Today’s comprehensive coverage in the Financial Review allows us to understand how the Labor leadership challenge was orchestrated. From reading a number of reports in the Fin Review today, including Laura Tingle’s, I think it’s fair to characterise it as a coup which was organised behind the back of caucus members.
That is to say, it relied on a small group (Bill Shorten, David Feeney, Don Farrell, Mark Arbib) making claims to Gillard about being able to deliver right votes. It’s noted in all the articles that no attempt was made to canvass members’ views. MPs close to the mining industry such as Gary Gray played a supporting role.
It was about creating an atmosphere of crisis, and forcing Julia Gillard’s hand.
Numbers weren’t counted until after Kevin Rudd gave his press conference at about 10.30pm.
Gillard then insisted some of her long time supporters canvassed MPs, rather than the plotters, because with the exception of Shorten, they’re hardly held in high esteem by their colleagues.
A number of Ministers supported Gillard reluctantly because they realised that Rudd would be permanently damaged. After the die was cast, there was effectively no alternative to a change of leadership.
Some members of the NSW and Queensland Right and many first term marginal MPs intended to vote for Rudd, as well as the NSW left sub-faction around Anthony Albanese, who organised canvassing for Rudd. Other left members from other states also intended to support the then PM.
There are two points of contrast with previous leadership challenges:
(a) the organisers aren’t well respected “faction leaders” (like Robert Ray or John Faulkner) but machine men who are disliked by many MPs;
(b) Usually, serious number counting only starts after a coup is brought on, and there are several days in which to canvass party opinion – this one happened at the speed of light.
So I think it’s accurate to see all this as a putsch rather than a typical challenge.
Labor MPs were effectively given two options – to support Gillard, or to vote for Kevin Rudd in the knowledge that his leadership would be crippled and all chance of communicating a political message drowned out by a media firestorm over disunity and the prospect of a second challenge.
The paper also notes that Gillard had been kept in the loop by Shorten for several weeks. She may indeed have only decided to challenge on Wednesday, but it would be quite wrong to minimise her agency in what transpired.
Clearly, the plotters were the ones (along with Karl Bitar and the AWU leadership outside parliament) who’d been the “unnamed sources” for all the News Limited stories over the past few weeks, and the ones who’d been talking up the supposedly dire polls. It should also be obvious that the ‘clean air’ claim is self-reinforcing when the coup was cooked up with elements of the press gallery either in cahoots or rapturous with delight about having a leadership issue to write about.
Kevin Rudd told caucus that Arbib, Gillard and Wayne Swan had been the main movers in convincing him to dump the ETS, and all were opposed to resurrecting it, while Lindsay Tanner and Penny Wong had argued strongly to keep it.
Tingle notes the irony that those who urged the decision which started the rot were also the ones who benefited from it.
Laura Tingle wrote today:
Arbib is one of a new generation of “powerbrokers” behind this coup who seem to have no respect for the traditions of one of the oldest democratic political parties in the world, nor any apparent commitment to its values.
Their only value is staying in power. Their only modus operandi is tearing down leaders.
But is that any different to the party of old, in the days of “Richo” and Robert Ray and all the other colourful “key factional powerbrokers”?
Yes, it is. For a start, in the olden days it was the caucus, whatever its factional groupings, that decided who would be the ALP parliamentary leader.
This time around, Labor MPs watched appalled as the head of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, told viewers of the ABC’s Lateline on Wednesday night that his union had switched allegiance from Rudd to Gillard and cheerfully explained why the prime minister would be losing his job.
The leadership challenge was almost over without anybody making a phone call to any MPs.
The coup occurred without the cabinet and the caucus knowing it was on and, from the public’s perspective, it was a play by the unions.
In the olden days, prime ministers were only dumped after bruising contests about changing policy direction. Powerbrokers were also trusted by their colleagues. The new ones are not…
NSW politics, of course, has been very different for some time.
NB: Previous coverage at LP of the Labor leadership change can be found here.
Update: In the Sydney Morning Herald today – Peter Hartcher:
So why the change? The truth is that some mid-level operatives in the Right faction were angry with Rudd. These powerbrokers hated Rudd for his high-handed leadership style.
And they were frustrated that Rudd was slow to take their advice in changing policy. They wanted Rudd to take a harder line on asylum seekers, to dump the emissions trading scheme, and to back off on the mining tax.
These were the people who decided to launch the challenge against Rudd. And when Gillard took their gift, her remarks to the media appeared to deliver what the Right wanted – a harder line on asylum seekers, a more protracted approach to climate change and backing off the mining tax.
Before he walked away, Rudd told the caucus: “We can’t allow this federal caucus to have embedded in it the same type of culture as NSW where, every time you make tough policy decisions and polls dip, you get a campaign to cripple the leader. It’s not good to bring the NSW culture to Canberra.”
Last night, while some said Arbib simply boarded the train that was the Gillard leadership push, others insisted he was instrumental, planting leaks in the press for weeks to undermine Rudd. ”He’s the biggest harlot in the caucus when it comes to the media,” an opponent said.
”If you’re now hearing that he was a passenger on the train, not the driver, that’s an attempt to guard his arse so it doesn’t look like he plotted to take down an elected prime minister.”
Update: In today’s Fin, Pamela Williams confirms that the AWU’s Paul Howes and Bill Ludwig were directly phoning MPs on Wednesday night.
Elsewhere: Peter Hartcher’s take on how events unfolded.
Elsewhere: Guy Beres asks if the big miners toppled Kevin Rudd.