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August 09th 2010 print

John Muscat

Division of Labor

The ALP has now been forced into a novel division of labour. While a “liberated” Gillard preaches to the converted journalists, special interests and safe Labor voters, Rudd gets down and dirty in the marginals.

Rudd and Gillard: two aspects of the modern Left 

Not since the 1987 “Joh for Canberra” push have Australians witnessed such scenes of fragmentation at the top. 

Having dumped a failing Rudd in June, Labor recalls him in August. Having hired Gillard to save a government that had “lost its way”, they implore Rudd to do likewise for the campaign. And having confessed to faking it, Gillard defers to Rudd as a better approximation of her “real” self. 

The ALP has now been forced into a novel division of labour. While a “liberated” Gillard preaches to the converted journalists, special interests and safe Labor voters, Rudd gets down and dirty in the marginals. In a sense, these different roles correspond to the modern Left’s two broad tendencies, defined by alternative paths to power. Since the Left’s raison d’être is to govern for a minor demographic of knowledge-based professionals, the wider populace represents an obstacle to be overcome, a challenge which shapes the Left’s range of tactical, strategic and propaganda approaches. 

The two tendencies co-exist uneasily. One may be called the communications Left, whose leading protagonist, of course, is Kevin Rudd, while the other is the institutional Left, for which Julia Gillard has greater affinity. 

The communications Left came out of post-Thatcher Britain, particularly efforts to piece the Labour Party together again, a project which fell to Tony Blair and identified with the labels New Labour and “the third way”. This approach relies heavily on the emergence of a charismatic, articulate new leader placed to exploit the sense of exhaustion surrounding long-term conservative governments. There is more willingness to engage with the ideological victory of market economics, while resorting to sophisticated media management to advance progressive causes. Rudd was a typical Blairite figure until the financial crisis gave him the opportunity for some big spending and undergraduate posturing on “neoliberalism”. The communications leader pursues a popular path to power, telling people “what they want to hear”, crafting sound-bites with double or multiple meanings. Controversial policies are renamed, repackaged or conflated with more popular alternatives. For the most part anti-conservative, the media establishment is a reliable collaborator. 

The communications leader’s claim to power is bound up with a capacity to develop “a special relationship” or “love affair” with the people, measured by consistently high opinion poll ratings, rather than the sort of bureaucratic skills needed to dominate the party apparatus. In fact, the leader is often contemptuous of the party‘s structures and processes, preferring public forums and a small coterie of media and policy advisors. 

The leader’s ascendancy over the institutional Left rests on an indispensable ability to surmount the obstacles to power. And so the institutional Left’s disdain for pandering to the unworthy masses is tempered by a failure to formulate an effective strategy of their own. The last campaign waged on institutional terms was Paul Keating’s disastrous effort in 1996, which cast Labor into the wilderness for eleven years. The ALP has avoided that toxic mix of special interest supremacy and politically correct brow-beating ever since, at least publicly.  

Still, the institutional Left know, and hope, that the communications leader is vulnerable. Public opinion is volatile, and subject to shifting moods. Communications-based approaches, moreover, assume rival sources of values like the churches, the nuclear family and the national culture will remain dormant. The institutional Left prefer to actively suppress them. They are happy to leave the business of winning office to a communications flack, but they will lie in wait, ready to install one of their own at the first opportunity. 

In contrast to the public orientation of the communications Left, the institutional Left play an insiders’ game, mostly behind closed doors. They hope to manage the country’s direction through control of the great public institutions, including the bureaucracy and other government agencies, the education sector, elements of the media, various types of activist and welfare lobbies, and the unions. These are the sources of the ALP’s candidates, staffers and officials. Spurning the communications Left’s techniques of public persuasion, they prefer relationship building, factional alliances and, when necessary, character smears. They are very partial to female candidates, since increasingly their power-base is in feminine occupations like teaching, nursing, child care and social work. Even that former bastion of working-class masculinity, the ACTU, is controlled by the nurses and other feminised public sector unions. For most of them, public affairs are too important for the untutored majority. They would like nothing more than to withdraw the business of government from the people’s gaze. 

Such manoeuverings figure prominently in Gillard’s ascension. Despite a substantial network of support in caucus, she knew, when Kim Beazley’s time was up, that she lacked the profile or skills to launch a communications-based campaign against John Howard. She and her supporters calculated that after a period as deputy to Rudd, handling some high-profile portfolios, her prospects would be better. The prime ministership would eventually be hers. 

In the event, Rudd’s early demise thrust her into the job, and the election will determine whether she has managed the transition to communications-based leadership, or whether policy mishaps and the coup have blocked all of the Left’s routes to power. There are serious doubts about how far Gillard’s institutional support has transferred to the public realm. The government’s decline in the polls, the desperate appearance of the “real Julia”, and the forced outreach to Rudd don’t augur well.