Coup is good news for Whitlam

Julia Gillard has a lot to thank Kevin Rudd for. The failure of Rudd’s personal leadership style gave Tony Abbott a fighting chance at changing the government. But it is that very failure which should allow Gillard to hold power against the Coalition. Assuming nobody dies from an overpriced school hall.

The rot that set in to Rudd’s prime ministership hasn’t really infected the Labor government he led. Rudd announced every major policy personally. He pushed his ministers to the side, and claimed personal responsibility for every policy breakdown. Rudd’s desperation to make it about him buffered the government from its own fiascos.

The sole minister to pay for the government’s hasty policy making is poor old Peter Garrett — taking the fall for a rushed stimulus he had little part in devising. Even then, Rudd assured the country he himself was to blame for the insulation debacle.

Prancing about no man’s land as a lone soldier in an executive government, it was no wonder the PM drew all the fire from the opposition.

Rudd and Gillard are neither the socialists they are described as, nor the conservatives they claim to be. But Rudd’s centrism was defined by bursts of manic, uncontrolled energy. Each of those bursts would eventually end with deep lows.

Nothing shows this pattern more clearly than the mining tax. We got the resources super profit tax because Rudd wasn’t quite sure what to do with the 138 recommendations of the Henry tax review. We got the tax review because Rudd wasn’t quite sure which of the 900 ideas of the 2020 Summit to choose. And we got the summit because Rudd wanted to demonstrate he had single-handedly ended the culture wars. Robert Manne and Cate Blanchett were to symbolically slay the Howard dragon with the sword of intellectual harmony, offered up by the new prime minister. Think that metaphor is overdone? Well, overdoing things was Rudd’s style.

Climate change was the “biggest moral challenge” of our time, which would have surprised war, third world development, state tyranny, racism, and poverty. The global financial crisis was of “truly seismic significance”, and he would “move heaven and earth” to keep Australia out of it.

The crisis was actually quite mild, causing problems only in countries with deep economic and budget issues already.

One big bluster after another and eventually we’re in 2010. The prime minister who made world headlines on the first day of parliament by saying sorry for the actions of previous Australian governments has spent the past six months apologising for the actions of his own.

Rudd’s personal failure leaves Gillard in a strong position. Rudd’s “clearing the decks” in April of all outstanding loose ends before the election season (abandoning the emissions trading scheme, freezing applications from Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum seekers, passing the education stimulus rorts to a committee) was a dismal failure.

Yes, Gillard has been a senior member of the government that made all these disastrous decisions, as Abbott quickly pointed out. But with the four-person kitchen cabinet now halved (Lindsay Tanner has gone too), Gillard can reasonably claim this is an entirely new executive, if not an entirely new government. So now would be the time for Gillard to do some deck-clearing of her own.

First of all: there can be no ETS without a global agreement. This should be a no-brainer. With the climate change issue cleansed of Rudd’s bombastic moral rhetoric, perhaps now we can focus on whether the government’s policy will or will not meaningfully impact global emissions levels.

Without international agreement, Australia could shut every industry in the country and not change the temperature a nano-degree. A “price on carbon” is utterly pointless if Australians are the only ones paying it. Make Rudd special envoy for climate change. If he can get China and India on board, we’ll talk again.

Drop the internet filter. Nobody seriously thinks it will work. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is tying himself in rhetorical knots pretending it can.

Scrap the ludicrous freeze on accepting Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees. It’s another relic of Rudd-era policy panic. And it has that air of awkward machismo which would normally be funny, except that barring asylum claims from specific countries is just a teensy bit racist.

Gillard may do none of these things. She’ll probably still be better at selling and enacting bad policies than Rudd ever was.

If nothing else, the Gillard coup has been good for Gough Whitlam. What was once called Whitlamesque can now be called Ruddesque. Being the first prime minister to be bumped before serving a single term is pretty poor. Even Mark Latham, who has complained about being the bipartisan bogyman of Australian politics, now might be able to catch a break.

Gillard, Latham, Whitlam: This week, they’ll all be muttering their thanks to former prime minister Kevin Rudd.