How Boat People Sank Rudd and Gillard

Rudd, Gillard and Beyond
by Troy Bramston
Penguin, 2014, 176 pages, $9.99

earwax hyperbowlThe most remarkable feature of Troy Bramston’s epigrammatic chronicle of the Rudd–Gillard years, Rudd, Gillard and Beyond, is the full disclosure of the 500-word e-mail Deputy PM Julia Gillard sent to PM Kevin Rudd on Monday, June 21, 2010, three days before she replaced him as prime minister. Gillard’s memo provides us with an important insight into the modern-day Australian Labor Party. Bramston might be a Labor insider but he makes a valiant attempt to understand what went wrong during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era. Nevertheless, a foe rather a friend is more likely to deliver the hard truth.

Bramston describes Gillard’s communiqué, which has a deputy prime minister lambasting her prime minister for running an “incompetent” and “out of control” administration, as “extraordinary”. Gillard pushed the send button on her e-mail at 9.49 a.m. Little time had elapsed between her reading the latest Newspoll in the morning papers and sitting down at her computer to give Kevin Rudd a piece of her mind. Although Labor’s primary vote was bumping along at a mere 35 per cent, the ALP still held a 52 to 48 per cent lead over the Coalition in the two-party-preferred vote. Rudd’s leadership, in the opinion of Gillard, had not merely lost Labor its earlier popularity but had rendered the government dysfunctional. The “great deal of anxiety” affecting Gillard, as she composed her Monday morning missive, was that Kevin Rudd no longer possessed the wherewithal to remedy the situation before the impending election.

In a methodical and lawyerly manner Gillard outlined in her electronic epistle Rudd’s ineptitude. Fixing logistical or procedural problems was only the tip of the iceberg. The real challenge would be addressing or defusing the key negative that confronted the government at the time. This, as defined by Julia Gillard herself in the title of the post, is “Asylum seekers”.

There was no formal vote on the leadership issue in the Labor caucus on Thursday, June 24, 2010. Rudd already knew the score. If a caucus vote had gone ahead, between seventy and ninety Labor federal politicians out of a total of 115 would have voted for Gillard, a victory so overwhelming that it required little connivance on her part. Bramston presents conflicting evidence about the extent to which Gillard conspired against Rudd before the June 23 meeting in the PM’s office. What we do know from newspaper reports at the time is that three weeks before Gillard’s “Asylum seekers” e-mail, Prime Minister Rudd informed the Labor caucus that he would “not move to the right on the boats issue”.

A number of backbenchers voiced concern that their constituents were expressing genuine distress that Labor had no answer to the surge in boat people. What was Rudd going to do about it? Nothing, it would seem. His administration had dismantled Howard’s Pacific Solution in 2008 and, despite the increase in irregular maritime arrivals to Australian shores, Kevin Rudd declared he was “not going to engage in some kind of race to the bottom” with Tony Abbott. Was this the moment when the political landscape suddenly opened up for Gillard to see a way forward?

If we are to take the stated purpose of Bramston’s Rudd, Gillard and Beyond seriously —“Why Labor lost, and what it must do to win again and stay in power”—then we must address Gillard’s claim that the Rudd administration was “a good government that lost its way”. She provides an explanation in the June 21, 2010, e-mail addressed to Kevin Rudd and Alister Jordan, Rudd’s chief of staff:

To state the obvious—our primary is in the mid 30s, we can’t win an election with a primary like that and the issue of asylum seekers is an enormous reason why our primary is at that low level. It is an issue working on every level—loss of control of the borders feeding into a narrative of a government that is incompetent and out of control.

Rudd, having been dislodged from the Lodge, publicly warned Gillard against “lurching to the right on the question of asylum seekers”. Nonetheless, one of the reasons Prime Minister Gillard did not lose the August 21, 2010, election is because she promised to enter into negotiations with Australia’s neighbours, including East Timor, to re-introduce offshore processing facilities for illegal maritime arrivals—to turn round a key negative, in other words.

