Still more on: How has it come to this?

There are many factors that have interacted with each other to produce the result we now see. The first two pieces on this subject examined the Rudd factor, the Gillard factor, the Queensland factor and the Bligh factor. This final piece looks at some other factors that seem to be important in explaining the hung parliament we now have.

The NSW factor

The parlous state of the NSW State Government has had a significant influence on the election outcome. Of all the state Labor governments, NSW is held to be the one most ‘on the nose’. This probably started at the time Bob Carr resigned and has steadily worsened under Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and even the personally popular Kristina Keneally. Chronic maladministration and corruption has marred successive governments and by now defeat next March is taken for granted with Labor’s primary vote in the doldrums. In fact the NSW Labor Government would have been replaced long ago if there had been an anyway decent Opposition. It has certainly done great damage to the Labor brand in NSW and this was widely predicted to cause a major loss of seats in that state. It was feared the 25% swing against Labor in the Penrith state by-election would flow over into the federal poll, which indeed it did in seats in Western Sydney, but that did not pertain universally in NSW. As George Megalogenis put it: in “…the dead state of NSW, …neither side claimed a decisive vote.” This suggests that although the damage to the Labor brand in NSW was palpable in some areas, it was not universal. In Eden-Monaro, usually considered a bell-weather seat, Labor increased its vote, as it did in the very marginal seat of Robertson.

It is reasonable to conclude that, against expectations, Labor did not suffer as serious a loss as anticipated, although clearly the NSW factor was operating.

The Sussex Street factor

Related to the NSW factor is the Sussex Street factor. Sussex Street is the headquarters of the Labor party where the powerbrokers and party apparatchiks do their subterranean work. Long considered to be the controlling influence over Labor internal politics it has harboured the likes of national secretary Karl Bitar and his predecessor Mark Abib, now a Senator, two men said to be ‘joined at the hip’. These men apparently have a profound influence on personnel selection for federal and state parliaments. Mark Abib was kingmaker for Kevin Rudd’s ascent to power, only to engineer his descent. It seems that the same people must take some responsibility for the condition of the NSW State Government, now rendered unelectable in 2011.

Sussex Street can be held responsible for masterminding not only most of the decisions made about Kevin Rudd’s removal and replacement, but also the timing of the consequent election, and the management of the campaign. Others involved were Bill Shorten, David Feeney and unionists Bill Ludwig and Paul Howes. The term ‘faceless men’ that the Opposition so enjoys using to foster a sinister tone reminiscent of the ’36 faceless men’ mantra of a bygone era, is applied not only to the Sussex Street apparatchiks but to others whose faces we know well.

Along with Labor’s public affairs firm, Hawker Britten, they also seem to provide intelligence for the party through polling and focus groups, and to exercise some control over tactics, especially during election campaigns, including what spokespersons have to say. So they have to take some responsibility for how the Labor campaign unfolded. We would like to know who coined the ‘moving forward’ slogan, presumably fashioned to contrast with the Coalition ‘moving backward’, but overdone. We would like to know who dreamed up the sayings: ‘the Government has lost its way’ and needs to change course and ‘get back on track’, that portrayed the Government as wandering lost in the wilderness, not a great image for a party seeking re-election. Why not say ‘the Government will be adjusting its policies to better meet community expectations’? Or ‘Government policies will be re-tuned (or reviewed or reset or re-aligned) to achieve even better outcomes’? There are plenty of words that indicate a change for the better that do not have a depreciatory ring. What evidence did these PR geniuses use to fashion the campaign messages – focus groups, polling data? If so, they need to review their methods.

Whatever the outcome of the current impasse, Labor supporters will look for a much better performance from those responsible for election campaign messages and management. They need to be replaced or to seriously lift their game. Incompetence in this arena is lethal. Maxine McKew and Anna Bligh certainly think so.

Moreover, Labor supporters will look for greater transparency from its party officials, many of whom seem to operate clandestinely behind closed doors manipulating people, policies and plans without apparent accountability. Let’s see who they are, what they believe, and how they operate. They need to understand that they are accountable to the party and all who support it, not to some inner clique who regard themselves as the kingmakers and masterminds.

The Abbott factor

When Tony Abbott won the Coalition leadership, many, including conservative journalists, declared him unelectable. Not surprisingly, after his poor performance in the 2007 election campaign, his extreme views on such matters as industrial relations and climate change, his radical conservatism as expressed in his book Battlelines, his longing for a return to the Howard era, and his pugilistic, aggressive and combative approach to politics. Add to that his inconsistency, his proneness to thought bubbles and errors of judgement for which he regularly seeks forgiveness, and his willingness to opportunistically change his views, and you have someone who does look unelectable. His admirers say Tony is authentic and that you know where he stands. The problem is that he stands in so many places, and changes his stance so often, that it is hard to pin down where he does stand.

