After spending my life in the union movement, the idea that I needed to be cleansed of my union past was pretty offensive
In politics singular, insignificant events have an odd habit of completely transforming the way in which an individual is perceived, at times they’re even used to retrospectively explain how events panned out. In the UK, then leadership aspirant David Milliband was photographed waving a banana about with a goofy expression on his face and henceforth he was portrayed as lacking the necessary gravitas to be Prime Minister. It can work the other way too and indeed it has done for Greg Combet.
The memory of Greg Combet most firmly etched in the minds of most Australians was of the then Minister leaping to his feet and dashing across the Qanda studio to assist the unwell Simon Sheihk. His actions seemed intuitive and caring; he came across as human and a kind one at that. It was a very good look and it performed an important service for Combet. The bespectacled Minister for Climate Change has never had trouble convincing people he was intelligent, his issues lay in an apparent dryness of character and an absence of imagination. This humanizing gesture seemed to dispel these perceptions and since then the received wisdom is that Combet was one of Gillard’s best ministers. Most recently Combet has humbly bragged that he could have been Gillard’s anointed successor if he’d chosen to stand against Rudd and perhaps he could have done. Gillard witnessed at close quarters how it could be done some ten years earlier when her mentor Simon Crean stepped down from the leadership and used his sway within caucus to thwart Kim Beazley and install Mark Latham as leader. In the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher did much the same thing and steered John Major into the leadership to spite Michael Heseltine. It’s within the realms of possibility that all 45 of Julia Gillard voters would have gone with Combet rather than reward the great saboteur plus another half dozen who were fans of Combet, but it may well have gone the other way. Some of those who stood stoically by Gillard on June 26th last year probably thought it was better for the party for Rudd to return but allowed their judgment to be overruled by their personal loyalty to Gillard, they would have been unlikely to have the same sense of loyalty to Greg Combet. The more important issue though is not whether Combet would have fared well against Rudd, but how he would have fared against Abbott.
If Combet were to lead the Labor Party he would no doubt be portrayed as the architect of the carbon tax which would be unhelpful but probably not that significant. The real issue was that so much of the governments unpopularity stemmed from the (not altogether inaccurate) perception that the demise of Kevin Rudd in 2010 signified factional bosses and trade union apparatchiks seizing control of the party just as John Howard forewarned in many of his 2007 campaign commercials. This was not so much the fault of Combet but people like Paul Howes and Bill Ludwig and their propensity to go on television and radio and pour scorn on Rudd. Their boorish behaviour had the consequence of shaping mainstream perceptions of the Labor Party as a plaything of Australian Council of Trade Unions. At the best of times this would be problematic, too few Australians are now invested in Unions for them to abide Unions calling the shots but the likes of Craig Thomson and Eddie Obeid had reduced the public image of unions to an all time low. The Labour movement was by this stage associated with grubby corruption and jobs for the boys. Gillard’s inability or unwillingness to effectively distance herself from the unions caused her enormous political damage but it was as to nothing compared with what the fallout would have been had Labor installed a former Secretary of the ACTU to replace her.
If Combet had been blessed with keener political instincts and the gift of the gab it’s possible he could have made it work for him. As a former secretary of the AWU Bill Shorten has a similar pedigree to Combet but a radically different modus operandi. As Opposition Leader Shorten has talked up the need for reform, about making Labor a diverse and inclusive party. He might have used his union links to get where he is now but having achieved the party leadership he is wisely eschewing any displays of ideological fervour and instead is cultivating the image of a moderate, inoffensive social democrat. The self anointed base hates it of course but they’ll vote Labor/Green anyway. In fact the more disgruntled the base gets, the greater Shorten’s two party preferred lead seems to grow. Combet by contrast was deeply offended when Rudd suggested that he downplay his connections to the trade union movement. He speaks glowingly of the good work that unions do and paints a romanticized picture of unions as these mighty guardians of the underprivileged, fending off ravenous capitalist dogs as they attempt to exploit the powerlessness of the disadvantaged. It’s clear from his reaction to Rudd’s suggestion that heeither believes that this perception of unions is mainstream or that he has the communication skills to make this perception of unions mainstream, either way Combet is deluded.
Combet as a communicator is dry, he stays on script, he plugs away in a disciplined, responsible way. He doesn’t do warmth, he doesn’t do funny and if he were the leader of a national party that one time on Qanda he showed signs of being human would be eclipsed by hundreds of much more high profile appearances where his dour mannerisms would become the electorate’s perception of him. His skillset might be enough to clinch victory if a party were already in the drivers seat but from Labor’s 2013 position of desperation he’d have been an enormous liability.
That Julia Gillard would suggest that the Labor leadership should go to someone with the union pedigree, political instincts and communication skills of Combet speaks to her own political instincts and how Labor under Gillard reached so perilous a situation in the first place. Perhaps Combet was Gillard’s natural successor after all.