The tide goes out

Reflections of  a once petty official


The ALP leadership contretemps has been fodder for cartoonists …this one by The Age’s John Spooner is among the best.

24 March 2013     |    The Scan generally eschews politics: it’s not the reason people subscribe to The Scan.  From time-to-time, I do post general items which have very little – or nothing at all –  to do with “tertiary news and views”.  Despite the fact that I think they’re pretty neat, they invariably bomb.  Cases in point being Everybody knows, The sounds of silence, (perhaps my own favourite), It was time, Uncivil discourse, all of which barely blipped on the traffic screen.  But I was for a long while (14 years in fact) a senior staffer to ministers in ALP governments and I can’t let recent events go unremarked.

Former Rudd/Gillard government speechwriter Dennis Glover, in an  opinion piece (Blood will have blood) published in the Australian Financial Review the day after the abortive spill,  put it that:

…only people who had never read Macbeth or Julius Caesar could have thought that any good could possibly come of the slaughter of Kevin Rudd, not yet through his first term.

Glover puts it down to “history”, an inability to comprehend the madness of leadership instability, the continual search for the messianic leader  who can deliver the capabilities of government (as Rudd did) and maintain those capabilities (as Rudd couldn’t and, quite obviously to me, Gillard can’t) .

Now Glover’s an historian by background, as many of the better speechwriters are (including Don Watson, who drafted some of Keating’s great speeches), so you’d expect that would inform his views.

Well, my view is that Rudd wasn’t slaughtered: he was sacked and he was sacked because he was no good and the government of which he was leader was completely dysfunctional.  This was apparent very early in the piece. John Lyons wrote in June 2008 (Captain Chaos and the workings of inner circle), barely 6 months into Rudd’s Prime Ministership, that Rudd himself was (and presumably remains) a driven micromanager, who effectively couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  And his office?

The two words most commonly used about Rudd’s office are chaotic and dysfunctional.

And Lyons put his finger on the central problem, apart from Rudd’s idiosyncratic ways: a chronic lack of experience in the Prime Minister’s Office:

….there seems to be no one in the PM’s office of the stature or personality to say no to him. Most PMs have had at least one such person. Bob Hawke had several: Bob Hogg, Peter Barron, Graham Evans, Ross Garnaut, Geoff Walsh, Dennis Richardson and Barrie Cassidy.  Paul Keating had Don Russell.  John Howard had Arthur Sinodinos.

I’d also make the point that, in the past,  policy and politics were, in a certain sense, “separated”.  In Hawke’s office, people like Walsh and Cassidy looked after the politics and people like Sandy Hollway, who went on to run the Sydney Olympics, Rod Sims, now chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and Peter Harris, now chair of the Productivity Commission, looked over policy development and implementation.  These were people with deep experience in policy development and in the processes of government.  Ditto Don Russell and Arthur Sinidinos.

I  supported Julia Gillard accepting a responsibility to act to rescue ” a good government that lost its way.”  I was actually relieved.  The June 2010 “coup”  was brutal and it was a shock, to be sure, but it was decisive.  And if it had been managed properly, the transition could have been effective.

The problem is that, much to my own surprise, Gillard has been no more capable of providing the sort of disciplined leadership which a prime minister – indeed, the leader of any political party –  has to be able to deliver than Rudd was.

From the get go, the Gillard government has been attended by a litany of stuff ups and ill thought out stunts.  Just think about it for a moment:  the mining tax fix, the Timor solution, the people’s commission on climate change (or whatever it was), the “real Julia”.  As someone (I forget who) observed in early 2011, if the Gillard government had a duck, it would drown.

A telling moment in the 2010 election campaign was the handling of the leak to Laurie Oakes which portrayed Gillard as having opposed an increase in certain welfare payments and being sort of mean spirited.  Gillard responded that she wasn’t opposed to these increases but merely testing options, as a senior minister should.  Correct answer – but it took 18 hours to deliver it, by which time the slur had stuck.  The likes of Walsh and Cassidy would have had the issue  sandbagged within an hour, before Oakes went to air.

As the Gillard government started, so it has proceeded.

Gillard is, quite obviously,  a very busy person.  She has to take responsibilty, of course, but nevertheless she ought to be able to rely on the support and advice of her personal office, numbering, perhaps, 40 people.   One has to observe that some of the staff work has been pretty sloppy.  They walk her into walls everywhere.

