Thursday, June 24, 2010

The polls must have been diabolical: the Pointy-haired Boss is no longer PM

Australia has its first female PM as Julia Gillard is elected unopposed to the Labor leadership:
Mr Rudd's sudden and spectacular downfall makes him the first Labor prime minister to be dumped from office before completing a first term.
This strikes me as an unambiguous improvement in good government. A friend whose brother is a senior public servant told me about a month ago that the senior bureaucrats were looking forward to the prospect of Julia replacing Kevin because, unlike Kevin, Julia listens.

Now, as it happens, Julia periodically says things I agree with while I just found Kevin irritating, but that is not the point. The problem with Kevin Rudd as PM was simple: he is a domineering control freak and you cannot be a successful PM of a modern democracy if you are a domineering control freak. You have to be able to listen, to consider because modern societies are just too complex for a single individual or narrow clique to understand the ramifications of actions and policies. In particular, you have to be able to listen and consider if you are going to be at all persuasive.

Take the proposed mining super profits tax. Former Hawke Government minister Peter Walsh correctly highlighted the failures in process behind the tax. It has been striking how unpopular the tax is: apparently on three grounds (1) those people reliant on the mining industry, (2) those people who have super invested in the mining industry—most people nowadays—and (3) feeling it is an offense against the same rules for everyone. Perhaps there was also the problem of confirming the view that "this guy does not listen/is lost in his own little world".

Rudd was a PM notoriously demanding of other people's time. One sign of the problems at the heart of the Rudd Government was the high turnover amongst its staffers. If you feel that only you can make decisions, but have a bureaucrat's demand for "facts" and paper, of course you are going to be frantically demanding of others.

A former federal Labor minister brutally analysed the Rudd Government in terms which fits with the problem of having a domineering control freak at its head:
The electoral timidity, the profligacy, the spin, the lack of reason, the internal bullying, the vast waste of money, the interminable photos with children, the transparent use of religion with the photos at church on Sunday, have all embittered his already unimpressed caucus colleagues.
Having wasted its first term, the Labor government must now remake itself in a way that suggests that it will not waste a second.
New Governments tend to have rocky first terms, as they learn how much harder Government is than Opposition. The Rudd Government also suffered from having followed a Government that had remained fundamentally competent. People may have got tired of John Howard: WorkChoices and housing issues may have alienated them, but the Howard Government was not brought down by issues about basic competence in management.

With the education stimulus scams and the home insulation disaster, an electorate who had got used to basic competence in Federal Government seems to have been unimpressed by the contrast. But both those failures went directly back to the failures inherent in Rudd's "management" (using the term loosely) style. Rudd could just about be used as a perfect exemplar of Dilbert's attack on managerialism.

Kevin Rudd was the Pointy-haired Boss as PM. Not a good look.
All this had become reflected in the opinion polls as people took stock. Now, it is perfectly true that it is normal for Oppositions to lead Governments in the opinion pols at this stage in the electoral cycle. That was not the problem, the problem was the direction of the movement in the polls.

The direction was against the incumbent Government, not towards it. Which is the reverse of how it should be at this stage in the electoral cycle. Kevin Rudd’s popularity slumped dramatically while Tony Abbott was doing fine, thank you. More reports of bad polling results for the Rudd Government. The polling gets worse. This is so the wrong time in the parliamentary cycle for an incumbent government for this to be happening.

The question now is: was the electorate unhappy at Federal Labor as such or just Kevin PM? My feeling is the latter much more than the former. The NSW State Labor Government is fairly clearly a Dead Government Walking, but there is a lot of powerful history there. We are talking about a Government that has had 169 ministerial changes since the 2007 election, has suffered scandal after scandal, was fairly clearly only re-elected last time because the electorate could not quite come at the Liberal Opposition and has just suffered a record-setting by-election swing against, the capping of a series of disastrous by-elections.

Yes, there were some nasty messages for federal Labor in the Penrith by-election wipeout. And the ALP does have a recent tradition of putting a woman in to "carry the can" when things are going bad: as with Carmen Lawrence, Joan Kirner, Kristina Kenneally.

