Why Rudd's return is Labor's only chance

second-manne-thumb Professor Robert Manne
email: r.manne@latrobe.edu.au


This is an edited version of an article published on Professor Manne's blog Left, Right, Left at The Monthly.

Not once since April last year has the Gillard government polled as well as the Rudd government polled at its worst. Kevin Rudd led one of the most popular governments in Australian political history. Julia Gillard is now leading one of the least popular.
If the poll results since April continue for several months this year, there would seem to be two possibilities.

Either the federal Labor Party will in desperation try someone new - such as the lacklustre Stephen Smith, the quiet Greg Combet or the famously ambitious Bill Shorten. Or it will return to the leader it destroyed.

Rudd led a very successful government, at least until its final months. It is true that he then erred very badly in postponing the emissions trading scheme, that his attempt to create a generous asylum seeker policy came unstuck, and that the home insulation program blew up in his face.

Rudd lost office because he made some errors, because he made some serious mining and media enemies, but perhaps most importantly because he had spectacularly failed to win even the minimal loyalty of his cabinet and caucus colleagues. He did not lose office because he or his government had lost the confidence of the Australian people. On the eve of the coup, the Rudd government led the Abbott Coalition 52 per cent to 48 per cent.

The enduring popularity of the Rudd government was, of course, no accident. Rudd led virtually the only government in the Western world to survive the global financial crisis without falling into recession. Unlike Gillard - the least impressive Australian prime minister since Billy McMahon - Rudd also had a vision for Austalia's future.

The Australian public has never really understood why Rudd was removed. Gillard and the faction leaders - Shorten, David Feeney and Mark Arbib - have maintained a code of silence regarding the true reasons. The 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 contemporary Labor. As Rudd seems to many Australians to have been dealt with unfairly, his restoration will seem the righting of a wrong.

Of course, if Rudd were to return, things would need to be very different. George Orwell wrote about the "moral effort" sometimes required to acknowledge unpleasant facts about oneself. Rudd and his supporters would have to make the moral effort to understand why his rhetoric so often overreached his performance and why he failed to win over his cabinet and caucus colleagues and senior bureaucrats.

Another matter for reflection would be the party's relationship with the Greens.

Under Rudd relations were very poor. Under Gillard, mainly through force of necessity, they have improved. It seems clear that 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.

Rudd looked to the Coalition for the passage of his emissions trading scheme. He failed. Gillard looked to the Greens for 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 Malaysia plan for asylum seekers, implicitly looked to the Coalition. This was entirely foolish. 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, he should immediately seek the support of the Greens over asylum seeker policy. Already the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, and the Greens support an annual refugee quota of 20,000. In two three-year periods - 1999-2001 and 2008-11 - between 1000 and 1200 asylum seekers have drowned on their way from Indonesia to Australia. That terrible fact might prove of sufficient moral weight for the Greens to recognise the need for something new.

Most importantly of all, a second Rudd government will need a new progressive agenda to appeal to the working and middle classes of Australia. Labor's popularity has always rested on its capacity to implement practical social-democratic reform. In contemporary Australia there are three great holes in the social welfare state.

Families struggling with mental illness or with major disability are scandalously abandoned by the state. Moreover, while those without means have decent medical protection, they have no capacity to pay for dental treatment. To remedy all of this, of course, new money needs to be found.

On present indications, under Gillard or her likely successors, Labor will be destroyed at the next election. Under Rudd, 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.

Robert Manne is a Professor of Politics at La Trobe University.