As Paul Keating told Julia Gillard not so long ago, every prime minister is carried out of the job in a box. His fatalistic advice was meant to be comforting, indicating that the party room or the public will inevitably dispose of each prime minister, regardless of how popular they once were.
But Keating’s aphorism covered only part of the story. For governments and the parties that sustain them, the length of tenure in office also matters.
How an ex-government is able to look back on its time in power influences very strongly its capacity to regenerate in opposition. The defeat suffered by the Howard government in 2007 was substantial. John Howard lost his seat, only the second prime minister to suffer this humiliation.
The election loss was imminent almost a year out from election day, from the moment that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard became Labor’s new leadership team. The Liberal party room had most of 2007 to respond to this new challenge by replacing Howard with Peter Costello, but it chose not to.
Significantly, once they found themselves out of government, the Liberals didn’t indulge in severe recriminations. Howard wrote a book. Costello wrote a book, in which he included some incidental sniping at Howard.
Tony Abbott wrote a book. Abbott’s assessment of the demise of the Howard government was that the public had concluded in 2007 that after four terms and more than 11 years, the Coalition had been in power long enough and it was time for a change.
This analysis was crucial to the Liberals’ post-defeat mentality. As painful as the loss had been, the party felt satisfied that it had enjoyed a good go at government.
This contrasts strongly with the position of the Labor Party as it tries to deal with last month’s defeat. Labor’s victory in 2007 was, as already noted, substantial. In terms of seats won and the party’s healthy primary vote, it should have been enough to sustain the ALP in office for three terms, which in modern politics could be regarded as the breakeven point for any party in office. Anything beyond three terms is a bonus, as Howard learnt in his fractious and final fourth term.
But Labor under Rudd, then Gillard, then Rudd again, managed to hang in there for a mere two terms, only the first of them in a majority position in the lower house, lasting less than six years all up.
For all of Labor’s legislative victories – the National Disability Insurance Scheme, education reforms including the national curriculum and the Gonski formula for schools funding, the repeal of WorkChoices, the legislating of a price on carbon – the party will continue to look at the Rudd-Gillard years as a time of lost opportunities.
This was not how Labor looked at the Hawke-Keating era, which saw the ALP win a record five consecutive terms. The Whitlam government, like the Rudd-Gillard government, won two terms, although Whitlam’s period of office was compressed into just three years. The ALP’s method of dealing with Whitlam’s landslide 1975 defeat provides a powerful contrast with the reaction of some high-profile Labor figures to the 2013 election loss.
First out of the blocks was the retiring member for Perth, Stephen Smith. On election night, with the votes still being counted, he declared on national television that Rudd should resign from parliament forthwith because he would forever remain a symbol of the disunity that had wrecked the Labor government.
Soon after, another ex-MP - this time Craig Emerson - launched into a poisonous personal attack on Rudd, describing the man who had just led the party to the election basically as mad and selfish, an unstoppable engine of destabilisation who should get out of public life immediately.
And then last week came the capper, with yet another newly-departed MP, Nicola Roxon, using the highly-regarded John Button Lecture to recycle her past attacks on Rudd with some added material: Rudd was not just chaotic, he was rude (but never, on her own admission, to Roxon) and, simply, a “bastard” who thoroughly deserved to be ditched as leader in 2010.
Her view is that if Gillard, as Rudd’s replacement, had along with ministers such as Roxon at that time run out a detailed public explanation of just how utterly worthless Rudd had been as prime minister, the political outcome for the ALP would almost certainly have been better. Bear in mind, Rudd was still in his first term as prime minister when rolled.
Roxon is another who wants Rudd to resign from his seat of Griffith pronto. She does not suggest that he is a bad representative of his electorate. She even contemplates the possibility that he might behave well as a backbencher.
Roxon’s reason for wanting a by-election in Griffith? Pollsters.
I believe we must also confront the bitter truth that as long as Kevin remains in parliament, irrespective of how he behaves, pollsters will run comparisons with him and any other leader.
If Roxon’s political acumen as displayed within her lecture is what Gillard relied upon as leader, then the Australian public has been given a fascinating insight into 1) how Gillard met her political fate by making so many cack-handed pronouncements and 2) the dysfunctional professional attitudes that sit at the very heart of the modern Labor Party.
By any measure, Rudd must take a big share of the blame for what went wrong, but Roxon’s analysis is that, at root, he must shoulder the lot. It is a ludicrous proposition. Why did his aggrieved, frustrated ministers not confront him? Where was their courage? Were they too frightened of demotion, of losing their status and their salary, and all that power?
The truth is Rudd will never be able to destabilise Bill Shorten or any other future leader. He will never attract support from anyone in the caucus. He had two runs as leader. He is spent. Having led the party to a big loss, he is never again going to be taken seriously as a possible leader or be able to attract widespread popularity.
In the wake of 1975, it would have been easy for ex-ministers to fashion a case against Whitlam over his imperious style, lack of interest in economic policy and strategic fumbles on the day of the vice-regal dismissal.
Senior members of the party could have blamed Whitlam for so much that went wrong. Instead, the party locked in behind him kept him on to fight another election. It looked forward, not backward, and devoted itself to remaking its policies and reaching out to new parts of the community. Only seven years later, with a comprehensive new platform and Bob Hawke at the helm, it swept back into power.
Roxon, Emerson and Smith have taken another tack. They appear to want to keep the fight against Rudd going, trying to hound him out of parliament through character assassination.
All three have enjoyed massive salaries as ministers and are about to access a superannuation scheme that’s vastly more generous than that available to the ordinary workers who are the backbone of Labor’s electoral support base.
In their zeal to denigrate Rudd, do they really want to hand his seat to the Liberals at a byelection? Liberal candidate Bill Glasson is a quality operator who scored a higher primary vote than Rudd on September 7, a profound reversal of the 2010 result in Griffith. The seat is now marginal. Griffith voters would be furious about having to vote again and would punish Labor.
Glasson would win a by-election, and almost certainly win again at the subsequent general election. Labor holds a paltry six of Queensland’s 30 seats. Would these highly-remunerated ex-MPs seriously want to cut that number to five just so that they can feel vindicated in their loathing for one man?
In purporting to diagnose the Labor Party’s malaise, it could be said they have in fact demonstrated it.