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Rudd, Gillard and the impossible politics of Australian leadership

If this remarkable week in federal politics has shown us anything, it’s the relationship between politician, party, and public is more complex than ever. These events put to the test competing models for…

It takes more than Julia Gillard’s famed toughness to be a successful political leader. AAP/Matt Roberts

If this remarkable week in federal politics has shown us anything, it’s the relationship between politician, party, and public is more complex than ever.

These events put to the test competing models for party democracy in Australia: direct communication with voters, and representative relationships between the political elite itself.

Thursday’s leadership-spill-that-wasn’t is a high profile example of the tension between one prospective leader with strong public support, but little party support (Kevin Rudd), being touted against another with weak public support, but stronger party support (Julia Gillard).

Similarly, lost in the “NSW Inc.” spillover that derailed Nationals hopeful Richard Torbay’s tilt at Tony Windsor’s federal seat of New England was the little noted fact that Torbay had competed in an open primary contest to win the pre-selection for the Nationals.

The Nationals now appear set to parachute in a high-profile candidate, such as Barnaby Joyce, to paper over the embarrassment. While this is clearly a reaction to the shame of having a star recruit appear alongside hated ALP power brokers at Independent Commission Against Corruption, it’s interesting how quickly the much mooted grassroots democratic pre-selection model is shucked when political expedience is required.

In light of this, the Gillard-Rudd leadership tension demonstrates the state of flux our parties are in. To a large extent, Australian parties remain locked in an 18th century political framework. This model meant representatives were needed to act on the public behalf from a great distance with imperfect communication between people and politicians.

Parliament, and the electoral system that supports it, emerges from a largely pastoral period of history, when large tracts of land and local communities dominated political life. Allowing elected elites to make decisions about the form of government based on their own assessments was thus a necessity.

In contrast to this model, leaders like Rudd (and Malcolm Turnbull on the other side of the chamber) have a political legitimacy that relies on popular acclaim. Comparative “outsiders” in their parties, their leadership credentials rested on their capacity to remain popular with the general public. While this has aspects of presidentialism in its focus on an individual’s role as the apex of the power pyramid, it also recognises the much more visible nature of politics in the modern age.

Today’s political elites are able to engage in direct, unfiltered communication with their supporters. It’s not surprising that both of these figures have always been highly engaged with social media, allowing them to communicate with both traditional media gatekeepers (journalists), as well as personal constituencies.

By contrast, for the current prime minister, her lack of popularity overshadows personal abilities that are appreciated by her parliamentary colleagues. Her pragmatic approach to policy making that focuses on achieving the possible, even if that sacrifices more aspirational policy goals, is unappreciated by the electorate.

Without popular acclaim, Gillard lacks the perception of legitimacy that would be more likely to keep the media’s constant negative coverage of her premiership in check. In short, if she were more popular, the media’s current tendency to “hunt in packs” (as former UK prime minister Tony Blair observed) would be restrained.

For Rudd, the substitution of popular for peer support failed to regulate his expansive policy drive. A man with impressive amounts of energy and broad policy vision, his term as leader generated a blizzard of policy reviews and inquiries, but limited outcomes.

Driven by a continual engagement with the public, he never shifted from “campaigning Rudd” to “governing Rudd”.

While these two modes of political behaviour are linked, there are clear differences between them. The work of government is more time-consuming, slow, and dependent on the support of others than the work of the campaign trail, where issues arise quickly, require responses and then fade into the background.

Leaders who are more reliant on their parliamentary peers are therefore grounded in the mundane policy processes of the cabinet and backbench. They need to include people and take them with them on the policy journey.

Modern political leadership requires a balance between the campaigner and the governor, someone missing from the successive leadership contests we’ve seen so far. As successive Australian governments have continued to embrace the “permanent campaign” model of government, the ability to clearly switch between these two very different political states has been eroded.

In the absence of this clear separation, leadership increasingly demands individuals who can exhibit a range of talents that goes well beyond the capacity of even the most rare of specimens. In this context, is it any wonder Australian politics has seen three leadership challenges in as many months?

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48 Comments sorted by

  1. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    " If this remarkable week in federal politics has shown us anything, it’s the relationship between politician, party, and public is more complex than ever. "

    Certainly with the advent of diverse communication means foster changed environments for politicians, that also applies more broadly across life in general and yet there is that old KISS saying - Keep It Simple Stupid!

