Earlier ALP leadership wars offer solace - for optimists

Intense hostility between Labor leaders is hardly new.

Intense hostility between Labor leaders is hardly new.

ON OCTOBER 30, 1907, a ballot for the leadership of the federal parliamentary Labor Party was held. Chris Watson, who had been prime minister in the world's first national labour government, was adamant he no longer wanted to carry the burdens of leadership.

As with today's ballot, the contenders had conspicuously contrasting attributes. Billy Hughes was a mercurial snatcher of expedients, imaginative but abrasive, a pocket dynamo with a singularly incongruous appearance for a leadership aspirant, even in pre-television times he resembled a wizened, walking walnut.

Andrew Fisher was a complete contrast in physique and temperament. Tall and handsome, he had an impressive presence, but with his ponderous platform style and baffling Scottish burr he was not a rousing speaker.

Hughes and Fisher did, however, have three characteristics in common. They both had given fine service to the Labor cause. They both had great faith in their own capacity. And they both had married their landlady's daughter.

A feature of the lead-up to this morning's ballot has been the contenders' reiteration of their contrasting attributes.

Kevin Rudd and his admirers have highlighted his popularity with the public, citing his successful 2007 campaign and subsequent opinion polls. He contends that he would be Labor's most formidable opponent for Tony Abbott.

While Julia Gillard has not matched Rudd's popularity in opinion polls, she and her backers have claimed that she has had to contend with sabotage from Rudd as well as Abbottage from the Coalition. They have also emphasised her methodical orderliness, her resilient tenacity, and her ability to relate harmoniously and negotiate successfully with members of her own and other parties.

The best result for the ALP, as Barry Jones wrote in The Saturday Age, would be for Rudd and Gillard to complement each other in senior positions they did this very effectively before and after the 2007 election. But in view of the acrimony currently abroad, that's obviously inconceivable now.

The 1907 ballot was conducted in a very different atmosphere. Fisher and Hughes had a friendly game of billiards while their caucus colleagues voted to determine which of them would become leader. After Fisher won the ballot, Hughes accepted the verdict as a loyal, energetic (and only occasionally frustrated) senior colleague, Hughes complemented Fisher effectively for years. The ferocious bitterness of the ALP split during World War I, when Hughes led a group of defectors out of the party while prime minister, has retrospectively tainted his pre-war contribution to the Labor cause.

It has been claimed that the intensity of the criticism of a former leader from Labor MPs in recent days has been unprecedented. Such assessments presumably classify the post-1916 excoriation of Hughes as non-analogous because he had joined the conservatives.

Intense hostility between Labor leaders is hardly new, either. Gough Whitlam was leader of the opposition in 1968 when he unexpectedly instigated a spill of the leadership, and wrote to his startled caucus colleagues to explain why.

His predecessor as leader, Arthur Calwell, sent Whitlam a pungent reply. Calwell condemned Whitlam as "a careerist and an opportunist", and went further: "I think you are no more capable of leading the Labor Party to victory than you would be in leading a crippled, blinded, wing-clipped duck to a water hole." Having signed off with a parting shot "wishing you a long retirement" he fervently lobbied caucus members to vote against Whitlam.

Despite Calwell's endeavours, Whitlam outvoted Jim Cairns in the ballot, thereby regaining the leadership he had rashly vacated. But the margin was closer than expected. Initiating a spill, as Gillard has done, is not a step to be taken lightly.

Recent days have been grim indeed for Labor supporters. Those seeking solace might find two precedents consoling.

Labor was in an equivalently dire state at the end of 1991 after the second of two fierce leadership contests between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, yet the ALP won a federal election merely 15 months later. Similarly, the Liberals recovered from disarray at the end of 2009 to almost snatch victory at the election only eight months later.

With more electors more flexible in their voting tendencies than ever, such startling turnarounds have become more feasible. But this is the exclusive territory of ultra-optimists. Averting an Abbott government with a Labor election victory in 2013 would now require such a transformation that it would represent one of the most remarkable triumphs in the ALP's long history.

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