Monday, July 12, 2010

Executing Kevin

I received a nice e-mail from Western Australia that was complimentary of this long piece, so I'm posting it up here.

It looks at some of the similarities between the rise and fall of Kevin Rudd . . .


Forum, Canberra Times, 26 Jun 10

The speed of the execution was perhaps the most telling detail. The plotters had sharpened their knives in secrecy. Not a word of the impending bloodletting escaped the tight-knit group. The assassination was prepared with the consummate expertise of true professionals. And then, even as they assembled to strike, everything spiralled suddenly out of control.
As news of the challenge spread it was almost possible to see Rudd's support base collapsing around him. The PM had no praetorian guard of fierce warriors who would fight to the death to protect him. A lacklustre group of frightened politicians who didn't want to risk a challenge -- perhaps; but there was certainly no Praetorian guard of fierce warriors who would fight to the death to protect him.
At daybreak the next morning it was all over. Environment Protection Minister Peter Garrett was even phoning in from the International Whaling Commission in Morocco's Agadir to announce "Julia Gillard would make an outstanding Prime Minister . . . if I was in a position to vote I'd be supporting Julia". Former ALP National Secretary Gary Gray, the representative for Kim Beazley's old seat of brand in Western Australia spoke, emphasising that no factional leaders were coercing people to vote for Gillard. "I have heard of no discussions that have involved factional decision-making or arm-twisting", he insisted. A few politicians indicated they'd be voting for "the leader", but these were people who, as a matter of principle, always voted against the challenger.
The result had become not merely obvious, but embarrassing. Normally, as a matter of principle, leadership challenges involve a ballot. This makes it clear to everyone that the desire to change the leader is a genuine expression of the mood of the party, but as the sun rose the extent of the crushing victory had become evident to anyone who could count. Gillard could count on more than 70 votes from across the usual factional divides, while Rudd was struggling to retain the support of 30 parliamentarians. The collapse was complete. The Prime Minister was not merely being torn down by his one-time colleagues -- if the vote went ahead his body would be trampled on and his memory consigned to the dust.
Rudd announced he'd stand down; Gillard was the only candidate for leadership. That afternoon she was Prime Minister.

Rudd's leadership had been destroyed by the three elements that had originally given him the leadership: opinion polls, the factions, and Gillard.

All these elements had come together during the Parliamentary winter break exactly four years ago. At that time both Rudd and Gillard had been bitterly frustrated with Kim Beazley's leadership of the party. The (then) leader had been working hard but the young MPs had been left out in the cold and both were ruthlessly ambitious. Gillard possessed much more support than Rudd, but she was a left-winger and would never receive either his assistance or the backing of the New South Wales Right. Rudd made his ambitions clear and Gillard quietly folded her support behind him.
Rudd carefully built his coalition. Right-wing support gave him the numbers and then Beazley began to stutter in the polls. The fatal slip came when he offered his "condolences to Karl Rove for the death of his wife". Beazley had accidentally mixed up names. Karl was a senior adviser to the US President, while it was Rove McManus’ wife Belinda Emmett who had died. Beazley's approval rating in the polls continued to fall. In December Rudd moved, pushing Beazley out of the way with a quick flicker of his terrible swift sword. Rudd had turned his own personal approval ratings into a sharp blade that he used to grab the leadership of the party.
Rudd had learned how to work popular opinion like an instrument. He always uttered exactly the right words, delivering exactly the right folksy turn of phrase that could genuinely express the desires of ordinary Australians. Within a year he was Prime Minister. And, for a long time, his honeymoon continued. Rudd said "sorry". He meant it, and so did Australia. Rudd signed the Kyoto protocol and promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A catalogue -- a long catalogue -- of other reforms was announced all, we were told, things that were vital for the future. Rudd was massively ambitious and he described a glowing future. Rudd's approval ratings soared into the stratosphere and he became, for a brief period, the most popular Prime Minister since polling had begun, eclipsing even the embrace with which the electorate had welcomed Bob Hawke back in the mid-80s.
That should have given Rudd pause, because the Hawke had been the only Prime Minister ever to be later removed from office by his party.

But it seemed nothing could go wrong for Rudd. When the global financial crisis threatened to plunge the country into recession, Treasurer Wayne Swan and Secretary Ken Henry were responsible for offering Rudd the tools, but he became convinced of his central role in averting disaster. Rudd gave himself credit for providing the vital stimulus that had ensured Australia escaped recession. Hubris, Tuesday overmastering pride in his own achievements, began to consume the Prime Minister. Nothing could happen in government unless he approved. Unfortunately, this increasingly meant that nothing happened.
Peter Garrett, for example, had written four times to Rudd's office and warned about dangers that were emerging in the home insulation scheme. He was recommending the immediate cancellation of the scheme. The PM was too busy with other issues to provide a response. When, eventually, the issue finally came to Rudd's attention it was too late.
Rudd promised to work harder. In February he assured us he would take personal control of the many areas where problems had begun to emerge. The PM seemed to be saying he understood where things were going wrong and, having diagnosed the problem, he could administer the appropriate medicine.
That Rudd had got the origin of the problem wrong. There was already too much control and not enough delegation. Decision-making in the government had become reduced to a tight group, the kitchen Cabinet of Rudd, Swan, Gillard and, occasionally, Lindsay Tanner. It was not so much a gang of four, more a gang of three and a half. Tanner and Gillard were both from the Victorian Left, but both had very different ideas about the path that should be followed to arrive at the same objective.
After the fiasco that had marked the collapse of the climate change talks in Copenhagen late last year, this tight-knit group had met to decide how the government would deal with the issue. Rudd's own rhetoric had elevated finding a method of dealing with global warming as the single greatest moral challenge of his generation. The gang of four squibbed it, and it was Gillard and Swan who argued to postpone action. Swan pointed out the advantage to the budget bottom line; no concessions would have to be given to the large emitters and it would be possible to return the budget to surplus much faster. Tanner disagreed. He's refused, so far, to say if he was arguing for a double dissolution on this issue or if he wanted to simply change the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme to the simple carbon tax advocated by the Greens. Gillard weighed into the debate, urging Rudd to defer action and he came down on the side of caution and fiscal responsibility. The scheme was postponed indefinitely. Penny Wong was not even consulted.