    Aside from what happened over Thursday/Friday being far from simple and a lot stupid on a number of accounts, if politicians…

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Greg North

      "If this remarkable week in federal politics has shown us anything,"

      Don't know why 'remarkable' was termed Greg?

      That whole storm in a tea cup was many things politically but remarkable was not one of them. It makes a mockery of all the famous political moments repeated in our short history through times of poverty, war etc if such a trivial event as witnessed this week is termed so....

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  2. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    How rare and refeshing to find an author who does not join that baleful, hateful pack hunting our home grown Hypatia.
    Can the currs look and learn some real reporting, or will these mangy, fleabitten old dogs and new tricks never mix?
    Off to the pound with them!

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    1. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to James Hill

      Hypatia? More a tin-eared Reddy...

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  3. Peter Redshaw

    Retired

    Dr Chen, I can respect your opinion, but I have to disagree with much of what you have said. Other than for the fact of the negativity of the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, I think this Parliament has been a breath of fresh air compared to most past Parliaments. It has as far as I am concerned far better reflected the way our Parliament was originally set up.

    If people do not think our early Federal Parliamentary history was not a hot bed of politics and at times instability, than they are ignorant…

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    1. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Peter Redshaw

      Julia has certainly been given the short end of the stick by the media. My own personal impressions is that she has done a fantastic job given the circumstances and has more balls than Tony Abbot could ever aspire to.

      Given the interplay betweent the LNP, the MSM and Big Business in this country, i'd be more curious about following the strings from these organisations to the hands that tug them.

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    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      I find it interesting how many people seem to think that Julia in particular has been given a short end of the stick by the media whereas this usually happens to one extent or another with many politicians, PMs and opposition leaders in particular for they are the heads and Tony Abbott is no exception as far as many in the media and others including the government ministers from Julia on down wishing to dwell on every word he utters.

      As for Julia having done a fantastic job Robert, perhaps you…

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    3. Peter Redshaw

      Retired

      In reply to Greg North

      Ah Greg, politics and policy are never perfect. They are always a matter of compromise unless of course you have a majority in both Houses of Parliament as John Howard did in his last government. But that is not necessarily a good thing for both the government as well as the country, as Howard found out with his and his parties downfall.

      Julia Gillard does not have a majority in either House so that means that neither she nor labor are going to get what they want in its entirety. The 3 year…

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    4. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      "Hypatia? More a tin-eared Reddy..."

      Why do you think that is, Robert?

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    5. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to Fred Bloggs

      oops, c&p without properly checking.

      Should have read: "Julia has certainly been given the short end of the stick by the media"

      Why do you think that is, Robert?

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    6. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Peter Redshaw

      It is hard to know what might have been worse I suppose, Julia with a majority in both houses or with her so called great negotiating skills to have the Greens calling some shots.

      Somehow I think I can agree with you that Julia as a complete socialist dictator is something we would not want to have seen and yep we can be thankful that life has not been too bad and especially nowhere near like it is in some other countries.
      In fact Julia and team could take to the comedy circuit for all the laughs they can manage to give us.
      Some of the cartoons about have been real rippers and did you catch a glimpse the other day of how Kevolemon morphed into Julialemon and on into Waynethelemon.

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    7. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Greg North

      "In fact Julia and team could take to the comedy circuit for all the laughs they can manage to give us."

      I have to agree that this crop of Labor pollies (not just Julia) are hard to take seriously.

      However, I find it hard to take the Liberals predictability on many matters as anything other than annoying.

      I guess at the end of the day you know what you will get with the Liberals like it or not. Labor today are a bunch of 'shape shifters' even within their own they have shown little respect for each other. If they treat each other with such disgraceful manners then how do they expect any trust from recreational and industrial stakeholder sectors?

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    8. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Sorry 'commercial' stakeholder sectors would have been more appropriate in the first instance.

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    9. Peter Redshaw

      Retired

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Wade, Labor are shape shifters, I think you have been watching the wrong newsreels, or maybe I should say TV shows . If you think labor are shape shifters, what on earth is Abbott. He has shifted his position so many times on climate changes and other policies that it has your head spinning. They talk about the real Julia, but I have no clue what the real Tony is. At the moment he is trying to sell us the complete opposite of what he has been for his whole political career.

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    10. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Peter Redshaw

      Spin doctors the lot of them. However, post the election you would see the Libs return to their status quo. Labor pretend to be green one minute then turn pro mining the next and that is just one example of many scenarios which sees them labelled as shape shifters.

