“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly,” says Macbeth before murdering King Duncan. Like many such gambits, and not only in Shakespeare, the one played out in Australian politics ended badly for the assassin.
Three years ago almost to the day, Julia Gillard back stabbed her Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. A few months later, I suggested that the episode sparked a series of revenge knifings that had badly destabilised her young prime ministership. “Might Kevin Rudd himself return to office?” I asked “He has more than a ghost of a chance.” The media conventional wisdom, never a good judge of contemporary Australian politics, dismissed the possibility. But even I am surprised by Rudd’s resurrection this week.
How did it come to this? How did Australia’s first female prime minister, whose parliamentary attacks on the alleged sexism of her conservative opponents became a global internet sensation, sink so dramatically at home?
Gillard’s demise is primarily attributed to her own poor performance. The effect of three years of mounting mistrust in the country over any number of broken promises, such as her hugely unpopular carbon tax, and embarrassing missteps, such as posing for a recent women’s magazine knitting a toy kangaroo for Princess Kate’s baby, finally undermined the 51-year-old parliamentary veteran.
Gillard’s venture into the gender wars showed she had misjudged Middle Australia, where the centre of political gravity is well to the right of Gillard’s metropolitan Melbourne constituency. Polls consistently showed that, despite low unemployment and interest rates, her Labor party trailed the centre-right Coalition by landslide proportions. Ultimately, even the very Labor factional warlords who had ganged up on Rudd in 2010 accepted that matters had become so desperate that they simply could not be led by her any longer.
Say what you will about him, Rudd rates high marks for sheer animal survival. Widely written off after his downfall in 2010, as well as his failed and botched leadership challenges in February 2012 and March this year, he even promised there would be “no circumstances” under which he’d be leader again. (Think of Richard Nixon’s “last press conference” after losing the Californian gubernatorial election in 1962.) Ever the savvy media operator, Rudd played his cards brilliantly to torment Gillard’s leadership persistently from the outset like Banquo’s ghost. But although his return to the prime ministership may lead to a poll boost initially, it is unlikely to revive the government’s fortunes.
For one thing, he won’t be leading a happy camp. In recent years, his own Labor parliamentary colleagues have repeatedly—and publicly—slammed Rudd as “disloyal,” “dysfunctional”, a “saboteur”, a “psychopath” and a “complete and utter fraud.” For many Labor insiders, treachery and hypocrisy are integral to his character; and revenge is no doubt on their minds. At least six cabinet members have resigned. And yet the party, by a margin of 57-45 caucus vote, has agreed to inflict upon the Australian people the very person they were so reluctant to inflict upon themselves.
Nor should anyone forget Rudd’s vacuous policy agenda during his first term from November 2007 to June 2010. His constant striving to be all things to all men—on economic reform, border protection, emissions trading—merely insulted the electorate’s intelligence last time, and it is hard to see how attitudes will change given his recent flip flopping over issues such as gay marriage (which he now supports).
But there is another more deep-seated explanation for this week’s events: Australia’s political scene, as I outlined in my aforementioned article, really does have all the hallmarks of a Shakespeare tragedy, though without the satisfaction of its literary qualities. Bloody leadership coups in both centre-left Labor and the conservative Coalition parties have all too often defined parliamentary politics down under.
Two other prime ministers—John Gorton in 1971 and Bob Hawke in 1991—had been knifed in internal party coups. And in the past decade, Australia has seen six Labor leaders (Simon Crean, Mark Latham, Kim Beazley, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Rudd again) and the four of the Coalition (John Howard, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott). Our politicians, egged on by a bloodthirsty press gallery which seems more interested in personalities than policies, evidently like to slice and dice political leaders.
In facing Rudd, Abbott is expected to face a real contest at the next election, scheduled for September 14 (though the new Prime Minister reserves the right to call either an August or October poll). But the narrative of Australian politics and the health of its democracy will not have benefited for the long run. 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.”