Richo’s not Latham
Graham Richardson’s recent performance whereby he “exposed” Kevin Rudd’s plot for the leadership has been almost unanimously condemned from by the left. The move drew further attention to leadership tensions, it undermined Julia Gillard’s authority and has deepened a perception of the Labor government as something of a rabble. But whereas the behaviour of former leader Mark Latham reeks of bitter desire to hurt his old party in any way he can, Richardson’s behaviour is a lot more targeted and strategic.
Rudd’s merciless attack on Richardson afterwards wasn’t merely a safe facing façade of loyalty to the government and the Prime Minister, Rudd’s attack was deeply personal and in response to a deeply personal attack from Richardson. Richardson is a supporter of this Gillard leadership, quite reasonably he believes that the bruising process of another leadership change would kill the government, but there is a deeper animosity between Richardson and Rudd. Richardson is deeply entrenched in the Labor Party factional system, the system which delivered governments like Keating, Hawke and Whitlam. Rudd on the other hand is a charismatic politician who has exploited the unpopularity of these factions by counterposing himself against them.
Rudd’s political career has been marked by an ongoing tussle with the factions; in 2006 he won a decisive victory, playing the factions against either he positioned himself as leader of an unholy alliance of reluctant allies. Upon seizing the leadership he took advantage of his popularity to further disable their influence, ignoring their input when choosing the frontbench, centralizing the decision making in a four man committee, expelling union bosses etc. Rudd was reforming the Labor Party in a way no seen since the 60’s. Of course most of the Labor Party caucus with whom rested the power to elect the leadership were, like Richardson, deeply entrenched within the factional system. Rudd’s ability to disable them as he did was only possible due to his meteoric popularity, as it happened though, the further Rudd denigrated these factions the more popular he became.
The decisive victory for the factions ofcourse came about following a few political miscalculations by Rudd that saw his popularity decline to a level in which they could justifiably vote against him in caucus as they had desired to do for so long. Their grave miscalculation was to mistake the natural fluctuations in the polls to mean Rudd’s popularity was permanently diminished and to underestimate the extent to which Rudd had denigrated their own popularity during his leadership.
Now Rudd has tapped into the dislike the general public has for factional politics while not to subtly framing himself as a martyr at their hands he enjoys enormous opinion poll leads over both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. As such pressure is mounting on the Labor backbenches to revolt in support of Rudd, as well as the factions less dominant in the organization of the 2010 leadership putsch. Which brings us back to Richo’s erratic behaviour or as I see it, pre-emptive strike.
Rudd’s leadership strategy is delicate, he does not want to snatch it in a violent coup like Turnbull did Nelson or Abbott did Turnbull, he wants people to beg him to nominate. With much reluctance he will be persuaded to stand for the good of the party blah blah blah. In truth nobody much will believe he was never positioning for the leadership but there is a dignified way to do it and Richardson’s antics last week are denying Rudd his dignitas.
Richardson can no longer organize numbers within caucaus although he likes to imply that he can, but he still wants to be a part of this tussle between Rudd and the traditional labor party machine and his attack on Rudd should be viewed through this prism. By implicating little known Labor figures as “Rudd backers” Richardson is seeking to establish that Rudd is as entrenched in factional number crunching as Shorten, Arbib or Richardson himself. He is also inflaming the view of Rudd as disloyal, disloyal to whom is less clear: Rudd has little reason to be loyal to the deputy who usurped, likewise talking of Rudd’s loyalty to the Labor Party is odd when Rudd sought to disable all the traditional functions of the party when he was leader, but disloyalty is an unattractive concept nonetheless.
Discussion about Rudd’s leadership maneuverings aren’t exactly helpful to Gillard but they are even less so to Rudd and herein lies the objective of Richardson’s behaviour. For Richardson the very nature of the Labor Party organization is on the line, Rudd is the only figure with both popular support and a senior position in the Labor Party who has any desire to reform the party in a way that Richardson fears and nullifying this threat is his paramount concern. If Labor suffer a crushing defeat at the next election it will mean the end of a generation of politicians which Rudd can be said to a part of and frankly, for Richardson that’s well worth a spell in opposition.