For a White House in need of a few moment’s levity, recent events in Australian politics might have provided an opportunity for a bit of fun. A meeting was planned between the Australian prime minister and President Obama after the G20 meeting in Canada next week. A supreme prank could have been devised whereby the president’s aides agreed not to mention Australia and somehow deprived their boss of any news thereof, surely not too difficult with more pressing business at hand. On the day of the meeting, the Oval Office door would have opened and instead of his good mate Kevin Rudd, in would walk a smiling redhead, Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard. Alas this prank will never come to pass. Obama thankfully seeks out his own news, and in any case after this week of extraordinary upheaval in Australian politics, the newly sworn in Prime Minister Gillard is far too busy to travel overseas.
I try to resist writing about politics. When tempted to sketch the rapidly moving waters of contemporary politics, I restrain myself by remembering those circa-2007 articles and blog posts which predicted Hillary Clinton’s inevitable coronation and wondered whether the junior senator from Illinois’ long shot presidential campaign was in fact a ploy to win the vice presidential nomination.
The last political article I wrote for the Berkshire Review, after Kevin Rudd’s historic 2007 election victory over John Howard, is not quite that embarrassing, but has proved wrong enough to warrant this belated follow up. As Obama’s would be a year later, Rudd’s election was a vote for change after a long period of right wing incumbency. My gleeful article reflected the hopeful mood which followed. Then and for the next two years Rudd seemed destined for a long period in the top job; no one would have predicted what just happened; that he would be ousted by his own party before the end of his first term.
The story of Kevin Rudd’s short-lived Government ought to fascinate anyone interested in politics, or in human nature in general. Consider it the first act of some crazy experimental play; it is perhaps too stark for the cinema. Here is how it went down:
After Rudd was elected, he quickly followed through on two important promises. These initial accomplishments — an apology to the Aboriginal ‘Stolen Generations,’ and the signing the Kyoto Protocol — were no less important for being symbolic. Both the apology and Kyoto had been stubbornly resisted by Howard, who was probably the most conservative prime minister in Australian history, and Rudd enjoyed ecstatic and widespread support for these early accomplishments. His approval rating rose into in the 70s and remained high until a matter of weeks ago.
In opposition for the first time in eleven years, the Liberal Party burned through leaders, initially Brendan Nelson, who, as the first leader after the big defeat, never stood a chance, and then Malcolm Turnbull, a self-made, urbane, moderate former businessman from Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Unlike Nelson, Turnbull had the aura of a future prime minister, but he too failed to leave a dent in Rudd.
At least that was how it seemed at the time. In retrospect, Turnbull’s downfall probably marked the beginning of Rudd’s. Labor was elected on two major policy promises, both of which it was expected to fulfill in its first term. The first was to repeal John Howard’s wildly unpopular and inhumane industrial relations policy, a change which sailed through both chambers of Parliament with relative ease.
The second promise, to put a price on carbon emissions by enacting an emissions trading scheme (ETS), proved Rudd’s undoing. While Labor held a majority in the House of Representatives, where Government is formed, the balance of power in the Senate was controlled by a number of independents, members of small parties, and the Greens, who wanted a big reduction in carbon emissions in line with scientific consensus. This was Rudd’s moment of truth, to go left with the ETS in an effort to win the support of the Greens or to bend it to the right and try to win the support of the Libs, who comprise a hodgepodge of moderates, neoliberals and climate change deniers. Rudd embraced the latter strategy and introduced a modest ETS which included generous transitional subsidies for polluters in the form of free carbon credits. Left leaning voters and Greens were deeply disappointed, but Rudd remained popular.
Then the prime minister made what I regard as his first fatal error. Instead of explaining his complex new policy to the Australian people, he was silent. Into this vacuum rushed the braying voices of right wing newspaper columnists and talk radio hosts, who shamelessly peddled the dreary lies of climate change deniers. Rudd seemed more interested in watching his opposition implode over the ETS than in actually passing the bill. Under Turnbull the Liberals initially refused to support the policy and it failed to pass the Senate.
Rudd then negotiated with Turnbull and with industry, eventually coming up with an even more sausage-flavored bill which the opposition leader reckoned his party could support. This was Turnbull’s shining moment and his downfall. With genuine personal courage he stood up to the powerful nub of climate change deniers in his own party. They were furious, and immediately plotted to unseat him. As Copenhagen approached and a second Senate vote loomed, the opposition was in tatters. Before the Senate could vote, Turnbull was ousted as leader of the opposition by a single vote, and the genuinely scary “climate change is absolute crap” right-wing antiabortion dumbo-eared Ironman triathlete Tony Abbott became leader of the opposition. For Rudd, his political calculation had caused events to get out of hand, all the negotiations with Turnbull were for naught; overnight, the opposition reversed its support for the ETS. In spite of two Liberal Party senators crossing the floor to vote for the bill, without Greens support the bill went down a second time.
