There has been saturation coverage here in Australia of the downfall of Ms Gillard and the return of Mr Rudd. I don't want to talk about the detail of what happened. Instead, a few short observations on both the events and people's responses to the events.
One of the most frequently expressed expressed comments in discussion links to the belief that Australians vote for the Prime Minister. Mr Rudd was voted in and then overthrown. That's a breach of democracy. This type of comment comes in a variety of ways. This type of comment is both constitutionally incorrect and also dangerous.
Despite the increasing hype placed on the leader, Australia does not have a presidential system. At the last Federal election, I did not vote for Ms Gillard or Mr Abbott, although the vote I gave may have been influenced by my views on the two. I actually voted for a local member of Parliament in the lower house, for a state representative in the Senate.
In our system Parliament, not the president or prime minister, is boss and who controls Parliament, more precisely the lower house, has the right to govern for the present, subject to our judgment at a later point. In that process, the parties are a way of organising the vote. So, traditionally, many Australians think of their vote as a vote for the party. I voted for whatever that person's name was because they represent my party. The core constitutional principle remains true. The party remains in power only so long as it controls a majority on the floor of the lower house.
The problem with the quasi-presidential belief is not just that it breaches constitutional principles, but it also causes us to focus on particular individuals instead of teams and makes us believe that out vote somehow must bind those we vote for. You can actually see this if you look at the word mandate.
Definitions vary, but one definition is the authority to carry out a policy, regarded as given by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins an election. The electorate cannot bind Parliament, it can only judge later. To the degree a notional contract exists, it is between the elector and the elected as agreed at a point in time. Even then it's slippery, as you can see in that rather strange discussion about core versus other promises.
Governments are there to govern. We cannot bind them, we can only reject them later.
Problems of Perception and Bias
I have been fascinated if depressed watching the flow of comments. Take this post from Catallaxy Files on Rob Oakeshott's decision not to contest his electorate again: "Australia’s Benedict Arnold, Rob Oakeshott, is also a coward. Oakeshott, the lily-livered yellow belly. His betrayal will be long remembered."
Embedded in a lot of the comments that you will see, this is an example, are a combination of implicit values and assumptions. There is very little analysis. So just focusing on the words. Benedict Arnold was a general who deflected to the British side during the civil war that led to the formation of the USA. So Mr Oakeshott is clearly a traitor whose betrayal will be long remembered.
Why is he a traitor? Why is he a coward? It appears that he is a traitor because he finally supported the formation of the Gillard Government. He is a lily livered coward because he decided not to run again. By implication, he should have run so that he could have been properly punished. Into the Valley of Death and all that.
I have no problems with opinions. I do have a problem when opinions impede effective debate or twist analysis.
The Misogyny Problem
As an example, take the misogyny problem. Some of my feminist friends cheered Julia Gillard's misogyny speech. That's fine if you are focused on a cause, if that's your judgement frame. Go, Julia, go.
So let's look at my perception of the facts.
Julia Gillard's elevation to PM occurred because she was seen as the most effective performer at a time when there were reservations about Mr Rudd. She was not the first female political leader to head an Australian jurisdiction, but she was the first Australian woman PM. There is no doubt that there were sexist reactions to her, you only have to look at some of the placards that emerged later to see that, but did it affect her ability to be an effective PM? I can't see how,
When Ms Gillard introduced the misogyny card into debate, she may have been cheered along by some feminists, but it damaged her because it detracted from the message that she needed to get across, the leader in control. It also accentuated a gender divide in the polls. Did it advance the broader feminist cause? I have no idea. I suspect not, but we will only know that later.
The Minority Government
Really, one of the strangest things has been the way that discussion has focused on the problems created by minority government. Assume that Julia Gillard had a majority of one. Would it have altered results in any way? I think not. Internal Labor dynamics would have continued regardless.
In any case, the support of the New England independents was one of the rock sold bases of the Gillard Government. Sure, they negotiated on particular issues. But in politics, to have someone who keeps their word and who negotiates on principles is rather special. That is why Catallaxy Files so hates Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. Without them, the Gillard Government would have fallen earlier.
Just think about it. Your word is your bond. It's a country thing, I guess, although I accept that that is one of my prejudices!
Causes of Failure
In multiple posts, I traced the growing failure of the Rudd and Gillard administrations. If we just focus on Ms Gillard, her failure lay in an inability to be truly prime ministerial. Of course, she inherited problems from the Rudd period. But as a fighter, she could never stand above the fray, she had to fight.
I could illustrate this with case studies, but for the moment I will just let it stand beyond this brief comment. The PM's job is not to win every debate, she (he) cannot. Her job is to stand above the fray, to give her team clean air to do things. That is where both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard failed.
Judgement of history
Rereading this post this morning, I felt that I should add one more thing to provide a differing perspective. How will Ms Gillard be judged by history? Pretty obviously, the story of rise and fall will interest. But what about the success of the Government as a whole?
At the most basic level and despite the sometimes turmoil, this was a working Government. Decisions were made, acts passed, taxes collected, bills paid. Economic management was okay and may receive a reasonable tick given global economic conditions, although the Gillard, Rudd and Howard Governments are all likely to be marked down for failure to gain best results from the mining boom. We have a measure here in subsequent judgements on the Fraser Government.
Refugee policy is likely to be seen as a fail, although judgements here will be made in the context of both Howard and probably the subsequent Abbott administrations. What do I mean by fail? Well not the success or failure of turn back the boats. That's an immediate political issue'. Rather, the broader humanitarian questions involved.
One of the interesting thing about the evolving interpretations of Australian history lies in the way that the humanity or inhumanity associated with decisions and actions becomes more important with time.
Malcolm Fraser is remembered positively, indeed the country takes a degree of pride in, the way that Vietnamese boat people were treated. By contrast, the treatment of unmarried mothers, of Aboriginal children, of the Dunera Boys, are examples where judgments have become harsher with time. I suspect that history's judgement on this particular aspect of Australian history is likely to be negative, although the Gillard Government will not be alone in this.
On some of the other policy matters such as Disability Insurance or education, its too early to tell because it depends on just what happens. Certainly the Government is likely to be seen as a centralising government with further transfers of control to the centre, continuing a trend. My feeling is that Disability Insurance is likely to be seen as an important social initiative, whereas education is more likely to be seen as an important failure in policy terms. I say this not because of the success or failure in getting the states to sign up, but because I think that some of the policy underpinnings are flawed.
I am reminded here of the Dawkins' reforms, reforms that I supported at the time, where judgments have become increasingly critical to the point that I and some others now regard them as fatally flawed. One of the things about historical judgement is that it places actions and changes in a context of what came before, what came after. On that basis, I suspect that Gonski and indeed a lot of current policy approaches will receive a cross.
Finally, and I was reminded of this by some of the comments I have seen from outside Australia, we should remember Ms Gillard's basic humanity. We judge on the turmoil of the time and we actually have very high expectations. For that reason, our immediate judgements are often harsh.
To many of those outside Australia who live in harsher conditions (social, political, economic), the thing that stands out with Australia is that our system seems to work. There is a bit of luck in that, but we do seem to muddle through. Measured in that way, I suspect that we need to give Ms Gillard our thanks! '