The killing season must end: Why Labor should not change its leader

shorten gillardThe Killing Season on the ABC is brilliant television and should give producer Deb Masters and writer/presenter Sarah Ferguson a double in TV and journalism awards. The three-part series is deservedly taking plaudits for its riveting dissection of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars. Though the period has been well examined in books, The Killing Season is rich multi-sensory art, from the wintry Poe-theme opening and the music of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed hero and adventurer.

The Killing Season offered extended interviews of its own flawed protagonists, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, two of the sharpest minds in Australian politics in the 21st century. Both had the right stuff to become Prime Minister but got in each other’s way. They were personal and political opposites, but made a smart marriage of convenience at the time, as Simon Crean observed. Rudd got the nod as leader, easier to sell as a male Protestant than a female atheist.

Rudd was a consummate actor and phenomenal media performer. He dominated their first election as a team and the defeat of four-time Prime Minister John Howard was put down to “Kevin 07”. The electorate respected Gillard but loved Rudd and his nerdy dad persona. His rock-star status was still rising after the 2008 Stolen Generations apology and his response to the Global Financial Crisis. But his stratospheric ratings could not last forever and quickly fell to earth after the Liberals appointed a hard-nosed leader to replace the hapless Malcolm Turnbull. Saving Australia from financial collapse was an astonishing achievement but too intangible to measure and Rudd’s leadership slowly collapsed amid a series of self-inflicted blows.

Rudd wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan made a fatal error to replace him in June 2010, though each step in the process was defensible. Rudd still had a winning lead when he was sacked in 2010, despite his problems. Rudd could not believe what was happening, his horror best expressed in The Killing Season in his shocked, almost whispered comment that trails off, “But the polls….?” His government had 52-48 lead over Abbott at the time, just like Shorten has now. But Labor panicked and he was gone. The people were not consulted and the coup would, as Anthony Albanese predicted, destroy two Labor leaders.

Much of the testimony of that 2010 period is of chaotic moments shared Rashomon-style with differing conclusions depending on the speaker. The Killing Season was, as one deft reviewer called it, classical tragedy “where at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net”. Gillard replaced Rudd but couldn’t remove him. And for the next three years, he white-anted her relentlessly until his revenge was served stone-cold in 2013. Gillard and Rudd’s relationship was not the first poisoned by power and won’t be the last. Neither were “killed”, but they destroyed each other politically and are now both lost to parliament despite still being in their 50s and in their prime.

Worse still, their Labor Party too is now out of power, rudderless as well as ruddless, after looking semi-invincible from 2007 to 2009. Two leaders and two elections later the moral challenges of our generation are in the calamitous hands of Tony Abbott, the great divider. The Killing Season is important history to see how we got to that equation in six short years. The astonishing personal enmity tells us how Labor imploded and is compelling viewing. But a better guide to why it happened comes from the rich first-hand testimony of the large coterie of supporting characters swirming around Gillard and Rudd.

Sarah Ferguson is Australia’s sharpest political interviewer and her forensic approach extracted the drama from every statement and counter-statement. Most Labor ministers were rueful, occasionally bitter, but always honest, whether they supported Beasley, Rudd or Gillard. Minders like Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton were eye-opening in their perceptive day-to-day detail. Their admiration for Rudd’s judgement was shared by Gordon Brown, Hank Paulson and Ken Henry. Only three notables from the Labor first rank did not have their say with Sarah and two of them, Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner, are retired. The third is current leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s minders no doubt believed there was nothing to gain from raking over old coals – particularly coals that Shorten himself stoked, with important roles in the 2010 and 2013 coups. This was a mistake, he should have explained what Labor had learned from the process (arguably nothing if today’s factional announcement from Tasmania is a guide). Shorten was implicated anyway despite his silence, caught out lying to Neil Mitchell about the 2013 challenge that brought Rudd back to power.

Shorten has apologised privately to the Melbourne radio host but should return to Mitchell’s show to talk about why he lied in the first place. It has undermined one of Shorten’s main advantages over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after the latter was caught out lying spectacularly and repeatedly to the public the night before the election.

The Killing Series came out at a bad time for Shorten. Fairfax have gone on the attack over questions he may have to answer in a politically motivated union inquiry. Others on the left such as Jason Wilson decry Shorten as a do-little union apparatchik constantly moving to the right to avoid being wedged by Tony Abbott. Yet he leads in the polls, and a move to sack him would only suit Abbott, who is trying to get Labor to panic again. Abbott has no intention of going to an early election he wouldn’t win, but more Labor leadership turmoil would change that.

Abbott hailed The Killing Season as an unmasking of Labor’s untrustworthiness. “I don’t normally say thank you to the ABC,” Abbott admitted in parliament, “but I have to say Australia is indebted to you on this instance.” Abbott was spouting rubbish as usual, but he was right on one point – he doesn’t normally say thank you to the ABC. He’s normally lying about its future, stacking the board, slashing its budget and attacking its editorial policies.

Barely days after The Killing Season, he launched into open warfare over the Zaky Mallah exchange on Q&A on Monday. Not for the first time, Abbott used the sporting analogy of “whose side are you on?” when attacking the ABC. Abbott’s crude “team Australia” rhetoric is inadequate when trying to distil a complex argument like why people support Islamic State. It was a point Mallah demolished when he spoke about how young Australian Muslims become disenfranchised. The ABC took no “sides” but offered a platform for dissenting views, a platform urgently needed as the Murdoch press (which sets the media agenda and also has a vested interest in attacking the public broadcaster) becomes increasingly one-sided. The ABC is considered duplicitous despite the public judging twice as trustworthy as the government.

This is not just a problem for the ABC. It is a problem for Labor as an alternative government. Rupert Murdoch is a bulwark for Tony Abbott, his papers running constant interference and setting agendas by attacking Abbott’s enemies while giving him an easy ride. Mallah is considered the enemy but hysterical front page photos like the Courier-Mail’s conflation of the ABC and Islamic State are okay because the Courier-Mail is on “our side”. The effect is to move the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse further to the right.

The Killing Season is classic public broadcasting and a terrific first draft of history. Labor should learn from that history and allow Shorten what it didn’t allow Beasley in 2007, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013: a chance to survive the killing season and be judged by the voters. They might be shocked to find that behind the screeching of Abbott and Murdoch, there is another Australia out there, and one that does not like to be told what to think.

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