Australian politics, society & culture

Prime Minister, Interrupted

Why One Year After the Election Voters Still Don’t Know Who Gillard Is

Julia Gillard one year into her prime ministership, July 2011. © Kym Smith/Newspix

Annabel Crabb

Long read8700 words
 
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In Australia, we engage with our political leaders in a way that is very particular to us, and to our democratic model. Compulsory voting obliges us to get involved directly every three years or so. So the kinds of inducements to pay attention that you see during political campaigns in the United States – rallies with bands and banners, and the quaintly infantilising riot of balloons – aren’t needed here. Thanks to section 245 (1) of the Australian Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, with its stentorian 1924 amendment: “It shall be the duty of every elector to vote at each election”, we’re obliged to beat our way through the pamphleteers, lamington-pedlars and ‘Building The Education Revolution’ placards anyway, regardless of our inclination to stay in bed.

In return for this triennial exertion, Australian voters implicitly demand a few standards. We don’t have the American horror of big government, so long as what is done in our name is done reasonably competently. We don’t need to know everything about the private lives of those in government but we need to know our leaders well enough to understand and intuit roughly where they’re going to fall on any given issue. We don’t need to like them. We can even tolerate it when they make decisions with which we disagree, so long as those decisions are roughly consistent with the mud-map character sketch we’ve filed away. We get to know our prime ministers just well enough to permit us comfortably to forget about them for much of the time. That’s the Australian model.

The mud maps of our most recent prime ministers might go as follows: John Howard – solid, middle-class type. Bit awkward. Social conservative, sticks to his guns. Strong. Kevin Rudd – hardworking. A bit nerdy. Modern family. Knows about foreign stuff. Labor, but not much into unions. Keen to do something about climate change.

But what does Julia Gillard’s story tell us? It’s an interrupted affair, and this is at the heart of her continued struggles as prime minister. Her life story, as it appears broadly to voters, looks a bit like this: Redhead. Political lifer. Pretty feisty. Likes football. Seems a capable deputy. Whoops! Is suddenly the prime minister.

And the period encapsulated by the “Whoops!” element of the above synopsis is precisely the period about which the prime minister can give us no further information. In June last year, the deputy prime minister became the prime minister, for reasons that were not immediately clear to most outside the Canberra area. Stories are important in politics. And the gap in this story is grievous.

How the gap developed is a tale in itself – a discouraging one, and scary too. Scary, because it involves (if what Rudd’s former ministers say privately is true) the disintegration of the processes by which the federal government makes the decisions that affect us all. Scary, because the men and women of the cabinet, to whom we entrust an awful lot, stood by and did nothing. Those men and women can’t and won’t tell that tale now. Can’t, because they fear aggravating their former prime minister, Kevin Rudd; won’t, because the whole episode reflects dreadfully on them all. And the finely balanced equation that keeps Julia Gillard in the Lodge – she is a woman constantly tensed in a multi-directional Mexican standoff, after all, one vote away from oblivion, unable to sack a minister or piss off a backbencher without threatening her own existence – gives Kevin Rudd immunity from prosecution too.

Think, for a moment, about the way changes in political leadership are ordinarily brought about. In the case of the last ousting of a serving prime minister – Bob Hawke – the event was telegraphed well in advance. The challenger moped, and needled, and agitated, and fulminated. Then made a lunge and failed. Then retreated and regrouped. Then struck again. By the time Keating actually unseated Bob Hawke in a caucus vote, the event was already the most exhaustively rehearsed and fantasised-about decapitation in Australian political history. Messy? Yes. But no one was taken by surprise. Julia Gillard’s assumption of command, on the other hand, was a moonlight affair; even the principal figure in this drama was a last-minute conscript. Some cabinet ministers found out about the coup from the television. Viewers who caught the ABC’s evening news on Wednesday, 23 June, at least had the chance to sleep on the idea of Rudd’s ousting. Those who didn’t woke to the breakfast news that it was all over bar the shouting.

Gillard’s explanation – that she had challenged because “a good government had lost its way” – seemed hilariously inadequate at the time. Her exhortation to the country to keep “moving forward” had all the urgency of a cop hustling rubbernecks from the scene of an especially messy homicide. “Moving forward, folks – come on, nothing to see here, move along …”

Now, a year after the election that brought her close enough to a parliamentary majority to get the rest of the way using her fingernails, the strange and precipitate circumstances that elevated the prime minister to the leadership hover over her still, like a murder of crows. How did she get here? And why?

“We can’t tell the story,” concludes one of her ministers. “One, because the structure is so fragile, and we need Kevin. Two, because the whole story doesn’t reflect well on the participants.”

So there is a gap at the centre of Julia Gillard’s identity as prime minister. It stunts her ability to talk to people, once her most natural gift. If she cannot be frank in her explanation of how she came to be here, how can she be trusted as a faithful correspondent on other matters of significance?

On the evening of 16 June, in Melbourne, pollster John Scales gathers first one small group of swinging voters, and then a second, to talk about how politics in Australia is working out for them just now. It’s nearly a year since Julia Gillard decided that a good government had lost its way, and issued the request for Australia to “move forward”.