But as of now he has almost made it to prime ministership, and will complete the journey if the Country Independents give him the nod. How is this so?

Although I rate the Abbott factor below the ones mentioned previously, it has had a significant influence. Given his proneness to ‘foot in mouth’ disease, his minders have disciplined him strictly less he implode, as well he might have if left to his own devices. He has devised or was given a short set of memorable, short and snappy slogans which he has faithfully uttered at every opportunity. We know them by heart: ‘stop the waste’, ‘repay the debt’, ‘stop new taxes’ and ‘stop the boats’. What could be simpler, and they tick many of the boxes that are concerning people. ‘Help families’ was added later. The Coalition clearly outperformed Labor with its slogans. Of course it’s much easier to create negative slogans than positive, but why couldn’t Labor have created a similar set? What about: ‘a strong economy’, ‘protection from recession’, ‘friendly family support’, ‘excellent education’, ‘better school amenities’, ‘improved health care’, ‘fairer workplaces’, ‘strong support for small business, ‘faster broadband’, ‘equitable taxes’, ‘a better deal for the bush’, ‘a more prosperous country’, ‘a fair and just society’. It might have been more hard pressed to address climate change and the boat people issue, but it could have been bold and tried: ‘tackling global warming’ and ‘stopping people smugglers’. Ask a random audience what Labor’s key messages were, and see how many have the vaguest idea.

Another aspect of the Abbott factor was that he stayed on message and was allowed to do so by a compliant media that failed to pursue him vigorously enough. How many questioned him about how he was going to stop the waste? How long did we have to wait to know how he was going to repay the debt? All we got was a dubious set of ‘savings’ that only a few economics columnists exposed for what it was, and we still don’t know how reliable the figures are. We know how he will avoid new taxes – he’ll not tax the polluters or the miners. But how will he stop the boats? The best the media could do was to invent the BoatPhone as a light-hearted diversion from the serious and potentially hazardous business of turning the boats around. So if you run slick and superficially plausible slogans and you are seldom challenged by the media, it is easy to sustain a consistent message. Abbott and the Coalition did this, Labor did not. I have argued for months that Labor needed a more proficient public relations outfit informed by educators who knew what they were about. This campaign starkly underscores that need.

Tony Abbott avoided putting his foot in it throughout the campaign, something for which he was applauded. Isn’t it amusing that if one is accident-prone, kudos accumulates as accidents are avoided! Points are gained by not stuffing up, rather than by positive contributions. That has been the Abbott story, and it has gained him a lot with his supporters and a compliant media, which have given him a big tick. Who has ever asked whether his avoidance of mistakes for five weeks equips him sufficiently for three years of prime ministership?

Whether or not he becomes PM, we can expect unremitting aggression and combativeness from him. It has served him well so far, so why would he change? The kinder parliament that he talks about is fiction. He will continue to follow Randolph Churchill’s dictum for opposition leaders: “Oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out’.

The Coalition factor

This parallels the Abbott factor. Have you noticed how most Coalition ministers were quarantined? The only ones who appeared regularly were Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb, both concerned with the Coalition’s financial plans that Abbott chose to ignore or avoid, and of course Robb was the campaign spokesman. This technique seems to be in favour as campaigns become more and more presidential. Of course Hockey and Robb made a pretty poor fist of explaining the finances, but Abbott would have been worse.

A key strategy of the Coalition was the use of the fear factor, fear of an ‘invasion’ of boat people, fear of overcrowding in city areas and over population with Muslims, all great for dog-whistling, and fear of Great Big New Taxes. Fear was exploited ruthlessly and it did have an effect in the Western suburbs of Sydney and in the mining states. The tactic was to strike fear in the people’s hearts, then promise to protect them. Fear of the boat people is a classic example.

The other tactic was to paint everything the Government did as bad or useless, its efforts as ineffectual or wasteful, its spending as profligate and ill-directed, and the result, out-of-control debt and deficit. The Government was labelled by each Coalition commentator as 'the worst, the most incompetent government in Australian political history’. As Goebbels said, no matter how implausible, if you tell a lie often enough, the people will believe it.

Although the Coalition factor did have an influence, in my view it was less so than the Abbott factor.

The media factor

As there have been many articles written in the blogosphere and by some in the MSM about the extraordinary influence the media has had on this election, I need not elaborate in detail here. There is no doubt at all that News Limited media has been running an anti-Government, anti-Rudd and pro-Coalition line for at least two years. Think back to the early attempts to discredit Kevin Rudd: the Scores incident, the Burke affair, the RAAF hostess episode and the hairdryer beat-up, all of which surprisingly increased his popularity. So the media turned its attention to attacking Government policy: Fuel Watch and Grocery Watch, the stimulus package, the Home Insulation Program, the computer in schools program, the BER schools building program, even the national curriculum and the MySchool website. These were all worthy initiatives, Fuel Watch was stillborn, killed in the Senate; Grocery Watch did not receive the support it needed to work; the stimpak worked brilliantly, and all the others succeeded, some better than others. But it was not the successes that the media highlighted, it was the problems, and there were some.

