In a classroom not far from here last week the 6-year olds were being prepared to work in groups of four. Two in each group had obvious roles, leaving the other two to make up the numbers, as it were. The teacher was explaining that they had very important roles too because they would have ideas to contribute and we had to listen to each other’s ideas.
One young soul piped up and said, “Mr Rudd, the Prime Minister didn’t listen, and he lost his job and now we have Julia Gillard!”
They were right into it. Another said, “Yes, he was down there bossing people around and you can’t just boss people around!”
That’s about the size of it, according to an article Kill Kevin: the untold story of the coup by Pamela Williams in The Australian Financial Review of Friday, 16 July.
The ostensible trigger event, Gillard being upset by a story in the SMH about Rudd staffer Alister Jordan taking soundings of support for Rudd had “electrified” the Government on the fateful morning of Wednesday, 24 June. Every possible conspiracy story was being canvassed as to whether Rudd, Gillard, factional plotters etc had planted the story, seeking to bring things to a head. Williams says:
In the end it hardly mattered. The three months of worsening polls, anticipation that the election was doomed, Rudd’s enormous personal unpopularity with his colleagues and the deafening noise from the mining industry over the resources tax had tipped things to the point where any small slight – or the perception of a new injury done to a loyal deputy – could bring the pot to the boil. The mining tax, regardless of the government’s attempts to settle a compromise with the companies, had become a lightning rod for dissent over asylum seekers, the climate-change about face, and a raft of bungled government stimulus programs.
In the end, one puff and he was gone. All up the coup proper took about 25 hours, although in truth it was all soon after 10.15 pm, when the three hour meeting between Rudd, Gillard and Faulkner broke up. Within a few short hours Gillard had a clear 72 of the 112 possible caucus votes. By morning it was 85 and rising. Only the Qld Left, Albanese’s NSW Left and the Tanner-Ferguson Left in Victoria as blocks remained loyal to Rudd. Kim Carr’s Victorian Left had been active for change from the beginning and Penny Wong’s SA Left, normally bitterly opposed to Gillard, came on board overnight.
Williams says that during the ensuing weeks a rumour had been flying around that:
Gillard in fact had initially agreed during the meeting not to challenge, and to instead give Rudd the opportunity to resolve a range of policy issues and attempt to improve his standing in the polls.
And, moreover, that she had changed her mind after being told that she had the numbers during a break in the meeting.
This is the rumour that Laurie Oakes used to hijack the National Press Club meeting with last Thursday.
In William’s account of the meeting there is no break mentioned. In fact Gillard’s staff tried to send in a note to Gillard saying that the numbers were now OK. At first Rudd’s staff wouldn’t allow the note in but later relented.
It’s a fair bet that Oakes knew that the Williams article was about to come out and sought to upstage that as well. In terms of the story of what happened Oakes’ effort is a sideshow, probably based on a leak of a rumour, which I’ve posted about separately.
There were several important elements in what happened that day, to which I will now turn.
Geoff Walsh is a former adviser to Hawke and Keating, a former diplomat and also a former national secretary of the ALP. Now, perchance, he is in charge of public affairs at BHP Billiton. As such he was in there boots and all organising a campaign against the Rudd government’s proposed new mining tax.
Early in June current ALP national secretary Karl Bitar met with Walsh to discuss “politics and the mining tax.” Bitar followed Mark Arbib as general secretary of the NSW Labor Party, the cauldron of the NSW Right.
Bitar will not say what they discussed and Williams doesn’t speculate either. She does point out that the Minerals Council was doing weekly polling of focus groups to monitor public reaction to Rudd’s proposals. She says that their polling mirrored the ALP’s own polling. Given the miners’ resources it was probably far more extensive.
Williams doesn’t say it, but there is a fair bet that Bitar gained an insight into just how the land lay and what the ALP was up against going into an election with the miners’ advertising and marginal seats campaign in full throttle. It is likely, I think, that Bitar conveyed his conclusions if not the detail to politicians such as Arbib and perhaps others.
Williams does say that contra concerns expressed by some MPs she doesn’t think the miners campaign was at all a key factor in Rudd’s demise.
Rather it was this: Rudd had foes everywhere. Once his support collapsed in the polls, there was nowhere to turn. He had centred all government decision-making in his own office. Nothing could be delegated, no issue was too small for prime ministerial oversight.
Rudd’s ministers often became simple messengers and his oft-cited preoccupation with process and planning masked a chaotic management style that almost paralysed the government. All of these elements had frustrated his colleagues.
Moreover, she says, he had untrammelled power because he selected the ministry. When angry he had a “potty-mouth” and there were implied threats. So many ministers simply held their tongues.
Bill Shorten, former national secretary of the AWU and a leader of the Victorian Right was the first to approach Gillard, which he did on 16 June. She heard him out but kept her counsel.
Seat polling taken on 16-17 June was downright ugly. Across Eden-Monaro, Greenway, Hughes and Page Labor’s primary vote was down to 35% against 47% for the Coalition. In TPP terms Labor was down to 48% in Eden-Monaro, 46% in Page and 38% in Hughes.
Saturday June 19 was the Penrith by-election with a 25.7% swing against NSW state Labor.
When MPs returned on Monday 21, there was a Right caucus meeting which Williams describes as a “powder keg”. Senator Mike Forshaw of NSW and convenor of the meeting agreed to take their concerns to Rudd, but his calls to the office were not returned.
