Friday, 25 June 2010


For those of us living here in Oz who pay even the slightest attention to politics (which given our compulsory voting should be everyone), the last few days have been biggies. Days that will be discussed in high school politics classes, political science tutes and women's studies lectures for many decades to come. It has been a few days when dragging myself away from screens and speakers has been very hard indeed. I have been a total media whore.

There have been so many fascinating aspects to our change of Prime Minister that I hardly know where to start and I was thinking I wouldn't blog about it since the talk is everywhere and my own thoughts somewhat scrambled. But really, how could I not comment on such a monumental change?

For a start we have a woman PM for the first time. I have mixed emotions about playing this up - I think Julia Gillard is a deeply impressive politician and candidate for the job and that has nothing to do with her being female. I do not want to trivialise her achievements as an individual by branding her as a gender first and foremost. She is smart and calm and empathetic and rational and funny and strategic and communicative and did I mention clever. She doesn't seem to me to be pursuing power for her own edification. I think she's Ace.

But it would also be a complete whitewash to pretend that the elevation of a woman to this post is anything short of a major major milestone for women. We have a long and grubby history of stomping on smart political women and thwarting their careers over the kinds of things we happily cover up or overlook in their male colleagues. She has opened a door that has never been opened before and this is not to be underestimated. That my children will grow up in a world where that door is open is a thing to be celebrated long and hard. That anyone might think it is NOT a significant thing, that it seems entirely reasonable that half the population have never produced a candidate considered worthy is something I find deeply shocking.

I think the other big thing for me in this tangled up mess of thoughts is the social commentary about the process by which these events unfolded. That so many people view the change in leadership as a treasonous act leaves me somewhat cold. I've listened to talk back radio and watched TV coverage and read the tweets and posts about the viciousness of this knifing, how loyal Labor supporters won't support a party that behaves this way, poor innocent Kevin, scheming Gillard and the right factions blah blah blah. There's been quite a lot of talk from people, and Kevin himself, about how he was elected by the people and how the members of the Labor Party has no right to remove him from office.

But that's absolutely not true, and perpetuating this idea is to fundamentally misrepresent our system of government (not to mention overlook recent polls which cast doubt on his popular support anyhow). We as voters vote for local representatives and by default for the party they are belong to. Those elected members who are part of the party who holds the most seats gets to form government, and those elected members of government get to vote for their leader. While I understand that elections are run under the banner of the sitting leader, no party is bound to retain that leader and unless you actually live in the electorate from which the leader is elected you don't get a say about what you think of him. Sitting governments, like parties sitting in opposition, can and do change leaders all the time and for all sorts of reasons. This is not immoral, wrong or disloyal, it is the absolute nature of democracy and politics. Members of government owe no more allegiance to a sitting leader that voters owe allegiance to a sitting member of government and that's exactly why we get to vote people out and get to vote people in.

This is not just a technicality, not some point of law that misses the deeply moral conviction that so many commentators seem to feel has been violated. This is a significant part of our democratic system of checks and balances. We do not elect a president as an individual, as is done in America precisely because our system puts faith in the notion that at times a leader strays from the path that the party as a whole wishes to follow. We do not put our faith in individuals so much as organised entities, and this is reflected in the rules, but also the practices and norms of our political system. And while I make no argument for or against our political system, I do think it is unfair to criticise individuals who operate well within its rules and conventions. Anyone who thinks a sitting government headed to an election would change leaders for fun has rocks in their head! It is a significant political risk to change leaders and would only be done if the majority of members believed the risks of instability were less than the risk of sticking with the current leader - ie if you can't win an election with the current guy, then you better get someone who at least has a chance.

I don't purport to know the minutia of what took place on Wednesday, or in the days leading up to it. Whether people were mean to each other or not I can't say, but I think that the balance of reportage and commentary over the last few days and indeed in the last few weeks, months and even years, has had much to say about problems with Kevin Rudd's leadership. And what is up for question here is not whether the man is a good man or worthy or has ever been a good leader, but whether he is the right person to lead the parliamentary Labor party and thus the government right now. It is the job and the responsibility of members of the government to exercise that decision making role, just as it is the job of voters to eject a local member they no longer support - as John Howard so clearly found out at the last election!

