The political ghosts haunting Parliament House

Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard will be absent from the political arena next year, but the toxic legacy they created will continue to cast shadows over Australian politics and journalism in 2014.

One thing is certain: in 2014, for the first time in seven years, neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard will be there for journalists to 'kick around’, as Richard Nixon once uttered.

Those journalists obsessed with whether or not Gillard did anything wrong when she was a solicitor at Slater and Gordon more than 20 years ago might finally, if reluctantly, give up on their obsession some time soon.

I’m referring here to journalists and not the crazies out there in blog land whose treatment of Gillard was despicable and probably remains so, though I can’t bring myself to check out their garbage.

As for Rudd, there have been suggestions that he’s lobbying for the top job at the United Nations. His chances surely are about as good as were his chances of leading Labor to victory at the polls in September.

Who knows what they will end up doing, these two former Labor prime ministers who came to despise each other. Their poisonous relationship distorted and poisoned the coverage of politics in Australia, and it will take some time for the Canberra press gallery to recover, assuming recovery is possible in these straitened times for journalism.

As for Rudd and Gillard, how will they cope with the fact that no journalists will care much about what they are doing?

My prediction is that Gillard will be okay. In terms of legacy, she can’t be denied her place as Australia’s first female prime minister. As for Rudd, chances are he won’t cope all that well. Perhaps we should hope, for his sake, that he does get a big gig at the United Nations.

Rudd and Gillard will quickly disappear as political players, in a way John Howard, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating did not.

But the Rudd and Gillard years will nevertheless be a key determinant of the shape of politics in Australia and the issues that are likely to dominate the political debate into the foreseeable future.

In a sense, Tony Abbott was gifted the prime ministership by Rudd and Gillard. He is their love child. It is true, as many have argued, that he was the most successful opposition leader in living memory. He was able to destroy two prime ministers—one of them twice—on the road to delivering the big victory in the polls.

It’s more likely that Tony Abbott is prime minister basically because Rudd and Gillard and their respective cheer squads destroyed the Labor government. In the end, even Bill Hayden’s proverbial drover’s dog would have won the last election.

The problem for Abbott is that as opposition leader, he presented himself as the anti-Rudd and anti-Gillard. In the first three months as prime minister, he has essentially been unable to move beyond that to become a prime minister less concerned with undoing the past and more concerned about what the future may hold for Australia and Australians. 

Virtually everything that his government has done has been about undoing the Rudd-Gillard legacy – on refugees, on climate change, on the NBN, on the Gonski education reforms. It seems even the National Disability Insurance Scheme is likely to be wound back.

Even on the economy, both Abbott and Joe Hockey focused almost entirely on blaming Rudd and Gillard for what they have described as a budget emergency because of a mountain of debt that threatens to bring an end to the world as we know it.

How they will rescue us from this bleak future is entirely unclear. Despite the tough talk, both Abbott and Hockey are committed to significant increases in government spending.

Apart from a few free-market hysterics, it seems to me that few economists – including the governor of the Reserve Bank – believe the economy is in such dire straits. But Tony Abbott is so limited by his own political self-definition as the destroyer of the worst government in Australian political history that he can’t escape his own exaggerations.

At some point, when the Rudd-Gillard nightmare will have faded from the memory of most Australians, his biggest challenge will be to remake himself as a prime minister with a vision for the future and with policies that address the challenges of 2014 and beyond.

It is too early to say much about opposition leader Bill Shorten and his team of shadow ministers, except to say that they too live with and need to move beyond the Rudd-Gillard years.

Shorten’s problem – and it’s a problem for some of his key shadow ministers including shadow treasurer Chris Bowen – is that he was a major player in the undoing of Kevin Rudd in 2010. He then played a crucial role in the demise of Gillard.

This means that it is difficult for him to defend the policy legacy of the governments in which he served as a senior minister because what he wants and needs now is to put those years of leadership conflict behind him.

Shorten and the Labor Party need to go through a painful period of examining not only the way the party works, selects candidates and relates to its membership, but also how a social democratic party can confront the challenges of a world of slower economic growth in which inequality and climate change will undoubtedly become more urgent issues.

In 2014, we will get some idea about whether Shorten and Labor can meet these challenges. This may be a long road that Labor has to travel, but it has to be taken sooner rather than later.

What about the political journalists who for six years or so, have been hooked like drug addicts on the leadership battles between Rudd and Gillard? What will the press gallery do when there are no leadership fights to speak of in 2014?  

What will the journalists do when there isn’t a Labor caucus full of MPs seeking out every journalist in sight to discuss the ups and downs of the opinion polls and whether or not they should stick with Gillard or go back to Rudd?

It is certain that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard will not dominate Australian politics next year, but they are still casting shadows over Australian politics. And they will continue to do so in 2014.

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