      Even internally they are shifting against each other.

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    11. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Fred Bloggs

      i don't discuss matters with people who don't have the balls to use their own names. go fishing somewhere else "Fred Bloggs"

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    12. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Greg North

      ok, i guess we now have an understanding of your political sophistication.

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    13. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      Oh, but it IS my own name, Robert.

      It's a shame you feel the need to find excuses to be abusive instead of answering the simple question.

      Why do you think the media have decided that Gillard and the ALP are on the nose? Go on, have some "balls"...

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    14. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Fred Bloggs

      abusive? lol, i don't see it Fred, unfortunate naming, your parents must have REALLY hated you on sight (now that is mildly abusive).

      I dont see any real benefit in engaging someone who has an occupation of "agent provocateur", it merely screams troll or some really bored old guy raging impotently on his keyboard, foaming at the mouth and speckling the monitor with little flecks of spit.

      Personally i think that the MSM (Murdoch, Rinehart et al) believe that their empires are better served with a coalition government. They certainly do not have our interests at heart.

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    15. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      I doubt you have much interest in engaging anyone who might fail to fulsomely agree with you Robert.

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    16. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      I prefer to think thoughts based on logical reasoning, Robert.

      Whether you "care" or not is a matter for you.

      Now we've got that out of the way, what do you think might be the reason the media are almost united in their lack of support for Gillard?

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    17. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Fred Bloggs

      whatever fred, give up. unless you feel the compulsive need to have the last say.

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    18. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      No compulsion here, Robert, merely amusement at your squirming to avoid answering a question because you know the implications don't support your prejudice.

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    19. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Fred Bloggs

      Squirming? lol ;p

      not at all, just not interested in being a vehicle for you to express all those arguments that you've worked so hard on in your head (growl at mirrors much?)

      And your arrogance in assuming that you know what i think, it's implications or any percieved (sic) prejudice.

      Seeing as you don't actually read posts in any detail (and tends to support my opinion that your only interested in what you have to say, hence pointless to have a conversation with you) here is my answer…

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    20. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      All that to avoid answering a simple question Robert?

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    21. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      That's not an answer, Robert, it's a rant.

      At present in Australia, virtually all journalists, from every organ of media, are negative toward Gillard. Do you really think that the "evil" Murdoch has such a long reach, or could it be that all of those people have come to their reasoned, logical views on their own?

      You'll have to look up the meaning of the words "reasoned" and "logical" obviously.

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    22. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Fred Bloggs

      mr bloggs

      even given that the % support for labor & jg is less than the libs, the "logical" view is that many people are fans of the labor party.

      you might also see it as logical that a % of that %may be media people.

      if as you say virtually ALL journalists from organs (snicker) of media are negative towards labor & jg -

      how could that be in a rational world. or is there some other dues ex machina(s) pulling the strings.

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    23. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Fred Bloggs

      You think the media operates in a reasoned and logical manner? OMG that went out the window when we moved from information to infotainment.

      I know your just being deliberately provocative, just can't help demonstrating how much of a douche you are.

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    24. Fred Bloggs

      Agent provocateur

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Mr Ralph, journalists are in a privileged position. They have access to information that the rest of us do not. They know the players personally, they know things they are bound not to mention and they are almost universal in condemning Gillard, or at best damning with faint praise.

      The Government (of either stripe), is the biggest single advertiser in media. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent contributing to the "rivers of gold", yet the media remains unmoved.

      When there is a consensus among such a large and varied group of well-informed people it pays to take note.

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  4. Riddley Walker

    .

    "Parliament, and the electoral system that supports it, emerges from a largely pastoral period of history,"

    That's an arguable point, as our Westminster system is modelled very much on the British system of democracy.

    Nonetheless, there is is a strong pastoral minority in our system that constantly skews Government towards the conservative side. The Nationals get around 4 - 5% of all primary votes, and hold 8 seats in the HoR as part of the Coalition. By contrast, the Greens get around 12% of all primary votes and hold just one seat in the HoR.

    There's an argument for reviewing the way our voting system works, but given the reluctance of Australians to pass referendums, things will not be changing any time soon.

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  5. John C Smith

    Auditor

    This stuff is not new, just a repeat in the horse trading democracy of ours. The winners are the inside wagers, the Greens (the reds after a acrylic shower) and the few independents.
    Thanks to ousr small population and the vast wealth and the few crumbs left for us by our own friends and relatives, do we really need leaders of any sort? We could easily run the place with some one like Conroy, the one News boss equated to great people of the world, be they are bad or good depending on your beleifs.

