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?