Troy Bramston was once a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd. I am not sure if Rudd’s incessant catchcry—“getting the balance right”—can be blamed on Bramston but I would not be surprised. In the conclusion of his book, Bramston calls for Bill Shorten to refashion Labor as “a party of reform in the centre-left political tradition”. He is merely repeating Labor’s tedious conceit that the Coalition parties represent the forces of wealth and bigotry, while the Greens are subject to impractical radicalism. Supposedly the ALP deserves our vote because it has the pragmatism associated with the Coalition but also the conscience of the Greens. What the boats issue demonstrates, on the contrary, is that modern-day Labor possesses neither the common sense of the Coalition nor the idealism of the Greens.

Gillard’s “lurch to the right” with her Pacific Solution II turned out to be a disaster. The East Timor initiative fizzled and so, in the end, did the Malaysian idea. In 2011, Gillard and Chris Bowen, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, announced and then re-announced their Malaysian strategy. By the time Australia’s representatives sat down at the negotiation table their Malaysian counterparts already had them over a barrel. The Malaysians were smart enough to insist that Australia take 4000 of their refugees and hand over all relevant payments—between $54,000 and $95,000 per person—even if Australia did not fill its Malaysia-bound 800 quota. The High Court ruled the Malaysia Solution unlawful in August 2011, so this is exactly what happened.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard had developed a personal grudge against Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Her 2012 “misogynist speech” went further than the usual ridicule and derision characteristic of parliamentary contestation in this country. Over the years she proved to be a strong performer in the House of Representatives—confident, formidable, assertive but also, on occasion, genuinely amusing. Her cutting remarks were sometimes cruel, including the “mincing poodle” jibe directed at Christopher Pyne in 2009. But the misogynist slur reeks of something more. It was the wounded cry of a floundering Labor administration that had pledged to “replace a good government that had lost its way” only to lose the way itself.

From a Labor perspective, Tony Abbott forfeited all respect when he directed the Coalition to oppose the Malaysian option. His concern that Malaysia was not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention carried no weight with the ALP. Abbott’s opposition was construed as an opportunistic contrivance to humiliate Gillard as she endeavoured to act in the best interests of Australia. The man’s cynicism—according to Labor’s storyline, at least—knew no bounds.

It takes no great effort to expose the speciousness of Labor’s case against Abbott. First, the full bench of the High Court’s August 2011 decision confirmed the Coalition’s disquiet about transferring irregular maritime arrivals to a non-signatory of the UN Refugee Convention. Second, Gillard might have resented Abbott for rejecting the Malaysia Solution but certain senators belonging to Labor Left were not keen to back any legislative changes on its behalf either. Third, the Coalition correctly reasoned that Gillard’s border control policy was not comprehensive enough to succeed.

The psychology lesson from the people-smuggling side of the equation is this: when the Malaysia Solution was at least theoretically on the table, the people-smugglers found it harder to fill the boats because of the prospect of customers finding themselves further from Australia than they already were. The people-smugglers countered by offering a free second trip if their clients found themselves back in Indonesia via Malaysia. More importantly for the people-smuggling traders, though, was the fact that Bowen’s 800 quota represented a drop in the ocean compared to the 2000 to 3000 new clients appearing on the scene each month. Once the quota figure was reached, the smugglers could plausibly make the case to potential customers that they would not end up in Malaysia. This is reflected in a brief downturn in illegal maritime arrivals being promptly reversed.

Gillard’s Pacific Solution II ended up failing on every conceivable level. She did not stop the flow of illegal maritime arrivals during her tenure; in fact, the number continued to grow. The six years of the Rudd–Gillard era resulted in more than 50,000 illegal maritime arrivals. If Rudd’s handling of the issue had been—to use Gillard’s own terminology—“incompetent” and “out of control”, then the same must be said about her management of the issue. Labor apologists, during both Rudd’s and Gillard’s time in office, spoke of “push factors” to explain the increase in the number of boat people, and asserted that the dismantling of John Howard’s Pacific Solution in 2008 had nothing to do with it. This has been exposed as a blatant lie a number of times over, not least by Gillard’s quest for a Pacific Solution II. Bruce Hawker, Kevin Rudd’s closest adviser during the 2013 election, has—albeit indirectly—confirmed Labor’s mistruth. This passage is to be found in Paul Toohey’s Quarterly Essay, “That Sinking Feeling”:

The PNG Solution, said Hawker, was Rudd’s way of correcting the mistake he’d made in late 2007 of ordering the offshore facilities to shut, without a contingency plan; while at the same time making a genuine attempt to end the deaths at sea.

