Is Labor about to risk doing a Democrats?

Every political party – indeed most community organisations – find themselves having to deal with internal turmoil and personal conflict from time to time. In that sense, the main difference for political parties is that those differences tend to be more likely to be played out in the public eye.  But I can’t escape the feeling that the current turmoil within the federal Labor Party is much deeper and more out of the ordinary – partly because for some time I have been feeling strong echoes of the kool-aid period of the Australian Democrats in the early years of last decade, when that party’s Parliamentarians (including myself) basically set off the explosives which self-destructed the entire party.

I am not suggesting the ALP is at imminent risk of disappearing in the way the Democrats did as a result of their self-immolation over the final months of the Stott Despoja leadership in 2002. Despite all their travails, Labor is still one of two major parties in a deeply entrenched two party system, with very strong foundations built over more than a century. And unlike the Democrats at that time, at least the attacks on the current leader are being carried out with an obvious alternative leader in mind. But the current public brawling amongst the federal ALP caucus still strikes me as reflecting a depth of interpersonal loathing and antagonism far beyond the normal levels usually seen during times of leadership tension.

Many media commentators have noted that the Rudd versus Gillard tensions are almost totally devoid of any sense of a contest over philosophical or policy differences. This is true, but it isn’t particularly unusual.  It is understandable, and indeed totally rational, for politicians to be interested in which leader might better portray the values of their party and/or is more likely to garner public support.

I was fairly young at the time, but when Bob Hawke was rushed in to replace Bill Hayden as Labor leader on the eve of the 1983 election, I am fairly sure the decision was driven almost entirely by an assessment of who would appeal most to the voters, rather than any assessment of the differing policy directions Hawke might have taken Labor towards. And regardless of perceptions or portrayals to the contrary, the very public disputes amongst the Democrat MPs ten years ago also had almost nothing to do with differences of opinion over policy.

To me, the big difference with the current conflict in federal Labor is how much it seems to be driven by a very deep enmity and an enormous loathing or aversion the Rudd camp has towards Gillard and vice versa.  There will always be some degree of personal antagonism involved in bringing leadership disputes to a head, but this one seems to be  much more personal and destructive than the ‘normal’ leadership dispute.

Having been in the middle of such a maelstrom within the Democrats many years ago, I am not seeking to be overly critical of the various Labor MPs who have been publicly commenting on the major mess their party is in. It is easy to say they should just shut the f**k up, but that is very hard to do when some of your ‘comrades’ are not taking that approach and are continually feeding what you believe to be grotesque falsehoods to the media – if there is no public counter to the falsehoods, then it is far more likely that the falsehoods will become accepted fact amongst media commentators, which will then be propagated indefinitely.

Which is why I think Labor’s current problem is so severe. It seems to me that for so many (though by no means all) of their MPs, there is no longer a sufficient sense of what their party is about and what they are there for, beyond being in government for the sake of it or at best because they believe that however dismal their own mob are, the other mob will be much worse.  But even more so it is because the depth of loathing and the feedback loop of internal personal antagonism and grievance is now beyond their control, and without any sufficiently solid philosophical compass, it may well not matter much whether Gillard or Rudd (or some other compromise ‘middle path’ candidate) ends up as leader. Wayne Swan’s extraordinary spray against Kevin Rudd is just one example.

If the vehicle itself becomes too badly broken or dysfunctional, it really doesn’t matter much who sits in the driver’s seat.  It is not a good place for a driver to be if the best they can expect is for half of their colleagues to sit around passively and just pass comment on how bad their driving skills are, while continuing to ignore the fact that the engine is broken.

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  1. I think the big winners out of this Labour implosion will be the Greens, they are well placed to pick up the voters that Labour will inevitably lose as a result of this unpleasantness. Environmentally conscious voters cannot vote for the coalition, as Tony Abbott is something of a climate change denier, and there aren’t really any other left wing vehicles that could accommodate these voters.

  2. ALEX, if you think that anyone will benefit from this fiasco but Abbott and the Coalition, then you’ve forgotten you history. The last serious ALP split – also driven partly by personality politics, in 1954-5 – handed 17 more years of government to Menzies’ Coalition.

