25 March 2013
“Labor is locked in a political duel of Shakespearean proportions. Despite the blood on the floor this battle is not over yet, writes Mungo MacCallum.
There is a wistful piece of pacifist musing which asks: what if they gave a war and nobody came? Well, after last week we know the answer, and it sure isn’t peace.
By Saturday night the floor of the Labor Caucus room looked like the stage after the last act of Hamlet, except that this tragedy is not over yet: there is almost certainly more carnage to come before we can bring down the curtain on the whole sorry business.
The explanation is simple enough: the fact that battle was never actually joined did not mean that the causes of the conflict, the ambitions, hatreds, fears and treacheries which gave rise to it would suddenly disappear. But this in itself did not make bloodshed inevitable.
There is another way to solve disputes, and it is called politics.
Simon Crean has spent most of his life learning and practising the craft. As a minister in the Hawke-Keating governments he had seen it at its most successful and as leader of the Labor Party in opposition he understood its frustrations.
In the last few years as a senior minister under Julia Gillard he had done his best to impart the lessons he had learned: remembrance of the legacies of the past and the need for inclusion, consultation and communication – the ability to show you are prepared to govern for all Australians. And he had watched in increasing despair as the feud between Gillard and Kevin Rudd became an all-consuming distraction promoted by a largely hostile media as the dominant theme of the government.
Crean was not interested in a Gillard party or a Rudd party; he wanted to get back to the idea of a modern Labor Party.
And as time went on, it became clear that unless and until there was a resolution, it wasn’t going to happen.
Indeed, things were moving the other way, and for Crean the breaking point was Gillard’s performance at the AWU conference, followed by her attack on the 457 visa system.
This was open and unashamed class warfare, a concept which Labor was supposed to have discarded a generation ago.
Like his fellow veteran Martin Ferguson, Crean accepted that Gillard was not the only one to blame: Rudd had tried something similar in the first attempt at a mining tax. And the common factor was the Wayne Swan, treasurer to both leaders and now Gillard’s trusted deputy.
If the nexus could be broken, perhaps there was hope.
So Crean resolved to stand against Swan as deputy. Gillard would not and could not abandon Swan; Crean’s proposal meant that he had to desert Gillard, but he saw no alternative if the party was to be salvaged. So he went to the Rudd camp and suggested a Rudd-Crean ticket, but when, as he expected, this was rejected because Rudd wanted Anthony Albanese as his deputy, Crean decided to go it alone while supporting Rudd anyway.
And this is where it all came unstuck.
Crean’s negotiations were not with Rudd himself, but with Chris Bowen, and the two had very different interpretations of what was proposed. Crean thought Bowen was ready and willing to go, with the numbers virtually sewn up. Bowen thought Crean was offering to supply the numbers which would ensure victory.
Gillard, on the other hand, was confident she still had a majority so when Crean approached her to demand a spill she launched an immediate retaliatory strike: she sacked Crean from her ministry and called the caucus meeting for that afternoon.
Crean had been expecting Gillard to refuse, which would have meant organising a caucus petition and thus gaining more time, but now there was no turning back. He went over the top and charged the machine guns, only to realise that he was on his own: Rudd, having been told that a win could not be guaranteed, elected to remain in his fox hole.
His followers were devastated by what they saw as cowardice and betrayal, but really they should not have been surprised: Rudd had form.
In 2010 he had squibbed at holding a double dissolution election, and then walked away from his Emissions Trading Scheme, his answer to the great moral and social challenge of his time.
And his justification for the no show – that he was only being a man of his word – was generally treated as bullsh*t. After all, by his own account his last question to Bowen was whether he could be certain of even a bare majority. A positive answer would have put paid to all the stuff about waiting for an overwhelming demand.
And in fact the numbers were very close; had it come to a secret ballot in the caucus room, a win was still possible. But a risk taker Rudd was not. And he hardly needed to add that in no circumstances would he now accept the leadership. In no circumstances would it now ever be offered.
So, on the scoreboard, a win for Gillard; but at a terrible price.
As well as Crean, she lost her other substantial link with Labor’s past, Martin Ferguson, who took the opportunity to break with a government from which he had long been estranged. Gillard would have retained him and might also have forgiven.
Bowen. She would certainly have sacked Kim Carr, and as for the lesser lights – Richard Marles, Joel Fitzgibbon, Ed Husic, and Janelle Saffin – who knows; the question is academic because all are now gone.
At the time of writing it appears that she will hang on to the other most prominent Rudd backers, Anthony Albanese and Mark Butler, despised by Ferguson’s young brother Laurie as gutless wonders; she can ill afford not to.
Despite all her bravado, the damage her government has sustained has made her victory look decidedly Pyrrhic.
Full scale, open warfare might even have been a better bet. A final confrontation, a genuine duel to the death, at least would have meant a clean kill one way or the other and the chance of a fresh start.
As it is, Gillard can just keep charging ahead, ignoring all advice to change course, whether well meant or otherwise.
You have to admire her persistence, chorus her admirers: she’s as tough as nails.
Yes, reply her critics: she’s tough all right. But wouldn’t it be nice if she didn’t have to be; if she was just smart enough to stay out of trouble in the first place.”
Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. View his full profile here.
Creaned: How it all went so wrong (smh.com.au)
Albo likely to survive unruffled (theage.com.au)