For Rudd this was the choose your own adventure instant before his world began to unravel. I believe he genuinely wanted to pass the ETS, but the temptation to let the opposition implode over such a contentious issue was too great, and he failed to sell his scheme in order to focus media attention on the Liberal Party’s civil war. In short, Rudd played politics with the issue he had called “the greatest moral challenge of our time.” At this point, and in spite of a growing list of policy failures in other areas, Rudd remained popular with the electorate, and though support for the ETS waned somewhat in the wake of the Copenhagen debacle and the so-called Climategate so-called revelations, the Australian system of government gave him one powerful shining weapon, the evocatively named double dissolution election.
Unlike the American system, with its three coequal branches and its sacred and dubious checks and balances, the Australian parliamentary system is designed to protect the Government’s mandate. When elected to a majority, a Government controls Parliament, which is then expected to pass its policies. The Senate, where Governments rarely control a majority due to a proportional voting system which benefits small parties, acts as something of a brake, forcing negotiation and compromise. A double dissolution trigger occurs when a bill, like the ETS, has been voted down twice by the Senate, at least three months apart. It allows the prime minister to call a double dissolution election, in which all seats in both houses of Parliament are vacated. If the Government wins the election there is a joint sitting of Parliament at which the disputed bill is subject to a simple up or down vote.
Had Rudd called a double dissolution election at the beginning of this year, it’s hard to imagine he would have lost. In the electorate there was a certain awful fascination with Abbott, the new opposition leader, with his scaremongering populist rhetoric on issues like refugees, his wild policy inconsistencies, his admission that he doesn’t always tell the truth and his array of spandex attire, but Rudd was still up in the polls. Instead, the PM revealed his almost pathological caution and moved on to other issues, using the frantic illusion of busyness to cover up a growing perception that his Government had failed to achieve very much in two years. Rudd was all over the place. In negotiating major changes to health funding, he seemed to be sitting on a different pensioner’s hospital bed in a different part of the continent every night on the news.
The moment of no return came as the nation opened its newspapers on 27 April of this year. Without fanfare, Rudd announced that he was abandoning his ETS until at least 2013, two elections hence. Because Rudd had seemed to be a cunning politician (he paid every taxpayer $900 in the name of stimulus), it is difficult to describe just how boneheaded this decision was. He had chastised the Howard Government as cowards for failing to act to reduce carbon emissions. Incredibly, re-electing Howard would quite possibly have resulted in a better result for the environment, for he too had gone to the 2007 election promising some form of ETS. In dropping the ETS, Rudd instantly lost not only lefties like myself, but also the much larger group of voters who may not have been passionate about climate change, but who now quite rightly questioned whether Rudd had ever stood for anything at all. The effect was a bit like Bush after Katrina; his support vanished in an instant because that instant confirmed lingering suspicions. Labor’s poll numbers dropped eighteen percentage points in two weeks. Most of Rudd’s lost voters went to the Greens, whose support almost doubled. Tony Abbott remained personally unpopular, though thanks to Rudd’s epic own-goal the opposition leader found himself in a position to win the next election.
There are pundits who deny the role the ETS played in Rudd’s spectacular undoing, but the timing could not coincide more exactly. Still, it was not the first indication that Rudd was not up to the job. There were other issues involved, too domestic to enumerate here, which contributed to the perception that the Rudd we ended up with — distracted, opaque, foul-mouthed — was not the Rudd we had voted for back in 2007. According to numerous accounts, PM Rudd was a workaholic, obsessed with winning news cycles, veering from policy to policy without adequately consulting his cabinet or following through to ensure competent execution on the ground. The harder he worked, the more his Government flailed. His greatest accomplishment, leading Australia through the global financial crisis without a recession, was a disaster averted, difficult to sell as a policy accomplishment.
Like President Obama, Rudd is a center-left pragmatist. He never pretended to be a progressive, and his downfall has less to do with ideology than with, well, his notorious aversion to sleep. In recent weeks, as he acknowledged his unpopularity and promised to “work harder,” I wanted to throw a pillow at the TV, both in frustration and so that he might use it to get some shuteye. Like a first year architecture student bragging about consecutive all-nighters, Rudd’s aversion to the arms of Morpheus revealed a certain immature bravado, as though he were not quite comfortable enough with himself to dream. As one would expect, Rudd became cranky, unfocused and ineffective. He burned through staff. He stubbornly ran his brief prime ministership at a sprint, rather than pacing himself for the stable, long-lived Government so many of us wanted him to lead back in 2007.