    Senator Bartlett, your analysis of the situation is fairly spot-on – but I must ask: do you have an alternative plan of action? If the ALP is left to implode, Australia will pay the price of at least a decade of far right-wing government. Given the way the two parties are both incredibly disconnected from their grassroots, do you believe there could be a weakness to be exploited? I know that you’ve claimed the two-party system to be entrenched, but I’m not so sure: for instance, here in WA, the major parties – combined – have less than 5,000 members.

  3. Mat, it’s a bit harsh classifying the Liberals as a hard-right party – that to me brings to mind Mussolini and Hitler. Instead you’ve got Abbott and others campaigning for Aboriginal land rights in areas where the Wild Rivers legislation has effect, with the ALP specifically allowing some minig activities in the same areas. Abbott wanted a larger parenting payment than Gillard gave. There are differences in the way the two parties handle Climate Change, but primarily both parties are operating in Populist space rather than Policy.
    Personally, I don’t think that we’ll see another 17 years of Coalition rule following this split, simply because the media cycle and political lives are now shorter than in the 50s and 60s. There might be two terms while Labor rebuilds, and if they cansort their stuff out, and if the LNP don’t deliver, then it’ll be back to normal again.

  4. if it comes down to another election labor will lose that’s for Shaw but i stand by my prediction that the greens will wear it as well .because they are the ones that forced the carbon tax . not enough time has passed for the voters to forget that fact yet.
    and the liberals will not let that one go to easy .

  5. I have been thinking the exact same thing in the last couple of days. It’s quite worrying – the damage they’re doing to their party will take years to recover from, which can’t be good for anyone. Wayne’s spray of course made me think of you. On the otherhand, as you pointed out, how much fantasy and lies can be tolerated on the public record? You’d have to think that, for a professional politican to come out with such statements about a former PM, things must have been quite intolerable under krudd.

    The size of poltiticians’ egos never ceases to amaze.

  6. Matt- The points you raise about having no credible third party could play right into the Green’s hands though. For some Labour supporters voting for any of the major parties will be a toxic proposition, and these voters will need to go somewhere. Short term, you are right, Tony A will do very well out of this, but long term there may be a niche which the Greens could grow into.

  7. Yes, it does become very hard to tolerate and not counter an endless stream of public (and ‘off the record’) expressions of fantasy and lies – hence the full-on sprays that can occur. It can be hard to see how else it can be countered – but having fallen into that trap, I think it is almost always still a bad idea. (And Wayne Swan’s was in writing, which makes it even more pre-meditated).

  8. Hard to know what to hope for – the risk of another unbroken conservative dismantling of what was so hard-won before is horrifying — but what has happened to the party that used to stand for working folk? Party functionaries and ideal-less bureaucrats rule! Had Julia been given another 5 or so years to prepare she’s have been the best PM since Chifley – timing … there is a tide in the affiars of (wo)men … but I believe she did feel she had to act for the sake of the party and the government. The ignorance of our electorate is astounding at times.

  9. I think Labor has been told it’s time to pass the ball to the right again.

    The natives are restless and getting ready to kill, so there is a lot of back pedalling to do in order to keep the Labor/Liberal duopoly intact.

    They clearly don’t want to attract too much interference by other parties in their mutual rotten agenda.

    Here in Queensland, we could even get elections 3 months running.

  10. Bob Brown is certainly correct in his contention that there are quite a number of smaller political parties waiting in the wings to take over the running of our nation.

    There is little wonder that Gillard and Rudd are now doing Tony Abbott’s job of cutting Labor down, while he puts his feet up and waits for his imminent elevation to the lodge.

  11. The latest seems to be that ministerial support for Gillard is high.
    Last best chance for Gillard, Rudd ought to sit back with a cuppa and ponder his future, if he’s mature enough he’ll stay. Ensuring that Gillard gets a go will be his best passport to a revived career for himself, later-provided he can muster the patience, which may be what the exercise is all about.
    I suspect Andrew’s comments relate to the underlying problem of factional control and the influence of vested interests. It’s pernicious and is the real problem facing Labor.
    They can always continue the worst of their antics in opposition if they don’t finally heed the wake up calls.

  12. Andrew, it is simply spectacular. Never have we seen this before in Australia politics. The Swan press release was something else.