The government's polling figures had begun to recover and then came a critical leak. Journalist Lenore Taylor had been following the intricate detail revealed by the dense pattern of numbers woven around the CPRS. She realised the budget figures reveal that Labor had no plan to deal with climate change, because the necessary figures were omitted from the forward estimates. This was a disaster for the government, but more particularly in reflected on the PM himself. There had suddenly become apparent that there was an emptiness at the very centre of the Rudd project. The rhetoric no longer meshed with the reality. Voters concerned about the environment, the very people who Rudd had energised in 2007, felt angry and alienated. They'd been lied to. The consensus that had buoyed the PM, carrying him so high for so long, rapidly began to fall apart.
The disintegration of Rudd's support rapidly gained pace. Many of the swinging voters who'd been reassured by the PM in February began to question how effectively government programs such as the BER, the building scheme that had been branded the "education revolution". Voters on the left were angry with the chaos that had enveloped the government's response to the greenhouse issue. Ironically both of these were problems and Gillard had been intimately involved with. Nevertheless, Rudd was still claiming responsibility for every part of his administration's activities and, as a result, he was blamed for the failures. Rudd's approval rating began to tumble off a cliff and it looked as if there was nothing that would stop the plunge.
One of the key problems for Rudd was the loss of the preferences of green voters. Labour could have been elected in 2007 without their support -- but only just. Eden-Monaro is a litmus-test seat, the vital electorate stretching from Canberra to the coast where the local MP has always sat on the government benches since 1972. Mike Kelly won the seat in 2007 by three percent. He would never have achieved this without managing to receive the majority of preferences of Green voters. It was their support that pushed him over the line. The hard-heads in the party realised that they could no longer rely on these preferences. Although the coalition offered nothing to these people, Labor realised their anger might just lead people to leave their ballot papers blank or voted informal. Something had to be done. The obvious answer was to get rid of Rudd.

The key moment was always going to be just before the long winter parliamentary recess. Rudd could read the polls as well as the apparatchiks and knew his leadership was under increasing pressure. But the action he took explains, in part, why his prime ministership had deteriorated so quickly. Instead of speaking to his colleagues he sent his chief of staff, Alistair Jordan, out to gauge their support. Jordan is a smart bloke, but he's still young and everyone was well aware of his utter devotion to his leader. As Jordan canvassed their opinions, parliamentarians knew that anything they said would go straight back to the PM. Unsurprisingly, they kept their council to themselves. Jordan returned with the news that Rudd was secure. He wasn't. Not at all.
Just a few key figures decided Rudd had to go. They knew exactly when to time their strike. This week was critical: the party was together and a vote could quickly resolve the issue. The assassins had no need to count the numbers, it was obvious Rudd would not be able to gather enough support to withstand their assault. On Wednesday they began to make their move.
That morning another story had angered Gillard. She'd read about Jordan's enquiries and this gave her an excuse to move against Rudd. She could accurately assert that he had failed to believe her protestations of support. ABC journalist Chris Uhlmann had been keeping a close watch on Labor and feeding information to his colleague Mark Simpkin. At seven o'clock on Wednesday night the ABC News broke the story that a delegation had gone to Rudd's office to demand his scalp.

The New South Wales right’s Mark Arbib, the same man who anointed Rudd four years previously, had been speaking to the Victorian left’s David Feeney as the PM's ratings had began their plunge. Both realised that Labor's problems revolved around one person -- Rudd. Until he departed the party would never get to clean air it required to get its message out to the electorate. The party's primary vote was bumping along at its lowest ever, but more critically Labor wasn't getting enough preferences to secure re-election. The power-brokers decided they had to act.
A farewell was being held in parliament house and, as the news bulletin went to air the information spread rapidly by word-of-mouth around the Labor caucus. Some rushed down to the PM's office to find out what was going on: no one rushed to support him.
As the plotters knew, the news of the challenge was itself enough to guarantee that Rudd would fall. The polls had turned against the PM and the minute this happened his autocratic style had guaranteed there would be no friends to preserve him from the ruthless processes of the factions. The third element fell into place when Gillard said she was prepared to challenge. Rudd's reign was over.

No comments:

Post a Comment