Take the BER, how much did we hear about the benefit of the program to children, teachers, parents and the community? Precious little! But we heard plenty about the overruns, the rorts, the slower-than-planned rollout, and the dissatisfaction expressed by some principals and parents. The Australian even ran a regular ‘Schools Watch’ section where every problem, small and large, was highlighted. Yet when the ANAO and Orgill reports found that the program had performed well, with only 2.7% dissatisfaction reported in the latter, it was the 2.7% that captured virtually all the media’s attention, leaving unchallenged the ‘waste and mismanagement’ mantra that the Coalition had been reciting for over a year. The media’s role was reprehensible in the extreme as it deprived the reading public of a balanced picture of this massive program, leaving only the negatives hanging out to dry in full public view.

Even this past week, the News Limited media is openly urging the selection of the Coalition to form government and is using polls in the electorates of the Country independents to put pressure on them.

What’s behind this? We all know Rupert Murdoch’s preference for conservative governments and his desire for control of the media to that end, but there may be other reasons. For example is the NBN seen as a treat to the print empire? Is the advertising revenue from government likely to be more under a Coalition Government? Who know what the motives are, but the end result is clear – News Limited wants a Coalition Government.

Let’s look briefly at the leaks.

All journalists love a scoop. So I suppose when someone leaks something significant to them, the urge to publish it is irresistible, and anyway they may take the line that if they do not publish the leak, the leaker will pass it to someone else. Do they ever decide not to publish a leak, in the public interest? Is there a code of ethics that keeps some matters under wraps? If so, what matters?

Anyway, the leaks that were publicized were damaging to Labor. Laurie Oakes made a rare appearance at the NPC to throw his bombshell at Julia Gillard about the supposed deal that she had made with Kevin Rudd to give him another chance to restore his position as leader. He knew that would be damaging to her, and that she would be hard pressed to rebut the charges because of confidentiality imperatives. And it was very damaging. It astonishes me that an experienced journalist, who is not known for his antagonism to Labor, would deliberately act in a way that would damage Gillard and her campaign so profoundly. Seemingly the scoop is more important than the damage inflicted.

Then there were the leaks about Gillard’s attitude in Cabinet toward a PPL and a pension rise, leaving her having to defend her position while sticking to the protocol of Cabinet confidentially. So the electorate was left suspecting that she opposed these measures.

These leaks were damaging and robbed the second and third weeks of the campaign of space to promote Labor policies, as the media obsessively focussed on the leaks. Without them, the outcome might have been more favourable to Labor.

The final leak was about the Coalition’s faulty costings on an item it had submitted. It embarrassed it, but gave Tony Abbott an excuse, ‘a criminal leak’, for not submitting any more Coalition costings to Treasury. No one knows where the leak arose; the Coalition asked the AFP to investigate. As WHK Horwath, an auditing firm, had been engaged two months beforehand to check the costings, one suspects the Coalition’s use of the leak to suspend submissions to Treasury was just too opportune. That leak was damaging to Labor too because it left the Coalition costings free from proper scrutiny.

The leaks were an embarrassment and did damage the campaign. How much, is conjecture.

As in any complex system, there is a multiplicity of factors that operate, and moreover they interact with each other in a way that multiplies the complexity. Any attempt to isolate one factor as the only, or even the most significant, is always going to be suspect, yet that is what some journalists do, I suppose to sound shrewd and in possession of the wisdom of Solomon. This trilogy has not attempted this, but instead had proposed as significant the Rudd factor, the Gillard factor, the Queensland factor, the Bligh factor, the NSW factor, the Sussex Street factor, the Abbott factor, the Coalition factor and the media factor. There are more, but not the space to explore them. But even among the factors described, there is intense interaction, the complexity of which we can hardly imagine.

I trust this analysis has provided food for thought, but sadly no insight into what the future holds for Labor, the Coalition and for the electorate. For this we must await the decision of the Country Independents.

What do you think?

More on: How has it come to this?

Although the Rudd factor is arguably the most compelling in attempting to explain how it has come to this, given that the political and social situation is a classic example of a complex adaptive system, there are many other interacting factors that need examination. Some of them receive attention here.

The Gillard factor

Her opponents like to portray her as backstabbing, disloyal, and hungry for the top job. Yet the evidence belies that view. She repeatedly insisted that she was happy in her job as Deputy PM and in her ministry, and had no desire to take Kevin Rudd’s place. She used florid examples to make her point: “There is more chance of me being full forward for the Bulldogs than me becoming PM”. Was she lying? Was this a devious camouflage for a well-planned assassination? Some would believe it was. I believe that is a ridiculous proposition. I believed her when she said she was not coveting Kevin’s job, and I suspect most Australians did too. If that is so, what was the Gillard factor?

