View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Gillard’s essay a mix of sound points and flawed argument

Julia Gillard has broken her self-imposed silence in an essay for a news website. AAP/Lukas Coch

Julia Gillard’s hard hitting critique of Labor’s past problems and future challenges, posted on Guardian Australia at the weekend, has, among many messages, one central point.

Labor, she argues, should be a party of purpose, rather than being driven by the polls.

Gillard is sending much advice to Labor. It should defend its legacy, and remind the public, and the new government, how much of Labor’s policy the conservatives have taken over.

It ought to promote a new internal culture, that eschews leaking and destabilisation.

It needs to change Kevin Rudd’s recent party rules because they could entrench a bad leader.

It should stand by its carbon pricing scheme even though “it will be uncomfortable in the short term to be seen to be denying the mandate of the people”.

Gillard provides a harsh critique of Rudd and seeks to justify much of her own past, neither of which is surprising.

She is right in some, but not all of what she argues.

As she says, “Kevin clearly felt constrained in running on those policies where Labor had won the national conversation, because those policies were associated with me”.

It is true that Rudd could have made more of the disability scheme and even the Gonski school funding (although he and Bill Shorten worked hard to bed down that as much as they could).

She is also correct to condemn “the bizarre flirtation in the campaign with ‘economic nationalism’ and the cheap populism of appearing anti-foreign investment” as well as the “different corporate tax rate for the Northern Territory and the hugely expensive move of naval assets from Garden Island”.

But on the subject of bad policy, Gillard’s own assault on the 457 visa scheme smacked of xenophobia and populism. Fair enough to crack down on rorts, but it was not right to try to drum up feelings of them and us between “Aussie” workers and those brought in to supplement the labour force.

In lines that cut to the core of Gillard’s case, she writes: “Labor comes to opposition having sent the Australian community a very cynical and shallow message about its sense of purpose.

"The decision by Labor caucus to change leaders in June this year was not done on the basis of embracing a new policy agenda; it was not done because caucus now believed Kevin Rudd had the greater talent for governing. Caucus’s verdict of 2010 on that was not being revoked.

"It was only done – indeed expressly done – on the basis that Labor might do better at the election”.

Well yes. And most Labor people and observers believe that Rudd did contain the size of the loss.

No one can or should deny that Rudd’s destabilising behaviour over the previous three years was reprehensible. Or, even worse, that his or his supporters’ leaking in the 2010 campaign probably prevented Labor winning majority government. Or the irony of bringing him back to limit electoral damage he had been a big part of causing.

But in the end, his return has left Labor in a better position to rebuild than if he had not led the campaign. (One can say this while simultaneously arguing that Labor would be better off now if Rudd found himself a good job abroad. His parliamentary presence is always – at the very least – going to be a distraction for Labor.)

Gillard could argue she has a record of greater loyalty than Rudd has. But hardly a pure one. She accepted the invitation to overthrow Rudd in 2010. And long before, she joined forces with Rudd to oust Kim Beazley from the opposition leadership in 2006.

And why was that? Beazley arguably would have won the 2007 election. But Labor, encouraged by Rudd and Gillard, decided it wanted more certainty about a Labor victory.

This is where Gillard’s argument about the polls is flawed.

She writes, in relation to the current leadership ballot, “Caucus and party members should use this contest to show that Labor has moved on from its leadership being determined on the basis of opinion polls, or the number of positive media profiles, or the amount of time spent schmoozing media owners and editors, or the frippery of selfies and content-less social media. Rather, choosing a leader will now be done on the basis of the clearly articulated manifestos of the candidates, the quality of their engagement with caucus and party processes and their contributions to the collective efforts of the parliamentary party”.

But the point remains, as Gillard knows, that one criterion for choosing a leader will and should usually be how he or she is likely to go down with the public. (Otherwise why ditch Beazley for the electorally more attractive Rudd?) That is just political life in a system where the people get the ultimate say. It certainly should not be the only criterion but it can’t be ignored.

Not that parties are always swayed by the polls. The Liberals, having had a leadership rotisserie, were willing to stick with Tony Abbott for a long time rather than consider returning to Malcolm Turnbull, who out-rated Abbott in the polls. They believed Abbott would deliver; they had other concerns about Turnbull.

Gillard calls for a cultural change in Labor away from leaking and destabilisation. But, with 2010 in mind, she also thinks that a bad leader should on occasion be put to the sword, condemning the new Rudd rule that gives high protection to an incumbent.

“These rules literally mean that a person could hang on as Labor leader and as prime minister even if every member of cabinet… has decided that person was no longer capable of functioning as prime minister. A person could hang on even if well over half of their parliamentary colleagues thought the same,” she writes.

“Indeed, the new rules represent exactly the wrong approach to address the so-called ‘revolving door’ of the Labor leadership. These rules protect an unsupported, poorly performing, incumbent rather than ensuring that the best person gets chosen and supported for the best reasons: specifically the attachment of the Labor party to the leader’s defined sense of purpose and vice versa”.

Once you accept that on occasion a badly-performing leader should be removed, the issue of destabilisation becomes more complicated. Bad leaders don’t usually volunteer to jump overboard; indeed often there is not agreement on whether a leader is bad enough to be tossed overboard. Internal consideration will be destabilising; critics will use destabilisation to shake the tree. Should this never be done? One might say the coup against Rudd came out of the blue with little time for overt destabilisation – but that brought its own problems, in terms of a confused public.

A party always has a choice: to stick with a leader through bad patches or to seek someone else. A mature party is one that makes sound decisions about when to take which course – one that doesn’t panic in adversity but can also be hard headed. However, as we have seen in 2010 and 2013, there usually will be argument about the best way to go.

Politics is seldom about absolutes and the people who populate it are capable of hopping between principle and pragmatism when it suits, and dressing the latter in the clothes of the former.