Thursday, June 27, 2013

Defenestration Down Under

To borrow from Oscar Wilde, one must have a heart of stone to watch the political death of Julia Gillard without laughing.  On June 23, 2010, she shocked Australia by toppling Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a premeditated and ruthless Labor party coup.  Yet this week, the assassin herself has been fatally knifed — by the very man she backstabbed three years earlier.

What happened?  How has Australia's first female prime minister, whose parliamentary attacks on the alleged sexism of her conservative opponents won her world-wide acclaim this year, sunk so dramatically at home?

Start with Ms. Gillard herself.  In the runup to September's federal elections, her credibility has been draining away as if from an open wound.  Three years of broken promises and embarrassing missteps — from a hugely unpopular carbon tax to her failed publicity stunts, such as a recent magazine spread showing the avowed republican knitting a toy kangaroo for Britain's royal baby — have finally undermined the 15-year parliamentary veteran.

Throughout her prime ministership Ms. Gillard grossly misjudged middle Australia, whose politics skew rightward of Ms. Gillard's cosmopolitan home constituency of Melbourne.  Her ventures into the gender wars and class-war rhetoric to divide local labor from the wealthy were destined to turn off most Australian voters.  Polls this year consistently showed that despite low unemployment and interest rates, Ms. Gillard's Labor Party trailed opposition leader Tony Abbott and his center-right coalition by landslide proportions.

Ultimately, even the Labor warlords who had led the 2010 hit on Mr. Rudd accepted that matters had become so desperate that their party simply could not be led by Ms. Gillard come election time.  Party officials found it hard to motivate the Labor grass roots, much less crucial swing voters in the battleground seats of western Sydney and Queensland.  Ms. Gillard's authority was so low it could not feasibly recover.  Not surprisingly, this week she has suffered scornful political obituaries that make Mr. Rudd's demise three years ago pleasant in comparison.

Whatever his faults, Mr. Rudd rates high marks for sheer animal survival.  He was so widely written off after his downfall in 2010 (not to mention his botched leadership challenges in February 2012 and March 2013) that he even promised this year that there would be ''no circumstances'' under which he'd be leader again.  But although his resurrection may lead to a poll boost initially, it is unlikely to revive the government's fortunes.

For one thing, Mr. Rudd will be leading a fatally fractured camp.  In recent years Mr. Rudd's own Labor colleagues have publicly dismissed him as ''disloyal'', ''dysfunctional'', a ''saboteur'', a ''psychopath'' and a ''complete and utter fraud'' with ''no Labor values.''  They have said he lacks the skills of leadership and fundamental conviction needed to lead the party out of the mire.  At least six cabinet members have resigned since Mr. Rudd's coup.  And yet Mr. Rudd's party, by a caucus vote margin of 57-45, has agreed to inflict upon the Australian people the very person they were so reluctant to inflict upon themselves.

Nor should anyone forget Mr. Rudd's vacuous policy agenda during his first term from November 2007 to June 2010.  His constant striving to be all things to all men — on issues as varied as economic reform, border protection and carbon pricing — merely insulted the electorate's intelligence.  It is hard to see how attitudes will change given his recent flip-flopping over gay marriage (which he now supports) and letting in more foreign workers (which he now opposes).

Mr. Rudd's economic pronouncements are particularly uninspiring.  During his tenure Mr. Rudd blamed ''neoliberalism'' for causing the global financial crisis, and he has since credited his government's record stimulus spending and pro-union policies for saving Australia from economic contagion.  Never mind that Australia actually weathered the storm thanks to a record commodities boom and those free-market policies Mr. Rudd so likes to deride.  Never mind, too, that Mr. Rudd had inherited a dozen years of budget surpluses from the previous conservative government, giving him a strong fiscal position from which he could try to use tax dollars to fuel a recovery.

In any case, changing leadership won't revive Labor's fortunes so long as the party remains deeply connected to trade unions that resist the demands of a market-based economy.  The powerful Australian Workers Union, for instance, has led Labor's campaign to restrict temporary foreign workers with visas, who would help boost the nation's long-term economic prospects.  Moreover, its push to increase union membership across the resources sector is at odds with laborers, who are more interested in how the dividend and share buyback from increases in company profits could can boost their superannuation savings.  Labor today is out of touch with the development states of the resources boom, Queensland and Western Australia.  Moreover, Labor is wedged between two core constituencies that are fundamentally at odds with each other:  inner-city social progressives on the one hand, and more conservative suburban and regional voters on the other.

Addressing these problems could take years, and as a result Mr. Rudd has little hope of beating Mr. Abbott in September's federal elections.  In the meantime, however, for sheer entertainment value not much can compete with the bloodsport of Labor politics down under.

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