In order for the Labor Party to have any chance of limiting the Coalition to a single term in Government, Kevin Rudd must leave the Parliament as soon as possible.
Before I present an argument in support of that proposition, let me first say a few things about the situation as it stands. In case you hadn’t noticed, because Home and Away is especially compelling just now, or something you just bought from IKEA is taking up far too much of your time, Labor just lost an election. They did so, substantially, though by no means entirely, due to their own political ineptitude. That is simultaneously a good and bad thing. Bad in that there are forms of political folly that are just plain dumb and cannot be excused (whispered mutterings of discontent in the ears of a hostile media a case in point). It’s good in that there are forms of political deftness that no honourable person would ever want to possess and express. More on that later. Labor leaked like a rusted-out colander. You can’t do that and expect to maintain any political momentum and confidence. If you cannot present a belief in your own unity and stability, you cannot expect it to be believed of you.
Labor made economic commitments, such as a return to surplus, they weren’t entitled to make, or should have made in a far more qualified and cautious manner. A return to surplus was a reasonable enough goal, but to turn it into an actual time-framed commitment, one made ostensibly for purposes of political gain and leverage was pure folly. Labor also allowed legitimate issues of class and sex to be taken out of their hands and placed instead in the hands of the opponent. They failed to control the narrative. You can’t hand your opponent and their multitude of mangy minions a bag of Bowies to throw at you and not expect to be subject to death by a thousand cuts. You cannot depose sitting Prime Ministers – however much you feel your hand is being forced – and think this will not be self-inflicted political evisceration with a rusty butter knife.
In Opposition, the Coalition was unrelentingly, well, oppositional. They stuck like garlic skin to a kitchen knife to a simplistic plan and formula. It worked. Apart from a few exceptional moments, Labor failed to respond. They failed to communicate. They failed to be creative. Edward De Bono would have been ashamed of them. They could have utilized any number of methods to lift their voice above the Coalition’s conspiratorial cacophony. They should have begun to utilise social and independent media environments the second it was clear that the mainstream media was against them. Gillard, particularly, could have done a John Howard and have instituted regular Prime Ministerial addresses within which to communicate everything the Government was achieving. Yes, in some quarters this would have been dismissed as government propaganda, but any message is better than no message at all – and certainly better than a consistently negative, redacted one. Instead, the Gillard Government let things slip away, allowing a hostile Opposition and media to run rampant without meaningful challenge. Let’s be clear about something: whoever is in charge of the political narrative is in charge of the political destiny.
The Labor Party in this country, despite its long history and what you would expect to be accompanying experience and wisdom, stands alone in its capacity for episodes of political artlessness. Generally speaking, it doesn’t do “politics” well. Or at least, it doesn’t do it as well as the Conservatives. Now, that might sound on the face of it to be a bad thing, and in some respects it is, but not in all. If we critically analyse what it means to be “good” at politics in a contemporary setting, and do so by candid and honest measures, it can hardly be said to be a virtuous thing. I would much rather vote for a Party that was good at policy, but bad at politics, than the other way around. Politics is dominantly about manipulation, exploitation and opportunism. Lawyers aside, is there any profession on the planet that, in greater measure, employs both formal and informal logical fallacies in its daily rhetoric? Is there any profession that does more to engender in the populace the egregious error of regarding an expression of passion as equivalent to an argument and opinion as equivalent to fact? Whenever a politician speaks, something Latin always spews out. Believe me when I say one of the worst things you can do is familiarise yourself with the litany of logical fallacies that humans employ because you’ll never be able to listen to a politician in the same way again.
But I hold that those of a Conservative bent evince these particular intellectual crimes and misdemeanours more often and more authentically. This is part of why they do politics better than Labor, generally speaking. It is my genuine impression and belief that one of the reasons Labor all too often seems clumsy and ineffective in the political sphere is that its representatives appear more intellectually and morally conflicted about engaging in such stratagems and speech. Contrariwise, such things seem to roll off Conservative tongues like a second language they’ve been learning since birth. The bottom line is that the Coalition won the election because they did the politics better. They corralled their support better. They ran with an “end justifies the means” philosophy and exploited the enormous cognitive dissonance that exists in the electorate to great effect.