As I see it, her capacity to do the job, widely recognized, even by Kevin Rudd himself, was the one essential element in the planning of Rudd’s removal. If the powerbrokers had not had a plausible and acceptable alternative to Rudd, the coup could not have succeeded. Her ability to do the job of PM was the Gillard factor.

From all that has been written, it was not until that fateful day in June that Julia Gillard was confronted with the reality of the internal revolt against Kevin Rudd and the extent of it. It seems she was told that midday that there was deep discontent with Rudd, that he had lost the support of many colleagues, and that if he was not replaced, internal and public polling pointed to a looming electoral defeat with the certain loss of 23 seats, with 32 seats in danger. They told her that she had the numbers to defeat Rudd, but she insisted the numbers be checked. They were, and later that day the powerbrokers assured her that a vote for her was secure, as indeed proved to be the case, with, as rumour has it, only about a quarter of the caucus willing to continue to support Rudd. From all that I have read, it seems then, and only then, that Gillard agreed to challenge Rudd. Without that willingness, there could have been no coup, and the party would have likely gone onto a heavy electoral defeat. Some have argued that with polls showing a TPP of 52/48, Rudd still could have won. We will never know.

So the Gillard factor was the ability to do the job and at the end her preparedness to challenge. She had a long session with Kevin Rudd and John Faulkner during which the facts were laid on the table and her request for a leadership ballot announced. No doubt Rudd resisted, apparently unprepared to accept the reality of the rising tide of opposition to him that reached tsunami proportions that night and swept him away the next day.

It must have been an agonizing choice for Julia, always the loyal deputy. But in the face of the overwhelming evidence that was placed before her, her only choices were to act as she did, or refuse and let the party sink. She did what she felt was right for the party.

The Oakes ‘leak’ that she had promised Rudd a reprieve and a second chance and that she reneged later that day, was damaging even if implausible in the light of subsequent events. She, Rudd and Faulkner refused to comment, leading to frenetic media speculation about the veracity of the leak. Until someone splits, we will never know the full story, and as we have seen with prior ‘deals’: between Hawke and Keating, and Howard and Costello, ‘absolute truth’ is unlikely ever to emerge. Nor are we likely to ever know who leaked. It seems highly unlikely it was Rudd himself; some of his acolytes, possibly one of his displaced staff, are the prime suspects.

What else comprises the Gillard factor? It was apparent early on that her gender was an advantage. The electorate warmed to the thought of a female PM and many women spoke out in her favour. The men were less impressed and later seemed even less so, and even the support of women waned. This might have been a natural process, or it may have been the result of the leaks.

Another element in the Gillard factor was the behind-the-scenes instructions she was being given by the party apparatchiks, the campaign managers. Informed by party polling and focus groups they persuaded her she had to fix the RSPT, do something about defusing the boat people problem, and make reassuring noises about what might be done about climate change – thus the frantic negotiations to change the RSPT to the MRRT, the idea of the East Timor processing centre, and the Citizens Assembly to rebuild community consensus about the need to act on climate change. The latter two were widely poo-poohed, prematurely in my view, and the first was roundly criticized by the smaller miners. She acted quickly and to some extent cleared the deck of these matters for the election. She may have won over some voters who would have otherwise been opposed and to that extent saved some of the furniture.

But even more important was the influence the campaign managers had on Julia’s day by day actions. Running a risk-averse campaign, they restricted her utterances to those that were safe and bland. Journalists became bored and angry at what they termed ‘lack of vision’, ‘lack of policy’ and ‘lack of leadership’, although, as I have written before, they never articulated what vision, policy and leadership might look like. No doubt they have vague notions, but if asked to exemplify these concepts, would likely do poorly. It’s so easy to be critical when you don’t have to do it yourself.

Eventually Julia realized that she was not ‘cutting through’, to use a favourite expression of journalists, and decided to do it her way, to abandon the tight scripting her advisers demanded, and to tone down the ‘moving forward’ slogan that so irritated the journalists. This was when she announced the ‘real Julia’. I would have preferred her to have made the transition without fanfare, but others believe that making the change overt was a circuit breaker. Again we will never know whether a covert or an overt approach would have been preferable – we have only one to observe. Complexity abounds.

Generally she seems to have handled her new role well, albeit not perfectly. The Oakes' leaks were damaging and the one suggesting that she had not supported the PPL and pension rises in Cabinet left her defending her position with one hand – that of Cabinet confidentiality - tied behind her back. She did as well as one might have hoped, but it was bound to be difficult, and because the media’s voracious appetite for ‘scandal’ needed to be satisfied, media coverage took ‘oxygen’ away from her policy announcements in the second and third weeks of the campaign. Amusingly, the media castigated her for not getting her messages out, while it was the main reason this was not possible.