  13. I don’t think this is the same as the Democrats implosion – although that event was never clear to me. This did not start out as a personal animosity.
    Here we had a powerful leader who started off well, particularly with the response to the GFC, but who started to come apart when he met serious resistance. It seemed to me at the time that he was heading for a breakdown unless he slowed down and delegated much of the work to cabinet members – which is how our system is supposed to work, anyway.
    How to resolve such a problem? It certainly wasn’t handled well, but there may have been few options available.
    If he had been happy to remain Foreign Minister – which seems to suit his talents well – there might have been no problems. However, he wants his job back and is prepared to go to great lengths to destroy the current leadership. All his victims can do is publicise his actions without personal abuse. If the situation was chaotic, saying so may be an attack on his methods, but it can not be categorised as personal abuse.
    A brilliant and highly charismatic man with faulty self-restraint and burning ambition can be a serious problem.

  14. Yes, more than likely .. but this is one of the joyous notions about the “Australian” version of ‘democracy’.

    Firstly – we can play with a ‘hung parliament’ (and no, the roof did not fall in, no serious disasters ..) ..

    Frankly, from my point of view – Julia Gillard is one on the rare people who CAN hold a disparate number of blokes together – albeit on a tenuous mandate.

  15. (disclaimer – this comment was made on Friday … will have to wait and see what happens on Monday.)

    Seriously. i hope she wins the challenge. Has to be settled, mainly because the “meeja” needs it ..

    and honestly – the “meeja” has not been kind to her,

  16. if Gillard wins she must sack Rudd and bring on an election

    if Rudd wins he must sack Gillard and do the same

    but then again there is no honour between thieves

    and there seams to be less in the labour party.

    the people should have the rite to choose if this govt dose not give it to them now they will be gone for a very long time and so will those that put them there.

  17. Red Crab, what’s the point of an election held immediately after Monday’s leadership ballot? It’s not a case of the public not supporting the government because they’re waiting to find out who the leader is. The ALP have at least another year to show the Australian public that they’re willing to move past this, roll their sleeves up and continue working in the minority government situation they’re in. If they learn nothing and spend another twelve months bickering, the more conservative Labor voters will go to the Coalition and the more progressive will either vote Green or informal (not being able to bring themselves to vote for the Coalition).

  18. I’m told a third hat may be thrown into the ring on Monday. Perhaps it will be Simon Crean, Stephen Smith or Bill Shorten.

    Once Labor has “executed” the PM who passed a Carbon Tax through the parliament, many people will foolishly forgive them for this cardinal sin.

    I now expect to see Kevin Rudd return to the Hot Seat, possibly with Bill Shorten as Treasurer, to be elevated to the throne at a later date.

    This is just another case of a woman being used to do men’s dirty work, before it is swept under the carpet, with the dustpan containing the perpetrator being emptied into the trash.

  19. I think part of the current aim of the federal government is to distract attention away from the failings of the Queensland government led by Anna Bligh.

    I’m sure the opinions of outsiders would fade into insignificance compared with an opportunity to put the kybosh on political opponents, in this case, former Lord Mayor Campbell Newman.

    No doubt a much louder and more damaging skirmish is needed to keep someone that prominent out of contention.

    With the federal Labor debacle about to reach a zenith, we have seen little or nothing of Bob Katter in the media recently either.

    The word on the ground is that Julia Gillard has been told that she isn’t welcome here in Queensland.

    This may not be the last or most damaging skirmish before the 24 March election. There is certainly an excellent opportunity available for federal Senators to bring down the Labor government, and reduce it to a pile of ashes.

  20. I think too much is being made of the leadership tiff. Rudd was never going to go quietly – after all, he seems to think he the Messiah! Regardless of who wins, Ministries will be reshuffled and the same instability will continue. The Independents will probably fall into line even if Rudd wins because not to do so would mean their own loss of influence and power.

    No Labor leader is going to go to the polls now, because it would mean total annihilation. Labor’s only hope is the the Carbon Tax slips quietly into existence, and no other major blow-up happens. Slim chance.

    So – on to 2013! The Labor Party is bigger than this little personality tiff!

  21. I’m more interested in what this means for the probability of a seriously reactionary Coalition becoming government, with all the social, environmental and economic damage that will ensue. And I see Labor federally becoming less and less able to provide much of a counter to that.

    But for what it’s worth, I’ve made a final comment on what will happen at tomorrow’s leadership ballot at this separate post:

    (I’ll close comments on this one now – people can leave further comments over on that post if they wish.)

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