Was it right? (part 2)

This is a counterargument to a previous post, in which I argued the case for switching from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Prime Minister Julia Gillard (or rather, why certain objections were unfounded).

Gillard’s rise to power may have restored Labor’s popularity for the time being (and certainly at a very opportune moment), but the party has done very little to actually deserve this electoral reward. I also spoke about Gillard and climate change in my last post, but here I’m going to bring Rudd back into the picture.

Gillard’s position on climate change is essentially the one that Rudd had announced in April – that nothing would happen prior to 2013. This new policy decision is largely thought to have instigated Rudd’s (and Labor’s) precipitous fall in popularity in the first place. To rule out both an ETS and a carbon tax for another three years is an act of utter recklessness, as Rudd himself had passionately argued, and is inexplicable both pragmatically and idealistically. Further, it’s an insult to our intelligence for Labor to change the unpopular leader but not the unpopular policy.

But it’s more than that. The ETS delay was not truly Rudd’s policy in the first place. It was the NSW Right faction that pushed Rudd to delay emissions trading, one of the groups that lent its support to Gillard’s subsequent coup. Rudd was hamstrung by his own party and then scapegoated for the consequences of that very mistake. An anonymous Labor factional leader gave this assessment:

This crypto-fascist made no effort to build a base in the party. Now that his only faction, Newspoll, has deserted him he is gone.

This gives some strong hints as to the extent of Rudd’s unpopularity within his own party, but it’s hard to argue that this in itself justifies the demise of a sitting Prime Minister. Labor’s internal party politics are certainly no substitute for the will of the people, and Rudd’s poor showing in opinion polls is hardly unusual for a first-term PM, nor was it even necessarily of his own making. In his press conference on June 23 (on the eve of his dispatch) he gave a glimpse of his views, and foreshadowed Gillard’s policy positions:

If I am returned as the leader of the party and the government and as Prime Minister, then I will be very clear about one thing. This party and government will not be lurching to the right on the question of asylum seekers, as some have counselled us to do. Also, on the question of climate change, we’ll be moving to a timetable on emissions trading, which is of the government’s decision, contrary to the views of some, in terms of when that best occurs.

Contrast the last sentence against Gillard’s “citizens’ assembly” idea. Rudd seems to be preemptively attacking Gillard’s appeal to populism, and so this meme must have been floating around in the party for a while. (I don’t even see what political advantage a “citizens’ assembly” could really convey. It won’t legitimise anything. It may involve “ordinary Australians”, but most ordinary Australians will be quite distant from it. The Opposition, not being constrained by reason or evidence, can paint it and its outcomes however they like.)

Gillard’s other major policy initiative that clearly distinguishes her from Rudd – offshore refugee processing (also alluded to in the above quote) – was very poorly handled. It was clearly designed to neutralise the Liberals’ xenophobic ramblings over boat people, but it sounds awfully like giving in to them. The other problem is that the policy relies entirely on international co-operation that had scarcely even been sought. It’s not clear that this co-operation will ever be forthcoming (except from Nauru, which would probably be too humiliating to consider, since it would nail John Howard’s colours to Labor’s mast), leaving this policy in limbo and playing right into the “failed-policy” mantra of the Liberals. Rudd, the diplomat, clearly wouldn’t have made such a fool of himself.

From one point of view, Gillard is an important symbol. Hopefully she can inspire future generations of women to fight their way to the top. Her rise to power may also have helped legitimise non-belief. (By contrast, it seems almost inconceivable that a US politician could openly admit to being a non-believer. Look what happens when one shows signs of doubting the complete literal truth of the Bible.) Neither Rudd nor Abbott, through no fault of their own, can be such a symbol.

Like most senior politicians, I’m sure Gillard does ultimately have what it takes to run the country. Even Abbott does, I’ll concede – it’s not as though we’re dealing with an Aussie version of Sarah Palin, after all. However, unlike Rudd, neither seem to have much vision – much sense of how the country could be made better. Gillard and Abbott play politics like chess, where the only objective is victory over the other; victory for its own sake.

Neither do they seem to have quite the expertise that Rudd possesses. Australia needs a delicate approach to foreign affairs; balancing our interests – and humanitarian interests – with the pragmatic realities of international relations. We probably owe much of our prosperity and security to good relations and carefully-negotiated agreements with other countries. I still trust Labor to handle this better than the Liberal party (mostly because a large part of the Coalition’s support these days comes from that section of the community that doesn’t understand why other countries even need to exist). However, Rudd was surely the better choice.

Whoever does win the election will have to work hard to prove retrospectively that they deserved it.