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.