Two of the three ex-prime ministers who were deposed by their own political party have been in the news in recent weeks. Kevin Rudd requested backing from the Coalition government to bid for the Secretary-General position at the United Nations and Tony Abbott claimed there are factional divisions in the NSW Liberal Party. On face value, both men are using the media to further their own ends. To observers of Australian politics, this really shouldn’t be a surprise.
While Rudd’s campaign was probably always going to be unsuccessful according to others
, on the face of it he does offer the UN some demonstrated leadership ability in trying circumstances — such as the GFC when Australia was the only developed economy that continued to expand during the late 2000’s. Certainly he also has some less redeeming character traits as well — some of which were aired in public when the ALP deposed him as prime minister.
Abbott made a number of claims about factions and backroom lobbying in the NSW Liberal Party, despite Prime Minister Turnbull’s claim to the contrary.
In spite of Abbott probably airing the ‘dirty linen’ in public for his own perceived advantage, he is correct. In any organisation there is usually a difference of opinions on a host of issues, with some being convinced that policy and practice should change to reflect current society/meet differing expectations and so on, while others will suggest that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sometimes the discussion on a combined position is amicable; mostly it isn’t. It also stands to reason that if you can influence parliamentarians — a benefit of being a member of a political party — you could have a better chance of ensuring a particular law of the land reflects some advantage to your business or personal position — so the stakes can be pretty high. Abbott, to his credit, did ban lobbyists from holding organisational positions in the Liberal Party (suggesting there could be a conflict of interest) early in his prime ministership
One of Mr Abbott's first acts as prime minister was to rule that party officials could not lobby his government, a move mirrored by then-NSW premier Barry O'Farrell.
Rudd too changed the rules of the ALP after he was brought back to the prime ministership in 2013. Effectively he ensured that there was only a small number of opportunities to change the leadership; the Daily Telegraph claimed at the time
that it was an attempt to shore up Rudd’s leadership; probably a pretty good assumption.
In a similar way, Fairfax Media
claims Abbott’s statement:
… comes as Mr Abbott's conservative-right faction struggles with increasing irrelevance in NSW, where the moderate faction has become dominant, led by key figures such as party president Trent Zimmerman and lobbyist Michael Photios.
So the rule changes orchestrated by both men could also be construed as attempts to maintain or increase their personal longevity and power within their respective political parties. On the face of it, there is nothing new to see here. However, lets dig a little deeper, there are almost certainly unintended consequences in play here.
Rudd and Abbott really are pretty similar. Both men were ruthless as opposition leaders. Rudd was seen as being in touch with the majority of the population and an example of generational change from the days of John Howard and his long term government. ‘I’m Kevin from Queensland and I’m here to help’ went down in folklore and contrasted sharply with Prime Minister Howard’s last term where his ideological position on workplace rights lost him a lot of support.
Abbott became opposition leader during the initial debate around a mechanism for the pricing of carbon emissions. While later demonstrated to be completely false, visions of $100 lamb roasts and entire cities being shut down due to the impacts of the ‘carbon tax’ that Abbott would rescind on day one certainly grabbed the mind of the public.
On top of that, both men were ‘stop gap’ leaders. Rudd was ‘unaligned’ according to the ALP’s system of factions and took over from Kim Beasley who is often cited as the best prime minister Australia never had. Beasley accepted the position of ambassador to the United States when offered the positon by Rudd and survived the transition to an Abbott government seemingly unscathed. As he was ‘unaligned’, Rudd really didn’t have the support of any of the established factions of the ALP, having arrived in federal parliament via the Diplomatic Corps and some time as Queensland ALP premier Wayne Goss’ Chief of Staff. (Goss was the person who led the ALP to victory after a number of decades of predominately National Party rule by Bjelke-Petersen and others). Rudd’s time as prime minister commenced late in 2007; his popularity ratings sank to a position where the ALP decided to remove him from power in June 2010. Some of the reasons for his drop in popularity were supposed to be because of his management style, the actions he took during the Global Financial Crisis, refugee processing and the lack of progress on emissions trading legislation. The ALP reinstated Rudd into the prime ministerial role in 2013 and he lost the subsequent election to Abbott.
Abbott won a party room leadership showdown in 2009 by one vote over his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull. The leadership contest was opened due to differences over climate change policy — Turnbull was prepared to support the Rudd government’s Emissions Trading Scheme; Abbott wasn’t.
The Coalition under Abbott and the ALP under Gillard obtained 72 seats each in the 2010 election. According to contemporary media reports
, Abbott begged the three independent cross-benchers to allow him to become prime minister – even his opposition to emissions trading was negotiable according to Tony Windsor, one of the independent MP’s involved in the discussions:
"But ... Tony Abbott on a number of occasions said that he would do absolutely anything to gain government - anything," Mr Windsor told Sky News.
"One could draw a conclusion from that that if we pulled a tight rein and said 'Well, you've got government if you put a carbon price on' he would agree with it - that was the inference from his statements."
Mr Windsor said he had made a "character judgment" about Mr Abbott after the discussions.
