Labor sent itself spiralling further into self-destruction last week with its botched coup against leader Julia Gillard. The whole affair was marked by miscalculation and stuff-up, with Simon Crean supposedly “spontaneously combusting” to prematurely launch the challenge, in Kevin Rudd’s words, even though he knew the numbers for a Rudd comeback were not there. And without the assurance of victory Rudd was not even prepared to stand. It was a pathetic episode.
Labor’s poll ratings produced an atmosphere of growing chaos in Canberra as the week went on, with Labor MPs panicking about the party’s prospects at the election. With a long break until the budget comes down, this was viewed as probably the last chance to change leaders before election day.
But Labor’s historic electoral decline, with this week’s Newspoll showing they could lose as many as half their seats, has not produced any substantial questioning of its political direction or demands for policy change from the left within the party. The Labor Left has either been completely absent in criticising Gillard or gone along with her as she dragged Labor further to the right over refugees and her scapegoating of foreign workers on 457 visas, and barely raised a peep about the attacks on single parents payments.
In fact so far has the party degenerated that Martin Ferguson, in resigning from cabinet, denounced the government as not right-wing enough, declaring the, “class war that started with the mining dispute of 2010 must stop”. A mining tax that raises $126 million in its first year from the multi-billion dollar mining companies is class war! What planet is Ferguson living on?
The complete absence of any political differences between the factions was again demonstrated by Rudd’s apparent desire to have the Left faction’s Anthony Albanese as Deputy Leader. This had nothing to do with his politics but was simply down to the fact he had a good working relationship with the independents and could deliver some votes for Rudd in the caucus.
The whole leadership contest within the party simply revolved around personalities and their ability as media “performers”. The real problem is that Rudd and Gillard both subscribe to the neo-liberal legacy of the Hawke-Keating Labor government. This sees Labor put the needs of big business first, and leaves them incapable of dealing with the concerns of working class people, who have deserted the party in droves.
Gillard’s position as leader now looks secure, with Rudd ruling out ever returning to the leadership.
With her ministerial reshuffle Gillard has taken a further step to lock in the right-wing pro-business policies that have led Labor to disaster. Now, the climate sceptic, and former executive of oil giant Woodside, Gary Gray, has been promoted to Cabinet as the new Minister for Resources and Energy. The Climate Change Department has also been merged into the Department of Industry, so that Gillard could avoid appointing a Climate Change Minister.
So why is Labor risking almost certain electoral defeat with Gillard when Rudd appears to have such better poll ratings?
Rudd’s current ratings could be expected to come back to earth if he took responsibility for Labor’s policies again as Prime Minister. His collapse in popularity was one reason he was dumped as leader in the first place. And the memory of Rudd’s famous arrogance and inability to work with anyone else also haunts the Labor caucus.
But most importantly Gillard has locked in support from most of the trade union leaders through throwing individual unions a series of small concessions. After their experience under Kevin Rudd, where the union leaders were practically frozen out of access to lobbying government, they have desperately thrown themselves behind Gillard in the hope of maximising influence.
Left challenge needed
This latest fiasco has undoubtedly done the party further damage, both eroding Gillard’s standing and forcing the departure of a parade of ministers including Chris Bowen, Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson and Kim Carr. Once again, Labor has helped Tony Abbott.
The Greens were quick to point this out, and also pointed to some of the issues Labor should be addressing, such as increasing the mining tax to find the money for implanting the Gonski school funding review and increasing Newstart payments. But Greens leader Christine Milne still felt compelled to defend the minority government. Her claim that there were a raft of “progressive reforms” being jeapordised by the leadership turmoil shows a seriously misplaced faith in what the Gillard government has on offer in its dying months.
In fact it is precisely Labor’s right-wing approach that has put Abbott in an election-winning position. Whether over refugees and the Pacific Solution, scapegoating foreign workers, cuts to welfare or budget austerity Labor’s policies are paving the way for Abbott. Cementing Gillard in the leadership has ensured that the race to the right with Abbott will continue.
We need an openly left-wing challenge to this agenda if we are going to seriously shift politics in this country—including in the campaigns in the workplaces and on the streets against racism, job cuts and austerity.