A few weeks ago Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was replaced in a leadership challenge by her arch nemesis, Kevin Rudd. She had previously overthrown him in 2010. Gillard and Rudd are leaders of Australia’s “left wing” party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), and since her replacement there has been a bit of a frisson of excitement amongst lefty Australians because a) Kevin Rudd is much more likely to win the upcoming election and keep the ALP in power and b) many leftists saw Gillard as a right wing stooge and can’t forgive her for the “knife in the back” when she overthrew Rudd in 2010. This lack of forgiveness and view of her as a right-wing stooge has been particularly evident in the left-wing criticism of her mining tax policy and their uncritical acceptance of the superiority of Rudd’s. I am planning a bigger post on the mining tax for the near future, to try and work through my opinion of the two policy options the ALP has presented on the issue, but first I thought I would write some words in praise of Gillard, whose legacy I think is going to be big, and who will be seen in the long-term as a great Labor leader; I also want to say a few things about the mistakes that the Australian left repeatedly makes in its complex relationship with the ALP.
For my non-Australian reader(s), a few explanatory notes: 1) Australia’s “conservative” party is called the Liberal party; 2) roughly speaking in Australian politics the prime minister (PM) is the leader of the party in the house of representatives that has the majority and is the leader of the country but not the head of state; 3) in Australia you don’t vote for the PM and the party can change your PM at any time by changing its leader; 4) this is a particularly common event in the ALP and is done with savagery and extreme prejudice when it happens. The ALP may be the mainstream party of the left in Australia and its individual members may be great people but one must never ever make the mistake of thinking that the ALP as an institution has anything resembling a soul or a shred of decency. The leadership shenanigans over the last 3 years have been a sordid and sorry tale that I don’t intend to rehash here but for this post I do need to make some judgments about why Gillard replaced Rudd in 2010, and I am going to assume that the current official story is true: that Rudd was a terrible party leader who couldn’t consult, made policy on the run, was a bully and didn’t know how to run a cabinet. I may write something about this below.
With that said, on to my praise for Julia Gillard. Upfront I should state that I am not a Labor voter but extremely supportive of the Labor project and of trade unionism, and I think that the ALP – as Australia’s longest extant party – has had a huge role in shaping Australia as a nation and making it the great place to live and work that it is today.
To me, Julia Gillard epitomizes the personal history of a good Labor leader: coming from humble beginnings, she achieved a good education and career prospects through hard work, perseverance and good luck, and then put her qualifications to work in the service of working people. For Gillard this meant going to work in Australia’s most famous pro-worker industrial relations firm, Slater and Gordon, where she worked to represent unions and ordinary working people in their legal battles. If anyone doubts the sincerity of Gillard’s commitment to working people I would urge them to watch any footage of her talking about her work there. Particularly, in her hour-long press conference answering questions about the “AWU affair,” she regularly talks about her work at Slater and Gordon and it is clear that she is proud of bother their history of representing workers, and her personal efforts there. I think personally she shares much in common with Bob Hawke, another famous ALP leader, and it’s no coincidence that he has been very supportive of her career. This puts her in stark contrast to other recent Labor leaders like Kevin Rudd (a career diplomat) and Mark Latham (career politician). Australian politics generally is narrowing the scope of candidates as more and more are drawn from political careers and less and less from ordinary life, and I think this is a bad situation for Australia. Julia Gillard was not part of this trend, and I think her real experience of representing workers shows in her political outlook.
Like Bob Hawke, Gillard showed an ability to achieve compromise and consensus in politics which enabled her to make policy – and good policy, at that – while managing a hung parliament and facing a completely obstructive opposition. Under her three year leadership the ALP introduced a resource tax that actually works (though not very well); a carbon trading policy that appears to have already had some success in lowering CO2 emissions; a major reform to disability insurance that will be of significant benefit to carers and the disabled; and was on the cusp of completing a major education reform that it appears the Liberals will largely support if the government changes. She also negotiated a major environmental policy to restore the health of the Murray-Darling river system, something which won her widespread praise and has been long overdue, and I think she also made major gains in trade and political arrangements with China and India. Some of these achievements – like the mining tax and the disability insurance scheme – required negotiation with hostile partners such as the mining industry and Liberal state governments, and some (such as earlier education reforms) required confrontation with unions. In my view this is the mark of a good Labor leader: the ability to negotiate genuine political reforms in the interests of the country, even where they may be against the interest of your primary supporters or may require compromise with political opponents. Bob Hawke was the master of this, and Gillard is obviously also very capable. In contrast, Rudd failed to introduce a carbon trading system and despite calling it “the moral challenge of our times” he first tried to stitch up a weak policy with the Liberals (about 50% of whom are probably denialists) and then, when that was torpedoed walked away from the challenge rather than negotiate with the Greens, who at that time held the balance of power in the Senate and could have passed it. Rudd also fluffed the mining tax, introducing a tax that would never satisfy the mining industry without any consultation with them or his colleagues, and inviting a huge mining industry campaign against him at the coming election. Of course, one could argue (and leftists have, I think, in connection with Rudd’s mining tax) that Australia’s PM shouldn’t have to negotiate with any sectional interest group to pass policy in the national interest; it’s also obviously reprehensible that the mining companies were planning to wage a major campaign against the sitting government, especially given some of those mining companies are foreign-owned. But the reality of Australian political life is that policy is not made without consultation, and a good leader would never have put their party in the position where they were staring down the barrel of a $100 million advertising campaign against a policy. And particularly, despite Liberal fantasies of the ALP as a party of radical union wreckers, the ALP actually has a long history of consensus government, and of shaping Australia through agreement and bringing everyone forward, not through confrontation.