But not everyone is moving forward.

“I don’t trust her, after what she did to Rudd.”

“She’s a puppet.”

“Shafting Rudd the way she did was appalling.”

“There is no direction”.

“She lied to us on the carbon tax.”

“People have to a large extent tuned out to Gillard, and they find her to a certain extent embarrassing,” is Scales’s assessment of the public mood. “There’s not much in the way of positives about her at all.”

One of the exercises Scales does with these groups is to ask them to divide a sheet of paper into two columns, and list down the left side all the things the government has done well. On the right side, they list the not-so-good things. “For some people, the left-hand column is just a blank,” Scales says. “Or, you find they’re reaching back to Rudd government stuff – the cash handouts or the pension increase. This is one of her major problems: People can’t find anything to argue for her. There’s not much people can point to that they [the government] have actually done.”

And, more deeply, there isn’t much recognition of the prime minister herself; her mud map is a blank, too.

“The only people I see who have any idea who Gillard is are people in the western suburbs of Melbourne,” says Scales. “But no one else can ever give me a description of what they think about Julia Gillard as a person. And that applies as much in the other suburban areas of Melbourne as it does in Perth, or anywhere else.”

“They were used to having someone – in Howard – whom they could recognise; they knew who he was. I know from many years of doing focus group research that they could always tell you who Howard was; Rudd, too.”

In leaders, Scales explains, people are looking for some reflection of themselves, some point of identification. “There has to be some mainstream family values ID there. That’s really the bulk of the electorate. There’s a big mass of people out there with fairly mainstream, middle-of-the-road values. And if they can’t recognise who this person is, as one of their own, that’s a problem.”

It would be easy to conclude, on that basis, that Gillard’s personal circumstances – she doesn’t have a mainstream family – are a big part of the roadblock standing between her and the Australian people. But Scales says it’s not that simple. “You get one or two [people] in every second group who will make references to that. It’s not the main thing driving them against Gillard. People just don’t understand who or what she is. They don’t have a frame of reference.” (Tony Abbott, it should be noted, has an entirely different sort of problem. “People know who he is,” says Scales, economically. “And that’s why they don’t like him.”)

So, unable to judge Gillard on her character or on her deeds as prime minister, voters define her by the deed that made her prime minister instead. And she’s not talking about that, so the impression of untrustworthiness goes unchallenged. Not only is it unchallenged, it’s strengthened into conviction by the other thing about Julia Gillard that everyone can readily recall – that she promised during the election campaign not to introduce a carbon tax but is now going ahead with one anyway. And still, the government seems to have difficulty in finishing things. It’s a nasty little equation.

It’s not that the prime minister and her advisers aren’t trying to do anything about this situation, but retro-fitting a prime minister with an identity is extremely tricky.

Kevin Rudd put significant work before the 2007 election into developing and projecting a public persona into which, cautiously, post-Howard Australia could snuggle with confidence: economic conservatism with a whiff of godliness, spruced up with a modern wife and a Chinese twist for the adventurous; sort of a bilingual crypto-Howard, sans tracksuit.

Julia Gillard, however, had barely settled on a haircut she was happy with when the knock came last year. This had worked OK for her in the role of deputy prime minister, or DPM, as Kevin Rudd called her up until 24 June 2010, when he started calling her other stuff. When you’re deputy prime minister, you tend to be mildly lionised for having any sort of personality at all.

But the difference between being deputy and being prime minister is like the difference between painting and sculpture. All of a sudden, people are reviewing your work from every possible angle. Julia Gillard gave plenty of boring speeches and robotic interviews as deputy prime minister, too, but only the interesting ones made it to the news; these days, every gesture and phrase is closely evaluated.

This hyper-scrutiny, additionally, makes any conscious attempt to alter one’s self-image look clunky and graceless. Witness the recent 60 Minutes joint interview with Gillard and her partner, Tim Mathieson, which was intended to be a warm look at the PM at home with her spouse but turned into an ordeal of knuckle-biting unwatchability, as host Charles Wooley archly cross-examined the pair about whether they actually loved each other, and teamed up with Mathieson to shut a giggling prime minister out of the Lodge’s backyard shed. Gillard throws out mixed messages, too: She’s an atheist who reveres the Bible. She forms a government with the assistance of the Greens and invites Bob Brown to help her write Australia’s carbon pricing policy, but then argues that the Greens have “no tradition of striking the balance required to deliver major reform”.

Prime ministers never like being asked about why they’re having trouble getting through to people but Gillard isn’t especially prickly on the topic, fortunately. “I think that that’s true,” she responds, equably, to my ventured suggestion that her silence on the manner of her assumption of the prime ministership is hampering her ability to communicate. “And I’m conscious of that. But it’s hard to explain all of that without being … you know … without being disrespectful to the efforts of the former government, which did achieve, even with all these fetters and constraints, did achieve all these remarkable things. And, more particularly, the efforts of the former prime minister. And even though it leaves a gap, I think it’s the better and more respectful course to create that gap than to do the alternative.”

