News

Rudd, Gillard and the painful death of consensus



24 February 2012

Kevin Rudd has resigned his foreign ministry to fly home and contest the leadership of the parliamentary Labor party citing a need exterminate the influence of Labor's faceless men.

Really?

The leadership challenge is a sideshow. Leadership is not the issue. The real game is about power. Not the distribution of power but the raw, naked power that comes directly from holding the highest political office.

Most of us have absolutely no concept of such power. We never will so it is much easier for the most recent power grab to be imagined as a simple struggle between Rudd and Gillard where both work like mad to demonstrate their various moral and ethical attributes; leadership, values, truth.

There are two types of power; consensual and coercive. Rudd and Gillard both promised to be prime ministers who exercised power by consensus — seeking compromise for major policy matters.

They lied. The allure of power for the sake of power was too great. They became coercive. Coercive power relies on threats and punishments to achieve objectives.

It is so all-consuming that Rudd wants it back and is willing to risk his political career to get it back. Gillard will not let it go.

In a democracy we cast our ballots every few years with the expectation that electing a party chosen from a number of contenders will result in a degree of consensus on policy. Coercion does not surface until a party has seized power.

When the Australian Labor Party seized control of the machinery of state in 2007 it did so on the back of a campaign of consensus — Rudd ran with the general feeling on emissions trading.

Rudd then set about exercising coercive power to attempt to transform a variety of social structures — notably education, the public service and the media — into instruments of propaganda.

In this, propaganda is, as Gerhard Lenskis described it way back in the 1960s, the manipulation of consensus. Rudd was a master at manipulating consensus. And his most recent midnight press conference reinforces that he still is.

He and his government exercised coercive power to engineering change in education (laptops for everyone), energy (pink batts for everyone), telecoms (broadband for everyone). Gillard exercised coercive power on the environment (carbon tax for everyone but we will pretend it's only for the rich) and gambling (no gambling for everyone).

All this was cloaked in niceties such as equity and redistribution and underpinned by the two principles of the distributive process — need and power.

Lenski says any government which cannot suppress each and every forceful challenge to its authority is overthrown.

For the Rudd government there were a number of forceful challenges including Gillard and her desire for power.

Gillard too pretended to be a consensus leader — witness her deal with independents and Greens to bring about poker machine reform.

In her desire to hold on to power at all costs and to resist a forceful challenge from Rudd, Gillard has killed off any pretence of consensus politics. She abandoned the pokie reforms and introduced a carbon tax that she said would never happen under her government.

Consensus should have been the preferred strategy of the Labor Party and both leaders as it went about attempting to construct a new social order.

Power was handed to the ALP in 2007 by an electorate that simply wanted change for the sake of change.

It was a gift from a secular, multicultural, green generation that had been converted by promises of a new social order. The ideology of the new order was not in fact new — destroy the old elite and their institutions and rule by persuasion.

In destroying the old conservative elite the new Labor/Greens progressive elite needed to quickly establish there own instruments of power.

The two principles which govern distributive process — need and power — surfaced but they did so as twin instruments of coercion rather than consensus.

This is the point at which old Labor woke up.

Paul Keating, Bob Hawke and Graham Richardson, despite being welded to the deck of the ALP leviathan, spoke against the exercise of coercive power. It was a fruitless effort. As was the attempt to legitimise the government by replacing its leaders. Leadership was not the issue and changing it was never going to transform it into a government of consensus.

Which brings us back to the present crisis.

Gillard. Rudd. Crean. It is irrelevant who leads the parliamentary Australian Labor Party.

The catastrophic situation for the government and the ALP more generally is not now about leadership, truth, values, or whether Tanya Plibersek uses poor language judgement while driving.

It is about individuals hanging on to power no matter what the consequences for the economy or society.

When commentators called for Ms Gillard to call a leadership vote, or for her to stand down for the good of the party, they were off with the pixies — coercive power is all that matters in politics today and if you have it, you're not going to let it go under any circumstances.

Gillard intends to hold on to power. Rudd wants to regain power.

One is left wondering, however, how close to the edge of democracy the present struggle to hold coercive power will take us.

Dr Richard Stanton is a senior lecturer in the Department of Media and Communicationsat The University of Sydney.

University of Sydney experts are available for comment on the Rudd/Gillard leadership respill:

Associate Professor Rodney Smith, expert on political parties, leadership and power and the NSW Labor culture that has seeped through the party. Author of From Carr to Keneally: NSW Labor in Office 1995-2011 and Contemporary Politics in Australia: Theories, Practices and Issues.

"No matter who wins the leadership ballot, Labor loses. The destabilisation will continue."

Associate Professor Anne Twomey, expert on the Australian constitution. Can discuss the constitutional aspects of this tussle and the potential role of the Governor-General in deciding who to anoint Prime Minister, if Prime Minister Gillard is replaced as leader.

"If Rudd replaces Prime Minister Gillard as leader that doesn't automatically make him Prime Minister again. The Governor-General will still have discretion, particularly if the Independents are not on side."

Dr Peter Chen, Expert on Rudd's political history and rise.

"Rudd can't win over his own party and Prime Minister Gillard can't win over the public. The pair could have been a great team but regardless of who wins this spill neither can win the next election. Rudd believes public popularity is his strength but his public support is soft, bolstered by the public's sense that he was mistreated, and the gender issue."

Dr Richard Stanton, Expert on political communication. Dr Stanton's most recent book is Do What They Like, The Media in the Australian Election Campaign 2010. He is working on a new book entitled - Up In Smoke: The Failure of the Gillard Government Clean Energy Communication Campaign.

"The Rudd Gillard leadership challenge is a sideshow. Leadership is not the issue. The real game is about power. Not the distribution of power but the raw, naked power that comes directly from holding the highest political office. Most of us have absolutely no concept of such power. We never will so it is much easier for the most recent power grab to be imagined as a simple struggle between Rudd and Gillard where both work like mad to demonstrate their various moral and ethical attributes; leadership, values, truth. There are two types of power; consensual and coercive. Rudd and Gillard both promised to be prime ministers who exercised power by consensus - seeking compromise for major policy matters. They lied. The allure of power for the sake of power was too great. They became coercive. Coercive power relies on threats and punishments to achieve objectives. It is so all consuming that Rudd wants it back. Gillard will not let it go."


Contact: Sarah Stock

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