The meaning of an extraordinary day in Australian politics

Only two days ago I wrote that while Kevin Rudd was preferred by many to Julia Gillard, and that Newspoll gave a Rudd-led ALP an unlikely win over the Coalition, the longer he waited the more likely Julia was to be the Prime Minister when election day began. Well, he was given his chance yesterday, and did nothing about it. Julia called a leadership vote in caucus, and Kevin did not put his hand up. Things are as they were. But at what cost!

Altogether it was an extraordinary day, and I followed it by the minute (almost) on (yesterday’s news is now hard to find there). The times mentioned are those at which the reporter filed his or her story, presumably by iPad or iPhone, so the actual times would have been a few minutes earlier. What was fascinating in the reading was the sense of a disturbed ant-heap, with reporters and politicians moving restlessly around the Parliament, brushing antennae.

The drama began on the previous evening when the Government’s Chief Whip, Joel Fitzgibbon, had made a number of rather odd statements on television about leadership changes. The Independent MP Tony Windsor was on TV the next morning saying that Labor was heading for ‘oblivion’ if it kept this up, and by 9.00 am it was clear that numbers were being counted inside a restive Labor caucus. At 9.20 the Coalition’s Christopher Pyne pointed out that Rudd couldn’t have the numbers, because he’d already have used them.

At 9.30 a Labor MP was calling on Joel Fitzgibbon to resign his post, as his job was to protect the Prime Minister’s back, and he plainly was not doing it. At 9.40 Simon Crean, the former Leader of the Opposition, and hitherto a strong supporter of Julia Gillard, was said to be talking to the Rudd camp, and at 9.46 he was talking to reporters: leadership speculation was ‘tearing us from inside’ and had to end; he called on the Prime Minister to end ‘the class warfare politics’ she had been waging. Crean’s move was decisive, even though Stephen Conroy said confidently at 10.25 that there wouldn’t be a leadership spill.

The day’s parliamentary business was about the media bills, and at 10.57 Pyne said that if they weren’t passed the government should resign, because failure to pass would effectively be a vote of no confidence. Simon Crean  went to see both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, and somewhere along the way he ceased to be a Minister. At 12.16 the media bills were withdrawn.

At 1.03 pm Crean called for a spill: he wouldn’t be standing for the top job himself, but he could be persuaded to be deputy. He also said that if there were a leadership change what would happen then would be a matter for the Independent MPs, on whom the Government relies for a majority in the lower House. ‘There is no point continuing on a hung Parliament in these circumstances’. This sounded like the warning of an early election, and indeed if Kevin Rudd had stood for election as leader, and won, his obvious course would be to ask the Governor-General dissolve Parliament, and hope that he could revive the Kevin ’07 magic in the next  four or five weeks.

But of course that didn’t happen. The Prime Minister announced at 2.00 pm that there would be a caucus meeting at 4.30 pm where the leadership question would be settled, the Leader of the Opposition moved a no-confidence motion in the Prime Minister, and that effectively ended Question Time for the next two months. At this point the bookies were preferring Rudd to Gillard at $1.10 to $6.00. The Opposition failed to get an absolute majority for its no-confidence motion at 2.40 pm, and that was that.

At 4.24 Kevin Rudd said (on his Facebook page) that he would only return as leader if there were an ‘overwhelming majority’ of his colleagues behind him, which indicated that he knew that wasn’t the case at the moment. At 4.47 pm it was announced that there had been only one nomination each for the positions of leader and deputy-leader, and that was that too.

At the end of the day the Government has lost one of its best Ministers, its Chief Whip, another member of the Ministry, and a couple of junior whips [and by this afternoon, two more Ministers]. The Prime Minister put a brave and rather impatient face on it in her short media statement. She had never sought power for herself, only for the nation’s interests. Etc. She talked about her policies, and mentioned the NBN, which was a Rudd idea, is now five years old and needs another few years to be completed [a recent report says that at current rates of progress, it will be 2081 before it is completed]. I don’t think it’s an election winner.

In fact, I don’t think that the Government has anything like an election-winning arrow in its armoury. Her best hope is an alien invasion of somewhere else on the planet, which causes electorates in every country to unite in fear behind whoever is in power at the moment. Short of that, a flood everywhere about a month  before polling day might help, as it did Anna Bligh in Queensland, at least for a time.

The Australian Labor Party is more than a hundred years old, and it has shown its self-destructive capacity on other occasions, so what happened yesterday is not new. But when it happens, it is never a pretty sight.

(The use of the newest communications technology was part and parcel of yesterday’s drama, and I have been told, such is the pace of change in the communications world, that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are amalgamating, to emerge shortly as one of the largest IT enterprises in the world, to be called YouTwitFace.)


Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Felix Hayman says:

    You know, I thought yesterday of Gough.I wondered if he has seen the last of the true believers.In fact there was a rumour going around social media that he had died.I think something in his heart died yesterday and in all of us who lived through the 1960’s and 1970’s

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  • kvd says:

    “the Leader of the Opposition moved a no-confidence motion in the Prime Minister”

    Don, I’m not sure what significance you place upon accuracy – although, with a history degree – I would assume you’d think it’s important. The above statement is incorrect, and quite misleading in fact.

    It is bad enough second-checking the various msm ‘pundits’ let alone having your confidence reduced in someone such as yourself – who should know better; should be aware of the significance of process; and to this point has displayed a relative neutrality in political commentary.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    You’re right. Sloppy writing on my part. I should have said that he ‘called for’ a motion of no confidence. Formally, he moved suspension of standing orders in order to allow motion of no confidence. That was the motion that did not attract the necessary absolute majority. Mea culpa.

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