On Tuesday morning a Newspoll of marginal seats in regional Qld and western Sydney showed Gillard ahead of Rudd as preferred PM and swings against the government of 12%. At the caucus meeting many concerns were raised directly with Rudd, but he soft-pedalled and asked for a bit of solidarity.
On Tuesday afternoon Mark Arbib of NSW and David Feeney of Victoria met to discuss the sitaution. Feeney was close to Shorten.
On Tuesday evening Rudd addressed a Business Council of Australia dinner, lambasting them and reminding them what his government had done for them. MPs present looked at their hands. Gillard, however, “was charming, working the room, meeting and greeting.”
On Wednesday morning came the SMH story. Gillard let someone know she was angry, because Arbib heard and he and Feeney went to see her. She told them she was angry that her loyalty had been questioned and that she had spoken to Faulkner who would speak to Rudd. They told her that they had canvassed concerns across the party that the ALP might lose the election.
At that point, Williams says, the fire was lit. Gillard herself went to see Rudd. they agreed to meet later in the day.
Soon after in order, Shorten, Agriculture Minister Tony Burke and Kim Carr of Gillard’s Victorian Left faction went to see her offering support if she would run.
After Question Time there was a meeting in Carr’s office with Carr, Gillard, Arbib, Shorten, Feeney and Don Farrell of the SA Right.
They urged her to run and thought they could take Rudd down with a single blow. There was obviously no time for a drag-out fight.
Gillard was not convinced about the numbers. She knew that if she started she’d have to finish it. She was told that with her they had a chance at winning the election but faced certain defeat under Rudd.
She was going to see Rudd but no-one was sure what she would say.
Gary Gray was on board, but no-one had yet approached Wayne Swan.
That afternoon a delegation of Feeney, Farrell and Steve Hutchins of the NSW Right went to see Swanny, who was of the Qld AWU faction on the Right, as distinct from the “Old Guard Right”.
Almost certainly he knew what was going on. The suggestion was that Swan would be deputy. Swan put on his poker face and said nothing.
Williams thinks that Swan was the one person who could have called a halt at that point, but he didn’t. No-one knows whether he did anything, but at 6 pm someone rang Paul Howes, national secretary of the AWU who was in Sydney to attend a meeting that Bill Ludwig, AWU boss in Qld was also attending. Ludwig’s son Joe is a senator and close to Swan.
Howes drove straight around to Ludwig’s hotel room, where they shut off their phones and discussed strategy. By 8pm they had decided to back Gillard and started phoning MPs in the AWU faction.
Meanwhile Chris Uhlmann on the evening ABC news told the world that a move was on.
Gillard tried to persuade Rudd to voluntarily hand over to her, knowing that numbers were being organised as they spoke.
Williams doesn’t say so, but the AWU numbers may have been enough to clinch it. I’m not a political aficionado, so I don’t know how many numbers were involved and how influential the union bosses are with that faction.
But it is clear that they were late in on the plotting and were not prime movers.
Williams says that the AWU had the biggest block of aligned MPs in the party and Ludwig had a reputation as a king-maker. Gillard, she says, may already have had the numbers, but clearly the AWU support was a shot in the arm.
Howes decision to go on TV clearly annoyed a lot of members.
I suspect that if the AWU does indeed have power over politicians, that power will die when Ludwig passes, as it is clearly an offence to most people’s sense of the way things should be. Still, the situation is a long way short of the 36 faceless men who met in 1963 to decide the party’s policy on a US defence base while Whitlam and Caldwell waited under a lamp post.
After the meeting people phoning around included Gary Gray, home affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor, Warren Snowden, Robert McLelland and Nicola Roxon.
Late on Wednesday night Rudd’s Old Right in Qld started to desert him too.
Rudd’s staff tried to ring around, but their calls were not returned, so Rudd himself had to pick up the phone.
As I said in short order Gillard had 72 clear votes. Well after midnight Albanese went to see Rudd and told him he couldn’t win. In the morning he persuaded him to step down.
You can make of all this what you will, but one definition of politics is that it is the contestation for power in social relations. Certainly there are no prizes for coming second.
While I share concerns that we don’t want to catch the disease of the NSW Right of changing leaders and moving to the right in reaction to adverse opinion polls, I’ve become convinced that the prime ministership of Kevin 07 had deteriorated to such an extent by 2010 that it is an exceptional case. As a politician Rudd was a good public service administrator. But as a public servant he was hopelessly disorganised and was perhaps a good policy wonk. As a policy wonk he was the smartest guy in the room who didn’t need his colleague’s input. More than that he came to actively antagonise just about everyone.
In the end the kiddies had had enough. If he was heading over a cliff, they saw no reason to follow him if they had an alternative, which they did, but only if they acted quickly.
That’s no doubt a bit too black and white, but respected journalists like Laura Tingle and Lenore Taylor express similar views. Speaking of Lenore Taylor, she and David Uren in researching their book Shitstorm: Inside Labor’s Darkest Days crawled all over the Rudd government’s inner workings. I haven’t read the book yet, but I can guarantee that her interview with Richard Fidler is worth the effort to listen to.
Apart from the apology, Rudd’s role in countering the GFC was his finest hour, according to Taylor. We should all be more than grateful that he was at the helm at that particular time.
Updates: I’ve done a summary of Robert Manne’s article ‘Rudd’s collapse’ and dated June 16 in the July edition of The Monthly in comments here.
Similarly, there is a summary of article by Laura Tingle in the AFR back on 9 June, 2010.