Shorten's audacity of hope drove this crisis

Opinion Article

2012 February, 24

Observing from the far periphery the machinations of the Labor Party leadership war, I have little to contribute to the struggle between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. I want to make only two observations about the execution of Rudd in his first term as prime minister. 


First, the role of the man with the baton of national leadership burning in his knapsack, Bill Shorten, the Assistant Treasurer. 


Second, the man who announced upon Gillard's ascendancy he had buried his baton and was pleased to serve as the nation's Treasurer, Wayne Swan. 


I cast no judgment on their behaviour. Ever since the great Trinidadian writer CLR James, channelling Rudyard Kipling, came up with that immortal question "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?", tribal outsiders will always struggle to decipher the Australian Labor Party. 


The starting point of my speculation is acceptance of John Howard's view that Rudd would have won the last election. However dysfunctional his first term, the Australian people would have given Labor a second go with a chastened majority. 


Instead, Labor chose regicide. 


Shorten was one of the faceless men who executed the coup against Rudd. Yet he was hardly faceless. Unlike other touted generational rivals Greg Combet and Chris Bowen, Shorten vigorously sought to force events. 


He is a man who wants to turn the wheels of history forward in a hurry until his time comes nigh. Sitting in the second, if not third, tier of the succession, Shorten, newly elected to parliament in 2007 with a sense of destiny as big as Bob Hawke's, wanted to compress the timeline. After all, after two terms of Rudd it would be Julia's turn. And there would have to be a period of opposition somewhere in there. Jeez, you could be talking about hanging around parliament for another 10 years. 


Gillard was under no time pressure. She would have been happy for Rudd to have two terms. She was forced to go sooner by other people's agendas. Shorten's agenda in wanting to hurry the succession along was crucial. 


His agility on and off stage is something to behold. This week, when the pro-Gillard ministers came out kicking Rudd's cojones with their Blundstones, Shorten audaciously tried to be more nuanced. Talk about audacity. 


If, as seems likely, Labor falls into opposition at the next election, Shorten will be leading the broken party out of the wilderness, years before his time. 


My second fascination concerns the relationship between the two Nambour High School alumni, Rudd and Swan. Theirs is a case study in the breakdown of the first among equals principle, when rivalry ends in resentment rather than begrudging respect. 


When Kim Beazley's staunchest lieutenant, Swan worked hard to thwart his former flatmate's ambitions, down to the last vote when Rudd prevailed. (It's amusing to picture these two flatting together in their early Canberra days, wondering what the other was up to over their morning Weetbix and Vegemite.) 


Rudd's decision to appoint his fellow Queenslander as Treasurer must haunt his fitful nights. Instead of ending up a working duo, with Swan acting as Keith Richards to Rudd's Mick Jagger (or to use an example closer to Swan's heart, the Big Man to the Boss), Swan probably never reconciled himself to playing second fiddle. 


Holding your rival brother close to you can sometimes be the most dangerous place to put him. Instead of the Richards-Jagger combo, the whole thing turned out a nightmare like Ike and Tina Turner. Except, before Swan's vitriolic attack on Rudd this week, we didn't know which one was Ike. 


Early in his tenure, Rudd was reported to be reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's classic study of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, Team of Rivals, the exemplar on how to work with those who once fought you for their own presidential ambitions. Rudd clearly learned nothing from Lincoln.

Shorten's audacity of hope drove this crisis