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  6. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    Journalists have got so used to playing the man/woman that they've lost track of the real game - which is actual reforms passed by this hung parliament under the leadership of Julia Gillard. She is a very able negotiator who has worked under extremely trying conditions, with a very strange conglomeration of Independents and Greens, and found consensus to introduce programs tackling climate change, disability, internet accessibility and so on. At the same time she manages to visit a huge range of…

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Lee Emmett

      Reforms passed based on numbers are not worth much if these reforms have no quality control.

      The home insulation reform was a disaster.

      The carbon tax will become an investment banking sector rorted ETS.

      A mining tax with no aggits.

      Millions of dollars wasted on grandstanding over marine parks (paper parks) while policing of our EEZ off Australia's southern coastline has ceased for over a year now according to Rear Admiral David Johnston, Commander of the Border Protection Command.

      Yep those paper parks will stop the foreign fishermen under the law of the sea treaty....not!

      At least under the Liberal government they chased and sometimes caught these ships when they plundered toothfish etc.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Wade, the home insulation scheme was not a 'disaster' - try reading the Hawke review - it was a poorly managed program that got scammed by cowboys but, if you actually look at the numbers (and find the volume control to turn down the Coalition's shrieking) it turns out that the actual number of fires-per-installation was down on previous norms - it just looked high because there was a far higher than normal number of installations. I'm not 100% sure on this, but I also believe that, tragic as any…

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    3. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Good policy would of seen these cowboys reeled in quickly but that didn't happen now did it Felix!

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  7. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    i think your article had one too many "Ps" - public.

    politicians have given no thought whatsoever to the public in recent times.

    it has been a time of political megolamania,

    the complete disregard for doing what politicians are paid to do is breath-taking. their focus has been totally on themselves and their bids for power, position and petty politicking (more Ps for you).

    this ego-maniacal behaviour is reprehensible given the need for good governance and leadership is desperately needed…

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  8. Hardy Gosch

    Mr.

    Interesting viewpoints.
    You said: "today’s political elites are able to engage in direct, unfiltered communication with their supporters". I don't think so. It would be great if that were the case.
    One thing the public and the progressive side of politics needs to understand: the MSM/ABC/LNP triumvirate is your ENEMY. They are driven by profit, ignorance and power, in that order. There single purpose agenda is "regime change"! Time to wake up!

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    1. Hardy Gosch

      Mr.

      In reply to Hardy Gosch

      Their single purpose, sorry!

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    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Hardy Gosch

      I think you will find that reference is to how politicians can twitter and many do, even from parliament.
      I take it that you think the LNP is the enemy and that's fine, everybody entitled to ally themselves with whatever line of politics they wish to even if they do not understand that they are supporting a sickness for the country, that sickness being more and more revealed every day as profligate spending usually occurs and still unfunded promises get made for which the current government considers…

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  9. Tony Simons

    Director at Bedlam Bay Pty Ltd

    "Driven by a continual engagement with the public, he never shifted from “campaigning Rudd” to “governing Rudd”. I find Gillard's non stop campaigning intensely irritating. I was happy that Gillard set the 2013 election date seven months out in the mistaken belief that she would not be campaigning until five weeks out. Her blatant campaigning Rooty Hill tour offended may people Like Howard and the late Senator Carrick, Gillard started campaigning immediately after the 2010 election.

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Tony Simons

      I think it's just the norm now in Australian politics. It's equally true that Abbott has never stopped campaigning since the 2010 election...seems to be more a function of the insatiable appetite of the dear old 24 hour news cycle than anything else...

      I wonder if there have been parallel times in the past when some new technology or process has temporarily discombobulated politics and politicians until we and they got used to it. Maybe the advent of television, for example?

      It would be great if there are any political historians out there who could offer thoughts on whether this is just one of those things that hapens from time to time or a genuinely new phenomonon.

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  10. Fred Bloggs

    Agent provocateur

    It's fascinating watching the desperate irrelevance of the "progressive" luvvies as they watch the train wreck that they themselves have helped bring about.

    I'm looking forward to watching the panic around 14/9 when the LNP is elected by the rest of us and the luvvy-support industry gets starved of free money.

    I'd even buy tickets to a show like that. Funny as a flea circus.

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