Both Turnbull and Rudd had stolen their parties. In Turnbull’s case because of a manic desire to get his own way and because of his refusal to compromise…Rudd had done so through his authoritarian approach: the more his popularity soared the more he ruled alone, taking only sycophantic advice and being answerable to no one.
Barrie Cassidy, The Party Thieves
Many Labor voters are very disillusioned with the influence of the factions and unions. Many Liberal voters are disappointed with the influence of big business and the far right wing. Why don’t you two join and establish a new party that can open a new chapter in politics in Australia?
Saeed Fasse, QandA.
As Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull sat glumly on the backbenches in 2010 two quintessential members of the Labor establishment gleefully claimed victory for Australia’s traditional political power structures. Five years on, the traditionalists have surrendered: beaten and humiliated.
Union Boss Paul Howes and Hawke Press Secretary turned journalist Barrie Cassidy, rejoiced at the annihilation of what Cassidy termed “the party thieves”. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, outsiders who had bypassed decades of factional schmoozing by appealing directly to public opinion, were thieves who according to Cassidy and Howes had crashed and burned. The narrative, stylishly finessed, was that having not done the long, hard years of preparation like Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, neither had established a loyal party support network. Both failed due to elementary errors which someone of a more traditional leadership pedigree might have avoided. The conclusion: experiments with Party Thieves should be avoided in the future.
Under the Howard government and its predecessors, voters were prepared to tolerate governments kowtowing to internal powerbrokers –in no small part because they had experienced little else. This all changed after the Rudd experience saw a mainstream political leader treat the political old boys clubs with naked contempt.
Rudd’s much maligned presidential style was instrumental in delivering the stratospheric popularity that he enjoyed for most of his career. It enabled him to centralise the image of the government in himself and blot out the unpopular factional entities that lurked beneath the surface. His public conflict with the traditional political machine reached its crescendo in 2009 when Paul Keating, former Prime Minister and iconic member of the NSW Right cantankerously called Rudd a “Goodie two-shoes” for his refusal to reward Labor loyalists with plum jobs.
Rudd’s swift annihilation of John Howard and Brendan Nelson quickly persuaded a reluctant Liberal Party of the need to respond in kind and so the outsider Turnbull was promoted to their leadership. But Turnbull’s timing was all wrong. The electorate still had enormous good will towards Rudd and Turnbull floundered.
In a series of aggressive manoeuvres a cabal of former Howard government ministers, led by Nick Minchin torpedoed Turbull’s leadership and installed one of their own. They chose to dismiss popular opinion and impose upon the electorate an opposition they expressly did not want. It could only ever end in humiliation. Bit-by-bit the more politically savvy Liberal MPs and Senators would chip away at the dinosaurs that had foolishly retaken the leadership but for a more pressing concern: the dinosaurs were about to take control of the government.
In June 2010 a despondent and alienated group of Labor powerbrokers saw a series of subpar opinion polls and an unpopular opposition leader as their final chance to wrest back internal party influence from its presidential leader. In a rushed and reckless coup that gave little thought to the long term: they removed a first time Prime Minister from the party leadership.
The coup was not difficult to arrange. The view of most Labor parliamentarians was that removing Rudd would be a relatively risk free exercise had the potential to yield enormous rewards. Their calculations in this respect were fatally inaccurate.
Seizing power was simple. Maintaining it proved far beyond the new leadership group’s capabilities. Fear of being cannibalised just as they had cannibalised Rudd drove Gillard and Swan to fete unpopular union bosses like Bill Ludwig and Paul Howes which in turn only entrenched the electorate’s antipathy towards the political animals that now occupied the most senior positions in government.
While voters may have a lukewarm tolerance for factional careerists in opposition, the vision of them sitting on the treasury bench is so grotesque as to render it intolerable. Consequently the public tolerated Tony Abbott in his demolition of Gillard, just as they would later embrace Bill Shorten in his demolition of Abbott.
Initially, fear of simply losing government was insufficient to persuade these old Labor warriors to restore Rudd. Yet as the election drew near the so called faceless men, politicians who had spent decades horse trading their way into what were supposed to unlosable seats, were faced with the prospect of having to leave parliament altogether. Eventually, through gritted their teeth, they supported a Rudd challenge.
The return of Rudd was, in the end, an incomplete repudiation of the first coup. The second time round Rudd was unable to ride the 2007 election wave past his internal party challenges. He didn’t have a majority in the House of Representatives either. His position was precarious and he was forced to do that which he had used to destroy so many political foes before: He rewarded allies.
