which should really have been made by someone else. Some have made it even more personal - a devastating essay by David Marr a couple of weeks before his fall characterised him as driven by deep-seated anger, and some of the press coverage since has portrayed him as somewhere between a sociopath and an Aspergers sufferer.

No doubt Kev does have his faults but I'd be surprised to find Julia Gillard was any more of a saint. There's no time like straight after a fall to bring out the knives. However, given that this is a government and the Australian people are not as stupid as our media often like to make out, I'd suggest that his fall in the polls and subsequent dumping by the party might have something to do with the way he's been governing.

When the Rudd government was elected, I and many other people were excited by four things - an overall willingness to look at grand reform and big ideas, symbolised by the 2020 Summit, and specifically Rudd's determination to respond to climate change, the prospect of more humane treatment of asylum seekers, and the promised apology to the Stolen Generations. In the first year or 18months of their term things went well. The apology happened to great rejoicing, there was a marginal but worthwhile easing of the laws on asylum seekers, Australia signed up to the Kyoto Protocol and played a leading role in trying to broker a deal at Copenhagen, and the 2020 Summit floated a number of big ideas including a "root and branch" reform of the tax system. In addition, the Government's big-spending response to the global financial crisis was seen as instrumental in averting recession as well as delivering great infrastructure.

However, 12 months later things look a lot less rosy. The government has indefinitely postponed the introduction of its carbon trading scheme and has no Plan B for addressing carbon pollution. A recent increase in the number of boatloads of asylum seekers has led to a toughening of laws, overcrowded detention centres and more refugees with uncertain futures - we are back to punishing the victims and it's not a good look. The government's health reforms look like reshuffling the bureaucratic deckchairs rather than actually improving healthcare. Reports of grossly overpriced school infrastructure projects refuse to go away despite the government insisting (without presenting any evidence) that the projects are really value for money.

And the biggest disappointment of all? Tax reform. The Henry review produced a report including 138 recommendations. Instead of releasing this and allowing public discussion, the government held onto it for months and released the report and its own response simultaneously. It accepted just three of the recommendations, and the only one with any real impact was a major new tax on the mining industry. Cue a $50m ad campaign by some of Australia's richest companies. But lurking behind this explosive debate was a deeper disappointment. Our reforming, participatory government had turned timid and aloof, trying to shut down debate and maintaining the status quo while making seemingly random one-off reforms.

So Rudd is gone. Will Gillard be any better? We can only wait and see, but the fact that she was Deputy Prime Minister and a member of the Strategic Priorities Committee suggests that she helped make all the mistakes listed above. As Education Minister she was responsible for the delivery of the school infrastructure program. The key question is, what will she and her party learn from the last year? Will they be able to regain momentum on reform? Will they be able to deliver on the promise of inclusive and open government which seems to have been abandoned? Only time will tell, but I certainly hope so!


Luke said...

A great round up, it was a shock to see it occur so quickly a result of our global instant media probably. (I predict an election on Saturday the 24th of August!)

Judith said...

Poor old Kev just seemed to lose his nerve, now Julia is finding ways to deepen the compromises while seeming like a nicer person than him. In the end all they seem to care about is staying in power, not doing something worthwhile with it. Their performance has been very disappointing after such a promising start. It will be devastating if Tony Abbot wins, but if the ALP won't use their power for good then maybe we'll barely notice a difference. Thanks for the roundup Jon.

Anonymous said...

I write this from a different viewpoint from yours, Jon. Not so much analytical - though I've been into that, believe me - but almost personal, and I think that applies to many other Labor voters.
We have suffered a heart wound.
Kevin07 was the hero who saved us from the Howard years, and then from the worst effects of the GFC; who was viciously maligned by the mass media (especially the Murdoch press, and including even the ABC); who was bullied by the mining magnates... Little dignity was afforded him or his position.
I have read his articles in The Monthly and see him as a man of conviction, who genuinely wanted to abolish Howard's Brutopia, and restore Australia as the land of the fair go.
I am one of many devastated by what happened, and still just so very angry; sometimes thinking the only way to vote now is informal.
The government should be aware and wary of this very widespread feeling, which could see Abbott elected by default.
BUT Kevin Rudd is staying in the Party, and standing again for Griffith; if he can show such loyalty, then so can I, and perhaps many other Labor voters.
BUT the government does not want to give any hint of hubris, of blaming Kevin Rudd alone for their fall-off in the polls; or the electorate could well turn on them in a big way.
They need to be very careful of the way they speak of and treat the last Prime Minister.
We out here are still on an emotional roller coaster, and the commentators do not know it all.

Jon said...

Thanks Mr Anon. I guess I've always been a reluctant Labor voter after so many expereinces of feeling let down by labor governments (but a little less than by conservative ones, so I keep voting for them or at least giving them my preferences). My key thing is, will they have the courage in government to do what they promise in opposition? So far the indications are no, irrespective of whether they are led by Rudd or Gillard.