I rate the Gillard factor as positive – it could have been better, but the fact that she stemmed the loss of seats to the extent that the Coalition could not achieve a majority either, should be marked up to her great credit. If given the chance to be the PM, I believe she will do it creditably, especially when not constrained by the exigencies of campaigning.

Let’s now look at what I regard as the next most important factor, what I have called ‘the Queensland factor’.

The Queensland factor

We have become accustomed to hearing about our two-speed economy, the mining boom states versus the rest, but after the election we have another division according to the ever-perceptive George Megalogenis who wrote the following in The Australian on 23 August in “Poll divides the nation into three zones”: “Australia is now divided into three zones by political and economic culture – one conservative one progressive and one split down the middle. The mining states of Queensland and Western Australia are a Labor wasteland. The progressive southern states of Victoria, South Australian and Tasmania don’t want to know the Coalition. Between these two zones is the dead state of NSW, where neither side claimed a decisive vote on Saturday. The parliament was hung because Tony Abbott’s home state did not break the same way for the Coalition as Queensland and Western Australia did.” This perspective highlights the divided state of our nation. We seem not to have one uniform nation, but two or three sub-nations which think and feel quite differently. It is apparent that in this election Queenslanders had a view of federal politics that differed from most of the rest of the nation.

So let’s look at what happened in the Sunshine State.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd, the state’s own boy, took a large swag of seats from the Coalition in a big swing to Labor, picking up seats it hardly expected to win. No doubt there was a local boy factor. It was inevitable that some of these would swing back to the Coalition next time. But why so many?

It seems that Queenslanders became disillusioned with Rudd, especially over his embrace of the mining tax which they perceived threatened jobs in the mining and coal industry along the north coast. There was talk about them having the ‘baseball bats’ out for him, seemingly a peculiarly Queensland approach to out-of-favour politicians. They seemed to want to have the opportunity of beating him with them. Then when he was replaced they became annoyed, I suppose because their Queensland ‘boy’ was so unceremoniously removed, but also maybe because they wanted to do that themselves. It was classic ambivalence, but the outcome was a big fall in TPP support for Labor and a great loss of seats; in fact Labor has lost around half its seats in the mining states. If Queensland had not reacted so violently against its own boy, against Labor, Labor would be in government. Queensland has deeply wounded Labor.

The other critical element of the Queensland factor is the Bligh factor.

The Bligh factor

Since re-election, an outcome made possible by a poor opposition, Anna Blight has become very unpopular, as we understand it over her sale of public assets, a $15 billion state privatisation plan - a plan many voters believe she hid from them before last year's state election. It has been a remarkable turnaround for someone who became Premier in her own right just a short time ago. There seems little doubt that the Bligh factor played out adversely for the federal government, and that Queenslanders are punishing federal Labor for the perceived misdemeanours of the Bligh Government. How much is a matter of conjecture; in NSW such a reaction would have made more sense, yet that was not so much the case there. People will have varying views not so much about whether the Labor brand was diminished by out-of-favour state Labor governments because it clearly was, but how much it actually affected the result in Queensland, and NSW.

The other factors in this complex mix

The way in which the Rudd factor, the Gillard factor, the Queensland factor and the Bligh factor have interacted to produce the result we now see, is conjectural. There will be many views on this, some strongly held, some with flimsy evidence to support them. This piece attempts to describe some of them and the way they might have played out. But there are more: the NSW factor, the Sussex Street factor, the Abbott factor, the Coalition factor, the media factor, and more. Those are for the next piece.

What do you think?

How has it come to this?

With the election outcome still in limbo, and likely to be so for some time, it might be a good time to reflect on how Labor has come so close to losing power. Many pundits are having a shot at this, but I suspect are approaching it from their own idiosyncratic viewpoint, one that does not take into account the enormous complexity of the political and social system in this country. Anyone who understands the concept of complex adaptive systems will realize how a piecemeal approach will always reveal only part of the truth, with all the distortions that invites. Complex adaptive systems are complex in that they are diverse and made up of multiple interconnected elements, and adaptive in that they have the capacity to change and learn from experience.

Given that the political situation we face is profoundly complex and that attempts are now being made to learn from experience and adapt, any assessment ought to acknowledge that reality and attempt to accommodate it. I trust this and subsequent pieces do so.

With the caveat that this appraisal will necessarily be incomplete, I will try to tease out what I believe have been the most important factors in Labor’s decline, while acknowledging my own biases. As there is probably no factor in this complex mix of interacting variables that is more significant than the Rudd factor, that is where I begin.

