On most media reports Julia Gillard will be comfortably re-elected as leader of the Labor Party on Monday, this is supposed to resolve the leadership issue and allow Labor to move forward but it won’t. Over the last two days we have been treated to an extraordinary array of vitriolic attacks on Kevin Rudd by Labor Ministers through the course of which, service to the Labor movement and the concept of “Labor Values” has consistently been invoked but to what end? These appeals by Swan and Emerson to “Labor Values” are based upon this false preconception that the traditional labor party agenda is still relevant today. It just isn’t.
There is no longer any great role for government to act as a sympathetic mediator between organised labour and business nor has there been since the latter days of Hawke’s premiership. Labor cannot continue to act as the political wing of the unions, whatever their role in twenty first century politics it is insufficient to form the bedrock of a modern party of government. If it is to ensure its future viability as a political force the Labor party has to become a modern social democratic party structured in a way designed to achieve social democratic outcomes. But the organisation that determines whom contests traditionally left wing voting electorates under an Australian Labor Party Ticket is still very much structured to deliver protectionist, twentieth century , union oriented outcomes and whether or not she actually is (and I believe she is) Gillard is seen to be entrenched in this irrelevant, out-dated movement.
When Labor won the 2007 election it did so by redefining its agenda around the values and beliefs of a relatable personality: Rudd’s. That remains the only election since 1993 Australia has recorded more than 40% of the primary vote. Most commentators anticipate that if Rudd loses the ballot on Monday he will recontest another ballot in a month or three but even if he did completely cease his leadership campaign it would do little to assist as Gillard’s government would still be underpinned by this pointless old agenda that has no relevance to most voters.
The political success of Gillard’s leadership has always depended on her ability overwhelm the traditional Labor agenda with one of her own design which clearly she has not done. In fact upon taking the leadership, Gillard went one worse by adopting part of Tony Abbott’s agenda, acceding to the demands of the mining companies protesting the Resource Super Profits Tax, attempting to reintroduce offshore processing and Temporary Protection Visas and finally by swearing herself opposed to climate action. Both Crean and Shorten would have similar problems, relics from a different political paradigm where the Labor movement was entrusted with the protecting workers from a serious threat of oppression.
Rudd has such appeal because he is an antithesis to the old political paradigm. Like Turnbull he cast himself above the push and shove of old politics, to the chagrin of his colleagues who were still entrenched in it but to the adoration of the voting public. If Gillard is returned on Monday as leader Labor will continue in this tailspin towards political oblivion, the unpopularity of Tony Abbott currently masks just how lowly this Gillard/Swan/Crean/Shorten/Combet/Roxon/Burke sort of Labor party is.
Rudd isn’t the only MP cast against the old paradigm of course. Kim Carr, John Faulkner and Anthony Albanese have railed against the factions for years but none have the profile or the following to make a move for the leadership. Stephen Smith seems to be an odd exception to the rule, although deeply entrenched in the West Australian Labor Right faction his high profile job but low profile role in the leadership events of the past two years has allowed him to subvert the perception of being beholden to the tired and dated Labor movement. Nonetheless there is only one option if Labor is to have any hope at the next federal election, not just of stemming the tide of a coalition whitewash but also from haemorrhaging once safe seats to the Greens in Grayndler, Sydney and Franklin.