To me the real challenge of leadership, and what remains after the heat and dust are gone, is balancing the roles of propelling forward your agenda with bringing people with you. This is true of all leadership situations, but for elected leaders (as opposed to a leader you have to at least pretend to follow since they are, say, your boss) the feedback loop is direct and brutal. If you fail to lead effectively you lose your job and it doesn't matter whether you judge your own performance to be sound - your vote doesn't count. The government as well as newspapers and other media conducts polls to try and gauge how the voters feel they are doing and that tells them something about the performance of the leader. And recent polls have been damning of Kevin as leader. We all know polls are flawed as true predictors of electoral success, but they are none the less significant markers of trends and attitudes. But it is the people who work with the Prime Minister day in and day out - the other members of his government - who are vested with the power (and responsibility) to ultimately judge his performance. How he leads them, as well as the country are the criteria by which they must choose.

And choose they have done. Rudd's widely reported and substantiated leadership style of highly centralised decision making and narrow consultation has not surprisingly made members of his government vote for a change of leadership. I have heard lots of stories from people who have worked with Rudd and in his government that paints a very unpleasant picture of life under his leadership - both in terms of policy and process for government and workplace and personal practices. They didn't believe it was working for them or for government to be led in that way and acting on that is not just an OK thing to do, it is a good thing to do - to reflect, to evaluate and to embrace change where change is warranted. I think it is a sad indictment of Kevin's personal ambitions that he could not understand or be persuaded about the need for him to step aside. If he had been a better leader it should not have come as a surprise to hear that his followers were not following him anymore, and he would have had the good grace upon hearing the news to know his time was over.

I have remarked before that politics is a brutal game, but I don't think that's because it's run by brutes. I am not of the generalised politician bashing persuasion. Perhaps it is working in government, perhaps it has come from some of the very impressive politicians I have had the chance to work with, but I don't subscribe to the notion that because it is a rough and difficult game the players are all bastards. In the main politicians are motivated by service and doing good. I may not agree with what they do or how things turn out, but very few of them are the sinister figures we are used to portraying them as. The work long hours in incredibly unsatisfying work - a hideous mix of drawn out tedious mind numbing processes and adrenaline fuelled crisis driven roller coaster machinations. And no matter what they do, airtime will be devoted to every single thing they didn't do, or over looked, or messed up or fell over and they will be torn apart in vicious personal attacks and no one will ever stand up for them and once they fall from favour even their colleagues will run from them (because electoral disfavour is highly contagious). Brutal.

So yeah, I am watching all this unfold and the tears that Kevin sheds are real, and I feel empathy for what he has lost and how diabolical it must feel to have fallen from grace and how many things he did right. He worked hard and long, and let's also be clear, he led the party into government and that was a wonderful, meaningful victory. But I also know he understood the rules when he stepped up to the plate, he knew the deal and he was happy to play the game while he was winning and only cried foul when he lost possession of the ball. In the end he claimed the government and its achievements as his own at his own peril. In glossing over the role of the party he represented he made himself an outcast from it.

I haven't got the guts for politics, most of us don't, but I don't feel good about vilifing those who do. I think those of us on the outside have little to no idea of what it takes to make democracy work and so we probably aren't the best critics of the choices politicians make in how they run their governments. I don't think we can know what's necessary and what isn't - and that's exactly why I think our system doesn't make the choice of leader ours, and why no matter what happens or why, there's always a bunch of people who are shocked and appalled. It's easy to sit in judgement when you really don't know much about it. It's easy too to mouth off about how easy it would be to do better when you know you will never be called on to test your claims. Just like any job, it might look easy from the outside, but it rarely is.

