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Two blow-by-blow accounts expose the Labor Party’s leadership machinations

5 December 2010 1,065 views No Comment

For those progressives who hail from Queensland, at least for the rank-and-file, the initials AWU stand for Australia’s Worst (or Weakest) Union. Similarly, when Kevin Rudd was Queensland’s leading apparatchik during the state Labor government of Wayne Goss and before entering federal politics, he was widely known as Dr Death. This was because of Rudd’s authoritarian ruthlessness and his utter lack of sympathy for trade unionists, working people and the poor.

Both these diaries , from the lead-up to the 2010 federal election campaign to its nail-biting finale , are based on notes that each author made every night and day during this fascinating period of Australian political history. Both books in large part deal with the replacement of Rudd as Labor prime minister by the supposed “darling of the left, Julia Gillard, and the pivotal role in Rudd’s overthrow by factional heavyweights in the trade union movement and the Australian Workers Union in particular. Indeed, both diaries focus on the crucial role of Paul Howes, as national secretary of the AWU, in engineering Rudd’s demise and replacing him with Gillard.

It is fascinating to compare Bob Ellis’s insightful account with that of Howes. On Lateline, the AWU boss was the first to appear in the media saying that he and the other leaders of his powerful union “took the decision this afternoon that we should throw our support behind Julia Gillard for the leadership of the party”. Ellis claims that on that night, Howes “changed history, changed it incontestably. In contrast, Howes (wrongly in my opinion) underplays his role in the whole affair. “Would that I had such power, he writes. “The truth is, I do not. The power was in the hands of the caucus, and they wielded it, not seeking or needing any individual’s imprimatur.

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While both these revealing diaries cover the intimate details of the election, both keep circling back to Rudd’s role and what might have been had he remained as prime minister and hence as Labor leader.

At the outset, Howes concedes that he does “not have Bob Ellis’s flair for narrative, nor his feel for prose. Maybe so. But, then again, he doesn’t suffer from Ellis’s meandering narcissism, which often makes Suddenly, Last Winter so Ellis-centred and self-absorbed.

Unlike Ellis’s tome, Howes’s book is simply written and often extremely funny. The title harks back to a time when Alan “The Red Fox Reid engineered the famous March 1963 photographs of then Labor leaders Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam standing under a lamppost outside Canberra’s Hotel Kingston, where the federal Labor Party conference was meeting, waiting to be told what was crucial Labor Party policy. A large part of the reason that Robert Menzies won the 1963 election was because of a constant reference by the conservative coalition to the ALP being run by “36 unelected faceless men. In fact, there was one woman , from Tasmania.

Unsurprisingly, in 2010 the federal coalition also made much of the parliamentary leadership of the contemporary ALP being in thrall to a group of largely “faceless men who were little known to the citizenry at large. Both Ellis and Howes give some credence to this claim. Both deal with the highs and lows, the leaks and monumental strategic blunders that characterised Labor’s campaign. And both, for different reasons, seem genuinely affectionate towards the silver-haired, hugely hatted independent maverick from North Queensland, Bob Katter.

Ellis is kinder to Rudd and much more critical of Gillard than is Howes, who seems more sanguine about the immediate future of Labor under Gillard. Ellis adroitly highlights the wayward course of a beloved party founded in 1891 as a result of the failure of direct action by the striking shearers. Yet at the heart of both diaries is the question of whether a federal ALP under Rudd would have performed better against the highly focused Tony Abbott than did Gillard. For many commentators, the jury may still be out. But for my money, the answer is clear and in accord with the blunt assessment of a former Labor premier of Queensland, the popular Peter Beattie.

As recorded in Confessions of a Faceless Man, on election night, over an alcoholic drink or two, Beattie and Howes dissected what had gone wrong with federal Labor. Speaking of Rudd, Beattie unambiguously told the AWU powerbroker that “that bloke stuffed up the Goss government, stuffed up his own government and during the election did his best to stuff up Julia’s government. No one should ever forget the damage that he has done. The fact that Rudd couldn’t garner more than 20 votes out of a caucus of 119 demonstrated, Beattie said, “the lack of faith that the parliamentary party had in him.

And just in case anyone thinks the huge backlash against Labor in Queensland was primarily because Rudd was replaced so rudely, it is important to realise that the swing against him in his Brisbane-based seat of Griffith was more than 9 per cent. Not much sympathy there. Yet as Ellis so often repeats in his sometimes infuriatingly indulgent book: “And so it goes.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the co-author of Alan (“The Red Fox”) Reid.

CONFESSIONS OF A FACELESS MAN: INSIDE CAMPAIGN 2010
Paul Howes
Melbourne University Press, 250pp, $24.95

SUDDENLY, LAST WINTER: AN ELECTION DIARY
Bob Ellis
Viking, 392pp, $32.95

Spectrum, SMH, 4 December, 2010

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