The leadership showdown between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard is a contest completely lacking in substance—and in any serious policy differences. No matter what the outcome, the problems at the heart of Labor’s crisis—its right-wing policies and constant capitulations to big business—will continue to fester.
Gillard has been a failure as PM because she backs the neo-liberal, business first agenda. This has meant she is incapable of pursuing policies that would be popular amongst working class voters.
Just this week she postponed any action to boost funding to public schools, ignoring recommendations of the government’s own Gonski report, in pursuit of her pro-business credentials and maintaining the much talked about budget surplus. Her very first act as Prime Minister was to cave into the mining companies over the mining super profits tax. Yet taxing the rich to fund public services would get wide support. Seventy nine per cent of people think spending on public services should be higher and 72 per cent think business doesn’t pay enough tax, according to a survey late last year by think tank Per Capita.
Gillard has tried to mimic Tony Abbott’s right-wing politics, by opposing same-sex marriage and trying to outbid him in attacking refugees and claiming she can “stop the boats”. This only helps Abbott by letting him set the terms of political debate.
Is Rudd any better?
In the face of Gillard’s inability to connect with working class Labor voters, it is understandable that some people think a return to Rudd could only be an improvement.
Rudd says he has learned from his mistakes during his first stint as PM. But the only area where he promises a change is in his management style. He has concentrated on trying to take the moral high ground by complaining of “vicious personal attacks”, and reminding people of the way he was knifed by Gillard.
But there are no serious policy differences between the two. Gillard and Rudd were both at the centre of the “kitchen cabinet” that made all the decisions while Rudd was still PM. Gillard has continued Rudd’s policies with only the tiniest of changes.
It was Rudd’s policies, too, that saw his popularity implode. His abandonment of his climate change plan, the CPRS, was symbolic of his failure to deliver any break with the polices of John Howard.
When Rudd made early symbolic shifts away from the Howard era, by signing the Kyoto treaty and apologising to the Stolen Generations, his popularity surged. But all his policies were a disappointment, keeping the bulk of WorkChoices intact, bending over backwards to appease business over climate change and continuing the racist Intervention into Aboriginal communities. When the economic crisis hit, he delivered only one-off cash injections designed to maintain business profits, not ongoing funding for jobs and services. The unemployed were given nothing.
Rudd accused Gillard of wanting to lurch to the right over refugees, but he had already done the same himself, freezing the visas of Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees and trying to get the Indonesian navy to turn boats around.
But, in his pitch for the leadership, Rudd is unrepentant, describing his time as PM as one of his most “formidable” achievements. His only major policy aim, reported The Australian, was a vow, “to restore business confidence by changing the tax treatment of small business”.
Neither Gillard nor Rudd inspire confidence that they can beat Tony Abbott. Rudd was dumped by the Labor caucus because the party’s standing in the opinion polls plunged just as it has with Gillard.
It is not so much leadership change as policy change that Labor urgently needs if Abbott is going to be beaten.
A shift to the left is badly needed in Australian politics. But there is no sign that such a shift is going to come from inside parliament. Labor MPs, both left and right, are divided between those supporting Gillard and Rudd in the leadership battle. But Labor’s capitulation to neo-liberal, right-wing politics is not up for challenge.
Since the last election The Greens have not succeeded in shifting the terms of political debate to the left. Their agreement with Labor has led them towards apologising for the government and softening their criticism. Now is the time for The Greens to be putting forward their demands for policy change—such as over asylum seekers, funding for public schools, same-sex marriage and a complete scrapping of the anti-union laws.
No matter who wins the leadership battle, we’ll need to fight Labor’s disastrous right-wing direction through the unions and grassroots campaigns, if the left is going to shift politics and win an alternative.