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?