She folds her hands calmly, and waits for another question. One of the oddest things about this government, for all its public talk of Labor’s proud tradition of tough reform, is the extent to which it publicly and privately references John Howard. I wish I had a dollar for every time a Labor minister or backbencher has explained to me over the last year the need to be “tough like Howard”. Or cast back to the GST debate for guidance on how best to deflect a populist scare campaign. The fact that such history buffs tend to overlook the trifling matter of who authored that particular populist scare campaign is a pretty good indication of how rootless Australian politics is just now.

Julia Gillard herself references him often.

“If you look back on John Howard’s first year there was endless amounts of carry-on about how stiff and awkward he was, and why he didn’t get something done about those eyebrows,” she reminded the Weekend Australian Magazine in a recent profile, when asked to reflect.

Now, sitting in his old office, Gillard explains: “I do think about some of the things he did in office, and my principal respect for John Howard, and it’s a characteristic I’d like to claim for myself, is that I think he’s a tremendously psychologically strong human being. You saw that in his durability, you saw that in his reaction to pressure and crisis, and you ultimately saw it the day after the 2007 election, where – guess what? He went out for a walk. He’s a tremendously psychologically strong human being, and I think I’m a very psychologically strong human being, not much buffeted by, you know, the environment that comes with this.”

“And then, in terms of work style, even though I haven’t gone on a journey to replicate his work style, people who have been around forever have said things to me like: ‘You’re a lot like Prime Minister Howard, he used to crash through a huge amount of paperwork on Saturday, put one day of the weekend aside to get all of the paperwork done, and you seem to be doing the same.’”

She smiles. “Having said that, there are tremendous differences. Cricket. Not married to Janette. Don’t have a Wallabies tracksuit. You know, and the list goes on.”

A week or so later, my call to John Howard’s Sydney office is rewarded; the former prime minister’s disembodied but still unmistakably brisk voice (he is travelling in the US) greets me when I answer my phone. After a good-natured bargaining session, we agree that his initial reaction, on being told Gillard identifies herself with him, will remain unreported. He is unwilling to offer an opinion on Gillard, whom he describes as “intelligent”, but maintains the view, argued in his memoir Lazarus Rising, that Labor made a “colossal blunder” in dismantling her predecessor. “I’ve got no time for Rudd, and I understand that he completely alienated his colleagues, and so on. The insiders understand all that. But the public – they voted for him. I think they’re still living under the shadow of that.”

*

The story Julia Gillard cannot tell is a long and complicated one, involving a party that spent so long in opposition that, by its tenth anniversary there in 2006, it was ready to enlist Kevin Rudd – a brilliant, disciplined, persistent workaholic whom barely anybody in the party could stand – to its leadership.

The Howard government had won outright control of the Senate at the 2004 election. On one hand, this was a shocking blow to Labor. But on the other, it relieved them of the obligation to tie themselves up in knots trying to amend government legislation in the Senate.

Newly unwedgeable and utterly sick of losing, the party signed up to the Rudd package; centralised power, discipline, regular anti-union jabs, the works. “We decided as a party that we were going to be absolutely ruthless,” says one minister. “We would have one voice, and we would not let Howard outmanoeuvre us again.” Driving the coherence of the party and its determination to prevail was an additional, existential threat: John Howard’s challenge to the union movement in WorkChoices.

Rudd convened Friday meetings of his “planning group”, which comprised him, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner. The rest of his shadow ministers found out about this arrangement only gradually. “By about April [of 2007] we worked out that it had been happening for months,” says one. During the election campaign, Rudd announced publicly – and without consulting his party – that in government he would seize for himself the right to appoint his choice of colleagues to the front bench.

This was a proposal, ironically enough, that had been advanced by Julia Gillard, in a speech in March of that year to the Sydney Institute. Gillard argued that the abolition of the old system – in which caucus “elected” its own front bench (a quaint term for the muscular factional hardscrabble for cabinet spots that had been a tradition since the Hawke years) – would constitute significant modernisation for the party. “To get there, to clear the factions out of the system, I think we need to send a message right from the top that change is required and the ministry or shadow ministry is not a creature of the factional system,” she said.

Keep in mind, Gillard herself was not unreservedly admired at the time. There yet festers, among caucus sourpusses, the theory that her enthusiastic advocacy of the ‘PM picks’ model might carry a sniff of Team Gillard interest; that her eclectic band of factionally marginalised friends and confidantes, such as the Victorian Brendan O’Connor and the Northern Territory–based Warren Snowdon, might not otherwise have made it as ministers. The prime minister is a woman who picks and sticks, and who presumably has not forgotten the days when another former close friend, Mark Latham, was unable to give her the job of shadow treasurer because he lacked the very same centralised powers of appointment for which she now is a continuingly stubborn advocate.

(“The Shadow Treasury has been a nightmare,” Latham recorded in his diary on 25 October 2004, conducting his front bench reshuffle after that year’s election loss. “Gillard is the best person for the job, our rising star, but her own people have vetoed her. The leaders of the Left have lined up, one by one, to blackball her: Faulkner, Evans and Combet, plus expected criticism from Macklin and Albanese. Gillard would be better off leaving those losers behind … I told Julia I couldn’t give it to her because I had run out of petrol after saving Crean. I didn’t have the heart to tell her about the rats in her own ranks.”)

