Rudd’s back, but Labor’s business as usual’s no threat to Abbott

Labor has turned back to Kevin Rudd in a last desperate attempt to save itself and prevent Tony Abbott from winning the election. The desire for self-preservation amongst Labor MPs ultimately proved stronger than the influence of the union and factional powerbrokers in the party.

With Labor polling 29 per cent and a swathe of MPs holding no prospect of keeping their seats, many were willing to switch to Kevin Rudd despite their previous (sometimes vitriolic) criticisms of him.

Gillard’s hold on power depended on the support of the unions, particularly right-wing unions the AWU, SDA and the TWU. The Daily Telegraph even claimed that the unions had been making calls the day of the ballot threatening Labor Senators with the loss of pre-selection if they didn’t vote for Gillard.

Not so new leadership—there is nothing in terms of policies to distinguish Rudd from Gillard or Labor\'s ongoing right-wing trajectoryBill Shorten, the former head of the powerful AWU, was among those who defied the union leaders and declared support for Rudd.

But there was not an ounce of principle involved. Shorten (from the right) and Penny Wong (from the left) both gave their reason for switching allegiance as simply that Rudd could deliver votes at the election. This was the same reason that Rudd was knifed by Gillard in 2010. There were no political issues, no policy principles, involved.

Where is Rudd headed?

But to stand a chance of stopping Abbott, it is not simply a change of personalities that Labor needs. Over the last six years of Labor in power it has been its failure to seriously break with neo-liberalism and John Howard’s legacy that have produced mass disillusionment with the party.

If Rudd was prepared to fix the mining tax to take some of the billions in profits off the mining giants, he could use this to fully fund Gonski’s plan for $5 billion a year into public schools. The cuts to universities could also be scrapped.

He could move to immediately introduce same-sex marriage, shut down the refugee camps on Nauru and Manus Island and use his trip to Indonesia to announce he will accept the 3800 refugees a year directly from there the Expert Panel recommended.

Instead of retaining the bulk of WorkChoices he could restore the right to strike so unions could begin to organise effectively in the workplaces to fight casualisation, unpaid overtime and low pay.

But Rudd is not likely to do any of this. Gillard’s policies were themselves simply a continuation of Kevin Rudd’s from his time as Prime Minister. Gillard completed the cave-in on the mining tax Rudd had already begun. Gillard changed Rudd’s emissions trading scheme to a carbon tax and moved further to the right on asylum seekers.

But Rudd had already opened Christmas Island, announced a freeze on processing of visas for Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers, re-opened Curtin detention centre and begun the hysteria against people smugglers.
He made a point in his first speech after resuming the Labor leadership of pledging to work closely with business, code for promising not to upset them with another surprise like the initial mining tax proposal.

Rudd likes to paint himself as an outsider, campaigning against the political system. In his speech on Wednesday night he described parliament as “a huge national turn off” and claimed he understood why people had switched off and had no respect for it.

Lacking a base in the Labor Party’s factional system, he has always relied on using the media to build his personal support with the electorate. This effort to by-pass the unions and any effort to appeal to the working class marks Rudd out as a more obviously Blairite “Third Way” politician than Julia Gillard.

Rudd’s attacks on Tony Abbott, warning that the Liberals will respond to the end of the China boom with European-style austerity and attacks on workers, may be more effective than Gillard’s efforts.

But after 30 years in which Labor has talked about supporting working class people but introduced privatisations, wage cuts, growing insecurity at work and declining services, Rudd’s brand of symbolism without substance will not lead to any sustained bounce for Labor in the opinion polls. Labor remains in a long-term crisis that Rudd will not solve. The Liberals still remain favourites to win the election.

Sexism and Gillard

There are some who blame sexism for the demise of Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister. The gross sexist attacks on her from within the Liberal Party and from right-wing shock jocks like Alan Jones and Howard Sattler have certainly been a hideous spectacle.

But it would be wrong to say sexism was the reason for Gillard’s decline in the polls. When she first became Prime Minister, Gillard was popular. It was her failure to show that she stood for anything—symbolised by the farcical announcement in 2010 that she was about the reveal “the real Julia”, and unpopular policies like the carbon tax that destroyed her leadership.

Gillard’s failure was fundamentally a reflection of Labor’s ongoing crisis, and its addiction to neo-liberal policies that make the party all but indistinguishable from the Liberals.

But because of the wider sexism in society, the opposition to Gillard began to manifest itself in sexist terms. So when the right mobilised their “people’s revolt” to attack Gillard over the carbon tax for instance, the protesters resorted to sexist slurs.

But Gillard herself undermined any fight against this sexism, because her own policies were feeding it. Her cuts to single parents payments punished thousands of women left with the job of raising children.

Having done nothing about issues like abortion, her efforts to “play the gender card” as her leadership crumbled fell flat. The vast majority of working class women saw nothing to defend in Gillard.

Whether or not Rudd’s poll numbers can hold up long enough to get Labor through the election, what Australian politics really needs is a genuine left-wing alternative to Labor’s entrenched rightward direction.

The Greens’ recent shift towards being more openly critical of Labor is a good start. But Greens leader Christine Milne’s mass email saying she was “very sad to see the first female Australian Prime Minister dispatched in this way” was still aimed at capitalising on sympathy for Gillard rather than setting out the issues that needed to be addressed—like increasing Newstart, scrapping the cuts to universities, re-instating the benefits to single parents, ending the Intervention and the Pacific Solution.

We need to fight to keep the Liberals out of government—but Rudd is not going to change politics in Australia. Crucial to that fight will be grassroots campaigns and the unions.

A union fight against Holden’s attempt to cut wages, and to fight the mass redundancies that are sweeping the resources and associated manufacturing industries could alter the political climate. Real change will have to come from below—from the fight of students and the NTEU to oppose the university finding cuts, the campaign for same-sex marriage and the refugee movement’s fight to end off-shore processing.

Fighting to reverse Labor’s cuts now is the best way to fight Abbott and prepare for the struggles ahead whoever ends up in government after the election.


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