Remember the “Lobby incident”?  Indigenous people at the Tent Embassy were egged on about Tony Abbott’s alleged views on the Tent Embassy  by one of Gillard’s staffers on Australia Day 2012, and Gillard and Abbott had to escape the venue in dramatic circumstances.  But Gillard was not told by her own staff of the of this  fact until 48 hours after the event and after Gillard had fronted the media denying the allegation of her staff’s involvement.

Whatever happened to the “no surprises” rule?

Another time, the  PMO  sent Bill Shorten out into the field one Sunday to argue against a royal commission into sexual abuse (surely the need for which was a no-brainer?), only to have Gillard announce such a royal commission the very next day.  Shortly afterwards, a seemingly exasperated Shorten declared in a media interview that he had no idea what it was Gillard had said on a particular matter, but whatever it was she had said, he supported.  That’s the the state of the modern Labor Party.

The latest crisis was brought on by the hamfisted go at “media reform”.   The mishandling of this sensitive issue is emblematic of where this government is now at and indicative of the breakdown of government process.  It was shunted into Cabinet under-the-line (that is, without any notice and without most ministers and their political and bureaucratic advisers having had the opportunity to consider and comment on the proposals), rammed through and then made the subject of a take it-or leave-it ultimatum to the Parliament (read the cross benchers).

The package went under-the-line because it seems that a fair proportion of the Cabinet couldn’t be trusted to maintain Cabinet confidentiality (that is , it was thought the proposals would be leaked in order to further undermine Gillard).

The key proposals, whatever their intrinsic merit,  sank abjectedly and Gillard’s standing was further undermined.   Whatever did Gillard and her praetorian guard expect?  In the circumstances, and given the proximity of the election, would it not have been better to leave it alone as a bridge too far and concentrate on schools funding reform and the disability insurance scheme?

It was little surprise that leadership tensions erupted last week, though nobody could be certain of the form the eruption would take.

And to many observers, it was no surprise that Simon Crean emerged as the pivotal player.  Indeed, for some people, Crean was seen to be a possible “night watchman”, a compromise leader to take the Labor Party through the terrible days that surely lie ahead, with both Gillard and Rudd despatched to history.  Crean’s impassioned call for the government to change its priorities and processes and “get back to being a Labor Party” would have resonated with Labor sympathisers (and the growing number of former sympathisers).

What did surprise (although I suppose, upon reflection, it shouldn’t have) was how bungled the enterprise  was by Crean and Rudd’s backers.   It seems that Crean acted almost alone, with a totally incomplete understanding of the factors at play.

The scenario thought most likely  by many observers (me included) was that a delegation of elders – say, Crean, Ferguson, Bowen, Faulkner, perhaps Bob Car – would visit Gillard and call upon her to step aside.  She’d refuse and the elders would set the spill in motion.  And that was  the time for Ferguson, Bowen, Kim Carr, Joel Fitzgibbon and all the rest to speak out.  They eventualyl spoke out , in tendering their resignations from the ministry after the failed attempt – a bit late, really.

As ever with this current Labor Party, the plotters, such as they might have been, lacked strategic foresight, tactical flexibility and, most of all, discipline and the ability to act in unison (see Crean lights fuse, gets blown away).

So what now?

Peter Beattie suggested, before the spill, that the elders of the party, inside Parliament and out, should come together in some way to save it (although the government seems beyond saving – the polls indicate not so much an underlying trend as an overwhelming force. ).

Perhaps someone like Beattie or Steve Bracks could be drafted into the Prime Ministership.  Under the Constitution, he would have three months to get  a seat in Parliament: Nicola Roxon could step aside in the case of Bracks, Rudd could step aside in the case of Beattie.

Of course, that’s not going to happen. As Shakespeare’s Brutus put it:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

The protaganists on both sides of the leadership divide have failed to seize fortune.  I think we can all see that the tide is going out well and truly on this government and that the Labor Party will be bound in shallows and miseries for a long while to come.

It is a shame because, amid the stuff ups and stunts, it’s a government that’s done an awful lot of good – not the least of which is the emissions trading scheme.  Recent “good things” – such as a substantial increase in aged pensions, passage of the national disability insurance legislation, the apology about forced adoptions –  have all been drowned out by the noise and clamour of the imbroglio around the leadership .

That’s the story of the Gillard government.

...plop!  There goes another duck

Election 2013

This is the only opinion I’ll be airing on politics in the lead-up to the election, although, of course, The Scan will cover election matters relevant to the sector.  It will be visually tagged with The Duck , so you can avoid it if you want.


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