CANBERRA – Even by the standards of a sports-mad country in which politics is a blood-sport, the events have been extraordinary and the bloodletting continues. At last count, the prime minister, deputy prime minister-cum-treasurer, and six other Cabinet ministers had moved to the backbench.
There is a sense of schadenfreude in that Kevin Rudd has done to Julia Gillard what she had done to him three years ago. Much of the instant online comment ran along the lines of: “Gillard got what Gillard gave — karma at its finest.” There is also a sense of voters having been cheated of the opportunity to boot out Gillard with grim vengeance. And there is a sense of deja vu at Rudd redux: who would have thought the young man to have so many lives in him?
Had Gillard proven a competent manager and skillful politician, Australians might be celebrating her successes instead of being busy the past few months oiling their baseball bats to use on election day, which could not come soon enough.
Gillard fell victim in the end to three sets of factors: a growing trust deficit with voters, an accumulating catalog of policy failures, and a strident resort to the politics of divisiveness that proved off-putting.
Gillard never was able to overcome the manner of her ascension to the top job. Rudd had led Labor to victory in 2007 after 11 years in the wilderness. Gillard was his deputy. She promised not to challenge him, but did so as soon as she had the numbers in caucus to roll him. She was able to do so because Labor’s factional and union powerbrokers turned on Rudd. She justified it by saying the government had lost its way and the polling pointed to a looming defeat.
The result was that he whom the people had chosen the party’s “faceless men” had disposed of, using Gillard as their smiling assassin. She was neither able to explain her treachery nor repair the broken trust with the voters.
In the 2010 elections, the people vented their anger on Gillard-led Labor but were still not ready to hand power to Tony Abbott’s coalition. The dent in her integrity got worse. Going into the election, she promised there would be no carbon tax in a government she led.
After the election, in order to remain prime minister in a minority government, she entered into a deal with the Greens to impose a carbon tax. The trust deficit spiraled out of control. A two-decade old union slush fund scandal and Gillard’s excessively lawyerly responses — sophistry piled on hypocrisy — fed unhappily into this narrative and people simply stopped listening to their prime minister.
Second, Gillard demonstrated an astonishing inability to get policy and process right. She embraced a raft of unworkable “solutions” to the increasingly desperate plight of boat people that also steadily alienated the Labor base, squandered money on ill thought out and uncosted initiatives, insisted on a costly national broadband scheme with a dubious business plan behind it, championed a deeply flawed mining tax that delivered almost no revenue, and seemed to shift positions on so many issues that most people were confused over whether she had any policy convictions at all or was merely desperate to hang on to power at any cost.
When Gillard was mocked during the early stages of the 2010 election for the obviously synthetic political persona she was projecting, she said the people would now see the real Julia. The phrase clung to her for her entire tenure as prime minister.
Policy flaws were exacerbated by political misjudgments: hanging on to a tainted MP long past his sell by date, choosing a Speaker who due diligence would have warned spelled deep trouble down the line, launching a concerted and vicious attack on the opposition leader for alleged misogyny in concert with the “handbag brigade” of women ministers that turned off men without attracting women, etc.
Third, in desperation and at the behest of a spin doctor imported from Britain, Gillard launched a series of wars — class, gender, race — that earned her the reputation of being divisive and manipulative, but failed to garner polling popularity.
Was misogyny a factor? Almost certainly, but not a determining factor. Gillard’s misogyny speech last year was widely reported around the world, resonating powerfully with women’s experiences in the workplace everywhere. But among Australians it reeked of hypocrisy, for it was delivered in defense of two particularly unsavory members of Parliament on whose votes she was dependent for staying in power. One is facing court action for using his union-issued credit card for procuring prostitutes, and that union has some of the most lowly paid women employees. The second had used derogatory language that was disgustingly crude and offensive.
The sense of hypocrisy was heightened when Gillard appeared on the radio show of a serial misogynist, and when she voted in favor of selecting a factional male colleague instead of a woman in one of the seats being vacated by a retiring woman Cabinet minister. Many of Gillard’s policies had a disproportionately devastating impact on working women struggling to make ends meet. Besides, no amount of misogyny charges will explain why Gillard was popular initially.
No other successful woman leader — Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Helen Clark, Michelle Bachelet — has played the woman victim card.
In the end, the critical argument Gillard had used to knife Rudd was turned against her: bad poll numbers. Labor going into an election with her as leader faced a wipeout that would consign it to opposition for several terms. With Rudd, it is still likely to lose, but some members of Parliament may save their seats and the party will remain competitive for the following election, especially if Rudd is able to reform it. Or so they hope.
Meantime, Abbott is already reprising the line: In 2007, you voted Rudd and got Gillard. In 2010, you voted Gillard and you have Rudd. If you vote Rudd in 2013, who will you have as prime minister next year? Yet there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that Abbott & Co. fear Rudd, a proven campaigner and an effective communicator, more than they did Gillard.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.