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Labor’s crushing defeat ends a five-act political tragedy

by Ramesh Thakur

Three prime ministers — Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott — in three months: Has Australia caught the Japan political disease of playing musical chairs with the head of government?

For the Australian Labor Party, a crushing defeat on Saturday night was the finale of a tragedy in five acts. Because the result is more a repudiation of internecine Labor infighting than an enthusiastic endorsement of Coalition philosophy and policies, it does not mark an ideological shift to the right. For new Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the results were just rewards for leading a remarkably disciplined, stable and united team through three years of national political turmoil and global economic turbulence. In foreign relations, the results may portend subtle shifts in nuance and emphasis but not a fundamental reorientation.

The Hawke-Keating Labor governments (1983-96) won five terms and left a legacy of major policy innovation and competent economic management. The Howard government (1996-2007) won four terms and left the country in sound financial health. The underlying fundamentals and a resources boom to feed China’s and India’s voracious growth helped Australia weather the global financial crisis of and since 2008 remarkably well.

Rudd’s convincing victory in 2007 produced high initial popularity, but a shambolic management style and an autocratic-narcissistic personality were the backdrop to Act One. In 2010, with plummeting polls and an alienated Cabinet, the party caucus replaced him with Julia Gillard: the only time in Australian history that a first-term incumbent prime minister was dumped by internal revolt rather than popular vote.

Act Two was consumed by the fallout. Australia’s first female prime minister never regained legitimacy from the backstabbing that catapulted her into the post. Rudd undermined her during the 2010 campaign and stalked and destabilized her non-stop until June 2013. She also had a tin ear, rejecting responsibility for policy errors and mismanagement. Instead of responding to voter concerns, she retreated into a gendered bunker mentality from where all criticisms were blamed on misogyny. This alienated voters even more.

For three years the country witnessed a political theater without parallel in the annals of democratic politics anywhere in the world. Gillard remained very popular with her party colleagues in Parliament who choose the leader but became increasingly reviled by the people who literally stopped listening to her. Rudd remained popular as the people’s choice for prime minister but was loathed by Labor colleagues in Parliament.

Act Three opened in June when a long unbroken sequence of disastrous polling forced Labor hands into dumping Gillard and returning to Rudd, not so much with the hope of winning the September election but limiting the electoral damage — which he did. Initially Rudd began well, promising that he had learned and would be more collegial and disciplined. He was reconsidered by the people and weighed in the balance a second time, only to be found wanting once again.

The early bounce in polls soon dissipated as the old undisciplined Rudd returned and the campaign degenerated into shambles. He led Labor to its lowest vote share in over a hundred years, claimed vindication nonetheless on election night for having stopped the relentless hemorrhaging under Gillard, but he will relinquish the party leadership.

Act Four was an abandonment of values and principles that entrenched public perceptions that Labor has been captured by unionists and careerists who hold no principles they will not junk to cling to power. Nothing symbolized this more than the effort to outflank Abbott in heartlessness on the desperate asylum seekers coming to Australia on dangerously unseaworthy boats.

Act Five of the tragedy was cementing a reputation for policy chaos and incompetent management of the ship of state. Under both Rudd and Gillard, the government presided over waste, mismanagement, corruption and sleaze that trashed the proud Hawke-Keating legacy and has damaged the Labor brand for years to come. This rather overshadowed some major legislative and policy achievements, for example a national disability scheme. Unwilling to run on the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd record that had been viciously attacked by enemies within the party, Labor’s dominant election campaign theme was a relentlessly negative attack on Abbott that played on people’s fears of a deeply religious, conservative hidden agenda that would take the country back to the 1950s.

Labor failed to give any reason to vote for them instead of against the coalition. This was underlined by the occasional “thought bubbles” style of policy announcements whose cost implications and long-term consequences had not been vetted: a special economic zone for the far north to attract investment, a relocation of a naval base from Sydney to Queensland, etc.

Meantime, the more the people saw Abbott, the more they were reassured by the calm and steady performance of a committed family man. Highlighting Labor as at war with itself, he pointedly asked how a party that could not govern itself could be trusted to run the country. His sharpest product differentiation was on promises to repeal a carbon tax that was a potent symbol of a broken election promise by Gillard, to stop the tide of asylum seeker boats, and to jettison a mining tax. He also intends to return the budget to surplus, reduce the national debt, shrink government and strengthen efficient governance instead, and restore free speech as the cornerstone of human rights.

One of the few foreign policy issues to intrude in the election campaign was Syria. Rudd signed on early and strongly to U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy of military strikes on Syria as punishment for its alleged use of chemical weapons on August 21. Counter-intuitively, Abbott proved to be the more circumspect and cautious in recognizing the complexities and risks and promised to keep Australia out of any military action.

The Abbott government will likely invest more in defense and key bilateral relations and downplay multilateralism. His first official visits as prime minister will be to Asian not Western capitals. All this should provide a firm basis for deepening bilateral relations with Japan. In turn, Tokyo could help to impress on the Abbott government why the United Nations is relevant for underwriting global norms and world order and for augmenting shared bilateral foreign policy objectives.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.