January 23, 2012

The Second Rudd Government?

By Robert Manne
Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard in the background (digitally compiled). © Jerry Morrison/US Department of Defense/Kate Lundy

Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard in the background (digitally compiled). © Jerry Morrison/US Department of Defense/Kate Lundy

For better or for worse, unlike most commentators, my judgments about Australian politics are generally formed not by conversations with Canberra insiders but almost solely by reading history books, listening to radio, watching current affairs television and following the newspapers. As it happens, opinion polls are among my most valuable sources of information. They provide, for example, the only reliable evidence about the question I want to discuss in this blog: the relative popularity of our two most recent Prime Ministers – Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Kevin Rudd governed Australia for two and a half years. Here, according to Newspoll, is the remarkable story of how his government fared, as measured in “two-party preferred” terms: 63% to 37% (once); 62% to 38% (once); 61% to 39% (once); 60% to 40% (once); 59% to 41% (five times); 58% to 42% (seven times); 57% to 43% (nine times); 56% to 44% (nine times); 55% to 45% (twelve times); 54% to 46% (four times); 53% to 47% (twice); 52% to 48% (five times); 51% to 49% (once); 50% to 50% (once); 49% to 51% (once).

For its first nine months the Gillard government polled respectably, although even in its honeymoon not even remotely as well as Rudd. In April 2011, however, it crashed. Here are the government’s poll results since that time: 48% to 52% (once); 47% to 53% (once); 46% to 54% (three times); 45% to 55% (three times); 44% to 56% (twice); 43% to 57% (three times); 42% to 58% (twice); 41% to 59% (once). Since April 2011 not once has the Gillard government polled as well as the Rudd government polled at its worst. There are very many ways of explaining these numbers. There is however one entirely non-contentious conclusion. Kevin Rudd led one of the most popular governments in Australian political history. Julia Gillard is now leading one of the least popular.

While it is logically possible that this year the Gillard government will see a revival of its fortunes, at present this seems rather unlikely unless some disaster befalls the Coalition or its leader. Indeed if the poll results achieved since April 2011 continue for several months into 2012 there seem to be only two possibilities. Either the federal Labor government will agree to go quietly to an ignominious death. Or it will try to save itself by electing a new leader. Given that the future employment prospects of several dozen Labor backbenchers will by that time be at stake, the latter prospect seems to me by far the more likely.

Here again there are two main possibilities. Either the federal Labor Party (like the recently departed New South Wales Labor Party in its final years) will in desperation try, and perhaps then try again, someone new – like the lacklustre Stephen Smith or the quiet pigeon-fancier Greg Combet or the famously ambitious faction leader who part-orchestrated the Rudd assassination, Bill Shorten. Or it will return to the leader it destroyed. If this indeed turns out to be the way the choice presents itself, my recommendation would be for a return to Rudd.

In general, Kevin Rudd led a very successful government, at least until its final months. It is true, as Rudd has admitted, that he then erred very badly in postponing the introduction of the emissions trading scheme. It is true that his attempt to create a humanly generous asylum seeker policy came unstuck. And it is true that one of the economic stimulus measures – the home insulation program – blew up in his face. It is however also true that many of the measures that were held against him by his neo-liberal political and ideological enemies in these final months  – like the National Broadband Network or the education buildings program – were broadly popular. Even the perhaps clumsily introduced mining tax might have been well regarded had his Cabinet stood by him and had the Murdoch press, in particular the Australian, not embarked upon a disinformation campaign in support of the three great multinational mining giants.

Rudd lost office in part because he made some errors; in part because he made some serious mining and media enemies; but perhaps most importantly of all because he had spectacularly failed to win even the minimal loyalty of his Cabinet and caucus colleagues. It cannot however be said too emphatically that he did not lose office because he or his government had lost the confidence of the Australian people. In the last Newspoll taken before the coup, the Rudd Government led the Abbott Coalition 52% to 48%. If Gillard now got numbers like this, there would be champagne corks popping in Labor offices across the country.

The enduring popularity of the Rudd government was of course no accident. The single most important reason can be stated simply. Rudd led virtually the only government in the Western world to survive the global financial crisis without falling into recession. The overthrow of Rudd must seem to casual foreign observers of Australian politics almost entirely crazy. There is however more reason for the popularity of the Rudd government than its economic success. In my observation, Australians expect their Prime Ministers to have a vision for the future of their country and to move confidently on the international stage. Unlike his successor, Julia Gillard – the least impressive Australian Prime Minister since Billy McMahon – Kevin Rudd had a vision and an international presence. He seemed, to many Australians, to be fashioned from the kind of stuff of which Prime Ministers are made.

It is not merely foreigners who are mystified by the anti-Rudd coup. The Australian public has never really understood why Rudd was removed. Like members of a mafia gang, Julia Gillard and the faction leaders – Bill Shorten, David Feeney and Mark Arbib – have maintained a code of silence regarding the true reasons for the assassination of Rudd. Thus far at least, in addition, partly through a lack of information, the nation’s journalists have failed to provide an even remotely adequate account of what actually took place between the conspirators in the weeks, days and hours before the coup. (By contrast, within months of Howard’s near-removal in September 2007, at the time of APEC, excellent, detailed accounts of the episode were written by Pamela Williams in the Australian Financial Review and Paul Kelly in the Australian.) The anti-Rudd coup sits uneasily in the national political imagination. At best it is a mystery; at worst a symbol of something sinister in the culture of the contemporary Labor Party. As Rudd seems to many Australians, especially those who do not belong to the political class, to have been dealt with unfairly, his restoration to the Prime Ministership of Australia will seem to them to be the righting of a wrong.

