24th June, 2010
BRUCE C. WEARNE
When the former Prime Minister announced that there would be a leadership vote in the caucus, he made this telling remark: "I was elected by the people of Australia as prime minister of Australia. I was elected to do a job."
He also pointed out that he was not elected by the Labor Party's parliamentary factions. Sadly, at least for those who put their trust in the "Kevin 007" campaign at the 2007 election, Mr Rudd decided that he would not contest the challenge and has stepped down. So even this final phase of his prime ministership, presents us with a problematic interpretation of how Mr Rudd saw the office of prime minister in the Commonwealth of Australia.
"Put it this way: even in the terms by which he defended his office as PM against the caucus vote, Kevin Rudd's explanation presents us with ambiguity. It is an ambiguity basic to Australian political life."
Put it this way: even in the terms by which he defended his office as PM against the caucus vote, Kevin Rudd's explanation presents us with ambiguity. It is an ambiguity basic to Australian political life. After all, if he truly were elected by the people of Australia to be our prime minister, rather than being elected by "factional bosses" within Labor's Parliamentary Caucus, then by stepping down before there is a vote, he allows himself to be seen yet again to capitulate in his stand to stated "principle" and so his entire tenure inherits a curious question-mark as to how "principled" his contribution has actually been. Has it all been a matter of pragmatism through and through? Can we perhaps say, again ambiguously, that for Kevin Rudd pragmatism has been his principle?
Some will say, "Of course!" but then the above statement to the waiting media will also be used by those naysayers, cynics and shock-jocks who want to say that politics is purely and simply a matter of spin by political parties and operators. And yet the shock-jocks are masters of that same art! There is a lot of spin, of that there can be no doubt. But is that all there is to it?
When some or other political statement is labelled "spin", the word "principle" is never too far away - "Listen to all that spin! Behold, how far we have departed from principles."
And so, we may hear that we need to return to the underlying "Westminster" principles of our distinctive form of government. The former Prime Minister John Howard, along with Burkean deputy Peter Costello, were very keen to remind us of Westminster principles, but then, when they suffered convenient lapses of memory about those standards, such appeals also seemed to end in the spin-bin.
In assessing this latest development, and what it means for the way in which we, as citizens of this commonwealth (and in this region), understand our political responsibilities, ask yourself this question: how was it that Kevin Rudd became leader of the opposition? It certainly wasn't because he was elected by the people of Australia to be leader of the opposition! Australian voters only elect a prime minister indirectly through the mediatorial sieve of political parties. And with that sieve, and with the media's own incessant barrage of "spin", we are continually and repeatedly told, that the leader of the opposition is indeed the one who we, as voters, can choose for prime minister. But let's not move on to the spin of media and pundits about spin. Let's keep to the Labor Party at this point and to trying to clarify Rudd's comment. Is there coherence here?
Were there no "factions" when Rudd replaced Kim Beazley in December 2006? Did he not become the champion of the federal Labor caucus when they saw a need to present Australian voters with an electable alternative Labor prime minister? Was not the caucus itself complicit in a presidential and autocratic rule, at least up until the Australian economy had seemingly sailed through the global economic crisis? And there's the point; caucus was willing - caucus stepped back and allowed one style for as long as...for as long as what?
Well, we know the answer: there's an election looming and along with the NSW Labor Government, the prospects of federal Labor later this year, look pretty hopeless. Or at least it looks this way to many members of the Labor caucus.
That's as far as our observations here need to go because this is the situation we face in the way politics is conducted by those we elect. Like it or lump it, this is the system we inherit and in which our citizenship and votes at forthcoming elections, are embedded, complete with anxiety and paranoia about polls, about image, about whether "the message is getting across".
The apologists for those who have opposed Kevin Rudd's leadership of their parliamentary party, now claim that this is merely a necessary development that moves away from an autocratic style to a democratic style. They want to say that this shifts the emphasis back to traditional Labor views about caucus decision-making. And maybe that is precisely what they think they are doing.
"Prime Minister Gillard will now have to carry the burden of the electoral and policy problems that have brought with them mounting opposition to Rudd's leadership - especially the super-profits mining tax and the emissions trading scheme. And we can expect that the pressure on the Labor Government will continue to rise."
One member, in giving his opinion to the media before the caucus meeting, asserted that this simply was a matter of "principle" that, for the Labor Party, the office of prime minister (that is, when Labor is the majority party) is always decided by whom the caucus decides will be their parliamentary leader.
Prime Minister Gillard will now have to carry the burden of the electoral and policy problems that have brought with them mounting opposition to Rudd's leadership - especially the super-profits mining tax and the emissions trading scheme. And we can expect that the pressure on the Labor Government will continue to rise.
But even from this significant event in our political history, we do not hear prominent voices from those calling the shots on the "two sides of politics" turning our attention to much needed reform of the "principles" of our political responsibility. For instance, we are still waiting for the Labor Party to embrace a reform of our system of electoral representation. We can hope that Prime Minister Gillard would at least signal the importance of doing so, even if it were to take a decade.
But then, have we heard any sustained comment from our political leaders, apart from the Greens to give them due credit, about the significance of the recent British recent election for us here? In the UK there has been an electoral result which encourages those seeking a new electoral "settlement". But even then reform is some way off and in the UK, like its antipodean off-spring, is still a long way off. "Bipartisanship UK Style" is not something that comes easily to British political leaders, but still, a Conservative-LibDem coalition certain raises possibilities.
At least Kevin Rudd, for all his failings, had a vision that saw Australia ruled openly, if somewhat autocratically, by a Labor Government that had, with his help, overcome the dislocations of party factionalism. But that kind of even-handedness with its requisite spin - "for all Australians" - also needs to be translated from empty symbol after an election win, into a principle by which we form a system of political representation in which citizens are not left represented by those they didn't vote for. What does a voter do who doesn't want to vote for either of the two major parties?
Tasmania has multi-member electorates and since 1993 New Zealand has initiated its own reform. But parliamentary representation in Australia remains locked by the dogmatic view that a two-party system is, seemingly, the normative principle for politics from here on. That view has the combined weight Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard behind it. Despite his more global and regional focus, Kevin Rudd wasn't able to cut any new path on this issue, even if it is crucial to genuine just representation. Meanwhile, though his detractors on the left would judge him to have been more a Lib-Dem prime minister, those seeking electoral justice might observe that he couldn’t have adopted the Lib-Dem policy, not even from with the autocratic style that he came to adopt.