Macklin warns on leadership
Who wants another series of ‘The Killing Season’
Amid the tributes and praise from both sides of the political aisle for retiring Labor stalwart Jenny Macklin, her warning against Labor backsliding into the leadership turmoil of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years ought to be taken seriously. Polls are bouncing around ahead of the Super Saturday by-elections, but consensus seems to be building that the results will trigger a leadership challenge against either Bill Shorten, if Labor fails in Longman, or even conceivably [$] Turnbull, if the Coalition fails in (say) Braddon. This is unfortunate, because the next election was shaping up to be a genuine contest of ideas with substantially different offerings from the major parties. Neither Turnbull nor Shorten is particularly popular, but they have given politics a semblance of stability, in which policy, rather than personality, has come to the fore.
On ABC’s Insiders yesterday, Macklin told host Barrie Cassidy that she had learnt the lessons of leadership instability during Labor’s years in power and so had her party: “I don’t want to be particularly political today, but it certainly got through to our side of politics that unity is absolutely paramount”.
Talk about “transaction costs” in changing leadership is trite. Anyone hankering for a leadership spill should re-watch Sarah Ferguson’s excellent The Killing Season on the ABC. Macklin shone in the series as one of the most steady, sensible voices in the Labor galaxy. She cried remembering Rudd’s compassion when confronted by a victim of the Black Saturday bushfires, who said he all he had left was the clothes he was standing in:
Macklin: Kevin put his arms around him … it was very moving.
Ferguson: Was that a genuine instinct in Kevin, is that what you were seeing?
Another who shone was Anthony Albanese, who opposed the original Julia Gillard challenge in 2010. As he told Ferguson, on the night he had a discussion with the “old Beazley group” – Wayne Swan, Stephen Smith, Stephen Conroy and Jenny Macklin – and warned that if the challenge went ahead “we will kill two Labor prime ministers”.
Albanese’s reputation is built on loyalty, and his political standing went stratospheric the day he called a tearful 2012 press conference to announce he would vote for Rudd in a speech that is still compelling to watch: “I have devoted my life to advancing the cause of Labor. I have despaired in recent days as I have watched Labor’s legacy in government be devalued … I have argued against this sort of action before, on the night of 23 June 2010. I believe the government’s difficulties can be traced to that night.” Gillard won, handily, as Albanese knew she would, but she refused to accept his resignation, saying no Labor cabinet would be complete without “Albo”. Surely, having lived through all that, Albanese will not move lightly on Shorten. A leadership spill should not be the tastiest morsel in political journalism – particularly when actual scandals like the prosecution of Witness K and his lawyer are unfolding in front of our eyes.
The tragedy of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd was that the infighting undermined the government’s substantial achievements from 2007 to 2013. These included: fighting the financial crisis, apologising to the Stolen Generations, conceiving a full-fibre NBN, signing Kyoto and introducing an effective economy-wide emissions trading scheme, implementing the Gonski school funding review, and launching the National Disability Insurance Scheme. There were mistakes too, of course – the mining tax, pink batts, and VET FEE-HELP come to mind – but in all the lost-decade commentary there is a tendency to talk as though reform died with John Howard. The reforms of the Rudd-Gillard years were right up there with those of Hawke and Keating, or of Whitlam before them. Policy was excellent. Politics was abysmal, however: as Albanese told Ferguson: “It was like living in two worlds.”
By making itself unelectable in 2013, Labor also bears some responsibility for the policy wreckage left by Tony Abbott – the horror 2014 budget that cut funding for schools and hospitals, no price on carbon, no Australian car industry, the mixed-up NBN, the ramp-up of VET FEE-HELP, the cuts to the ABC and SBS – some of which Malcolm Turnbull is trying to repair, and some of which he is doubling-down on. All are reasons why the Coalition remains unpopular with voters, and why Labor is odds-on favourite to win the next election, whenever it is held. Yesterday’s warning from Macklin, who is the kind of policy- rather than media-driven politician we need more of, is worth heeding.
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Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.
Amid the tributes and praise from both sides of the political aisle for retiring Labor stalwart Jenny Macklin, her warning against Labor backsliding into the leadership turmoil of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years ought to be taken seriously. Polls are bouncing around ahead of the Super Saturday by-elections, but consensus seems to be building that the results will trigger a leadership challenge against either Bill Shorten, if Labor fails in Longman, or even conceivably [$] Turnbull, if the Coalition fails in (say) Braddon. This is unfortunate, because the next election was shaping up to be a genuine contest of ideas with substantially different offerings from the major parties. Neither Turnbull nor Shorten...