Kevin Rudd treated Labor's most powerful people with contempt, and when he needed their help they struck him down.
T he head of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, spoke to the Treasurer shortly before Wayne Swan launched his bitter personal attack on Kevin Rudd last week. "Go hard," he urged Swan. Swan owes much of his political career to the patronage of the union, Australia's biggest and the mainstay of his faction, the Queensland Right. So his jeremiad against Rudd represented his personal view but also the view of the AWU and its factional outgrowth.
Swan didn't need much encouragement. His attack was so vitriolic that it surprised even Howes. "I told Wayne to go hard, but not that hard," he later remarked to colleagues.
Howes talked to many other Labor MPs and senators as they prepared to cast their votes in the leadership ballot, urging them to back Julia Gillard against Rudd. To some who planned to vote for Rudd, Howes wanted them to understand that they were supporting a lost cause.
"There are at least 53 caucus members who would rather eat their own shit than work under Kevin Rudd again," he told them, citing the figure that represents a caucus majority, plus one.
The AWU boasts that it wields influence over more federal MPs and senators than any other union. In a caucus of 103, the AWU claims the reliable vote of 15 "hardcore" affiliated members and another 10 who are more loosely connected to the union. This makes it a force in any matter it chooses to pursue with the government.
By assembling its own caucus within the caucus, including its former national secretary and leadership aspirant, Bill Shorten, "the AWU has become the most successful political lobbying institution in Australia", according to a Labor MP whose loyalties lie with another big union.
In this week's leadership ballot, all 25 of the "friends of the AWU" group cast their votes for Julia Gillard. This is what Howes wanted and advocated. To prevail over Gillard, Rudd would have needed to win an extra 21 votes from the Gillard tally to add to his own. The AWU group is big enough that, if all its caucus members had swung to Rudd, he would be prime minister.
The AWU tribe in the caucus is not a Stalinist unit and doesn't always vote as a bloc. But this ballot was remarkable not only because the AWU group was unanimous, but for the fact the union movement was unanimous. For the first time in a Labor leadership contest in at least 30 years, all the unions stood with one candidate. With the enthusiastic applause of the ACTU head office, the industrial arm of the Labor movement solidly supported Julia Gillard. Only one section of one union - the vehicle builders' division of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union - endorsed Rudd.
This helps answer one of the questions that baffles many people who looked on in bewilderment as Labor wilfully, almost gleefully, flouted the wishes of the electorate. In electing Gillard and rejecting Rudd, Labor embraced one of the most unpopular politicians in Australia and discarded the most popular.
There was a big element of personal animus for Rudd in his decisive caucus rejection by 71 votes to 31. But it went deeper. It was a decision based on the institutional interests of the AWU and the broader union movement.
The secretary of one of the biggest unions put it like this: "Most of the key union leaders were elected post 2007. We've experienced two prime ministers. One treated us like a pile of shit. We used to joke with each other, after Rudd had had us to a meeting at Kirribilli House or whatever, that he'd be shampooing the carpet the moment we left. We couldn't get anything through he just refused to engage with us."
A low point that still rankles: when Rudd convened one meeting of the Labor government's regular dialogue with the union leaders, he insisted that it be held in the back room of an MP's electoral office in suburban Broadmeadows, more than 20 kilometres from the Melbourne CBD. Why? So that the media wouldn't notice. He was most reluctant to avoid being photographed with union bosses.
And the other prime minister? "She's very good at delivering for us," said the union leader. This is key.
The Labor Party was set up by the union movement to give it a direct say in Australia's parliaments. For most of its history, the unions had the right to nominate most of the delegates to Labor's national conference, the body that writes its policy platform. Even today, the unions control 50 per cent of the delegates. In 2010-11, unions paid fees and donations of $12.5 million to the party. Above and beyond that, the unions spent another $11.8 million on third-party political campaigns.
