It is a disgrace that Australian voters still do not know when they will be able to pass judgment on Kevin Rudd and this Labor Government, a government that in the past three years, has been led by Rudd, then Julia Gillard and now by Rudd again.
At least Gillard went to an election quickly after she deposed Rudd and didn’t even move into the Lodge before the 2010 poll, a sort of symbolic recognition that she needed to go to the people before she could be considered a `legitimate’ prime minister.
Of course she was in fact `legitimate’ because in Australia, prime ministers are not elected by the people, but rather by the members of their parliamentary party. There is nothing undemocratic about this.
Indeed, it sits at the heart of the Westminster system of representative government. She was elected by a caucus of 100 or so members who collectively represented close to half of Australian voters. Pretty democratic one would have thought.
Then she went to an election which resulted in a hung parliament. It is now a truism that Tony Abbott never accepted Gillard’s legitimacy, not even after she managed to negotiate the support of key independents which gave her a slender, but in the end, enduring majority in the House of Representatives.
But the person who really undermined Gillard’s legitimacy was not Tony Abbott but Kevin Rudd who from the time he was deposed, ran, with a small group of supporters and the support of several journalists, a relentless campaign designed to undermine Gillard and return him to the prime ministership.
Rudd ran this campaign ostensibly because he and his supporters felt that he had been robbed of the prime ministership by Gillard because he had been `elected by the people’ and had been assassinated by a sinister group of faceless men who bullied the vast majority of caucus members to abandon him.
Rudd and his supporters pointed to the opinion polls as evidence of his popularity with the people. He was their legitimate prime minister and not the usurper Gillard. In the end, after two unsuccessful attempts to regain what he considered rightfully his, Rudd convinced a majority of caucus that he was right, the people wanted him as prime minister—no matter what his fellow caucus members thought—and they duly assassinated Gillard.
When Rudd announced that he would stand for the leadership just hours before that caucus meeting, he made great play of the fact that he had received tens of thousands of messages from Australians urging him to challenge Gillard. He was in large part, challenging because of them, because they so desperately wanted him as their prime minister.
This was a blunt −and in the context of the Westminster system−a strange message to his fellow caucus members; no matter what you think of me, no matter what your experience of me as prime minister, the people want me and so what you think and know doesn’t matter. Put me back where I belong.
Given all this, it was surely incumbent on Rudd to go to the people as soon as possible? He claimed to have their support. He said that he was challenging Gillard—something he had promised never to do—on the basis of all those phone calls and emails and letters—thousands and thousands of them, if not millions.
On the basis of these claims, Rudd should have announced immediately after he was re-installed as prime minister that he was going to see the governor general and ask for an election as soon as possible. Rudd had undermined Gillard’s legitimacy, he said, because she was not the people’s choice. He was.
Only an immediate election could establish whether this was true. As it is, Rudd is no more a legitimate prime minister—in his terms− than was Gillard. His frantic policy announcements, his trips to Indonesia and Afghanistan—Therese in tow—his endless photo opportunities, have not --and indeed cannot-- establish his legitimacy.
That Rudd is playing the game of refusing to say anything about an election date, keeping Abbott hanging—not to mention voters—and arguing that he is in the same position as any prime minister, able to announce an election at a time of his choosing, says much about Rudd.
He is the one who argued that legitimacy can only be established through the support of the people. Wasn’t it therefore absolutely necessary for him to establish that legitimacy through a poll? Rudd now seems to be saying that opinion polls are just as good at establishing legitimacy as an election.
From the moment Rudd deposed Gillard, his goal has been to entrench himself as prime minister. The changes in the way leaders of the Labor Party will be selected in the future that Rudd has forced through caucus should have been debated and settled after an election. These are great changes. The fact that party members will have as much say in selecting the leader as caucus is a big change.
Bigger still is the rule that it will take a 75 per cent majority of caucus to depose a leader and then only if the leader was shown to be not up to the job in some undefined way.
How is this any more democratic, more in tune with a representative democracy than caucus electing the prime minister? Caucus members, after all, represent the votes of millions of Australians.
Chances are all this frantic activity by Rudd will be in vain. In the end, Australians might like Rudd but most will not cast their votes on that basis. Elections in Australia have not, in the main, been popularity contests. Governments rarely lose elections in Australia. When they do, it’s because enough Australians have made the judgment that the government no longer serves their interests.
Given all that has happened in the time Labor has been in power since 2007, given the bitter personal divisions and hatreds, given Rudd’s relentless destabilization of the Gillard government and now, given the astounding revelations of corruption in the NSW Labor Party by ICAC, surely Labor’s time is up.
Rudd should have gone to the people immediately after he won back the prize that he always thought was rightfully his. It may not have delivered him an unlikely election win. But it would have been a decision that was consistent with his claims that he had the support of the people who were urging him to get rid of Gillard. But consistency has never been Kevin Rudd’s strong suit.