Kevin Rudd’s challenge to sustain public goodwill

| July 1, 2013

Kevin Rudd’s reinstallment as Prime Minister after a dramatic victory over Julia Gillard has exposed profound operational problems within the Labor Party. Dominic O’Sullivan, associate professor in political science at Charles Sturt University, says one lesson to learn is that trust is important in politics.

Kevin Rudd’s removal from the Prime Ministership and return to office some 3 years and 3 days later is the product of deep structural problems within the Australian Labor Party; borne out in the factional relationships that distinguish its internal politics and compromise its capacity to develop a unique, consistent and coherent policy direction, based on an obvious, easily understandable value system.

The party’s increasing inability to aligh itself with the aspirations of a clear and broad constituency, preferring instead rash responses to last night’s focus group research, leaves the party without scope for principled policy leadership and unable to provide consistently clear points of differentiation with the Coalition.

Mark Latham’s recent Quarterly Essay contribution sets out a series of structural reforms inteneded to foster the development of a considered and consistent social democratic perspective to contemporary politics. These are based on a community connectedness that Labor’s union affiliates, that dominate candidate selections and provide the ‘faceless men’ to determine the party leadership, cannot provide on the strength of memberships representing a small, and declining, percentage of the workforce.

Yet one union secretary’s comment last week – that his union no longer ‘directs’ its supported members and senators to vote in a particular way in a leadership ballot – is a late concession that union secretary controlled factionalism is not a concept voters can reconcile with the deeper conception of democracy; one that insists that parliamentarians actually ought to accept accountability to the people.

‘Faceless’ union secretaries do not provide working people with political ‘voice’; and it is for the provision of such voice that Latham argues that a genuine connectedness between the party and community may start to emerge.

It is in the absence of strong community relationships that the mis-reading of public opinion that helped to undermine Julia Gillard’s leadership occurs. It is true that the first female Prime Minister’s leadership was subject to sexist dismissiveness that sometimes extended to prejudicially driven hostility. However, the speech in her final weeks in office that attempted to secure female votes by bringing abortion into political debate had no positive impact on stated female voting intentions and was delivered without anticipation of the dramatic negative effect it would have on male voter support. That the speech was delivered by a Prime Minister known for her defence of Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper highlights the intellectual inconsistencies that a politics well grounded in community aspirations might avert. Even the aspirational misogyny speech was delivered in the context of a Parliamentary no confidence debate in a Speaker who was later to resign after admitting to have sent lewd text messages; highly disrespecful of the female voters the Prime Minister tried to court and position as a natural constituency.

Inability to construct, defend and build support for a political argument, based on a coherent set of values, helps to explain both Rudd and Gillard’s mismanagement of both assylum seeker and carbon pricing policy. It is now too late in the electoral cycle to ask ‘what is the right and proper thing to do’ or ‘what is the extent and what are the limits’ of Australia’s responsibilities to people alleging that leaving their homelands at extraordinary personal risk is their only alternative to death? Perhaps there are levels of human solidarity that genuine political leadership might draw from the Australian community in consideration of these points?

However, as Kevin Rudd has indicated, it is not too late to reconsider carbon pricing policy and sever, decisively, the relationship with the Greens that required Gillard to set aside the pre-election promise that there would be no carbon tax under her government, which was a significant turning point in the loss of public confidence in her leadership. The lesson is that trust is important in politics. The public goodwill that has followed Rudd’s return to the Prime Ministership is sustainable on the basis of trust as much as it depends on competence in the administration of government, Rudd’s well documented weak point. This means that considerations much greater than the merits and impact of the ALPs latest leadership change are the structural and procedural factors that allow ‘faceless men’ to determine the leadership of a government and that position a deeply unpopular Leader of the Opposition as the only realistic alternative to last week’s two Prime Ministers. This is a complex and multi-faceted question, but it may be timely to debate the issues that it raises.