Consider Labor's federal parliamentary caucus. In the House of Representatives, 32 of Labor's 72 members are former union officials. That's 44 per cent. In the Senate, where candidates do not need to face actual voters but cruise into Parliament based on their position on party tickets alone, 23 of the 32 Labor senators are former union officials. That's an astonishing 72 per cent.
These are the reasons that the Labor historian and former Carr government minister Rodney Cavalier said recently that the party was "controlled lock, stock and dividend stream by affiliated unions". And it was union leaders who were the original "faceless men".
This epithet came from a notorious episode in the 1960s when the Liberal government of Menzies announced that the US was to build and operate a communications station at North West Cape, in Western Australia. The base was part of the US Cold War military command and control structure. It still operates.
The announcement split Labor, Left and Right. The Labor leader of the day, Arthur Calwell, and his deputy, Gough Whitlam, wanted to support the base on the proviso the base was under joint US-Australian control. But fiercely opposed by the Left, Calwell, irresolute, referred the matter to Labor's federal executive for a decision. Whitlam called it a catastrophic abdication of leadership. The executive met at the Kingston Hotel in Canberra on March 18, 1963.
The federal executive comprised six delegates from each state but none of the federal leaders. As the 36 members of the executive met inside the hotel, Calwell and Whitlam sat in their parliamentary offices late into the night. Finally, impatient for a decision, they drove to the hotel. When the veteran political journalist Alan Reid saw them loitering outside the hotel trying to peer in, he saw a photo opportunity.
The Daily Telegraph published the famous photos of Labor's leaders forlornly shut out of the real decision-making body of the party. It was "the weird conference which marks the all-time nadir of Labor parliamentary leadership", Reid wrote. He spoke of 36 "virtually unknown men". Menzies later exploited the event by turning this into the "36 faceless men, whose qualifications are unknown, who have no elected responsibility to you".
It was "one of the most damaging slogans in Australian political history", according to the historian and Labor speechwriter Graham Freudenberg. And so it remains after the Liberal Party revived it to brand the coup masters who destroyed the Rudd prime ministership the "faceless men of the Labor Party".
Gillard, knowing her core constituency, sought to defend the faceless men as she headed into the leadership ballot. Later, in Parliament, she tried to deflect the insult by telling Tony Abbott not to worry about the "faceless men" of Labor but the ''useless men" of his own side. Abbott countered that Gillard's team were "not only faceless but also useless".
Strictly speaking, of the five notorious plotters of the strike against Rudd, only one was a faceless man in the original sense. That was the only one who was not a member of Parliament, the AWU's Paul Howes, who went on TV to call for the caucus to remove Rudd. It was a move that the youthful Howes later regretted profoundly, although he capitalised on his notoriety by writing a memoir, Confessions of a Faceless Man.
The other plotters were factional operatives, but not parliamentary outsiders. Mark Arbib, David Feeney and Don Farrell are senators. Bill Shorten is an MP. In announcing his retirement from Parliament this week, Arbib acknowledged to colleagues that among the plotters he was the "faceless man" whose face was most closely associated in the public mind with the coup.
The power and effectiveness of the union sway over the caucus goes a long way to explaining how the party's choice of leader could be so starkly out of line with public sentiment. It is a party that owes its first allegiance to the unions.
How is Gillard delivering to the unions? The list is long. It includes the government's manufacturing support plan abolition of the watchdog against thuggery in the construction industry, the Australian Building Construction Commission supporting the pay claim by community workers with not only a joint submission to Fair Work Australia but also an announcement of $2 billion in taxpayer funding before the FWA decision including in all government contracts the principles of the Clean Start campaign to organise cleaners under the union United Voice signing up to the new transport workers' safe rates campaign for truckies and supporting the AWU's general employee entitlements redundancy scheme for redundancy payments.
In power, Rudd would not acknowledge the power of unions to make demands of the government. In appealing for support for this week's challenge, he made a big concession. Rudd offered to return to the factions the power to choose a Rudd ministry. He went down on bended knee before the unions and factions. They took the opportunity to cut off his head.
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.