It is this ALP history of consensus building that also, I think, informs some of the other policy areas in which Gillard disappointed the Australian left. She is opposed to gay marriage, possibly out of personal conviction but possibly also because she understands that the broad community needs to be drawn forward together, not have radical policy foisted on them. Her attitude to welfare is drawn from a long conservative working class tradition of refusing to countenance handouts, which means that she is not well disposed to the unemployed and her welfare policies can be punitive compared to what some on the left like. And she is willing to compromise on secondary environmental goals, in order to keep sectional interest groups satisfied as she draws them forward slowly, together, on the path towards a broader environmental consensus. This is how the ALP has always worked, and in this regard Gillard is disappointing precisely because she understands and respects ALP tradition, not because she is running counter to it. Rudd, on the other hand, was wont to grandstand on social and environmental issues but unwilling to do the hard work required to bring the community into agreement with them: this made him a poster-boy of the non-industrial left but didn’t win him any friends within the ALP.
Finally, Gillard also seems to have won the respect of everyone she works with. She had to negotiate extensively with the independent politicians in parliament and they all seem to have a great deal of personal respect for her and for her integrity. They obviously enjoyed making policy with her and appreciated the policy that came out of it. It seems that she was well-regarded by those who had to deal with her, and she certainly seems to have been much loved of her cabinet. In contrast, after Rudd won back the leadership a slew of senior cabinet figures resigned from cabinet and from parliament rather than work with him again. Rudd was also the man who refused to meet with Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens, for the entire time Rudd was PM, even though Brown held the balance of power in the Senate. That is the mark of a man who doesn’t play well with others, and a worrying sign for the future of the ALP and the government. In my view, Gillard has acted with integrity in her period as PM, she has achieved a lot for Australia, and as leader she did what ALP leaders are expected to do: faced up to big challenges and dealt with them sensibly and in collaboration with all the sectional interest groups that were affected by them. I guess that’s not wonderful praise to go on someone’s political epitaph – “she made good policy well in difficult circumstances” – but in my opinion it’s the best praise a PM can expect to get in peacetime, and it’s certainly better than “didn’t play well with others and flubbed the great moral challenge of our times.” So, mark my words: Gillard’s legacy will be assessed much more positively than the media or the Australian electorate assessed her at the time.
She will certainly be assessed better by historians than she is currently viewed by a large portion of the Australian left, and I think this is because the Australian (non-industrial) left has a very weak understanding of what the ALP is and how it works. The ALP is the political representative of the industrial left, expressed exclusively in Australia through the trade unions. This means that the ALP has two goals: to advance Australia’s interests and to protect the rights and living conditions of Australian workers. It is not the best vehicle for achieving radical left-wing or social liberal goals, though since the war it has been the primary means by which the radical left and social liberals have achieved their goals. In the breach, the ALP will always first and foremost stand up for the interest of its working class constituency, and for the industries that employ its union members. This is why successive state and federal ALP governments have failed to pass a comprehensive policy protecting Australian old growth forest: because they have to protect the forestry industry that employs members of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). As an example of just how beholden the ALP is to these two sectoral interests, when Mark Latham in opposition announced a forestry policy (without consultation) that would genuinely have protected old growth forests he was heckled by his own union at public meetings in Tasmania. Similarly, Australia has a three mines policy for Uranium mining because the nuclear disarmament movement and the anti-nuclear movement, while they have some sway in the ALP, have less influence than the CFMEU and the mining industry, whose mutual interests the ALP has to support. It’s natural – because of the interweaved nature of leftist politics – that the ALP will always be sympathetic to environmental, social liberal, feminist and Aboriginal rights movements, and to social liberals and the radical left generally. But those movements are not the ALP’s primary constituency and to get change through the ALP they will always be struggling against the social conservatism and economic interests of the industrial left. This means, for example, that Julia Gillard will talk proudly of the work she has done to represent a migrant piece-worker in the garment industry, and will pass laws to protect that woman; but will simultaneously pass draconian policy against migrant workers coming to this country. People on the radical left who expect her to pass laws protecting migrant piece-workers and encouraging the movement of migrant workers are misunderstanding the nature of ALP political goals. They might be able to make a case for both, but they shouldn’t expect it. When the left fails to recognize the limits of industrial unionism and organized labour as a vehicle for radical political change, it will always be disappointed by politicians from the ALP who genuinely understand the political history and culture of the ALP. Instead they will be attracted to and supportive of policy light-weights like Rudd, who are happy to grandstand for social liberal ideals but unwilling to put in the hard work to bring their core constituents along with them.
I have a great deal of respect for anyone who can balance the competing corporate, union and social liberal interests making demands of the ALP and who can produce good policy from that complex mess. Bob Hawke could do it and Julia Gillard did it, and for this she deserves praise and respect. I am disappointed but not surprised that she was deposed when it looked like she would lose the election, but I am especially disappointed that Rudd got back. I think he will probably win the election and worse still, unless the Liberals make a rapid decision to ditch their current leader, Tony Abbott, Rudd will destroy them again at the polls. This will lead to a new ascendancy of a man who, fundamentally, doesn’t understand ALP culture, doesn’t know how to make good policy, and is only interested in social liberal goals as pin up slogans to attract popularity. In the short term it will be good for the ALP but I worry that in the long-term it will be bad for the country and, by extension, very bad for the ALP. People will look back on Gillard’s era as a lost opportunity for another golden age of Labourism and ALP-led reforms, and I think the non-industrial left is going to regret the harshness with which it judged this supposedly right-wing PM. She was a good PM in difficult times, and she left a legacy that will be well respected in the future.