When lining up the photo shoot in mid May for the Bill Shorten profile, I put the question whether anything was likely to happen soon, leadership-wise. Don’t worry, the press secretary said. Nothing was going to happen before June.
Sure, but the story was running in July.
There was a pause at the end of the line.
Was anything likely to happen before July?
Another pause, then: “No, I wouldn’t think so.”
At the time, the Canberra press gallery, in an activist mood, anticipated that the last sitting week of Parliament in late June, ahead of the six-week winter recess, would be ripe with leadership shenanigans – Newspoll histrionics, prime ministerial statements wrought into ‘blunders’, incendiary comments from Kevin Rudd’s tacticians, pre–carbon tax wobbles, Graham Richardson shooting his mouth off, that sort of thing.
Although Rudd kept silent, his people were hard at work fomenting discord. They included, incredibly, Bruce Hawker, the Rudd lobbyist whose crazy-brave performance ahead of Rudd’s last leadership challenge in February should have banished him to the political wilds. Yet there he was, backgrounding journalists and talking up the numbers.
In the lead-up to that final sitting week, there were a few hapless attempts at triggering something: the Australian’s intolerance of Julia Gillard’s upbeat note at the G20 summit in Mexico being perhaps the most blatant (one article was headed: ‘Pipe down, EC chief tells Gillard’ – yet the head of the European Commission had done nothing of the sort). Elsewhere, the real news was permitted to squeeze out the contrived skulduggery in Canberra. There was the collapse of the print media, for instance, catalysed by a spot of chassis-shaking tyre-kicking from Gina Rinehart. There was the mass drowning of asylum seekers, followed by the head-thumping recalcitrance of both the Greens and the Coalition in their refusal of a compromise solution to prevent further tragedies at sea.
Never mind, wrote the press gallery’s Jennifer Hewett in the AFR, Peter Hartcher in the SMH and Misha Schubert in the Sunday Age – the leadership games had simply been deferred; there was always August. But they sounded slightly miffed.
In this month’s Comment, Amanda Lohrey puts a strong case that it’s not the Prime Minister that is Australia’s problem at the moment, it’s the electorate’s collective ignorance of the workings of democracy. Whereas Julia Gillard has made a fair fist of making minority government work, Australians have yielded slackly to mob thinking. We don’t seem to ‘get’ democracy anymore.
She has a point, and there is little question Tony Abbott is on to it, too. In holding the government to ransom over the lives of refugees, his shadow government has made it clear that it ‘gets’ that Australians just don’t get it. Minority government is not the cause of what’s going on at sea. The Greens may be principled to the point of bloody-mindedness – for them, offshore processing of asylum seekers just isn’t on the table – but principle doesn’t come into the Coalition’s argument. It’s opportunism, pure and stupid. When the alternative prime minister declares, “People understand that the only way to stop the boats is to change the government,” he is not only playing the electorate, and the press gallery for that matter, for fools. He is playing with lives.
John van Tiggelen
John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.