But that is not the only way women get to be heads of Labor Governments: Anna Bligh being the obvious counter example.

So, is Julia Gillard a Carmen/Joann/Kristina or an Anna? That rests on whether the electorate's anger is centred on Kevin or on Federal Labor. My take is that it is much more Kevin than Labor as such. As long as the failures of the Rudd Government can be tagged to Kevin, then I think the Labor Party has to be (now) favoured to win the next Federal election.

Australian federal governments generally do get re-elected. That last one-term federal Government was the Scullin Government, and the onset of the Great Depression was going to be tough to survive. So Julia is surely to be favoured to be re-elected as Australia's first female PM.

Admittedly, Tony Abbott has proved to be a formidable Opposition leader. People have a sense of who Tony is and that clearly works for him. That the Fairfax media/Age/education establishment/academe/art-literary establishment/inner city Progressivist Ascendancy finds that bizarre just shows how much they do not get the perspective of the general public (which, given they define themselves against such is not all that surprising).

But, as long as Kevin's failings are not contagious, then I would bet on Labor being re-elected. So, the question becomes how many time-bombs are there in the policies Kevin set in train?

If I were Julia, I would be taking a very hard look at what Kevin-decided spending is currently in train. I would particularly be asking why the National Broadband Network is not just another home insulation, education stimulus disaster waiting to happen. Because the true disaster for Federal Labor would be for voters to decide all the things that they disliked about Kevin were not just Kevin after all.

$A43 billion dollars in public spending set in train by the Pointy-haired Boss PM. Can't you just feel the looming trainwreck?

UPDATE: Kevin, the now former PM, and his entourage acting like domineering control freaks over the proposed mining super-profit's tax. Kevin’s track record went back to his days in Queensland public life. Former Opposition leader and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer being brutally revealing about K.Rudd:
The point is clear: people at the embassy had died, we needed to get the Indonesians onto the case to establish who the culprits were, we had to show support to the embassy staff at this time of crisis. It wasn’t about me and it certainly wasn’t about the shadow minister for foreign affairs, Mr Kevin Rudd. But for the member for Griffith it was about one thing: himself. …
It has taken an incredible three years for the Australian public to realise who their national leader really is. I sat with a Labor luminary having a late-night drink in June 2008. He turned to me and said: ‘Mate, one day the Australian public will grow to hate Kevin Rudd as much as I do.’ That day has arrived.
An economist’s take on changes in Oz political leadership:
It is noteworthy that their handling of the ETS was decisive in the demise of both Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. The cynicism and opportunism of the Rudd-Turnbull ETS was one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Australian federal politics. It is testimony to the remarkable efficiency of the Australian political system that it is capable of so swiftly liquidating its own errors.


  1. The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.


  2. More wisdom from Adam Smith: very appropriate :)

  3. I don't think Julia is ready for the responsibility of her new found office. Personally I question whether Julia herself wants this or if it is merely a hat thrust upon her by party power-brokers wanting to pick-up the polls and increase the chance of a win at the next election. Good move if that's the case.

    I think Julia's biggest success as PM will be (as you mention) the fact that she listens and is willing to utilise the skills and expertise of others.

    I also think that she has an excellent grasp of modern media and (like Rudd) will use this to her advantage coming into the election. I don't think Abbott communicates as well through the mass-media - though admittedly the media do have a huge role to play in that game. While I personally dislike Julia's manner of speaking, she does speak well and is able to directly touch Labour's core voters with her words.

    It'll be interesting to see how all this pans out.

  4. I vastly prefer Julia to KRudd for exactly the reasons you identify, Lorenzo. In fact, my father was saying that KRudd is a combination of his two most irritating PHBs.... I hope Gillard does better. I really do.

  5. Jared: I agree, except I think she probably is up to it.

    LE: I am confident she will.

  6. I now have visions of a silver-haired, square-glasses wearing Ruddish version of that Dilbert character. Things may never be the same.