The discipline and hard work paid off; Rudd was elected and duly appointed his cabinet. This was the beginning of the difficulty, argues Steve Hutchins, who has been a Labor Senator since 1998 but – defeated at the last election – is packing up his office when I visit. Hutchins has just used his final caucus meeting to argue against the prime minister choosing her front bench. The problem, as he sees it, is not who you get when the PM picks the cabinet. It’s the loss of accountability to the caucus. “I reckon we would have ended up with the same line-up,” he says. “But under the old system, everybody owned the front bench. At the moment, the front bench is wholly and solely the property of the leader.”

This has three major consequences, argues Hutchins. The first is a change in the functioning of the cabinet itself: “The system makes them sycophants.” The second is the behaviour of the leader, who tends to protect underperforming ministers because to acknowledge their underperformance would be to admit a personal error of judgement. And the third is the deterioration of the relationship between ministers and the caucus. “No matter how elevated we were [under the old system], we needed to respond to our caucus colleagues because she or he was going to determine whether or not you got to be on the front bench next time. There was accountability.”

“It also has an impact on caucus, because there are so many shiny-shoes in there trying to impress the leadership that there are probably things that should be raised in there, that aren’t,” Hutchins concludes. “We used to have an award called ‘The Maxine’.” (Maxine McKew, one of Rudd’s prime enthusiasts in the caucus, was returned to private life in the election of 2010.) Rudd’s first cabinet joins our story at this point – a group of people, beholden directly to their leader, who were without exception pleased to be in government and pleased to be included in the beating heart of its executive wing. Of the 20 men and women so honoured, only two had ever sat in a federal cabinet before: Simon Crean, who had been a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments, and John Faulkner, who’d been Keating’s environment minister and who became cabinet secretary under Rudd.

Their meetings were scheduled for Tuesdays in non-sitting weeks and Thursday evenings when parliament was sitting; the fag end of the week, when most denizens of the parliamentary chambers feel the strong urge to flee.

Two major events, occurring early in the Rudd government, served to weaken the cabinet system. The first was a series of leaks concerning the FuelWatch scheme, a proposed government-run website enabling motorists to track pump prices around the country. On 28 May 2008, the Nine Network’s political editor, Laurie Oakes, broadcast details of a significant cabinet leak. Oakes had received copies of the critical remarks appended to the FuelWatch submission by four government departments; among them was the warning that FuelWatch – designed on the promise that it would keep fuel prices down – might conceivably have the reverse effect.

The leak caused considerable alarm because only about 200 people had access to the documents, through the government’s secure IT system, CABNET. FuelWatch died an ignominious death in the end – defeated in the Senate – while its luckless twin, Grocery Watch, was humanely destroyed by Craig Emerson, then competition and consumer affairs minister, in June 2009, just days before it was due to go live.

“The FuelWatch leak created a situation in which Kevin Rudd believed he couldn’t trust the cabinet. His response was to tighten up the cabinet,” recalls one minister of that cabinet. The secretary for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, called departmental secretaries in for a lecture about accountability. Moran’s own department suspended their co-ordinating comments for a period.

The second event was the global financial crisis. On 11 and 12 October 2008, the cabinet’s Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee (SPBC) met all weekend. Working quickly under the threat of advancing global mayhem, the four-member cabinet committee decided on an unprecedented Commonwealth guarantee of Australian banking deposits. Two days later, Rudd announced his first stimulus package – $10.4 billion in direct handouts to shore up the Australian economy.

From that point on, the SPBC – or the ‘Gang of Four’, as it became known, comprising Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner – assumed an unshakable position at the heart of government decision-making. More and more, the Gang of Four made the major decisions and cabinet found out about them down the track. “The decision-making style that stood well for the early days of the global financial crisis became institutionalised by Kevin, well beyond its efficiency,” recalls another cabinet minister of the time. “I think we could have gone back to cabinet decision-making; it was just the way Kevin preferred to work. In his perfect world, he would have decided everything himself.”

The first minister clarifies that it’s not that cabinet did not meet at all, “It’s that the point at which decisions were made changed. The point of decision became the SPBC, or the ERC (Expenditure Review Committee) or the NSC (National Security Committee), rather than cabinet.”

The cabinet handbook issued to Rudd government ministers directs that matters raised in cabinet should be accompanied by written submissions circulated no less than five days in advance, giving all cabinet members an opportunity to read and absorb the matters for discussion. The handbook continues:

 

Ministers may, by writing to the Cabinet Secretary, seek his agreement to raise particular matters in Cabinet without lodging a formal submission (referred to as ‘matters without submission’ or ‘under the line’ items). The only matters dealt with in this way should be: a) urgent matters of a procedural rather than a policy nature; b) urgent policy matters which are sufficiently straightforward not to require a formal Cabinet submission and which cannot be resolved in another way (for example, by an exchange of correspondence between ministers); and c) appointments.

