25 June 2010


One of the most far-reaching changes to Australian society (and those of other industrial and post-industrial societies) is the expansion of temporary, short-term employment arrangements, and with that increased accountability and review mechanisms, and the weakening of long-term locked-in employment conditions that encourage people to think they have a job for life.

The execution of Kevin Rudd has been brutal - so brutal that it made you feel sorry for a man who didn't previously engender much sympathy, a bit like what happened when Malcolm Fraser wept after losing the 1983 election. It's true that Rudd performed better the Howard did in his first term, and that while at a disadvantage in the polls it was far from terminal - Howard and other recent PMs and Premiers came back to win elections from worse positions. I agree with Andrew Norton's contention that Labor have been panicky in dumping Rudd. It's true that Rudd's heart was in the right place, in terms of the apology and the homelessness focus, and the reorientation of economic policy toward limiting unemployment. The idea that "people had stopped listening" to Rudd was an inference read into polling that was nowhere supported with evidence.

The fact is that Rudd was hired to do a job: win an election. It is on that basis that he beat Kim Beazley, a man held in great affection by a party that tends toward the soppy and sentimental. Labor people justify turning against Rudd by saying that he felt and displayed no loyalty or affection toward them, and that they were therefore right not to stick by him when the going got tough.

Mark Latham's observation is a mix of the self-serving and the incisive, which is what you'd expect:

"There is all these backbenchers [sic] elected on the backtails of Kevin Rudd who have deserted him and it proves in the Labor Party now there is no loyalty," he said.

Labor had plenty of loyalty to duffers like Evatt, Calwell and Whitlam, and look where that got them. When they took off the rose-coloured glasses and got pragmatic (e.g. in developing Neville Wran as a media performer, and replacing Hayden with Hawke federally in 1983), Labor got the electoral success that it craved and even started delivering for its constituency in government.

Every potential Labor leader since Hawke has been judged on one basis above all others: can this person win an election against the Liberals? If yes, they stayed; if not, they were dumped.

The loyalties which centre upon [a leader] are enormous. If he trips, he must be sustained. If he makes mistakes, they must be covered. If he sleeps, he must not be wantonly disturbed - but if he is no good he must be pole-axed. - Winston Churchill

Conservatives have long known this, treating company managers the same as any other hireling. To hear Liberals go on about loyalty is sheer gibberish. The strength of the Liberal Party had been its refusal to embrace "caucus solidarity". One of the weaknesses of the modern Liberal Party is the way that its members, mostly conservatives (and often ex-leftists) shriek that "disunity is death" and yearn for "one clear message", usually consisting of drivel.

(When I was a Liberal, I once had two NSW state MPs from what was then my party tell me that their pay, pension and perks were justified by the insecurity of their employment arrangements - secure employment contracts of between four and eight years, renewable.)

Liberal leaders have usually been elected on the basis of election-winning potential. The reason why the Howard-Peacock conflict of the 1980s was so divisive is that polling was used as a pretext for ideological division. This applied last year when '80s veterans like Wilson Tuckey and Bronwyn Bishop put Tony Abbott over the line - even they were surprised when Abbott not only won but did so well. Of course they had no answer when his slow decline matched that of Rudd, and like other Liberals they are bereft that their man gets played like a trout by the new Prime Minister.

Yes, Gillard will go once she is no longer able to solve problems and people stop listening to her. That's life, that's part of the increased accountability-and-transparency meme of government and corporate life that has seeped into the wider consciousness. Paul Kelly has no right to his jowl-wobbling outrage, his faux-surprise, his journosphere cant at this development.

Yet Gillard has no easy answers to the issues that ruined Rudd: climate change, the resources tax and boatpeople.

Who does? Show me someone with easy answers for these big, complex issues and I'll show you someone who's unfit to participate in the process of developing public policy.

When Les Murray ended his pledge of allegiance for new migrants with the line "... and I expect Australia to be loyal to me", it was in line with the Howard government's stated notions of "mutual obligation", and the decision to drop that line was also consistent with the reality behind such statements.

Loyalty, thy name is Tony Burke. Burke was first offered to election by the people of NSW to their Legislative Council in 2003. He stuck it out for a bit over a year until he got a better offer, in the House of Representatives, and was loyal to his then-leader (and fellow member of the NSW Labor Right) Mark Latham. As soon as he got there Burke transferred his loyalty seamlessly to the NSW Labor Right's honorary member in WA, Kim Beazley, and before his first term was up he switched to Rudd, and on Thursday they switched again. Totally loyal to four leaders in less than six years. Think of all that transparent-and-accountable work he's done in agriculture and population, and wonder what he might have contributed to state politics in NSW.

The idea of loyalty to a colleague, a leader or a caucus resolution means that no other issue is as important as that, and that makes for an inauthentic life that invites derision, not loyalty. Plenty of things are important in a person's life, and different things can become more or less important over time. Where is the swivel-eyed fanatic who would claim that Lindsay Tanner's loyalty to his family means he has become disloyal to Gillard, his party or his country? Who would begrudge anything Rudd spoke of in his final press conference as PM, when he began with: "I'm proud of ...". All you can expect for being "loyal" to an idea, an institution regardless of what it does is something like this.

All that bellyaching about loyalty is a function of a punitive system that punishes deviation from a 'line', regardless of how counterproductive, silly or plain wrong it might be. Labor people might find it difficult to run their party in the absence of loyalty: too bad, they should have thought about that. It's understandable that people want you to support them no matter what, but you don't necessarily owe that degree of loyalty to anyone you're not personally involved with, when being wrong means you're insulated from the consequences of it. In politics, plenty of people can be loyal to you and you can ignore many of them, much of the time; sometimes you can't. Suck it up and spare me your bullshit about your self-serving, sheep-witted "loyalty", particularly when you're not offering pastures green and still waters (or equivalent), to use a freudenbergism.


  1. The thing about Labor is that it's supposed to be a collectivist party: the leader of the parliamentary party is only really "first among equals". This sometimes doesn't fit well with electoral realities.

  2. When sentiment conflicts with reality, always back reality. It's all fun and games until someone has to make a decision with real consequences.

  3. Jason Wilson27/6/10 1:31 pm

    Nicely written as usual, Mr Elder. To me, though, the key absence in this episode isn't so much loyalty as courage. The FPLP has had next to no qualms in chopping down leaders for thirty years. (IMO it's the Libs who have been - still are- weakened by an inexplicable loyalty to Howard). What's new is that those presenting themselves as party "hard men" lack the courage for the fight. Rudd would have won; he was already rallying. Shorten, Arbib and co decided they didn't want to take a chance. In any case, all these guys know how to do in a fix is xhange the leader - it's symptomatic of their lack of ideas. I wouldn't be surprised if voters punish them for it - especially in Queensland.

  4. derrida derider28/6/10 1:16 pm

    A bit OT, but let me tell you your first para is exaggerated at best. "Jobs for life" were ALWAYS far scarcer than nostalgia would have it; it's just that the discourse on this was shaped by middle-aged Anglo males with a non-working wife, who were the ones who took what jobs-for-life there were.

    The proportion of the population working on contract went up sharply in the late 70s and early 80s but has fallen since then. Average job tenure is now at its longest length since we started measuring it in in 1978 (I can provide references for both of these assertions if needed).

  5. Jason: thanks, and I agree about the nostalgia for Howard. The same thing happened with Menzies and didn't end until he died. I still think only Turnbull has the force of personality (but not the organisational skill) to shake the Libs out of this.

    dd: love to see yr sources (polhomelessblog at lycos dotte comme), and I think that it's significant that something previously taken for granted started to be measured after the oil shock of '73.