If things go on under Gillard as they are, or if in a few months a new leader from the improbable list of successors is chosen, Labor will almost certainly suffer a defeat only a little less humiliating than the one that brought down New South Wales Labor last year. If however an election were to be held shortly after the restoration of Rudd, there is a reasonable chance that Labor might put in a respectable performance and even an outside chance that a Rudd government might be returned.

Of course if Rudd were to return to the Prime Ministership of Australia things would need to be very different this time. In his last political essays, George Orwell often wrote about how individuals were sometimes required to make what he called a “moral effort” in order to be able to acknowledge uncomfortable or unpleasant facts about themselves. If Rudd regained the Prime Ministership, he and his supporters would have to make the moral effort to understand why his rhetoric so often overreached his performance and why he so comprehensively failed to win the loyalty, trust and affection of his Cabinet and caucus colleagues and also of the senior members of the public service. Searching self-criticism, and in particular with regard to questions touching on character, is tough. Without it, however, if there is a second Rudd Prime Ministership, it will be doomed to failure.

Another matter for reflection, if Rudd is restored as Labor leader, is the Party’s relationship to the Greens. Under Rudd relations were very poor. Under Gillard, mainly through force of necessity, they have improved. It seems clear that in the short and the middle term, if the Left in Australia is to have a future and if the populist conservative tide is to be turned, some form of Labor-Greens alliance is vital. On the one hand, Labor now relies on Greens preferences to be elected and on the support of the Greens in the Senate for the passage of reform.  On the other, without a Labor government, the Greens are powerless to realise their vision for Australia or implement any part of their program.

Rudd turned his back on the Greens and looked to the support of the Coalition for the passage of his emissions trading scheme. Because of Abbott’s election as leader of the Liberal Party, he failed. Gillard looked to the Greens for the passage of her carbon tax and renewable energy investment legislation. She succeeded. Not having learned from this experience, the Gillard government, following the High Court’s ruling on the Malaysian solution, implicitly looked to the Coalition for asylum seeker policy support. This was always entirely foolish, much more than Rudd’s gamble on Turnbull for the safe passage of the emissions trading scheme. Abbott has always intended to use the asylum seeker issue as a means to power. Principled compromise would undermine his aim. If Rudd is restored as Labor leader, in my opinion he should immediately seek the support of the Greens over asylum seeker policy. Already the current Labor Migration Minister, Chris Bowen, and the Greens support an annual refugee quota of 20,000. In two three year periods – 1999-2001 and 2008-2011 – between 1000 and 1200 asylum seekers have drowned on their way from Indonesia to Australia. Reflecting on that sobering and terrible fact might prove of sufficient moral weight for the Greens to come to recognise the need for something new.

Most importantly of all, if Rudd is restored to the Labor leadership, and if the loose Labor-Greens alliance is to prosper, his government will need to find a new progressive agenda that will appeal to the working and middle classes of Australia.


In my view Labor’s popularity has always rested on its capacity to implement practical social-democratic reform. In contemporary Australia there are at least four great holes in the social welfare state. Families struggling with mental illness or with major disability are cruelly and scandalously abandoned by the state. Both a radically expanded mental health reform program and the Productivity Commission-approved disability insurance scheme should, in my view, become core elements of the program of the second Rudd Labor government.  Moreover, while those without means have decent medical protection because of the previous reforms under Whitlam and Hawke, they have no capacity to pay for dental treatment. Means-tested provision of dental treatment to low income Australians should be a high priority for the second Rudd government. Under Keating, Australia introduced a vital reform – compulsory superannuation. The present rate is however inadequate. Raising it gradually, from nine to fifteen per cent, should be another core goal of the second Rudd government.

For all of this, of course, new money needs to be found. It was in part because of its sound financial position that Australia was able to survive the global financial crisis. Obvious sources of funding do however exist – there is room for a revision of the new tax on mining; for the paring away of some upper middle class welfare, like reducing the all too generous subsidies available to the wealthy for private medical insurance or the provisioning of elite private schools; and for increases of income or capital gains taxes for the members of Australian society’s increasingly prosperous top ten per cent. If it becomes clear to Australians that there is a choice, on the one hand, between the fundamental well-being of families or individuals of low or modest income struggling daily with devastating problems of dental or mental health or major disability and, on the other, the marginal sacrifices that can be asked of families or individuals now flourishing on incomes of $200,000 or more – I think I know what the majority will choose. It will however require truly skilful political leadership to make it clear that this is indeed the kind of choice we as a society now have to make.

On present indications, under Gillard or any of her likely successors, Labor will be destroyed at the next election. Under Rudd – on the basis of a social democratic, social justice and environmental agenda, capable of appealing to both the broad suburban middle and working classes and the left-leaning inner city professional elites  – there is at least an outside chance of forestalling the arrival of a regime of unthinking and unscrupulous populist conservatism under the Prime Ministership of Tony Abbott.  It is this outside chance that should be grasped, even if that means the offer of a junior portfolio to Julia Gillard and the no doubt temporary exile of Bill Shorten to the government’s back benches. 

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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