With the parliament precariously split 76-74 Rudd could afford no defections. He returned the power to choose the frontbench to the factions. He became the collegial Kevin that his colleagues demanded, and that the public had never asked for. The site of Rudd being constantly flanked by NSW Right convenor Sam Dastyari as he implemented his Labor Party leadership reforms was damaging. Dastyari and his comrades in the NSW Right had house trained the would be Messiah. For Turnbull, who had sparred with Rudd in his prime, the site of his old rival reduced to this pathetic and craven figure would be instructive for his future.
When Abbott defeated Rudd in 2013 he behaved like a Prime Minister of old and then some. His loyalists were rewarded, Tim Wilson, Janet Albrechtsen, Maurice Newman, Kevin Donnelly, David Kemp and Peter Coleman were all given attractive jobs within a year of Abbott’s victory. His ministerial appointments reflected the old style cronyism that the public found so distasteful. Bronwyn Bishop, a twice failed minister from the Howard government was appointed speaker. She proceeded to make a farce of the position yet Abbott would not remove her until it was too late. If appearances are everything in politics: The Office of Prime Minister was made to appear as though it was running a protection racquet for the dangerously incompetent.
Finally there was Abbott’s political agenda. Expending political capital on questioning the patriotism of the ABC and a doomed-to-fail quest to amend the Racial Discrimination Act was degrading. All the more so for being a transparent attempt to placate its more bellicose supporters in the News Corp press and the Institute of Public Affairs.
Against this backdrop Australia returned to an all too familiar situation. With an unpopular opposition leader steadily advancing towards the lodge off the back of the public’s distaste for a nepotistic government, an anti-establishment former leader was resurrected to save his colleagues from annihilation. Turnbull however had learned from the mistakes of the Rudd revival.
In 2013 a magnanimous sounding Rudd told reporters that there would be no recriminations and no bloodletting. He welcomed all of Julia Gillard’s former Ministers to join his cabinet. Turnbull wisely made no such undertakings. In his first week as Prime Minister we played witness to Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews giving desperate speeches pleading their case to be retained as ministers. Turnbull was unmoved.
That Andrews, Joe Hockey, Michael Ronaldson, Bruce Billson and even Ian Macfarlane should be sacked is unremarkably consistent with Turnbull’s attempts to be seen as renewing. But the sacking of Abetz cannot be spun by the Labor Party as anything but a powerful assertion of Turnbull’s authority over his party. Abetz was the government leader in the Senate, he was elected to that position by his colleagues in theory he did not serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister like other ministers but theoretics count for naught under Malcolm II. Turnbull similarly did not demur in removing iconic culture warrior Maurice Newman from his position as the Chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council.
Turnbull is making a concerted attempt to have meritorious appointments and sackings regarded as hallmarks of his premiership along with the abandonment of some of Abbott’s foolish ideological crusades. The attacks on Islam and the ABC have been discontinued while there appears to be no interest in reviving the ugly fight to amend the Racial Discrimination Act. The initial responses have been euphoric for Turnbull and Bill Shorten now finds himself in a similar position to Brendan Nelson some eight years earlier. Yet Turnbull walks a fine line.
Despite purging the government of its worst excesses, the resurrection of Turnbull has not come without a cronyism of its own. Turnbull’s key backers with the exception of Peter Hendy, are all touched by scandal and were all rewarded handsomely by the new Prime Minister.
Nevertheless with an archetypal union boss career politician for a leader Labor have proven unable to inflict any real damage on Turnbull. Not that they should contemplate removing Shorten. The electorates delight at having a Prime Minister who does not appear to be shackled down by political machine players like Abbott and Gillard is palpable. There is likely nobody in Labor’s ranks that could deliver them a victory in 2016.
As a year 2015 marked the latest in a series of decisive victories for the anti-politics populists over the traditional political power brokers. The desperate last ditch attempt of the factions to reassert themselves over both major parties has finally reached its inevitable, humiliating demise. By rallying behind a relatively uninhibited Turnbull, the Liberal Party have embraced their extant antidote to the public’s dissatisfaction with the political classes. Labor meanwhile ambles towards near certain annihilation with no clear solution in place. Perhaps Labor should take some comfort in the fact that, at age 61, the days in which unpopular Liberals can cower behind Malcolm are well and truly finite.