How does this revelation fit with Kevin Rudd’s rhetoric in June 2010 about resisting a “kind of race to the bottom” with Tony Abbott?

The deaths at sea, more than 1100 in the end, represent a further horrendous instance of Gillard’s administration being “incompetent” and matters getting “out of control”. On December 15, 2010, Australians watched in horror the televised account of a leaky Indonesian fishing boat, with its human cargo of eighty-nine, breaking up on the rocks of Christmas Island. Fifty souls perished at sea that morning. Eight people drowned off Java in December 2011 trying to make it to Australia, another eight died off Malaysia in February 2012, and so it continued. The greatest single disaster occurred in December 2011 when as many as 200 people drowned after their boat capsized off eastern Java. Bramston acknowledges that Labor’s “policy failure” was a primary factor in this human tragedy.

There are only two logical responses to those appalling—and unnecessary—deaths, and both involve eradicating the diabolical people-smuggling business. The radical leftist solution, as per the Greens, is that if Australia were more welcoming to people from overseas desiring or needing to come here, then there would be no requirement for the services of people-smugglers and nobody drowning on the high seas. As John Lennon might say: “Imagine there’s no countries … Imagine all the people sharing all the world.” As Bob Carr, Gillard’s second Foreign Minister, recently commented in the Spectator:

In my diary I quoted Kevin Rudd at cabinet on 11 July 2013, asking an adviser how high this number—those brought by people smugglers—might climb. Up to 50,000 a year, the adviser replied. Even higher, I thought, as smugglers in Asian ports sensed opportunity … The militants or romantics in the refugee lobby won’t tell us the annual level of irregular migration that they would find acceptable. A hundred thousand? Or 150,000?

The advantage the Greens have over all the other political parties is that they draw their support almost exclusively from people infused with the ideology of anti-bourgeois bohemian leftism. They are, in most respects, utopian fantasists who care little what ordinary Australians want. In short, the Greens have an ideologically homogenous support base not overly fussed about any surge in irregular arrivals to Australia, other than for the safety and well-being of those arrivals. Labor’s constituency, on the other hand, is more heterogeneous, being an amalgam of socially conservative traditionalists and middle-class progressives. Bob Carr’s impression of a knockabout populist on the subject of boat people speaks to that conundrum.

Gillard’s move against Rudd in June 2010 and her concomitant Pacific Solution II indicated the belief that she could restore the political fortunes of Labor. Despite her affiliation with the Victorian Left, there was an assumption on her part—supported by the Labor Right powerbrokers who backed her for the top job—that she could better represent the concerns of Labor’s heartland, ordinary blue-collar and white-collar Aussie workers residing in the outer suburbs of Australian cities. Rudd often boasted about “getting the balance right”, but Julia Gillard was the one with a postmodernist Aussie working-class accent that echoed Bob Hawke’s impersonation of Chips Rafferty.

Gillard’s “Laborist” strategy to eliminate the people-smugglers proved such a fiasco that Rudd—of all people—chose to “lurch to the right” on the issue in mid-2013 as a part of his stratagem to replace Gillard as prime minister. Those with a Labor or progressive perspective assert that Tony Abbott utilised the boat-people issue for his own political gain. Tony Bramston speaks of Abbott having “exploited” the problem, while Paul Toohey writes about the issue “being exploited by Abbott, ruthlessly”. The reality of the matter, patently, is that Rudd and then Gillard and then Rudd recklessly, brutally and disastrously toyed with Howard’s Pacific Solution for their own political advancement. It is easy to forget that during the 2007 election campaign, when Rudd sold himself as a Howard-like fiscal conservative, Kevin07 actually supported the Coalition’s tow-back guidelines. Throughout Labor’s six years of opportunistic and ineffectual zigzagging, Tony Abbott remained faithful to a long-standing Coalition point of view: a position that had the virtue of being tried and tested—and successful.