 

Between June 2009 and June 2010, however, the cabinet process had deteriorated to the extent that of the matters signed off by cabinet in that time 58% were handled without submission. The consequences for sound decision-making are obvious.

“No one faults the Rudd government for getting right down to it and making the decisions that have been praised around the world,” adds a third cabinet source. “Where the problem arose is that, having found meetings of four members a congenial way to make decisions, they just kept on doing it.”

The SPBC itself did not exist before the Rudd government, and it did not outlive the Rudd government either. It was formed in late 2007 after a review by the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the cabinet secretary. And it was abolished by Julia Gillard one year ago, when she eventually negotiated the confidence of Australia’s 43rd Parliament.

The dominance of the Gang of Four has been widely reported. In one of those accidental strokes of luck, though, its popular nickname has served throughout to obscure the most bizarre and worrying aspects of the committee’s practical, week-to-week operation. ‘Gang of Four’ imparts the crisp suggestion of murderous efficiency; four people, bunkered down, cutting to the chase on issues of solemn national interest, unencumbered by the stray thoughts of lesser-portfolio-bearing bozos.

But the truth is quite otherwise – startlingly so. Under cabinet rules, the only attendees at a cabinet meeting should be ministers, the secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the deputy secretaries, who customarily serve as note-takers. But the rules for cabinet committees are much looser; ministerial advisers are permitted and the range of allowable bureaucrats is wider. And, as the SPBC grew in influence, its casual attendance list grew too. “Quite often, SPBC was attended by a horde of advisers,” says one cabinet source. “Sometimes, there would be up to 40 people in the room. It was the business of government being conducted in a very unusual way.”

“When you walked into these meetings, you’d be hard-pressed to get a seat,” recalls a senior bureaucrat. “There’d be the prime minister, sitting there like some kind of potentate, expounding, the ministers would get the occasional word in, and then there’d be the three year olds, who seemed in some weird way suddenly to have equal or superior ranking to the ministers.” (The ‘three year olds’ are Rudd’s notoriously youthful advisers, whose consolation prize for two-and-a-half lacerating years in the PMO is that they shall not grow old.)

The SPBC meetings were convened wherever Rudd happened to be at the time. When in Canberra, they would take place in the cabinet room. When Rudd was elsewhere, bureaucrats and advisers would be summoned to whichever part of the continent he was visiting. They grew to dread the days on which Rudd did not have a scheduled evening engagement to attend, as the meetings would – on those occasions – meander on into the night.

Even then, decisions were not always forthcoming.

One minister, hostile to Rudd, describes a dizzying cycle of vacillation: “Kevin’s style … he wasn’t good at the methodical approach, and it led to a frustrating indecisiveness. Part of the ‘more briefings, more people, more options’ thing was, it was an excuse for not actually being able to say ‘I don’t know.’”

Ministers desperate for decisions tried other ways to get business finalised. Until mid 2009, when John Faulkner was reluctantly conscripted to serve as defence minister, he was regularly called upon by ministers to intercede with the prime minister. Alister Jordan, Rudd’s chief of staff, was another avenue. And Julia Gillard, Rudd’s deputy, established what amounted to a shadow decision-making system that would kick into gear during her regular periods as acting prime minister during Rudd’s absences abroad.

“Bring out your dead!” she would holler on entering the PMO, seeking out long-stalled ambassadorial appointments, out-of-favour briefs and slumbering cabinet submissions. With the help of Rudd’s staff, she would triage as much of the outstanding business as possible, and the show bowled madly on.

And yet, cabinet continued to meet. Signing off on the decisions made at the SPBC; assenting constructively to the way the government was operating – even though many of the constituent ministers now complain they were not consulted. Who is to blame for this failure? Rudd, for being a beastly bossy boots? Or the ministers, for abandoning their commissions?

Patrick Weller, a Queensland academic and cabinet historian who was given privileged access to the PMO during the Rudd term (he was writing a Rudd biography, since suspended), thinks there is some serious revisionism going on.

“The argument now is ‘We failed to say anything, when asked our opinion,’” he says of the Rudd ministers. “They are in fact saying that they had the opportunity and they didn’t take it. That says as much about them as it says about Rudd. At the time, they didn’t disagree. At the time, they seemed to think it was going pretty well. Looking back, they wonder if they should have said something.”

Weller’s view is that there was “nothing particularly unusual” about the way the Rudd government operated; leaders, he says, all have different ways of concentrating their own power. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. “I don’t think there’s ever been a calmly functioning cabinet system,” he says. “History has an interesting way of putting things into context. My favourite is Billy Hughes, who ran the country for 18 months from England. Anyone who says that prime ministers dominate now and didn’t in the past has not read anything about Billy Hughes.”

It certainly seems remarkable that a group of adults sworn to the obligations of executive office could collectively tolerate such an extraordinary environment as the one the ministers privately outline. Even today, they are unable to explain it. Julia Gillard’s own position is fairly invidious: she defended this system right up until the point at which she declared it intolerable. Her loyalty to Rudd right up until the week she deposed him – and evidence of previous perfidy is extremely difficult to find – makes her challenge to him all the harder to explain. Having covered for him for so long, she is now unable to claim provocation for the fatal blow.