"He actually begged for the job ... (he said) 'I will do anything to get this job'," Mr Windsor said.
It seems both Rudd and Abbott are the personalities who will do anything to reach a goal or shore up a position. Now let’s look at why this is relevant in August 2016.
When Rudd achieved victory over Howard and Abbott achieved victory over Rudd, they were in the pantheon of glory within their respective political parties. As the opinion polls went south (and the other side was suddenly looking like a winner), there was a reassessment of their capabilities; the respective party rooms came to the conclusion that their leadership was untenable in the long term.
Potentially a believer in the axiom to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, Rudd was kept in the Cabinet by his successor Julia Gillard. History suggests that Gillard didn’t keep Rudd close enough, leading to a challenge in 2013 where Rudd was re-installed as prime minister. One of the things Rudd did to the ALP rules subsequent to his re-installation was to institute a requirement that the parliamentary leader of the ALP be elected by polls of not only those in parliament, but the broader ALP membership
. Rudd claimed he decided to
“. . .democratise the party for the future.
''Each of our members now gets to have a say, a real say in the future leadership of our party. Decisions can no longer simply be made by a factional few," he told reporters in Balmain.
While the statement is true enough — all ALP members now have a vote on the leadership of the Federal Parliamentary Party — subsequent to the 2013 election Anthony Albanese won the ‘ALP members’ vote and Bill Shorten won the ‘parliament’ vote which was held due to an election defeat
. Obviously, while all ALP members are equal, Caucus has more say.
As we all know, Abbott was rolled by his party room in 2015 (it couldn’t be because it seemed to work so well when the ALP did it, could it?) and for a while Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition’s approval figures, according to the opinion polls, were stratospheric. Accordingly, Shorten and the ALP’s polling figures went down by a similar level.
The benefit Shorten inherited from Rudd was that it would have taken his resignation, an election loss or a 75% vote of no confidence by the ALP Caucus to topple Shorten. If there were any ALP ‘bedwetters’ (to coin a phrase) in late 2015, they probably realised the hurdles required to change the opposition leader were almost insurmountable and decided (publicly anyway) to grin and bear it. It’s now also history that Shorten went on to lead the ALP to the 2016 election, suffering a narrow loss which was a better than expected result.
Abbott’s recent disclosure regarding factions in the Liberal Party probably didn’t surprise anyone. Turnbull’s claim last October that the Liberal Party in NSW was one big happy family was treated with the ridicule it probably deserved by those that should have some idea of the reality (the video above was published widely when it occurred). In the words of The Guardian
“Tony Abbott has warned that lobbyists holding positions as power brokers in the Liberal party creates the potential for corruption.”
“Some of these factional warlords have a commercial interest in dealing with politicians whose preselections they can influence,” Abbott said.
He said this created a “potentially corrupt position”. “The best way to see off the factionalists is to open up the party — the more members we’ve got, the harder it is for the factional warlords to control.
“There are people not on the state executive who caucus regularly on the phone and face-to-face with people who are on the executive to try and get pre-cooked outcomes.”
Abbott said he wanted to empower the membership by letting them choose Liberal candidates for parliament. The call for more democratic preselection is likely to re-open a debate between moderates and conservatives over how candidates are chosen.
Abbott’s opinion seems to be that if the process of preselection within the Liberal Party is opened up, and dare we say made more ‘democratic’, the party will preselect those whose opinions are shared by the majority of the Liberal Party members in the electorate. He may believe that more ‘conservative’ people would be elected but there is no guarantee that outcome would occur, just as Rudd’s changes to the ALP rules didn’t save his leadership.
Rudd was probably trying to cement himself as the parliamentary leader of the ALP in 2013. Abbott is probably trying to ensure that more ‘conservative’ Liberal Party members are given a chance to enter parliament ensuring that he has a greater number of like-minded people around him, improving the chances of a second ‘Abbott era’.
Both interventions, however, have the effect of opening up both major political parties in areas where they have been accused of pandering to sectional interests. While Abbott obviously thinks he can influence ‘conservative’ Liberals to a greater extent than the more numerous ‘moderate’ faction, it is not a fait accompli that the ‘moderate’ majority would send more ‘conservatives’ to Canberra.
Rudd’s ‘reforms’ to the ALP leadership have made it more democratic (all members have some say) and made it easier for a new leader to develop and implement a strategy designed to improve the position of the ALP at the next election. As the leader is not judged on instant results (because the bar for changing leaders is set at a high level of discontent), a new leader and the party organisation have a reasonable expectation that the strategy will, if somewhere in the ballpark, be implemented in full. Shorten and the ALP’s opinion poll popularity certainly played a part in the demise of Abbott, who went from hero to zero in about two years. The election results also demonstrate the success of the ALP sticking to one leader and strategy for a considerable period of time.
Wouldn’t it be a delicious irony if Rudd and Abbott’s seemingly self-serving interventions into the operation of their respective political parties make the two major parties more democratic and ensure rank and file party members have a genuine say in their respective party’s destiny?