There are, to repeat, only two moral options available on the subject of the people-smuggling industry and the deaths of innocent people on the high seas. You can be an anti-bourgeois bohemian internationalist and demand our border control regime be minimised to such an extent that there no longer remains grounds for the middleman, the people-smuggler, to ply his trade. Conversely, you can adopt a comprehensive border protection program: offshore processing facilities; towing-back procedures; a degree of secrecy to foil the calculations of people-smugglers; and, not least, a strong determination to carry out the policy.

Realising that the surge in boat people was no less “out of control” under her prime ministership than Rudd’s, Gillard announced an inquiry, commissioning defence chief Angus Houston in 2012 to provide her with a course of action. Paul Toohey reproaches Abbott for scorning the Houston report before it was even announced, but then makes the following admission:

Abbott spoke too soon: none of the key points contradicted Coalition policy. It recommended the reopening of Nauru and Manus Island; did not rule out turning back the boats when the time was right; did not consider the Malaysia Solution as currently workable; advocated application of a “no advantage” principle, meaning a person who came by boat would not get a visa ahead of someone waiting in a refugee camp, and recommended that Australia’s humanitarian intake be immediately increased from 13,750 to 20,000 places (a position Abbott had said he would consider during debate on the Oakeshott bill).

Bob Carr, in his Spectator article, refers to Kevin Rudd’s decision—soon after returning to the prime ministership in June 2013—to initiate the Papua New Guinea Solution as “a masterstroke”. It was indeed a masterstroke but only in the sense that it (a) convinced many of Labor’s traditionalist voters not to switch their vote to the Coalition in the federal election on September 7, and (b) permits Bill Shorten’s Labor team to make believe they solved the boat-people issue before losing government. The ALP’s current immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, and former immigration minister, Tony Burke, never allow an opportunity to pass in parliament without claiming that Kevin Rudd’s Manus Island scheme—and not the Coalition’s comprehensive border control policy—explains the cessation of illegal maritime arrivals. Marles and Burke are no doubt laying the groundwork for a future election campaign in which the ALP will argue to their outer-suburban/traditionalist constituency that the issue of irregular maritime arrivals need not be “out of control” on Labor’s watch.

The reality, of course, is that for a host of reasons opening (or re-opening) an offshore processing facility would not in itself have put the people-smugglers out of business. Without the tow-back option and degree of secrecy Rudd’s Pacific Solution III would have fared no better than Gillard’s Pacific Solution II. The people-smugglers only had to wait until the Manus Island facility approached capacity—the sort of intelligence blithely divulged by Labor—and the people-smuggling trade would have once again boomed. Rudd’s hollow undertaking to extend the Manus Island facility to 10,000 signifies an implicit acknowledgment of a flaw in his New Guinea initiative.

But there are so many defects in Labor’s ability to take charge of the issue. Though Paul Toohey is not especially sympathetic to the Coalition, his remarks on the “instincts” of a group of Iranian economic refugees living in Indonesia tell us a lot. Tony Abbott, according to the would-be boat people, would not waver in his resolve, while “Mister Kevin Rudd, as they called him, would not say no” to them. Rudd dared not commit to more than twelve months for the Manus Island option because the ALP remains totally divided on how to manage illegal maritime arrivals. The evidence is everywhere. In May this year Fremantle Labor MP, Melissa Parke, advised caucus of her intent to propose a motion condemning the “inhumane, unsafe and unsanitary” conditions on Manus Island and Nauru, a situation that “placed Australia in breach of both Labor’s platform and international law”. Recently the New South Wales Young Labor Left decided to withdraw support for ALP parliamentary candidates who agree with mandatory detention and offshore processing. What unscrupulous people-smuggler is going to pack up their business and go elsewhere on the basis of Labor’s resolve? The record of the Rudd–Gillard years suggests an answer.