This brings us to nine in the morning on 24 June 2010. Rudd had never been popular within the shadowy factions of the Labor Party and in the preceding fourteen hours they had revolted. The party called a meeting at which the deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, reluctantly challenged Rudd, who retained so little support that he chose to let her run unopposed, rather than lose by an embarrassing margin. Within an hour, the grim-faced party dispersed and Gillard was PM. She seems good, I hope she gets enough sleep and that is where things stand as of the writing of this sentence. Initial reaction was excitement at the history made, but the meme of Tony Abbott and conservative media outlets — that Rudd had been unfairly treated — suggested that some Australians don’t realize how rough their own system of government can be. A PM is not a president. The price of power is that the PM serves only as long as he or she enjoys the confidence of his or her party. Gillard only agreed to challenge Rudd once it became clear, literally within a few hours on the last sitting day of Parliament before the winter break, that the Labor Party caucus was in revolt. On the night of 23 June, the factional warlords of the Labor Party came out of their fortresses of solitude and materialized in their favorite Canberra restaurants, cell phones to their ears, doing the numbers. It was shocking and anything but magisterial, but the alternative would have been to drift along to the next election, which could be very soon, with an unpopular prime minister and a bickering party facing Abbott, a dangerous opponent.
Living in Australia after having grown up in the States, I find it hard to resist comparisons between the politics of the two countries even though, as the above convolutions attest, they interpret democracy in quite different ways. Inevitably I associate Rudd’s 2007 victory with Obama’s one year later. Both came to office in historic elections after long periods of conservative government. They are roughly the same age and both are, as President Obama himself said of Rudd in an Australian television interview, pragmatists at heart. By all accounts the two leaders enjoyed a strong rapport and spoke often.
It’s tempting to continue and say that the unexpected difficulties faced by both leaders are also similar, but here the similarities end and the comparison, I think, becomes more illuminating. Thought the events of 24 June were chaotic and surprising, there was something healthy and old-fashioned about the way it all went down. Rudd was not brought down by some puffed up scandal or media misrepresentation. He genuinely mismanaged an important policy and as a result lost the confidence of the electorate. Prime Minister Gillard acknowledges that the Rudd Government lost its way, and that she must seek a mandate by calling an election soon. The Westminster-style parliamentary system has its flaws (I remain disturbed by the expectation that the party is expected to vote as a bloc, rather than as persuaded individuals as in the US Congress), but its landscape is relatively simple, in some ways functioning as an “elected dictatorship,” as the British system has been described.
By contrast, the American system of government has become an absolute minefield, especially now. As I see it, Obama and Rudd faced similar decisions at roughly the same time earlier this year. Rudd decided not to back his own emissions trading scheme in a double dissolution election, while after Scott Brown’s election to the US Senate, Obama made a much more difficult decision in going against the advice of his chief of staff to stake his presidency on health care reform. The result of his courage was a hard fought victory for which he still does not get enough credit. To put the situation a bit glibly, Rudd was for a time popular but never well-liked, while Obama is more well-liked than he is popular.
By abandoning a core promise, Rudd created an impossible position for himself. Obama has no doubt made a few mistakes, but if his position is impossible it is not of his own doing. After the 2008 election I quit reading political blogs cold turkey, but I still try to read the New York Times every day. The most entertaining day of the week is the day David Brooks and Bob Herbert share the opinion page. I wonder what Obama must think as he reads these two. Brooks is possibly the most reasonable conservative remaining in the United States and I find him hard to dislike, even though his implacable, pox on both houses centrism is singularly frustrating. In the land of Brooks, a Burkean paradise would emerge if only everyone would just be reasonable. He seems genuinely hurt by the increasing irrationality of his Republican Party, but never specifies precisely which Democratic policies “undermine personal responsibility by separating the link between effort and reward,” as he asserted in a recent column. Bob Herbert has become my favorite of the Times opinion page gang. He actually bothers to get on planes and go out to places like the Gulf in order to report on things for himself. What he has seen has brought him close to despair, convinced of America’s decline, and critical of Obama’s moderate approach. Herbert and Brooks are two Americans who overestimate presidential power. There is a fallacy, especially with Obama, that if the president would only give the perfect speech then Congress, the judiciary, the media and the American people would be united in a dewy-eyed sea of national purpose, just like on The West Wing. I prefer Yes, Minister. The bully pulpit is a fascinating field of study, but it is a crude tool compared to the power to call double dissolution elections. A US president is much less powerful in his own country than David Cameron is in Britain or Julia Gillard in Australia.
Though the recent change in Australia feels exciting, I remain haunted by Kevin Rudd’s final press conference as prime minister. He looked broken, his listing of his accomplishments interrupted by long, silent pauses in which he tried to hold back his tears. They did not seem like the tears of a politician who had fought and been defeated, instead Rudd seemed like a man who had been hit by lightning. He was scarred and completely unable to describe why. Politicians must be prepared for tough breaks and Rudd’s defeat was fairer and swifter than most, but this was nonetheless a sad moment — he had it in him to be a great PM. Still, the final press conference was far less sad than a concession speech to Tony Abbott would have been.
Curtain. First intermission.