I’ve just had a piece published at the ABC’s The Drum on what I think the broader implications of the extraordinary series of events we’ve witnessed over the last 24 hours or so are. For the convenience of LP readers, I’m reproducing the text over the fold.
NB: Previous LP discussion of the leadership spill is here.
24-hour media cycle does no favours for our democracy
We are all New South Welsh-persons now.
Three Tweets encapsulated the extraordinary series of events which brought down a first term Prime Minister:
“We live in fickle and disposable times.”
“Damn poll driven politics. Narrow one dimensional snapshots of a single point in time are meaningless.”
“A certain smugness in the media at this coup by commentariat.”
Australians don’t pay anything like the constant attention to politics that suffuses the world of the journosphere, the political tragics, the commentariat. Or, of course, the world of Labor MPs and Ministers, many of whom were among the last to know that a coup against Kevin Rudd was in the works yesterday.
A lot of citizens will only be hearing now for the first time that Australia has a new Prime Minister. I’ve just had an email from a friend asking what has happened, and I won’t be the only one. My Facebook feed is full of people expressing shock that this could occur.
There was a significant moment on ABC tv this morning when Chris Uhlmann, asked about the public’s response to this sequence of unlikely events, could only answer that he didn’t know, and segue into a discussion of how Canberra public servants are feeling.
Australia is not contained in Canberra, not that Canberra is a bad thing. But the political class needs to remember that.
Much as those attached to the verities of the Westminster system might protest otherwise, it’s difficult for many to come to terms with the fact that an elected PM has been torn down.
And it will be particularly difficult if the plotters can’t get beyond policy wonk talk, process stuff, egos, and insider ALP obsessions. ‘The polls made us do it’, ‘Rudd was a bad chair of meetings’ and ‘Alister Jordan’ won’t cut the mustard.
Let’s make no mistake. It is a historic day for our country to have a female Prime Minister.
But it is also a historic tragedy that a first term Prime Minister, the first Labor leader to win a national election since 1993, has been politically executed by his own party. It’s a tragedy which will set a disturbing precedent.
Julia Gillard has become Labor leader at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, and through the agency of the wrong people.
But let’s leave that aside. What does this event tell us about post-modern politics?
A few days ago, talk of a leadership challenge appeared to be the preserve of a bunch of urgers in the press gallery. No one outside the hermetic Canberra circle could have realistically expected what unfolded last night to occur.
After Kevin Rudd’s dignified and moving press conference today, the media couldn’t wait to get back to parsing the micro-details of his address. A pause for reflection on a very human moment might have been better than the ghoulish sights and sounds of the vultures circling his political corpse, and picking over the entrails of his remarks. It’s a very good argument against the relentless and dehumanising noise of the 24/7 media cycle.
Consider the comparison between the life cycle of the British New Labour government and Kevin Rudd’s 2 years and 5 months in office.
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s reformed spinmeister, has written persuasively of the propensity of the press to devour politicians. The charge that spin takes precedence over governing is an ironic one when made by those with a never satiated appetite for yet another event, a yearning for an always renewed narrative.
Tony Blair survived three victorious elections before making an exit whose timing was not of his own choosing. A massively unpopular war was one of the key reasons for his demise.
Kevin Rudd has not been permitted to face the people as Prime Minister. He looked quite shocked at the fact that his political demise came when it did, and with good reason.
Poll driven perspectives ignore the fact that polls reflect a static view of political reality, and the absurdity of demanding that leaders shape up or ship out according to the Newspoll timetable should be evident.
It’s damaging our democracy, and profoundly. We’re constantly being told, in the anodyne language adopted by the commentariat, that Labor needed ‘clear air’, and that Kevin Rudd couldn’t ‘cut through’. Yet no one has explained to me how a complex and sustained political argument could be prosecuted in the context of a media obsessed with the eternal present.
We might well pause to reflect on the irony that Kevin Rudd, whose performance today should forever negate claims that he’s a passionless robot consumed only by anger or ambition, was trying to do so – on the Resources Super Profits Tax. That was impossible, it would seem, in the face of a concerted campaign by the big battalions of industry, and those backroom apparatchiks whose utterances were amplified by the megaphones of the media.
Kevin Rudd was arguing for progressive reform, and because he couldn’t be seen to ‘back flip’, his leadership was the sole obstacle to those who believe they properly own our resources and our public sphere. He had to go, they pronounced, and the Labor party obliged.
If leadership, in both senses of the word, is what is at issue, we must ask ourselves whether we allow our leaders the space, and the time, to exercise their political craft as we would like to see it practiced.
In a single parliamentary term, we’ve now seen three opposition leaders and two Prime Ministers.
Much has been made of purported governance concerns: a ‘kitchen cabinet’ and faceless advisors distinguished only by the supposed callowness of youth. Yet the faces of the hit squad who destroyed Rudd’s leadership are hardly well known.
Gordon Brown also promised a return to cabinet government, and due process, after Tony Blair’s ‘government on the sofa’ was roundly condemned. Yet nothing changed. It may be impossible, in a world where an hour is a long time in politics, to govern at the pace of a slower era.
Julia Gillard, whatever her intentions, may learn that lesson quickly. And that any honeymoon will be short indeed. The opposition, and the media, have been laying down the lines of attack, in readiness for the latest twist in the political narrative they’ve arrogated themselves the right to script.
Rudd was right, in his address to caucus, to warn against the transformation of federal politics into the sordid realms of Labor politics, New South Wales style. Yet the ALP held power in the Premier State for thirteen years before its leader was overthrown.
If the AWU and Sussex Street types who orchestrated Rudd’s downfall believe that Labor can win only by attacking the Coalition from the right (which I’d have thought was barely possible with Tony Abbott as leader), and by throwing the leader overboard at the first sign of trouble, then they only have to survey the damage wrought in NSW.
In the United States, the United Kingdom, and in this Commonwealth of Australia, disillusion with politics as usual has been the abiding sentiment of the electorate over recent years. We should stop to consider whether the culture of constant obsolescence and the relentless drumbeat of narratives of the eternal now we’ve just seen make history, almost without knowing what it was doing, is good for any of us.
Will any future Prime Minister take the time to reflect, or have the courage to lead, knowing that a few marginal seat polls and a media firestorm can dissolve their legitimacy in the flick of an eyelid?
Most political observers agree that the Labor party was still odds on to win this year’s federal election. The events of the past two days ought to make all of us slow down, take a breath, and think about what our democracy really requires of us.
One of the central reasons Kevin Michael Rudd was elected the 26th Prime Minister of Australia was that he correctly identified a widespread public sentiment that the problems we confront go beyond the short term horizons of the political and media class. Whatever his failings, and for me, many of them pall beside the dignity of his exit from high office, we must now ask ourselves whether politics as usual allows any leader to wrestle with the great moral challenges of our time.
Because those challenges are not going away, even as the timescale of the Twitterverse and the 24 hour news machine rolls relentlessly on to another moment of the present.
Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He founded the leading public affairs blog, Larvatus Prodeo.