So, what should our disposition now be with respect to the election result, when all the emotion, shock and disbelief have subsided? Well, for the Conservatives, they will be pleased, and rightly so. It’s always a nice feeling to come home to where you feel you belong. But how confident should they really feel? Conversely, how despondent should Labor feel? The result was not a landslide or anything resembling it. The Coalition does not have a result that would provide them with any confidence of a second term. They are faced with a maze of electoral marginality. There’s an old political adage that runs, “Oppositions do not get voted in, Governments get voted out.” I personally don’t find that adage especially sound but it certainly applies to our current situation. Tony Abbott will probably go down in history as the most unpopular political leader ever to attain the Prime Ministership. The Coalition did not enter this campaign with a strong policy base. It does not enter into Government with a strong policy base. If one is to be candid about it, it’s a Government that doesn’t really have a lot going for it and one that was established by means both foul and superficial. It will have to work hard and offer more if it wants to be seriously considered a two-term viability.
As for Labor, I feel there is every reason to be positive, especially if they are able to play it smarter and learn from the mistakes of the last few years. Which brings me to the original purpose of this piece – to explain why Kevin Rudd must leave the Parliament for Labor to have any chance of a return to Government. We know of Rudd’s sins – they have been chronicled by more literate and knowledgeable persons than I, so I won’t go over that territory again. Suffice it to say Rudd is significantly to blame for putting Labor where it is. He is now an albatross swinging silently around Labor’s neck, his efforts to mitigate the electoral damage for Labor notwithstanding. There is nothing he can say or do, whether honestly or not, to reduce the danger he represents to Labor at this time. No future Labor leader can operate with so-called “clean air” with Rudd sitting on the Backbench. If he never opens his mouth for the rest of this Parliament, it won’t matter. We are faced with a media that not only purports to report news but one that actively seeks to create it. They will happily engineer a leadership issue if none authentically presents itself.
Here is the crux of it: Rudd cannot be a meaningful representative for the constituents of Griffith without simultaneously being a corrosive force in Labor’s future. When we speak of the “rusted-on” we must remember that rust isn’t necessarily a good thing. Rudd is toxic. Good representatives do not and cannot remain quiet, especially in Opposition. They have to advocate forcefully and constantly for their constituency. Rudd cannot be the sort of representative for the people of Griffith that he and they would like him to be without doing damage to the Labor Party. The sincerity and/or purity of his actual desires and motives will be irrelevant to this. He simply cannot have any profile lest he presents himself as a target for those will interpret his actions – or simply characterize them – as evidence that Rudd’s political ambitions are not dead.
As soon as the dust has settled on the “battle” for the party leadership and a quality candidate for Griffith is found, Kevin Rudd must resign. Whilst I do not see this as a serious electoral risk to Labor I would venture to suggest that the peril to Labor that Kevin Rudd represents is far greater and far more immediate than the risk of losing the seat of Griffith. Should Rudd be unwilling to resign for the sake of the Party, Labor ought to seriously consider the perhaps extraordinary step of disendorsing him from the seat (once that quality candidate has been found). Hopefully, the former Prime Minister will see the wisdom and necessity of his resignation and take the appropriate action, and in doing so appreciate that he in no small way the architect of his own political demise. He has the opportunity to bow out in as dignified a manner as Julia Gillard, thereby ensuring his contributions to the Labor Party and to Australia will be acknowledged and remembered without the soap opera antics.
Now, some might say that an announcement by him of an intention to retire from politics at the end of this term would be sufficient. However, statements by Kevin Rudd on his political motives or intentions no longer have any semblance of credibility. His resignation is the only option.
Labor cannot successfully navigate the path of the next few years if they have to carry the burden of the baggage of the last few years. For this reason, I hope those whose duty it is to elect a new leader will consider who presents the lightest burden possible in this regard. I respectfully submit that Bill Shorten is not that person.