The Rudd factor

I have always liked Kevin Rudd. From when he emerged as Foreign Affairs spokesman while in opposition, his superior intellect, extensive knowledge of his subject, and his capacity for articulately arguing his case, stood out. I delighted seeing him on the 7.30 Report, particularly during the AWB affair where he relentlessly pursued the Government and senior ministers. That they were never brought to account could be attributed not to a failure on Rudd’s behalf, but to the restricted terms of reference of the Cole inquiry that made any pursuit of ministers out of the question.

Then when he became Opposition Leader he relentlessly pursued John Howard and set about deposing him. He portrayed himself as ‘Howard-lite’, an ‘economic conservative’ and ‘a safe pair of hands’. He even adopted the slogan ‘this reckless spending must stop’, attacked the high interest rates under the Coalition, and appealed to concern in the electorate about petrol and grocery prices, giving the impression he could do something about them although never making such a commitment. His most quoted words were about global warming: ‘the greatest moral, economic and moral challenge of our time’, which he assured the electorate he would tackle vigorously, and indeed six months before being elected he commissioned the Garnaut inquiry.

All his pre-election rhetoric fostered a belief that he was a reformer who would tackle the big problems of our time. He created high expectations, and the electorate warmly embraced his ideals and his lofty aims and elected him in a landslide against a long-incumbent PM and a long-standing Coalition. The high expectations became a liability as the reality of effecting the changes mooted in the face of trenchant opposition, struck home.

For two years he ran high in the popularity stakes, reaching levels enjoyed only once before, by Bob Hawke. Labor seemed unassailable.

Then stories emerged, mainly in the News Limited media, of a frenetic PM who slept little, who had multiple projects running simultaneously with a tendency to jump from one to the other, who overworked his staff, who asked for papers to be prepared at short notice at odd hours, some of which were never read, who kept important people waiting, and who was often late for meetings and appointments. Increasingly he was accused of regarding himself as the most important person in the room, able to absorb and analyze vast amounts of data, reach conclusions and fashion action better than anyone else. More and more he became a one man band who consulted with just a small group to make important decisions, often the pejoratively-described ‘gang of four’. Although his ministers insisted that he would consult with them over portfolio matters, decision making in Cabinet and the party room became less collaborative. Submissions with recommendations for action were reported as being presented to Cabinet and even to the relevant minister at the very last minute, leaving paltry time for reflection and thorough discussion.

In retrospect, this state of affairs ought not to have come as a surprise. From the outset Kevin Rudd indicated that he would choose his own ministry instead of the caucus doing so, and his disdain for the factions was well known. He had no substantial support base, operated as a loner, and his autocratic behavior gradually became apparent. However, having won the election and riding high in the polls, he was virtually unchallengeable. He did not need friends and any fermenting enmity was kept well suppressed.

Along came the GFC, which saw Kevin Rudd performing at his very best. With Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner, he took the sound advice of Ken Henry ‘to go early, go hard, go households’, and applied his stimulus measures to great effect, avoiding recession, serious unemployment and business failures. Some still argue about the efficacy of the stimulus, but most economists now acknowledge the stimulus package saved the nation, although accepting that several other factors contributed to success. It was Rudd’s finest hour, but in a sense reinforced his feeling of self-sufficiency, his capacity to solve any problem with little help or the need to consult widely.

His tireless efforts to develop climate change policy, instead of being rewarded by an ETS and later a CPRS, were destroyed by a hostile Senate after Tony Abbott’s defeat of Malcolm Turnbull, who had already agreed to a modified CPRS. How one vote can change the course of history! Then a disappointing Copenhagen left Rudd with virtually no international support for immediate action, and the negative ‘Great Big New Tax’ slogan that Abbott used to assail the CPRS resulted in a decline in public support for action, especially if it were to cost the consumer more than a few dollars. Beset with falling support for action in the opinion polls, Rudd took the fateful decision to postpone action on global warming until the expiry of the Kyoto protocol in 2012. That was portrayed in the media and perceived widely in the electorate as a betrayal of principle and a lack of political courage, even as cowardice. It is widely believed that the Sussex Street apparatchiks, the likes of Karl Bitar and Mark Abib, persuaded Rudd to this view. They also persuaded him that going to a double dissolution on the matter would be dangerous in the face of Abbott’s GBNT. For his part, Rudd went on TV with a mea culpa about his Government's 'failings', that many considered a mistake.

From that moment it was all downhill. The reversal of what the electorate saw as Rudd’s sacredly held principle, no matter how strongly it was portrayed as the only pragmatic move that was possible, disillusioned many who had supported him and confirmed the ‘all talk no action’ belief held by his opponents. He never recovered. The polls dipped and the internal polling indicated that Labor would lose heavily at the coming election.