Why didn’t the cabinet ministers band together and confront Rudd? Surely, when they saw each other outside their formal meetings they could talk of nothing else? Did they talk at all?

“We didn’t, much,” says one. “That was one of the extraordinary things. On the night when Julia had been meeting with Kevin, there was a whole bunch of people down in Julia’s office. Bill Shorten made the comment: ‘It’s amazing how many people can have been thinking the same thing but not have spoken to each other.’ Everyone down there was thinking: ‘Oh! You too?’”

On one level, this is a familiar situation for anyone who’s ever worked in an office; the way dysfunctional relationships evolve and entrench themselves. But it’s a little confronting to find that the same mundane failings attend those who run our country. And the most chilling element of it all is that this group of people – the most powerful collection of elected decision-makers in Australia – remained passive until the very end. Left to their own devices, they would have let things go along as they were. They learned about the coup from the television.

“Ministers were genuinely out of the loop,” reported Barrie Cassidy in his book, The Party Thieves. “Many of them, according to the backbenchers, were actually part of the problem. They had become subservient to the leader, seemingly satisfied to be humiliated. So they were literally the last to know, the last to be told.” After the factional leaders (Bill Shorten, Mark Arbib, David Feeney) talked Julia Gillard into initiating the challenge, most of Kevin Rudd’s cabinet – apart from Anthony Albanese, Craig Emerson, Martin Ferguson and John Faulkner – jumped aboard, with varying degrees of alacrity.

*

Nick Champion is a young backbencher from South Australia. He stunned many of his colleagues on 9 September last year when he got to his feet, after Julia Gillard’s first post-election address to caucus, and spoke about the cravenness and mute compliance he felt had entrapped them all in recent years.

The speech was a long time in the writing for Champion. The former union official still has the notes for a speech he drafted to deliver to his second-ever caucus meeting, just after the Rudd government’s landslide election. In it, he constructed an argument against Rudd’s decision to select ministers himself. The caucus rules, he planned to say, existed as a safeguard against erratic leaders (at this point, Champion intended a dramatic gesture towards the caucus room’s three-tiered photo wall of leaders, with its sprinkling of maddies: Billy Hughes, Doc Evatt, Mark Latham).

But Champion never delivered that speech; he chickened out. “I ran through all the normal political arguments, I suppose,” he recalls. “Yes, it’s the right thing to do. Yes, I believe it. But taking on the prime minister on my second day? I didn’t do it, in the end, and I regretted it for the rest of the term.” When he finally spoke, then, nearly three years later, it was with a pent-up urgency. Having ceded the power to Rudd to select ministers, he argued, the party owed Rudd the loyalty to confront him – rather than simply knock him over – when dissatisfaction arose with the way he was exercising that power.

Champion’s concern is with checks and balances. Firstly, the safeguard of the caucus vote as a means of checking the possible excesses of the leader. Failing that, the protection of the Westminster system, which obliges ministers appointed by their leader to do the honourable thing and resign rather than continue to serve in circumstances of resentful obeisance, as unquestionably happened under Rudd.

*

The mood among Gillard’s colleagues is bleak this sitting week, the second-last before parliament’s long winter recess. It’s freezing. The sky is the colour of cold dishwater. In the ornamental garden beds that heap up beside Commonwealth Avenue just before it bridges Lake Burley Griffin, purple and yellow pansies pick out the words “Cerebral Palsy”. The newspapers are full of horrible polls for Labor.

There’s a weird dynamic going on in the caucus though; a sort of Blitz mentality, or doomed bloody-mindedness. One backbencher gives me a rousing speech about the importance of difficult, unpopular decisions, and how Gillard has earned the respect of her colleagues by fronting up to the carbon pricing issue and not allowing herself to be rattled. “Course though,” he grins blackly, “we’re gonna get smashed.”

The clearest difference between the Gillard government and the Rudd government is that the Gillard government is prepared to suffer in pursuit of a goal. And to a significant degree, members of the Labor caucus – some grudgingly, some relieved finally to be standing and fighting for something – are signed up to it. Signed up to prosecuting the case for pricing carbon, even though they’re on the bum end of serial reversals, and even though just about every advantage they had three years ago when embarking on this project – virtual bipartisan consensus, the raw horsepower of a newly minted mandate, the halcyon promise of matching efforts in the US, the galvanising influence of a frighteningly long drought – has since evaporated.

Perhaps this is principle. Steel in the spine, at last. A recognition that political expediency – a tactic neither Gillard nor Rudd can reasonably attribute exclusively each to the other – is no match for long-term courage and conviction.

Maybe. Or maybe there are just no quick fixes left to try.

Julia Gillard, a year into her prime ministership, is in an odd position: she is still a new leader but she leads a government that is older. Only two-and-a-half years older, true, but it’s a government that has been aged prematurely by dysfunction and regime change. There is a reason why Australia doesn’t change its governments very often. Changing governments is disruptive, expensive and wasteful beyond our worst nightmares. It’s not just the changing of the letterhead. Departing governments always leave junk behind, and incoming governments want to throw everything out and start again. Long-term programs get canned, wasting resources and all the work public servants put in to creating them.

