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Paradox at heart of conflict between Gillard and Rudd

20 July 2013 3,003 views No Comment

DID Aaron Patrick and ABC Books not realise ‘Downfall’ is the name of a 2004 movie depicting the last 10 days of Adolf Hitler inside his bunker?

Or do they wish to compare the circus-like state of the Australian Labor Party today with the demise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1945?

Either way, the juxtaposition is bizarre.
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But in some ways Patrick’s book of the same name as the movie may seem rather timely.

Subtitled ‘How the Labor Party Ripped Itself Apart’, Patrick’s book attempts to answer a fundamental, but potentially now somewhat ambiguous, if not dated, question: How did a once great progressive party, which at the end of 2007 held power federally and in every state and territory, become so tarnished and go so wrong?

As Patrick points out, in 2007 the most senior Liberal politician in the country was no less than the lord mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman, who later became Liberal National Party Premier of Queensland – the first Australian to lead a major political party without even being a member of parliament.

A former member of the Young Labor group that federal minister Bill Shorten belonged to – Shorten’s last-minute intervention recently helped in the demise as prime minister of Julia Gillard – Patrick is an experienced and astute journalist working at ‘The Australian Financial Review’.

Possibly to give himself some additional street cred, Patrick states that he was a member of the ALP from the ages of 16 to 21. In his most recent tome, Patrick both canvasses and confronts the gigantic sea of corruption, graft and incompetence that so recently ravaged the ALP, especially in NSW, and also tarnished some key trade unions integrally connected with the party, most importantly the Australian Workers Union and the Health Services Union.

‘Downfall’ focuses in particular on the role and background of Shorten, who refused to be interviewed for the book. Shorten, however, seems to some prescient political commentators, if not necessarily to the author of this book, destined one day to take over as leader of his once great political party.

Educated at Melbourne’s Xavier College and Monash University (where he studied arts and law), the seemingly worldly and scheming yet so often charming Shorten soon joined Young Labor and, after a brief period working as a lawyer with Maurice Blackburn Cashman in Melbourne, became an energetic political operative, organiser and leading official with the powerful right-wing AWU.

Almost all who knew him at the time testify that Shorten had an extremely high opinion of himself. And despite being visibly shaken shortly before the recent ballot for the federal leadership of the ALP, which resulted in Kevin Rudd taking over again as Prime Minister, it is almost universally apparent that he still does.

Disappointingly, Patrick deals briefly, and in a perfunctory way, with Shorten’s first marriage to Deborah Beale, the daughter of wealthy former Liberal federal MP Julian Beale, and also with Shorten’s second, and current, marriage to Chloe Bryce – the daughter of Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

In ‘Downfall’ Patrick often wears his political heart on his sleeve. While he condemns the English-born Victorian Labor senator for Victoria, Stephen Conroy – a leading member of the Labor Right and controversial, now ex-minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy – for his “oily charm”, he is lavish in his praise of the Left’s NSW senator John Faulkner, who he rightly describes as a highly ethical politician “respected for his integrity on both sides of politics”.

Patrick also supports Faulkner’s wish to end “the requirements for [Labor] MPs to vote in line with what their faction decides” – a practice that remains the deleterious foundation of factional control that so bedevils the ALP.

In this well-written and clearly expressed book, Patrick makes the somewhat dubious claim to be able to re-create both personal conversations and political events. Moreover, it seems surprising that when he deals with the history of the ALP from its origins to the present day, Patrick makes no mention of the Queensland MP Anderson Dawson, who in December 1899 led the world’s first labour government and who then in April 1904 was defence minister in Australia’s first national Labor government, led by the Chilean-born Chris Watson.

Yet in light of Rudd’s recent toppling of Gillard, Patrick’s summation of their political differences seems remarkably precise.

After explaining that the Gillard-Rudd conflict was a paradox, Patrick points out that Gillard was “well liked by most Labor MPs and disliked by most voters”. On the other hand, Rudd was “loathed by most Labor MPs and vastly more popular with the public”.

Patrick then concludes the parliamentary Labor Party “had to choose between electoral star power and unloved dependability”.

Aided by Shorten’s last-minute backing, federal Labor has turned again to the much more electorally popular Queenslander.