On the heels of the climate change reversal came the release of the Henry Review with over a hundred recommendations, setting out a sound blueprint for reform of the tax and transfer system for the next decade. The item chosen for early action was a tax on mineral resources, the Resources Super Profit Tax with its consequent benefits to business and superannuation. It was a sound proposal but was introduced without providing for adequate discussion with the miners; even the name was somewhat off-putting. Rudd believed it would be popular with the electorate, and if one can judge from the election outcome, it was in the non-mining states of Victoria, SA and Tasmania where Labor increased its vote, but it was immensely unpopular in the mining states, scared witless by the miners’ propaganda and Abbott’s representation of it as a 'GNBT on everything', although the tax was on the miners who later agreed they could afford to pay more tax. The people were the beneficiaries but they were persuaded that they were being taxed. It showed how fear tactics can override logic and even commonsense.

This episode typified the belief of the Rudd Government that sound policy and fine achievements would sell themselves. Rudd is a victim of his own superior intelligence, seemingly believing that if he can understand something, everyone else should and will. Whoever was advising him saw no need to devise an educational program to communicate with the electorate and ‘sell’ the Government’s concepts, policies and actions. I have commented before about this glaring deficit in its public relations program, and in its promotion of its plans and achievements. So there were few positive messages to counter the negative messages that poured from the Coalition. Because negative messages are always more potent, the positive ones needed to be extraordinary to get any traction.

The RSPT added to the discontent with Rudd in at least the mining states and pushed the polls lower still. The party’s powerbrokers, Mark Abib, Bill Shorten, David Feeney and Co, began to see the replacement of Rudd as the only way to save the party from oblivion.

The brutal and precipitous removal of him occurred on the last day of the June parliamentary sitting, judged by the powerbrokers who organized it to be the last opportunity they had. They would now argue the wisdom of their action by pointing out that even in his own safe electorate of Griffith, Rudd’s margin fell by over 4%.

So we have had a highly intelligent PM who fostered high expectations that proved almost impossible to satisfy, who became increasingly a one man band advised by party apparatchiks obsessed with focus groups and opinion polling, who became isolated from his ministers and backbenchers, increasingly non-consultative, more and more disliked by his colleagues and public servants, and even ‘loathed’, according to David Marr in his Quarterly Essay, Power Trip. It is not surprising then that in the face of opinion polls predicting electoral disaster that his colleagues turned against him in such numbers, so much so that he decided not to nominate when the leadership was declared vacant. It is reported that he was unlikely to get more than a quarter of the votes.

The Rudd factor seems to be the most convincing explanation of why it has come to this. There are many others: the Gillard factor, the Queensland factor, the NSW factor, the Abbott factor, the Coalition factor, the media factor, and even more. They are for other pieces.

I still like Kevin Rudd. I believe him to be a fine person of high integrity and lofty ideals who has a splendid vision for this nation, and many policy ideas for improving the lot of its people. It has been the process of implementing policy and communicating with the electorate that has come unstuck and has disappointed so many of us who have supported him throughout. But I for one still admire him and regret it has come to this.

What do you think?

If you come to a fork in the road, take it

That is the sort of advice that cartoonists might offer to the independents that now seem to hold the future of the Federal parliament in their hands. The outlook for both major parties is uncertain, equally so.

So what can we deduce one day after the election? This is the first in a series. This piece addresses the exigencies of minority government. Later pieces will address what went wrong for Labor and the role of the media.

Labor has sustained a significant loss of seats, declining from 83 to somewhere between 70 and 74, as far as one can tell. If the ‘doubtfuls’ all fell Labor’s way and some seats previously assigned to the Coalition changed to Labor, it is very remotely possible that Labor might get to the magic 76 where it can form government.

The Coalition has gained seats – from 64 previously to between 72 and 74, and again if all the cards fell its way it might get to 76. It is better placed seat-wise than Labor, but is highly unlikely to get to that figure.

The proportion of votes flowing to the parties at present shows that Labor has suffered a swing against it of 5.5%, the Coalition a swing to it of 1.8% and the Greens a swing to them of 3.7%. Proportionately speaking, most of Labor’s bleeding was to the Greens, not the Coalition. But because those figures are applied against different absolute numbers, more votes actually flowed from Labor to the Coalition than to the Greens. The swings are uneven. At present the swings against Labor seem confined to Queensland, NSW, WA and NT, with swings to Labor in the other states. This has not translated into many extra seats in those states, but the contrast is striking and points to the underlying reasons..

So what has happened is that many of the seats that Labor won in 2007, especially in Queensland, have reverted to the Coalition, but not in sufficient numbers to enable it to form government. Remember that at the 2007 election there was a 5.4% swing against the Howard Government nationwide, with a much stronger swing in Queensland of 7.5%. John Howard, three of his ministers and 17 other Coalition MPs lost their seats, although the Liberals gained two marginal Labor seats in WA, a net loss of 19 seats, leaving it with 64 seats. This time the Coalition has regained only 8 of these if we take the current count as 72.

