“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”, says Macbeth before murdering King Duncan. Assassins through the ages have indulged in this kind of wishful thinking before undertaking their fatal missions: If there is no immediate fallout from the murder, then there is no problem. But as Macbeth later learns, the killing blow, far from proving “the be-all and the end-all” of the act, can “return to plague the inventor.” Even the most cold-blooded, carefully executed assassinations may boomerang in the most unexpected ways, not least on the executioners themselves.
Shakespeare’s narrative was recently played out down under when Kevin Rudd, a first-term Prime Minister, was toppled overnight in the most premeditated, calculated and ruthless manner. On June 23, a handful of powerful factional chiefs from the governing center-left Australian Labor Party gathered the necessary numbers in caucus to overthrow its leader. They then put the knife in the hand of Rudd’s deputy Julia Gillard. Later that night, she marched into his parliamentary office in Canberra to tell King Duncan what Lady Macbeth was about to do to him: challenge the 52-year-old Labor leader for the party leadership in an internal ballot and, as happens under the Westminster system, automatically become the nation’s leader. The plotters had calculated that, as Australia’s first female Prime Minister, the 48-year-old Gillard would not only save Labor from defeat in the upcoming general election but increase the government’s majority in parliament.
Like many such gambits, and not only in Shakespeare, this one ended badly for the assassins. The conspirators fatally stabbed someone they loathed (Rudd) but in the process sparked a cycle of revenge knifings. All of this led to chronic instability and deep divisions at the highest levels of Labor, culminating in a disastrous election result two months later when, on August 21, the electorate delivered swift retribution against the government. Not only did Labor concede a double-digit poll lead in a few weeks; it lost its governing majority. And although it has now scraped together a minority government with the support of few disparate and unruly Independents in the 150-member lower house of Parliament, Labor is battered, bruised and bedeviled. Not since 1931 has a first-term government lost its parliamentary majority.
It was not supposed to turn out this way. When Kevin Rudd defeated the center-right Liberal-National coalition government three years ago, the conventional wisdom predicted an Obama-like political realignment in Australia. Not only did it spell the end of John Howard—the 12-year Prime Minister whom President George W. Bush once lauded as a “man of steel”—but it supposedly signaled the nadir of conservatism and the dawn of a new era of progressivism in this nation of 22 million.
That exactly is how matters seemed to go, at least for a while. During his first two years in power, Rudd was in the political stratosphere as Australia’s most popular Prime Minister in a generation. His overwhelming popularity translated into significant political influence: For better or for worse, depending on one’s taste, it enabled him to apologize to Aboriginal Australians for past white sins, roll back several free-market labor laws, prosecute his case to combat what he called “the great moral challenge of our time”—man-made global warming—and spend the big budget surplus bequeathed by the outgoing conservative government on politically useful boondoggles. The economy, meanwhile, was weathering well the global economic storm, with unemployment low at 5 percent and the banking sector the envy of the financial world. Labor figured to be a shoe-in to win the 2010 election. So what happened?
The answer lies in understanding that Australia’s political scene really does have all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy, though without the satisfaction of its literary qualities. Bloody leadership coups in both Labor and Coalition camps have all too often defined parliamentary politics in the Antipodes. Along with a seemingly impregnable Prime Minister, two opposition leaders have been dispensed with during a single parliamentary term. In less than four years, Australia has seen four Liberal leaders (John Howard, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott) and three of Labor (Kim Beazley, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard). Our politicians, egged on by a bloodthirsty press gallery, evidently like to slice and dice leaders.
Start with the Coalition centered around the Liberal Party, where the word liberal still means more or less what it meant in the 19th century. During the first two years of the Labor government, from late 2007 to late 2009, the opposition parties, vacillating, divided and leaderless, proved unable to present a clear conservative alternative to Canberra’s big-government agenda. A 15- to 20-point opinion poll disparity between the two major parties was the norm. The turning point came in December 2009, when Tony Abbott took over the Liberal leadership. His victim, Malcolm Turnbull, a multimillionaire investment banker and social liberal in the Nelson Rockefeller mold, had been a willing accomplice in Labor’s agenda, most notably its plans to rush an economy-wide cap-and-trade scheme into law on the eve of last December’s Copenhagen climate conference.
Whereas Turnbull is the darling of Australia’s center-left media, Abbott is as much a hated figure among Australia’s academics and columnists as Ronald Reagan was at Harvard and the New York Times in the 1980s. But just as the elite media lords and ladies badly underestimated Reagan, so Australian journalists proved spectacularly wrong about Abbott. This 52-year-old devout Catholic and pro-Commonwealth, anti-“republican” advocate almost single-handedly resurrected the conservative cause in Australia. He succeeded by doing the very thing so many American Republicans have shied away from in recent years: He unashamedly championed conservative principles. Although his message of “smaller government, lower taxes, greater freedom, a fair go for families and respect for institutions that have stood the test of time” aggravated the metropolitan sophisticates, it resonated with his party’s conservative base as well as with Middle Australia, whose political center of gravity remains right of center in the post-Howard era.
Perhaps nothing better demonstrated this point than Abbott’s response to the climate change controversy. For years, the Aussie debate had been conducted in a heretic-hunting environment: It was deemed blasphemy to question Labor’s grand ambitions to implement a cap-and-trade scheme. The business, science and media establishment wanted Australia, which accounts for only 1.4 percent of global emissions, to lead the world to a post-carbon future, and even many progressive Liberals bowed to Labor’s agenda. But Abbott challenged this cozy consensus, describing the case for man-made global warming as “absolute crap” and cap and trade as “a great big tax to create a great big slush fund to provide politicized handouts, run by a giant bureaucracy.”