How much public appeal and star power is possessed by the born-again, Brisbane-based Prime Minister will not be known until the night of the now fascinating, forthcoming federal election.

IF ever the deck was stacked against a prime minister, it was stacked against Julia Gillard. So goes the thesis of former ‘The Daily Telegraph’ press gallery reporter – and, before that, Bob Hawke staff member – Kerry-Anne Walsh.

More a personal pro-Gillard diary than an objective analysis of recent events, Walsh’s ‘The Stalking of Julia Gillard’ does not pretend to be a definitive account of the government that was routed last month.

Rather, it is a series of observations about a politician who, Walsh believes, “was never given a fair go: not in the media, not by Rudd, not by some in caucus”. The unambiguous subtitle – ‘How the Media and Team Rudd Contrived to Bring Down the Prime Minister’ – makes it clear this is a partisan tome. It needs to be approached as such.

From the beginning Walsh, too, wears her political heart on her sleeve. For example, she maintains that, among the press gallery during the three years of Gillard’s minority government, there “seemed to be a lack of appetite for rigorous assessment of Rudd the man and Rudd the politician, and of his motives, and the devastating impact he was having”.

On the other hand, she says at the same time Rudd and his so-called minions in the press and the Labor Party were deliberately undermining her, Gillard was “continually cast as a liar and policy charlatan, and lampooned for her hair, clothes, accent, arse, even the way she walk[ed] and talk[ed]”.

Hence the stacked deck premise.

Yet a problem with all of this is that Gillard arguably ran the most incompetent federal government since that of William “Billy” McMahon, who was Liberal prime minister from March 10, 1971, to December 5, 1972. And that really is saying something.

Of particular interest is Walsh’s analysis of Rudd’s aborted putsch on the afternoon of Thursday March 21 this year, and its aftermath.

After Rudd and some members of his team had egged on that thoroughly decent politician Simon Crean to organise a leadership challenge to Gillard, at the last minute Rudd announced he had always said that he wouldn’t challenge the Prime Minister and he wasn’t going to now: “I believe in honouring my word … Others take such commitments lightly, I do not … I have been very plain about that for a long period of time … I have given that word. I gave it solemnly in that room after the last ballot and I will adhere to that word today.”

According to Walsh, Rudd’s last-minute announcement that he wasn’t standing for the leadership was “an act of mammoth self-serving political bastardry, and an exercise in deluded spin and nonsense”.

Crean certainly thought so: Rudd not running, he said, “was never part of the discussions we had”. An indignant Crean told Canberra reporters: “[Rudd] reneged on our deal, it was gutless.” To top it off, Crean then told this newspaper: “[The] argument that [Rudd] had said he wouldn’t challenge, in my view is a nonsense.”

Yet the day after what Walsh describes as “the greatest piece of theatre of the absurd ever to play in Parliament House”, a seemingly breezy and unaffected Rudd called a press conference in Brisbane to say that he would “never, ever seek the leadership of the Labor Party again”.

The most revealing words in ‘The Stalking of Julia Gillard’ come out of Rudd’s own mouth. Here are three of his statements to consider, and to savour.

On February 22 last year, Rudd said: “There is no way, no way, I would ever be party to a stealth attack on a sitting prime minister elected by the people.” On February 27, after losing 71 to 31 in his challenge to Gillard, Rudd committed himself to putting his “every effort into securing Julia Gillard’s re-election as Labor Prime Minister at the next election”. Then, after the coup of March 21 this year that never happened, Rudd was absolutely unambiguous when he stated there would be “no circumstances” under which he would ever lead Labor again.

Politics is a strange and duplicitous world indeed and Walsh’s readable book highlights this – although it needs to be understood in the context of her Gillard-loving, Rudd-hating partisan and personal perspective.

‘Downfall: How the Labor Party Ripped Itself Apart’
By Aaron Patrick
ABC Books, 328pp, $29.99

‘The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the Media and Team Rudd Contrived to Bring Down the Prime Minister’
By Kerry-Anne Walsh
Allen and Unwin, 305pp, $29.99

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

‘The Weekend Australian’ July 20-21, 2013, Review, BOOKS p 20