Hypocrisy, plotting and misogyny: Explaining the brutal nature of Australian party leadership

Posted on behalf of Mark Bennister

It would appear absurd and self-defeating to remove a sitting Prime Minister less than 3 months before a general election and return a leader who had himself been removed from office only 3 years previously. After all divided parties do not win elections. The Rudd-Gillard soap opera may be a personal battle for supremacy of a dysfunctional Australian Labor party, but its roots lie in systematic and elite driven party politics. The simple answer as to why the Australian Labor party ousted Gillard this week and Rudd in 2010 is that they could and they had previous. Since 1945, there have been several challenges to sitting Prime Ministers in the party room and numerous examples of party leaders being turned out of office in both main parties. Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton was challenged shortly after winning the 1969 election and again in 1971 when a tied vote famously saw him casting the deciding vote against himself. Andrew Peacock failed to unseat Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1981. Under Labor Bob Hawke managed to see off Paul Keating’s first party room challenge in 1991 but after a destabilising 6 month backbench campaign from Keating, lost the premiership. Rudd’s comeback is not so unusual. As Pat Weller observed the vanquished in Australian politics are reluctant to leave the stage. Challengers regroup and fight again as Keating did in 1991, but also leaders can hang around to fight to regain the crown as John Howard did successfully and Peacock unsuccessfully in the Liberal party.

The political culture of party leadership in Australia is ‘brutal’. The end for Gillard’s leadership of the party and country was swift, as Rudd’s first effort had been. A leadership ‘spill’ can be organised a short notice and defenestration is swift and ruthless. The oligarchic nature of party organisation ensures that party leaders need to satisfy, placate, manipulate or cajole their peers to survive in post. Research into leadership selection has shown that leadership selection and ejection, concentrated as it is within the Federal Parliamentary Party marks the ALP and Liberal party out. Furthermore the institutionalisation of the ALP’s factions is not only more entrenched than any other Australian party, but arguably any other social democratic party in the Western world. Australian party politics has managed to resist the trend towards expanding leadership selection beyond the parliamentary party to the membership. The short three year electoral cycle is cited as the most common reason for maintaining the status quo. Both main parties cannot afford to indulge in extended leadership selection and be ‘leaderless’. So the power to select the party leader remains firmly in the hands of the parliamentary caucus with this concentration of elite power exacerbating the role of factions within the ALP. Former party leader Mark Latham called Labor a ‘virtual party controlled by a handful of machine men’.

As Rudd and Gillard found out, once leadership speculation gets going in Canberra a cocktail of party power brokers and political journalists can easily destabilise an incumbent Prime Minister. The devastating critique of Rudd by journalist David Marr in early June 2010 represented a tipping point in Rudd’s fortunes giving rise to the concerted internal party opposition. Gillard, with the opinion polls tanking for some time, suffered from Rudd’s constant sniping and a strain of virulent misogyny peddled from the Opposition and media. Running a minority government, fighting Rudd within the ALP and facing an aggressive centre-right bully in Liberal party leader Tony Abbott as well as the constant media attacks meant she had little chance. Once the speculation is set in motion it becomes a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, as leadership consolidation is an elusive commodity in Australian politics and Federal MPs only see self-preservation.

Unedifying and undemocratic it may be but the parliamentary caucus dynamic and machine politics create an Australian leadership setting in which hypocrisy, deceit and plotting are endemic.

Cross-posted at Political Insight

Mark Bennister is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. His monograph Prime Minister in Power: Political Leadership in Britain and Australia was published in 2012 by Palgrave. He occasionally tweets @MarkBennister

2 thoughts on “Hypocrisy, plotting and misogyny: Explaining the brutal nature of Australian party leadership

  1. This brief comment appears to have been written by an Australian Labor Party apologist who only knows what he has read from afar in his favourite news sources. He misses the vital bit of information that Ms Gillard broke a number of election promises and had, by the end of her premiership, reached a spectacular low point in personal popularity with the Australian people much of it related to those broken political promises, as well as the scandal that plagued her ministry in the form of allegations of corruption, harassment and criminal behaviour.

    The alleged misogyny on the part of the Opposition leader, indeed the labelling of him as a ‘bully’ by the author, did not exist but was rather a campaign meme made up by the Labor Party to allow Ms Gillard to exploit her gender whilst continually degrading the reputation of Mr Abbott.

    If there was any misogyny (using the modern Australian definition of the word, rather than the usual OED definition), it came from the current Prime Minister of Australia, who conducted a three year campaign to undermine Ms Gillard as Prime Minister, whilst trying to appear as if he was a team player.

    It would also be fair to say that 70% of the newspapers in Australia supported the premiership of Ms Gillard. However, 70% of the newspapers only make up 30% of those newspapers sold, with the left wing Fairfax newspapers losing readership rapidly whilst the centre-right News Limited newspapers, comprising 30% of newspaper publishers in Australia but accounting for 70% of all newspapers sold, were anti-Gillard and anti-ALP. To say it was misogynist, however, would be like alleging that Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock were misogynist because they opposed Mrs Thatcher.

    I am surprised the Constitution Unit has allowed such a poor piece of work to grace what is usually a very perceptive blog.

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