So I'm staying tuned big time for all the mini dramas (Lindsay Tanner leaving politics! Adam Bandt with a good chance to get Melbourne for the Greens! Who will be on the front bench! What will all this mean for the Victorian election!) and trying not to get too frustrated with all the ill informed hot air that inevitably comes out a time like this. And above it all I am hoping that Julia continues, slow and steady, in the manner she has so far. I hope she pulls a rabbit out over the mining super profit tax (don't get me started about that) and manages to bring it home, and shortly after shits all over the mad monk and returns for a second term.


melindatrees said...

well said!
i learnt alot from this post.
if only when we open the newspaper could read this kind of informed and intelligent and unbiased writing.

M* (Melanie) said...

I agree, well said. I think the only reason there is such a focus on how she became PM is because there is not much else you can criticise her for. She is by no means perfect, who is but as you rightly said "She is smart and calm and empathetic and rational and funny and strategic and communicative and did I mention clever. She doesn't seem to me to be pursuing power for her own edification." It's pretty hard to criticise someone like that and make it stick.

Rachael said...

Hear hear to EVERYTHING you have said.

I adore Gillard, I think she is brilliant and born to this job. I also believe that she was forced to do this, rather than see an imbicile like Abbott take power.

It pains me to see people take shots at her, but I'm very hopeful she will prevail!

Claire said...

Another great post :-)!

I've had family staying this week and we haven't been watching the news, so the spill came as a big suprise to me. A pleasant suprise!

It's funny, alot of people I've spoken to forgot that Bob Hawke lost his PM-ship in the same way. It happens.

Since before the last election I wished that Julia Gillard was the leader rather than Rudd. And I'm glad she is PM now :-) Not (just) because she is a woman, but because she seems sensible and strong and is (thankfully!) articulate.

And the best thing is that we'll be able to test drive her for a little while before the next election!

missfee said...

hear hear - thank you for putting this in such an interesting and well articulated way.

I am so excited at this change on so many levels. I do not begin to understand the machinations that go on behind the scenes but I really like our political system.

A non married atheist gets my vote well before a sexist god bothering budgie smuggler

Nycole said...

hi sooz, if your thoughts are scrambled then your commentary certainly isn't. Very articulate analysis - you'd give Michelle Grattan a run for her money!
I'm glad someone has pointed out Rudd was not elected by the people - it's an important point. Maybe people are somewhat shocked by the swiftness of it all.
But I'm with you - I think she's ace too!
And it's events like these that cause that almost imperceptible shift in the cultural landscape. There's always the jokes like those I heard yesterday, "you'll get home and your wife will be on strike", but it does actually change something, you can feel it!

eeloh said...

Great post, Sooz.
I'm warming to the idea -I've always liked Gillard a lot and she's definitely got the smarts and the common touch to do the job. I am nervous about the timing and I don't think it's good that the ALP dumped a PM in his first term, but I guess the media coverage is making me revise my initial feeling of the timing being all wrong. A government in paralysis because of micromanagement is not a good thing.

Liesl said...

Finally, some who has succinctly and rationally explained that we do not elect a "prime minister". I was most amused to hear the leader of the opposition perpetuating this myth on TV this morning. Back to school for him!

Let's just hope Ms Gillard isn't the party's sacrifical lamb (a la Joan Kirner 1990). She is indeed deeply impressive and I hope it is to be a long and stellar career in the highest office.

Anonymous said...

Well done - this is such a great post and it puts into words all the things I've been thinking the last day or two. While we can all feel for Kevin Rudd - I felt terrible watching that speech - I can also feel astonishment that someone so capable was so bad at managing the politics of his position. He couldn't take us with him, and the party were right to replace him with someone who could. Thanks again for your great blog!

sooz said...