Troy Bramston spends the second half of Rudd, Gillard and Beyond on a quest to discover the blueprint that will permit his beloved ALP “to win again and stay in power”. His multiple Labor interviewees, from the current leader Bill Shorten to the ninety-seven-year-old Gough Whitlam, find 101 ways to repeat Rudd’s “getting the balance right” mantra. It is shallow and dispiriting stuff, and permeated by the usual Labor myths. Whitlam is characterised as the legendary figure who removed “the last vestiges of the White Australia policy”, when Bramston would be more accurate to say that the Coalition dismantled the White Australia policy before Whitlam came to office and leave it at that. Bramston is keen to comprehend the reasons why Labor gets things wrong, so here is some free advice: the constant undertaking by ALP apologists to depict their party as morally superior to the Coalition (or conservative-libertarianism in general) explains in no small measure the party’s inability to deal with the illegal maritime arrivals question.

The most disturbing section in Bramston’s Rudd, Gillard and Beyond is the interview with Bill Shorten. The man deludes himself that Labor owes the Australian people no apology for the ineptitude of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years. His arrogance is breathtaking and even Bramston seems a little surprised by the fellow’s hubris. Back Rudd, sack Rudd, back Gillard, sack Gillard—none of this disturbs Shorten’s view that only the ALP gets it right. Shorten, insists Bramston, spoke more openly and critically “of Labor in power under Rudd and Gillard” between 2007 and 2013 than any other government minister. Nevertheless, when the criticism goes beyond personalities, Shorten remains mute.

Even now he “will not countenance criticism over the response to the global financial crisis or the blowout in government spending” while Labor held office. On the subject of the boat people all he is prepared to say is that Labor was “right” to “return to offshore processing of asylum seekers”. Shorten’s unapologetic assault on the Coalition’s 2014 Budget makes perfect sense in the context of Bramston’s interview. The Labor leader’s haughty contempt for the Coalition’s effort to remedy a fiscal crisis echoes Rudd’s snooty disdain for John Howard’s Pacific Solution all those years ago.

Some argue that the Rudd–Gillard era would have been a success if not for the Rudd–Gillard rivalry. The attitude of Simon Crean, cabinet minister under four Labor prime ministers, is presented along these lines in Rudd, Gillard and Beyond. The Rudd–Gillard governments, insists Crean, were “important for the country” but “fatally undermined by the war between them”. They had been “a great team” during the first three years; the “fracturing” of that relationship was a “tragedy” from which Labor never recovered. Obviously it did not help that they became bitter rivals after June 2010, and yet to explain the failure of Rudd–Gillard governments primarily in terms of personal enmity is untenable.

The calamity of the Rudd–Gillard era cannot be satisfactorily explained by the disharmony between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. It was, in the first place, Labor’s irresponsible policies between 2007 and 2010 that brought the first Rudd administration undone, not Gillard’s personal ambition. Equally, Rudd’s desire for revenge did not destroy the Gillard government’s credibility but, rather, Labor’s ham-fisted policies from 2010 to 2013. The original Rudd government, in the estimate of its own federal caucus, had become unfixable by June 2010. The Gillard government, according to a majority of its own parliamentary members, became untenable by June 2013.

Gillard defenders will argue that Rudd’s long-term scheming seriously undermined Australia’s first female prime minister and left the caucus with no choice but to re-instate Rudd. All the same, the fifty-seven caucus members (out of a total of 101) who voted for Rudd did so not because of his plotting against Gillard but despite it. Many backed him while simultaneously holding their noses. It was a choice between annihilation at the impending September election and recycling media-savvy Kevin07. The Australian Labor Party itself voted to terminate the Gillard era, denying the opportunity for an aggrieved public to do so.

We may assume that once the Coalition has rescued Australia’s financial situation and secured our sovereign borders for a period, the ALP will wheedle its way back onto the government benches. Labor Right will promise to protect us from Labor Left and, in turn, Labor Left will defend us from the excesses of the Greens—or so the fantasy goes. The new Labor prime minister, like Rudd and Gillard, will almost certainly promise to steer a “centrist” course between the austerity of the Coalition and the radicalness of the Greens. Some voters might reflect on the fallacy of the Golden Mean and its pertinence to the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd era. Does steering a middle course between sane and rational principles and the policies of the barking mad lead to good governance—or simply leave us stranded in the twilight world of the half-mad?

Daryl McCann wrote “The Looming Prospect of a Second Cold War” in the May issue. He blogs at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au


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