Books Australia

In the big chair

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation Paul Kelly

Melbourne University Press, pp.560, $50, ISBN: 9780522862102

My Story Julia Gillard

Random, pp.512, $50, ISBN: 9780857983909

Even those of us of a conservative bent hoped that the election of the Rudd government in 2007 would constitute a landmark, a welcome change, a new beginning. Looking back, it is hard to understand how everything went so terribly, terribly wrong.

Kelly, one of Australia’s most highly-regarded journalists and author of numerous books on politics, is a good person to explain it all. His seniority allowed him to interview all the major players; his experience helped him keep it all in perspective.

While the personal conflict between Rudd and Gillard dominated the landscape, Kelly points out that in the early days they made a formidable partnership. But Rudd, unlike Gillard, was never a party animal. And he was an awful manager. He was not the first PM to centralise all decision-making in his own hands but he was the first one to do so and then prove incapable of making decisions. Kelly recounts how he alienated frontbenchers, backbenchers, public servants, anyone. He did not care: he saw his mandate as stemming from his special relationship with the Australian people.

Several interviewees note that Rudd was never the same after the failure of the Copenhagen summit. The dumping of his climate change policy – it turned out to not be the greatest moral challenge of our time, after all – was a key shift in public perceptions. When the polls turned, he had no-one who would fight for him.

There was some polling evidence showing that Rudd would not win the 2010 election, but basically the move against him came about because everyone had concluded that he was, well, a prick. Gillard says that she acted to save the party, and also – this bit is remarkable – to save Kevin from descending further into mental instability. Good of her. The problem was that this was all a surprise to the public, and the new leader could not explain it without admitting her own culpability. And no-one stopped to consider what might happen if Rudd refused to disappear, quietly and permanently. There were also fundamental policy problems. Aside from the climate change debacle, border protection and the mining tax were disasters. Gillard proved capable of making decisions, which was a change, but they were seldom the right ones, nor was there much consistency. Discussion degenerated into conspiracy theories and class warfare rhetoric. Certainly, Rudd’s undermining was a major problem, but a better government would have survived it.

At the same time, Labor’s cultural obsession with itself stopped it from understanding the threat of Abbott. One might have thought that after he came close to winning in 2010 they would have taken him seriously. Instead, they chose to believe their own propaganda. Maybe hating Abbott was all they had left. It was not enough.

The surprise is that when Gillard eventually fell the margin was so close. Most people interviewed by Kelly acknowledge that Rudd, even after a disastrous campaign, saved the party from annihilation. But that does not mean they liked it, and it does not mean that the hole where the party’s heart once was has been filled.

Kelly sees deeper issues here. He wonders if reform is possible in Australia any longer, in the age of hyper-critical media, a twittering class, and a splintered Senate. No-one seems willing to give any of their benefits away, even though the economy needs a fundamental realignment. The choice might be between weak governments that promise handouts and then give them, and strong governments that make promises and then break them. He comes close to saying that because Rudd and Gillard failed then Abbott must fail too, but he pulls away at the last moment. We shall see.

A recurring theme of Kelly’s book is that the ALP has a marked tendency to deny reality. This comes out in Gillard’s own book, to the point that it is sometimes hard to take it seriously. We ran a great government, she says, did a lot of wonderful things, left the economy in fine shape. Don’t know why people don’t see it. Something to do with Kevin, probably. This sounds like mythmaking for people who were not there at the time, especially when she casts herself as a victim of sexism. True, she was attacked on many fronts, often personally and unfairly. But we should remember that she was a first-class mudslinger herself, and Howard, Abbott, and other leaders have been savagely maligned. It comes with the big chair.

She provides some interesting insights into the machinery of government, which she compares to a very large ship. But she usually focuses on intentions rather than outcomes, and seems to think that throwing money at a problem is the same as solving it. Yes, she negotiated with the Greens and independents to form a minority government, but in hindsight this does not seem to be something to boast about.

Reading both books could make one very depressed about the future. Kelly may be right; the system as a whole is heading for a logjam. But not yet. Maybe Abbott can find a way to negotiate important changes through fractious institutions and a self-interested electorate. Maybe Shorten can drag the ALP away from the path of fruitless, arrogant introversion. Maybe.

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  • Howe Synnott

    I agree with basic thrust of Paul Kelly: “…wonders if reform is possible ..No-one seems willing to give any of their benefits away…”.
    In any debate, we can anticipate cherry picking by the partisans – as they attribute blame: “‘tis those on the other (dark) side of politics that are at fault.”
    It appears Australia is on course for continuing deficits – and, in particular, generational betrayal.

    I despair – and see little reason to hope that things will change.
    We remain stuck – due to the determination of political parties to:
    Deny they made reckless election promises;
    Refuse to admit past errors of judgment;
    Refuse to acknowledge that widespread pain is now unavoidable;
    Avoid making any substantial compromises in Senate negotiations;
    Prefer political advantage to sharing policy progress with their opponents.
    How do we start a discussion – when defending our side of politics?
    It usually goes something like this: “Yes, but….”