An unexpected by-product of Sarah Ferguson’s The Killing Season has been to provide a little more insight into the sort of leader Greg Combet would have been had he accepted Julia Gillard’s offer as an anointed successor in 201, and gone on to defeat Kevin Rudd in the caucus ballot.
In July last year when Combet released his autobiography I latched onto a specific section of the book in which the former secretary of the ACTU in which he discussed his ideological conflicts with his then leader Rudd and expressed dismay at Rudd’s attempts to de-unionise the government. In particular the quote “After spending my life in the union movement, the idea that I needed to be cleansed of my union past was pretty offensive” was very illuminating as to where Combet stood in comparison to Rudd, and why Gillard may have perceived him to be a suitable successor.
Whereas Kevin Rudd led a movement to rebrand the Labor party as a broad church housing a diverse range of centre left philosophies, Combet still believes the labour movement deserves ownership over Australia’s oldest political party. This was a perspective Julia Gillard seemed to share. In February 2013 Gillard addressed the Australian Workers Union in a speech that was going to be rebroadcast on all the major news bulletins that evening. In her address Gillard proudly declared
I come here to this union’s gathering as a Labor leader.
I’m not the leader of a party called the progressive party.
I’m not the leader of a party called the moderate party.
I’m not the leader of a party even called the socialist democratic party.
I’m a leader of the party called the Labor Party deliberately because that is what we come from.
The speech electrified the faithful at the AWU and thousands of moderate Australian voters watching it on their televisions recoiled uneasily and started contemplating whether the Liberal Party might be a more accommodating house for them. In the minds of Gillard and Combet if the election could be framed as a contest over industrial relations, and if the Labor party could articulate its position effectively than this was a winning formula but in the real world elections can’t be restricted to singular issues and Labor came off once again as obsessed with IR at the expense of other issues like debt and deficit and cost of living.
In 2012/13 we could have been forgiven for thinking that Gillard was the worst offender in terms of wrapping herself around labour issues and neglecting others but in The Killing Season Gillard comes across as positively Third Way compared to her grizzling anointed successor. Combet was one of two people interviewed who seemed convincingly bothered by Rudd’s challenge to Kim Beazley in 2006, the other was understandably Jenny Macklin who lost her place as deputy leader.
But in Combet’s mind Howard had just put industrial relations at the centre of the election through his Workchoices legislation and Beazley had responded with a 1950’s textbook response. It was gearing up as a good old fashioned election to be contextualized as a contest between the businesses and the workers and Howard had overstepped badly with Workchoices. Then Rudd intervened. Eschewing the crude narrative of bosses versus workers, Rudd sensed his moment, scaled back the ideological rhetoric and launched a scattergun attack on the Howard-Beazley axis that enabled him to transcend the old political divide. Upping the ante on a raft of secondary issues including climate change, education, broadband and reconciliation Rudd capitalised on the public’s lack of enthusiasm for the old paradigm. When it became apparent that public opinion was demanding the Labor caucus install Rudd, Combet was understandably shocked out of his comfort zone. For ten years he had yearned for another Labor government, now on the eve of a likely Labor victory the rules were changed and instead he got an anti-politics social democrat who hadn’t done his dues.
For 10 months the ACTU and the Rudd led Labor Party ran a bizarrely two pronged campaign against Howard. For the first time in living memory the rhetoric of the labour movement was completely out of synch with the rhetoric of the Labor party. The ACTU ran a heavy handed negative campaign oriented around Workchoices, Rudd ran a highly positive campaign, presenting a broad and optimistic vision for the nation’s future. As Barrie Cassidy, another creepy crawly of the Labor apparatus, noted in 2010, the party had been stolen, it’s apparatus used to get elected an outsider.
We can glean from these glimpses into Combet’s mindset that a Combet leadership in 2013 would have been electorally disastrous. An obsessive focus on industrial relations and attempts to recreate fears of a Workchoices strawman that nobody believed would have dominated the campaign and debt and deficit would have lied neglected in the corner. The party faithful would have been engaged, the volunteers out en masse come election day but the swinging voters disillusioned and sent scuttling into the safe embrace of the opposition. It was for the best that Greg bowed out when he did. If he hung around, only more misery awaited him.