Sometimes, new governments will salvage something from the discard pile of previous tenants. The idea of a federally funded insulation program, for example, was initially proposed as a $2.5 billion emissions reduction scheme by Malcolm Turnbull’s environment department in the last days of the Howard government – and rejected by Peter Costello, who could not understand why people who had bought insulation for their own homes should be obliged to subsidise those who hadn’t. Rudd’s government recycled it as a stimulus scheme, and the rest is history.

All this stopping and starting; it’s wearying and expensive. And it chips the hell out of the paintwork. It’s what makes the Gillard government, at a tender one year of age, seem raddled well before its time. But the curious fix that the Gillard government is in is that it cannot rely on the normal device of new governments, which is to express profound dismay at the level of previously undocumented waste and mismanagement it found waiting for it upon arrival at the Treasury benches, and the need for major revisions.

Apart from a handful of changes, the Gillard cabinet is the same bunch as the Rudd cabinet (John Faulkner and Lindsay Tanner have left, and Greg Combet and Mark Dreyfus have arrived). Of the 21 elected representatives entitled to attend cabinet as a matter of course, 19 are the same people who so very recently were in large part mute witnesses to their own disempowerment. Every policy shift or new initiative – perfectly normal and to be expected under any new government – creates a new circumstance about which Gillard cannot be entirely frank. This is the tragedy for Julia Gillard: loyal to Kevin Rudd for perhaps too long, she is now permanently shackled to his mistakes and miserably unable to claim his successes.

Lachlan Harris, Rudd’s former press secretary, wrote perceptively in the Sunday Telegraph that the events of June 2010 in effect created, at the head of the Labor government, a weird, Hollywood-style amalgam of two people, which he calls “Kulia”. “The Rudd and Gillard who led Labor out of the wilderness after 11 years in opposition are gone,” he wrote. “Like Tom and Katie, their individual stars dimmed, replaced not by each other, but the dysfunctional and politically toxic sum of their individual parts.” Many middle-of-the-road voters thought, Harris argued, that Labor was now led by a relationship, not a prime minister.

“I worked non-stop for four years for Kevin Rudd. If asked, I would do the same for Gillard. But on most days, the thought of going in to bat for Kulia fills me with dread. I have built a career arguing for Labor, but sometimes there is nothing that can be said.”

In some cases, the Gillard government retains the labels appended to the previous government, even where circumstances have clearly changed. Take, for instance, the widely held view that the government is poll-driven. This is a perception fed by last year’s panicky reversals on climate policy, on asylum seekers, on the mining tax, on population growth, and so on.

But it’s a hard case to make now against the federal government, as Julia Gillard, quite aware of how deeply unpopular the idea of a carbon tax is, pursues it nonetheless. Calls it a carbon tax, even, when there is a reasonable case to be made that a fixed price is necessary at the beginning of any emissions trading scheme. “Are you kidding me?” laughs the minister with whom I raise the question of whether Labor’s reliance on voter research has eased. There’s a hysterical edge to his voice. “Do we look poll-driven to you? I mean, are we reading them upside down, or what?”

Gillard herself says that voter research should only be used for gauging mood: “So, for example, with carbon pricing, they’re already very anxious coming out of the global financial crisis; natural disasters, cost of living pressures; they’re already anxious, and we are discomfiting them more. So you need to just understand that, because it helps you understand that when you speak about this, you’ve got to talk about it in the language of reassurance and those sorts of things.”

On the Monday morning of the week in which we are talking, the prime minister ducks out of Parliament House and around to the National Convention Centre Canberra, where the Australian Local Government Association’s national conference (an event riddled with mayors, whose keen local knowledge and undisguised hankering for specific funding promises make them nerve-racking company for any prime minister) was underway. Gillard steps out of her Commonwealth limousine and sweeps inside, her driver tidily furling the bonnet flag and popping a little sock over it for the estimated half-hour or so the PM is scheduled to be inside.

As usually happens, Gillard’s accompanying staff ensure that her 2500-word speech is placed on the lectern, ready for her. As very rarely happens, however, the person introducing the prime minister – in this case ALGA president Genia McCaffery, who is also the independent mayor of North Sydney – precedes her to the lectern, places her own notes over those of the PM, introduces her warmly … and then decamps with the lot.

No one apart from Gillard – not even McCaffery – notices what has happened until after the prime minister has concluded her speech, 15 minutes of enthusiasm about the constitutional aspirations of the local government sector, broadcast live on ABC News 24. Gillard, having spent a half-hour reviewing the speech early that morning, has retained enough to present a fairly handy simulacrum off the top of her head, which she prefers to do rather than make a fuss about the notes. After the speech, which is judged a success by those milling about afterwards, Gillard’s staff retrieves the notes from the horrified McCaffery and the PM returns to her car – flag proudly unfurled – and cruises back for her meeting with the prime minister of New Zealand.