At the time, commentators predicted that his “ill-judged” opposition to climate legislation would amount to “electoral oblivion”, a “political suicide mission” and “the road to ruin.” But following the Copenhagen fiasco, it was cap and trade and those linked to it that began to look like an electoral liability. Rudd and his ministers summarily abandoned Labor’s signature global warming legislation, raising a storm of confusion about what he and the Party actually believed. Meanwhile, Abbott became such a formidable challenger on other issues—border protection, fiscal policy, mining taxes—that the government suddenly looked vulnerable.
Which brings us to the second coup: the political execution of Kevin Rudd. For three years following his own knifing of Kim Beazley, a Labor stalwart who is now Australia’s Ambassador to the United States, Rudd was overwhelmingly popular with the Australian people. Yet he was never much liked by Labor’s tribal warriors. The longer they dealt with him the deeper their contempt (or envy) grew. Nearly everyone granted that Rudd, the country’s 26th Prime Minister, was somewhat boring and a bit nerdy, but his colleagues preferred stronger adjectives such as arrogant, aloof, autocratic, rude and selfish.
So long as Rudd was popular with the people, he was untouchable. But as soon he experienced those “events” against which Harold Macmillan famously warned—bad decisions, dodgy policies, cabinet screw-ups—he became highly vulnerable to intra-party intrigue. Bungled home-insulation and schools-funding schemes, on top of his shelving the cap-and-trade legislation, aggravated Middle Australia as well as his left-wing base. And so the scene was set for his internal enemies to do something that Labor had never done: destroy a Prime Minister within his first three-year parliamentary term.
The knifing of Rudd and the installation of Gillard were designed to restore Labor’s flagging poll fortunes. At the time, numerous pundits praised the executioners for their tactical brilliance. Now it looks like the pundits were about as brilliant as the perpetrators.
Rudd’s fate danced around Gillard’s leadership like Banquo’s ghost. Rightly or wrongly, the ousted leader was widely blamed for relentless cabinet leaking, most notably allegations that Gillard had opposed highly sensitive proposals that resonated across the nation’s swing seats, such as a paid parental leave scheme and welfare payment increases for pensioners. Moreover, every time Rudd appeared in public, the media dedicated as much airtime and news copy to him as they did to his successor. This readily dismantled the façade of Labor unity and distracted attention from Gillard’s not very evocative “moving forward” mantra.
Rudd’s execution rebounded in another way: It deprived Labor of its strongest argument for re-election. Rudd had saved Australia from global recession, or so most of the electorate believed. So why sack the hero, particularly since no great policy disagreement within Labor could be discerned? After all, Gillard had been party to every major decision the Rudd government made. Not surprisingly, Abbott’s rallying cry—that voters should show Labor the same kind of sympathy that Labor itself had shown to Rudd—was the most devastating line of his campaign.
The third difficulty arising from the execution was the failure to anticipate the hostile reaction from voters, especially in Rudd’s home state of Queensland in northeast Australia, as well as many Asian immigrants in metropolitan Sydney who admired the Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister. Labor’s act of bastardry disturbed ordinary folks as well, most of whom wanted to choose their Prime Minister at the ballot box rather than have the choice made by Labor’s factional bosses behind closed doors. Again, Abbott reflected the concerns of many Australians when he told Parliament the following day: “A midnight knock on the door followed by a public execution is no way to treat a sitting Prime Minister.”
To be sure, two other Prime Ministers had been knifed in internal party coups since Australia’s independence from Britain in 1901. In 1971, Bill McMahon toppled John Gorton, and in 1991 Paul Keating brought down Bob Hawke. But there is a difference. The 1971 and 1991 coups emerged after a year of relentless media speculation and more than a year before a general election, allowing the successor enough time to settle into the top job before facing the voters. This year’s coup, however, amounted to a swift execution on the very eve of an election. It shocked everybody—from journalists, experts and voters to public servants, backbenchers and even ministers themselves. Kevin Rudd, a man whose image had been that of a leader moving rapidly forward, suddenly appeared to be going no place in particular. It was confusing and provoked ambivalence. Not terribly surprisingly, it led to confused and ambivalent voting.
The lesson here is an old and bloody one: When an assassination fails—or even when it succeeds—it may lead to dire consequences for those who undertake it. Those consequences, as Macbeth found out, are liable to be costly.
So it has been for Australia’s Labor Party, which is today mired in a nasty civil war waged primarily between the new Prime Minister’s office and the very factional warlords who helped her execute Rudd. They blame Gillard for Labor’s poor election campaign; she rather points to their own disloyalty and personal ambitions. The specter of Rudd, meanwhile, still haunts Parliament: He has risen from the political grave and now pursues his nemesis so effectively to as make even a ghostly Banquo proud. Add in an odd mix of legislators—from Green Party activists of the Left to rural Independents of the Right—on whom a minority government depends, and Australian politics look like Shakespeare as adapted by Eugène Ionesco.
More Labor recriminations are sure to arise in coming months, with consequences no one can predict. Might Kevin Rudd himself return to office? He has more than a ghost of a chance. But the narrative of Australian politics and the health of its democracy will not have benefited for the long run, whether he returns or not. One might even suggest that it resembles, at least a bit more than before, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”