Longing for a courageous leader

The failure of Julia Gillard to show political courage may well signal the end of the Labor movement as a major political force. Sadly, Tony Abbott is also a master of timidity.

One thing that was striking listening to Bill Kelty’s speech at the ACTU congress a couple of weeks ago was how much the world has changed since Kelty and Keating united the industrial and political wings of the Labor movement to deliver the most profound changes to Australia’s economy – and hence Australian society – in the last half century.

Kelty was a towering figure in Australian politics. He was the ACTU Secretary, but he was almost as well known – and seen to be almost as influential – as Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. His networks of influence extended far beyond the trade unions, to the arts and business and sport.

He had a vision for Australia that was rooted in the Labor movement’s history and culture and yet was not based on some narrow notion of class warfare.

As he spoke at the special dinner to mark his achievements – at which Keating had lauded Kelty’s leadership qualities – I wondered how many Australians could name the current ACTU Secretary. Indeed, I wondered how many members of the federal Labor caucus – and the parliament in general – could name him.

The world has changed and perhaps the time when a secretary of the ACTU could be a major political player and could form a partnership with a Labor prime minister to implement big reforms is long gone.

Indeed, perhaps there’s no longer any such thing as a Labor movement that can claim to represent the interests of a majority of Australians.

And so it was that when Julia Gillard returned from Chicago last week she was confronted by a bunch of angry trade union leaders led by Australian Workers Union Secretary Paul Howes. They were apparently shocked and furious that Immigration Minister Chris Bowen had granted temporary visas for 1700 foreign workers for Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill iron ore project.

Howes described the decision as political lunacy and asked rhetorically and with great relish: wasn’t Rinehart meant to be one of Labor’s enemies? It was an outrageous intervention by Howe and not only because he had supported the decision, announced in the 2011 budget, to grant such temporary visas for some of the big mining projects that were in the pipeline and for which there would inevitably be short-term labour shortages, at least in the construction stage.

It was outrageous because it was designed to snooker Gillard. Gillard, in whose rise to the top job he had played a significant role. And it played into the hands of those who argued that Labor’s attacks on Rinehart and some of the other mining magnates for distorting the debate on the mining tax and the carbon tax, was nothing more than an outdated and cynical attempt at class warfare.

Can you imagine Bill Kelty ever behaving that way with Paul Keating?

And can you imagine Keating behaving as Gillard did? Gillard, as is her wont, panicked and let it be known that she was angry. Not with Howes of course, but with Bowen. She had been ambushed, not by Howes, but by Bowen, who as everyone knows, is a Rudd supporter. She knew nothing about this decision specifically or, she implied, the temporary visas issue in general.

In the end, Gillard was metaphorically dragged kicking and screaming, to declare her support for Bowen’s decision and reluctantly accept that the decision on temporary visas for foreign workers was not entirely a surprise to her.

Sadly, this has been the hallmark of Gillard’s leadership – a sort of frantic, even passionate timidity – that she has displayed virtually from the moment she agreed to be the beneficiary of the political execution of Kevin Rudd.

This timidity, which contrasted with the ruthlessness of the execution of Rudd, was on display when she couldn’t explain why this act of political violence had been necessary. It was on display through the various announcements she made in the lead up to the election and during the campaign – that she was opposed to a big Australia, that she would get tough on boat arrivals, that she would renegotiate the mining tax, that an ETS or carbon tax was not a priority because Australians weren’t ready for it.

And it is on display when she says she is opposed to gay marriage but can’t explain why. Gay marriage may be a marginal issue in electoral terms but Gillard’s position, fairly or not, speaks volumes about her political courage.

All this means that even when her government introduces major reforms like the carbon tax, or moves to seriously address the issue of middle class welfare – as it did with the removal of the health insurance rebate – neither Gillard nor the government gets any credit. Fewer and fewer people are listening to Gillard or believe she is making decisions in their interest.

During his speech to the ACTU congress, Bill Kelty said the government could not blame the ruthlessness and negativity of the opposition nor could it blame the media for the government’s woes. He said that given the economy was in good shape, the government’s appalling standing in the opinion polls had him beat.

But implied in everything he said was the suggestion that both the trade union movement and the Labor government lacked leadership. His mere presence – and Keating’s presence – was a poignant reminder that the Labor movement is not what it once was and in all probability, will never again produce a partnership like the one that existed between Kelty and Keating.

If that’s the case, Gillard’s timidity, her prevarications, which is another way really of saying her inability to articulate any sort of vision for the Labor movement that takes political courage, makes that probability almost a certainty.

Yes, parliament has descended into the gutter in many ways. Yes, politics is more brutal and cynical than usual. Yes, in all probability, Australians, while fascinated by the human tragedies of Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson – and they might well be glued to their television sets to watch the interview with the prostitute who reckons Thomson was one of her more memorable clients – are disgusted with their politicians.

But we have been here before. This will pass, more or less. Gillard’s failures on the other hand, may well signal the end of the Labor movement as a major political force. Trade unions grow ever smaller and less significant. The Labor Party has fewer and fewer members.

Gillard’s government is likely to survive the next 13 months or so and then be electorally destroyed.

Tony Abbott will become prime minister and frankly, what sort of government he might lead is anyone’s guess. Abbott is brutal and smart and has cut through, but he too is politically timid. It’s hard to point to one politically courageous position Abbott has taken as opposition leader.

They are a pair in a strange way, he and Gillard. And if the opinion polls are anything to go by, both of them are equally disliked and distrusted by Australians.

At a time when the Australian economy, to coin a clich, is the envy of the developed world, go figure.

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