How 'Chicken Kev' has left Labor on its knees

25 March 2013

Call it a farce, call it whatever you will. The federal Labor Party's leadership turmoil amounts to only one thing: political self-destruction. And most of the immediate blame sheets home to one Kevin Rudd.

There has been a relentless effort by Rudd and his supporters to destabilise Julia Gillard's leadership. Most still believe that it was Rudd who was responsible for leaking damaging information against Labor during the 2010 election. The erstwhile white-anting campaign against Gillard has unmistakably come from the Rudd camp. With Gillard and Labor struggling in the polls for such a prolonged period, a leadership spill was always inevitable.

And yet, when the time came, Rudd failed to contest the leadership - ostensibly because he had not secured enough support to win. This has not been the first time Rudd has ruled himself out from such a ballot. He did the same in 2010 when Gillard challenged him as a sitting prime minister and it was apparent he had overwhelmingly lost the support of his caucus.

Politics, it must be made clear, isn't always fought according to Marquess of Queensberry Rules. But within one's own party, at least, a politician must abide by a certain code when they stake a claim to lead others. Without courage and honour one doesn't deserve to lead.

After such a prolonged, thinly disguised leadership campaign, it was inexcusable - ethically reprehensible - for Rudd to decline nominating after former Labor leader Simon Crean's dramatic instigation of a party-room spill.

Then again, what happened was entirely in character for Rudd. He cannot countenance the prospect of losing - even if there can never be guarantees of victory. He is a fair-weather politician who is incapable of dealing with headwinds. Consider his refusal as prime minister to call a double-dissolution election to ensure passage of an emissions trading scheme. Was this a mere failure of nerve, or did it in fact point to a more basic deficiency?

Last week's fiasco suggests the latter: ''Chicken Kev'' may yet last as a moniker. If nothing else, the non-challenge has destroyed Rudd's credibility as a leader. The best thing for Labor would be for Rudd to leave Parliament altogether.

It could all have been so different, of course. Indulge me for a moment as I venture into subjunctive history or what might've been.

A more courageous Rudd could have called that double-dissolution election in 2009-10, and gone on to win it convincingly (as most believe he would have). At the very least, doing this would have avoided the fecklessness of doing nothing on ''the greatest moral challenge of our time''. More likely, we would be talking today about a Labor Party ascendant over a Liberal/National Coalition in disarray.

As it is, the story is the other way round. A Coalition government led by Tony Abbott is now a near certainty; Abbott, who with each week is adopting an increasingly prime ministerial tone, has been the biggest beneficiary of the government's self-inflicted harm.

As for Labor, its shrinking electoral support seems to be mirrored by its blinkered vision. Last month Gillard declared that she didn't lead a party that was social democratic, progressive or moderate - it was simply a Labor party. This was a clear signal that Labor is preparing to retreat into a trade union rump of a party after the election. To its detriment, it is repudiating its progressive, middle-class supporters in favour of a traditional blue-collar working class that is fading into irrelevance. Labor should be appealing to a broad base, not a narrow one.

And so it has come to this. Granted, it's not all Kevin's fault. A lot of Labor's woes stem from the very fact that its powerbrokers moved so hastily to terminate his prime ministership in 2010 without first conducting a public conversation about why he had to go.

Gillard's eventual explanation, that the government had ''lost its way'', had the effect of depriving Labor of its own record in office. How could it claim credit for staving off the global financial crisis if it had lost its way?

The so-called NSW Disease, which has recently manifested not only in the Labor Party but also in the Coalition in Victoria and the Northern Territory, is symptomatic of a nihilistic ethos in our contemporary politics. It represents the ultimate separation of politics from program - and how politics is now treated as a game whose professional players play only to win, regardless of the consequences.

This is why so many of our politicians seem prepared to switch their leaders based on a few bad polls. Why they and their advisers see their parties as brands, and politics as an exercise in marketing and media management.

You could say this is all part of managerialism's encroachment into politics. Whatever the cause, this is the price we pay for having a political class that increasingly knows nothing except electoral politics: its members will do anything to retain the trappings of power and office because they simply have no prospects for anything outside it.

The destructive narcissism of Rudd and the acquiescence of a sizeable minority of the Labor caucus is, in one sense, an expression of this. Losing for them is intolerable; one must try to win at all costs.

However, as my colleague Nick Dyrenfurth has argued in these pages, Labor's best hope in this year's election may just be to lose with some dignity and honour. Like a footy team deep in the fourth quarter looking at a heavy loss, it may just have to continue doing its best to make the margin respectable. Good teams don't abandon discipline in some deluded belief they can still win when they can't. They know when they have to be content with winning back some respect.

So it is, now, with Labor. The grand old party of Australian politics is losing not just the respect of the electorate, it is quickly losing its self-respect. Coming back from here will not be easy.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane is a political philosopher at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and has worked as a Labor speechwriter.

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