Gillard certainly is difficult to rattle. With Rudd, you could spot his panic attacks from a mile off; when the home insulation program veered into disaster, for example, he threw himself into a round of media self-criticism, and called an emergency caucus meeting in which he instructed MPs and senators to rush out and apologise to insulation companies in their electorates. Gillard, on the other hand, seems almost to relish her unpopularity as a badge of her own determination. She is from the dysfunctional Left of the Labor Party in Victoria, after all. Working effectively among people who dislike her is hardly a new thing. She takes her pain up-front, and in the months to come in the carbon pricing debate, perhaps her early pain will bear fruit. For all the attempts to sell this prime minister as a reformist visionary, as a giggling shed-dodger, girl next door or Scripture-reciting atheist, her best quality is simpler: she’s tough as guts. And if the population ever cottons on to the idea that she could be tough for them, that will be half the battle.

In forging ahead with her plan to price carbon, Julia Gillard has fulfilled one of the sternest tests of leadership; preparedness to do grievous political harm to oneself in the pursuit of an unpopular reform. She has also extracted some quite extraordinary results from a parliament that many deemed, just a year ago, to be precarious beyond hope.

The popular perception is that the government is hamstrung by its creaking one-vote parliamentary majority in the House of Representatives. But it’s not had a single piece of legislation blocked in the last year. The Clerk’s office, in the House of Reps, reports that the government has lost just seven votes so far in the 43rd Parliament of Australia. Seven! Of these, the first was a minor procedural matter concerning whether votes could automatically be recast if members missed them for good reasons, such as being unavoidably stuck in lifts. Three were on the question: “That the Member be no longer heard.” One was on the question: “That the Leader of the Opposition be granted an extension of time.” The sixth was a foiled attempt to throw out the member for Paterson, Bob Baldwin, and the seventh was Scott Morrison’s motion condemning the government’s Malaysian refugee deal. An eighth instance, which the clerk doesn’t technically count as a lost government vote but the Coalition counts as a win, is the Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker’s successful private member’s bill amending federal environment laws to allow the NSW government to remove bats from the trees at Maclean High School. So that’s the dreadful damage, so far, that the new paradigm has wrought on the Gillard government: extra minutes for Tony Abbott and Bob Baldwin, a bit of symbolism about Malaysia and bad news for some bats in northern NSW. The dirty secret of minority government has been that, in practice for the Gillard government, it hasn’t actually been that bad.

And now the prime minister has emerged from months of crossbench negotiations with – incredibly – a carbon pricing scheme that is backed by the Greens but exempts petrol; that commits Australia to rigorous emissions cuts by 2050, but seems at the same time to have assuaged the worst fears of the steel industry; and that has an overdue shot at tax reform on the way through. Whatever you think of the policy or its sponsors, it’s an impressive piece of negotiation.

But everywhere the prime minister goes, people can’t – or won’t – listen. There’s a gap they cannot get across: what she did and said a year ago. The silent elimination of Kevin Rudd, and the broken promise not to introduce a carbon tax. She must bridge the gap, because in order to explain something like carbon pricing, any prime minister must have if not a sympathetic public ear, at least an open one. Perhaps her bloody-minded determination in the face of all this will, over time, become her mud map. Stranger things have happened.

Cabinet processes, under Gillard, have been laboriously reinstated. The full range of cabinet sub-committees – excepting the SPBC, which has been abandoned to history’s ‘freaks and oddities’ file – are meeting again. The proportion of matters arriving at cabinet ‘without submission’ has declined in the period since September 2010 to just 15%. Things are different now, says the cabinet minister who earlier mused on the group’s failure to confer. “We have the argument around the table. It never divides along factional lines. It’s a pretty serious discussion.”

But the insider–outsider divide between Canberra and the rest of Australia has never been so wide. Outside, people want to know why the government can’t get anything right, and what happened to that nice Kevin chap. Inside, they can’t quite explain why it took so long to get rid of him. Either way, it adds up to a catastrophic disconnect between representative and represented. And as people wonder – quite reasonably – why it’s taking the Gillard government so long to do anything, the secret, inadmissible, but honest answer is: it’s cleaning up after itself. Rebuilding a system of decision-making that more closely resembles the one we always assumed to be there. Junking billions of dollars worth of Rudd-authored federal schemes, and whipper-snipping the lavish Rudd-era foliage that sprang up around the Council of Australian Governments into something more manageable. Blandly rephrasing the national health deal, which consumed two of Kevin Rudd’s last months as prime minister – months that he spent in mob-caps touring public hospitals to achieve a breakthrough barely anybody understood. Quietly contracting the Education Revolution to an acronym. Reversing Rudd’s border protection policies, while continuing to deny that those policies had any effect on the rate of boat arrivals to Australia. Fixing a problem, while maintaining that it never existed.

Out of truth and lies, lies are always harder. But when the Labor Party decided – in a mad, exhilarating rush – to get rid of its leader 14 months ago, this is the course it set for itself: to govern without candour, dogged horribly by the memory of what it was and unable to explain what it wants to be.

Annabel Crabb

Annabel Crabb is the ABC’s chief online political writer. She is the author of Rise of the Ruddbot, Losing It and Quarterly Essay 34, ‘Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull’, which won a 2009 Walkley Award.
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