Thanks all! Liesl I agree that the elect a woman as cannon fodder is a standard trick but I'm hoping she's too smart for that (I am thinking that's part of why she resisted a leadership challenge till there really wasn't a choice for her. I think a lot rests on the super profit tax and how well she resolves it, but I reckon she's got a better chance than Kirner ever had.

eeloh said...

yeah I don't think she's been brought in as the housewife/mopper upper. This is very different. She was always acknowledged as a future leader. They haven't turned to her in desperation, even if it was hard for the Right to accept someone from the left. she's clearly got the

Cass said...

Well said Sooz

sueeeus said...

I'm very glad you posted this, because I've been hearing about the big change but not understanding or knowing anything about what's been going on over there in AU. So thank you! And you DO do an amazing job of articulating. YOU are Ace!

froginthepond said...

I've been watching this from afar - in Europe - and it's breathlessly exciting. Mind you, I have no one with whom to share this breathless excitement over a beer which is quite a shame.

Thanks for the post sooz, an intelligent and informed comment on the situation. I've worked with politicians in a previous life and while some left a lot to be desired when it came to the ability to think, the greater majority were there to serve their community to the best of their ability. They change leaders not on whim but on hard calculations of success - so that they can continue to do what they can for their community, local or national.

travellersyarn said...

I loved this post Susie.

A female prime-minister is going to have an influence on our daughters. Much like travel opens my eyes to what is possible, having a female PM will open the eyes of many girls to what is possible for them. My older daughter was certainly happy that "the girl won".

Hollabee said...

Fantastic post! Even though I can't vote (no such thing on a PR) I love this country and am passionate about its politics. Thanks soozs!

thornberry said...

Clare was asking just last week why we don't have a woman prime minister - now we do! Suzie, EVERYONE needs to read this post. You have articulated the situation so clearly. Thanks again for putting your thoughts into words and sharing them with us.

Gypsy said...

Wow what a great post, very insightful and succinct, thanks Sooz.
I was so pleased to be able to tell my 8yo daughter this week that this great country of ours has it's first female PM, what a moment in our history!
And I look forward to great things from Julia, I have long admired her straight talking and sincere attitude. I think she is capable of great things in this job, and I *hope* she is above being sucked into the tit for tat one-upmanship that so many politicians indulge in, seemingly forgetting that they are there to actually govern and run the country, not just score political points.

Catherine said...

I was hoping you would write about this - I've enjoyed reading this articulate, well-informed post. Thank you!

Lindy in Brisbane said...

Oh thank god somebody else gets it! I've been banging my head trying to get people to understand that we don't actually vote for the prime minister. What really worries me now is the anti-athiest sentiments I am hearing from the christian community since Julia admitted that she wasn't a religious person. There are plenty of people out there who won't vote for anyone who is "godless". I find this very disturbing.

upfordebate said...

I just read Germaine Greer's article on JG's ascension to PMship, here:

Read the first comment - I have posted a comment directing that person to this post, and quoting it (presuming that is OK!) Let's see if the HUN accepts my comment...

Also, I'm in the cheer-squad re your consideration of doing more writing? I've always enjoyed reading your blog (even tho I have not much interest in craft!) because of your voice and brilliant balance between saying it as it is, and measured, reflective commentary.

And the JG post just totally clinches it for me - you deserve a wider audience, and the wider audience needs you!

Trade you half an hour coaching on technicalities of blogging, for half an hour coaching on pitching to publishers and developing readership?? (Tho your track record of applying your skill is longer than mine!)

upfordebate said...

I just read Germaine Greer's article on JG's ascension to PMship, here:

Read the first comment - I have posted a comment directing that person to this post, and quoting it (presuming that is OK!) Let's see if the HUN accepts my comment...

Also, I'm in the cheer-squad re your consideration of doing more writing? I've always enjoyed reading your blog (even tho I have not much interest in craft!) because of your voice and brilliant balance between saying it as it is, and measured, reflective commentary.

And the JG post just totally clinches it for me - you deserve a wider audience, and the wider audience needs you!

Trade you half an hour coaching on technicalities of blogging, for half an hour coaching on pitching to publishers and developing readership?? (Tho your track record of applying your skill is longer than mine!)