Although yesterday was clearly a great day for the Coalition, it was not in the same category as Labor’s win in 2007. On 24 November 2007 the Coalition slipped from 83 seats to 64, a loss of 19 seats, but on 21 August 2010 it moved from 64 to around 72, a gain of 8, and even with the very best case scenario of, say, 76, a gain of 12, well short of what Labor achieved in 2007.

While Tony Abbott and his Coalition team are justifiably delighted that what looked like a ‘saving the furniture’ exercise six months ago has turned out to be much better than that, their delight needs it be tempered with the reality that unless Julia Gillard is unable to form a minority government with the independents, and Tony Abbott is, he has gained seats but not power. He sensed this when he warned in his speech to the party faithful against triumphalism. His triumph is limited. Nick Minchin and George Brandis were arguing last night that if the Coalition obtained the most seats and the popular vote, it should be ‘entitled’ to attempt first to form a minority government. That is not the way it works. Julia Gillard is PM in caretaker mode and has first option to present a minority government arrangement to the Governor General. If she can’t, Tony Abbott gets his turn, something he seemed to understand when he spoke last night.

What then might we expect? If we accept that neither party will reach 76 and will probably reach only 74, minority government is only possible with the cooperation of the new Greens member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, who has already said he will support Labor, effectively increasing its tally by one, possibly Andrew Wilkie, the whistleblower on the Iraq War whom the Coalition labelled as unbalanced, and who subsequently became an unsuccessful Greens candidate, but looks likely to take Dennison in Tasmania, and three ex-Nationals who left that party because they were dissatisfied and still seem upset with it. Bob Katter of Kennedy in far north Queensland is still angry about the reduction of milk prices for dairy farmers following the Coalition’s deregulation of the industry, the way in which he believes rural Australia is being neglected by government, and last night revealed he had had an abusive call from Warren Truss. Bob does not seem enamoured of the Coalition. Tony Windsor of New England sounds a very reasonable and sensible person who wants to contribute to stable government and support rural people, and Rob Oakeshott of Lyne on the northern NSW coast, who has had experience as an independent in the Greiner Coalition government in NSW, also sounds balanced, stating his decision about which party to support would revolve around which one could provide the most stable government. None of the independents indicated any alignment to the Coalition, but Adam Bandt would align with Labor and Andrew Wilkie might, while still retaining independence. In summary there is not much joy for Tony Abbott there in terms of ideological alignment.

Add to that the fact that there will be nine Greens in the Senate, and a DLP member. Stephen Fielding seems unlikely to retain his seat, but we will have to endure him until the end of next June.

What issues might sway their alignment?

Perhaps the most important might be the NBN which the Greens support and rural members strongly support, in fact complaining on ABC TV last night about poor communications in the bush, such that only a still image could be projected while they spoke to Kerry O’Brien on their mobiles. They say this would enable rural businesses to become more competitive on the world stage. Also contemplate how difficult it would be for Tony Abbott as PM to scuttle the NBN in the Senate, while it is already being rolled out? How would he handle that? Would he be forced to renege on his intention to trash the NBN?

What about global warming? Leaving aside the fact that Bob Katter is a sceptic, and that we don’t know what the other ex-Nationals independents think, we certainly know that Greens want action and are unlikely to go along with Tony Abbott’s ‘action plan’ without a price on carbon. How will Tony handle that?

What about the MRRT? The Greens want an even bigger tax. With them with the balance of power in the Senate, how will Tony cope with their insistence?

What about Abbott’s intention to scrap GP Super Clinics and reduce primary care funding? Would the rural independents support that? Would the Greens? They would applaud the Coalition’s mental health funding, but would want dental care supported.

How would Abbott manage the Greens’ push for same sex marriage?

Consider how the Greens might feel about Tony’s Boatphone, his threat to ‘turn the boats around’, and his reopening of Nauru. It is the Greens that have been the most outspoken about treating asylum-seekers humanely and they are opposed to off-shore processing. .

That’s enough now about what Tony Abbott would need to reflect on as he contemplates minority government with the independents and a Greens-dominated Senate. Running a majority government is difficult enough, accommodating the various views party members have, but party unity usually overcomes dissent, as we saw when he conjured up his PPL without consultation. But he cannot rely on that when he’s required to negotiate with those outside his party. How would he cope with the sort of unremitting obstructionism he had inflicted on Labor for the last three years?

Malcolm Fraser’s ‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy’ may take on a vivid new meaning if Abbott ever gets the chance to manage a minority government. Authoritarianism and any tendency towards autocratic behaviour would need to be replaced by painstaking negotiation and the accommodation of views alien to his own. Would he be capable of this? Perhaps he would; he has performed much better on the campaign trail than his colleagues, and even he expected, so anything is possible. But he would have to put away the aggressive, pugilistic Tony and become the collaborative, accommodating Tony, willing and happy to accept ideological and political positions he does not favour. It’s a big ask. I suspect most who comment here would hope he never gets the opportunity to show us one way or the other.

What do you think?