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Only one way Scott Morrison can end a decade of political dysfunction

“The honest answer,” says Rudd, “is not yet”. “The enduring impact on the Australian public, the cynicism created after a handful of thugs removed an elected prime minister overnight, lodged deep in the Australian psyche and hasn’t been removed.”

And among the political class, it did three things. It “legitimised a coup culture for a decade”, it elevated the power of party faction bosses, and “it moved Australian politics from the big canvas to the microscopic canvas – it made it unfashionable to make long-term plans for the nation”. And not just in Labor, but across both major parties.

If all this is so, isn’t Morrison vulnerable to the same coup culture in the event that his public approval should crumble at some point? Rudd thinks so: “He knows how fragile his position is, which is why he changed the rules. The only thing standing between Morrison and a coup is the rule change.”

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit:

In December 2018 Morrison engineered a higher threshold for a coup by proposing that two-thirds of the federal Liberal party room must ask for a spill motion against a sitting Liberal prime minister.
The rule was modelled on one that Rudd introduced in Labor five years earlier, during his brief return to the Lodge after staging a successful counter-coup against Gillard.

But a changed rule can always be changed back, of course. Rudd does have thoughts on how to fix that to better protect a leader, Labor or Liberal, against plotters. We’ll get to his reform proposals shortly.

Though Rudd, with his wife Therese Rein, has been based in the US for the last six years, where he’s the founding director of the Asia Society Policy Institute, he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the Australian political system and its flaws and foibles. And, he says, “the real cancer has not been removed – because factions still exist and branch stacking still exists, and branch stacking builds factional power, so the incentive to do it still exists”.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim PavlidisCredit:

This burst into public view spectacularly this week in Labor’s Victorian branch. Factional plotting is fevered in the Liberal Party too, especially its NSW branch, but is largely subterranean at the moment. “So I think the jury is still out on whether the national happy family event of the last three months becomes sustainable for the long term,” says Rudd. “You can have a feelgood moment of questionable duration around a crisis or you can turn the federation into the workhorse of the nation around a bold policy agenda.”

This is Morrison’s moment of decision, says the former Labor leader. “If he’s going to be Scotty from Marketing Volume II, that will become clear pretty soon from the actual dynamic of the national cabinet process – is it real or fake? It will require a policy vision.”

“Scott Morrison can bring the country together,” he argues, “but it has to be an enduring long-term agenda. He can learn the lessons from the lost decade of policy, the lost decade of vision, or he can default to the easy corner – retail politics, continued marketing and attempt to turn the next election into a referendum on the Labor Party.”

But you’d have to admit that the Labor Party is making itself a tempting option for a de facto referendum. This week’s exposure of rampant factionalism and rule-breaking in Labor’s Victorian branch has dominated political news and claimed the scalps of three ministers in the state Labor government of Daniel Andrews.

This masthead’s investigative reporter Nick Mckenzie revealed how Adem Somyurek, a factional operative and also Victorian minister for local government, stacked branches to win preselection for his favoured candidates. Somyurek boasted of controlling almost two-thirds of Victorian Labor. “F— the premier,” he was recorded as saying on secret tapes. He was in charge and he would choose the premier, he claimed.

This affair also spilled over into the federal sphere, putting Anthony Albanese on the defensive. Reflects Rudd: “These are echoes of the same problem that reared its ugly head in 2010, exactly the sort of threats against me.”

Rudd also finds it jarring that senior Labor figures are about to hold a celebration on the 10th anniversary of the coup against him. It’s billed as “10 Year Celebration – Julia Gillard Prime Minister”, feting the advent of Australia’s first female prime minister. The online event is to be addressed by Wayne Swan, Labor’s national president, and a man Rudd blames for treachery in the coup against him. The host is Tanya Plibersek on behalf of Emily’s List, a group dedicated to electing more Labor women to Parliament.

Rudd thinks it shows a lack of self-awareness by the party and the persistence of the problem. “They’ve decided to get up and dance on Kevin’s grave,” is how he puts it. He claims that they’re rewriting the narrative “as if the whole thing was an exercise in nobility, when it was a naked grab for power, assisted by Julia Gillard”.

Gillard’s version is that Rudd was unstable, running a chaotic government, and she had a duty to replace him. Rudd’s is that he’d emasculated the “faceless men”, a group of factional bosses, by taking away their power to nominate ministers. Rudd took that power for himself. And the faction chiefs wanted it back. So they struck. And Gillard was their candidate.

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To keep factionalism in check, and protect leaders against coups, Rudd proposes three further reforms. For Labor and Liberal. First, so that the anti-spill rules can’t easily be reversed, he suggests that they should be enshrined in the party constitutions.

Second, the party constitutions should ban factions. Of course, you can never stop cliques and groups forming. But the traditional Labor conferences where the “Sydney Town Hall is divided down the middle with delegates, Left and Right, to do pitched war between them, mega groups organised with their own national executives” should be forbidden, he argues.

Finally, he says that the ballots to choose party candidates for Parliament – preselections – shouldn’t be conducted by the parties themselves because they’re too rotten. The parties should ask the Australian Electoral Commission to run the preselection ballots, he says. Just as the unions long ago asked the AEC to run union ballots for them.

So the original victim of the original coup thinks that Australian politics stands a chance of recovering from its decade of dysfunction, but only if Morrison can unify the nation around a serious reform agenda.

And if the parties can excise the cancer of factionalism. This is a towering ambition, one that echoes a 19th century British Whig prime minister, Lord John Russell, who considered it “impossible that the whisper of a faction should prevail against the voice of a nation”.

Yet Rudd’s own story is proof that it can and has. And, unless the leaders can manage their parties with the greatest of skill, an art Rudd never mastered, it will again.

Peter Hartcher is political editor.

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