Backslapping to backstabbing

Paul Kelly

Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation, Paul Kelly, MUP

Political journalist Paul Kelly’s latest book tries to answer the question of how the KEVIN07 rocket crashed and burned so quickly; how Labor’s 2007 election victory soon turned from backslapping to backstabbing. Rudd was voted in largely on personality and the fact that he wasn’t John Howard. His middle-of-the-road image seemed to help, but Kelly decides that part of Labor’s long-term problem is that it has been squashed between both Left and Right, which is partly its own fault, having left behind the ideology of its roots for more pragmatic power-at-any-price policies. Kelly thinks Rudd is not a natural Laborite, and made it simply because he could actually win government. There was an element of “it’s time” to Kevin, but also the smell of fresh air that was lacking in previous Labor leaders.

Then came the “Shakespearean tragedy” of the revelation of Rudd’s apparent megalomania and dramatic fall. Kelly describes this in terms of a descent into barbarism, throwing around words such as “feral” and “tribal rampage”. His extensive interviews seem to confirm that most Labor MPs involved now think, with the benefit of hindsight of course, that the “coup” was a mistake, with one calling it “brainless”. Needless-to-say, going back to Rudd was desperation.

Though Kelly is critical of both Rudd and Gillard, he also thinks it is not entirely their fault. Another strand to this book, beyond the history of events, is Kelly’s analysis of, and despair at, what he describes as the brokenness of our political system. It is too beholden to sectional interest, too pressured by media, and too addicted to spin, negativity and short-term gain. What has priority in the news is sensation and scare-mongering. Kelly’s book is perhaps the sort of detailed and thoughtful counter to this short-cycle politics we need. There is practically no-one in Australia writing like this. Together with the two previous books in this loose series (End of Certainty and March of the Patriots), Triumph and Demise provides a sober overview of the history of modern Australia.

Rudd was both media-savvy and the big dreamer. But Kelly laments that it is increasingly difficult to be the latter, and part of his argument is that for the sake of Australians, governments need vision and bravery, in order to keep up the program of reform. We don’t need to look to the distant past for examples – both the Howard and Hawke/Keating governments were reform governments. Unfortunately our present political climate means that government is all about simply being there, rather than what you actually do when you are there (though this might fly in the face of the evidence – witness the Abbott government’s highly ideological push for budgetary measures). For Kelly, and he is probably right, our prosperity is a handicap. We are too comfortable to look to the future and accept needed changes.

But Kelly is not without his bias. And it is in the fact that he seems to judge everything by power and money. For Kelly, governments need power so they can keep our standard of living. There is not a lot about moral right. Abbott is somewhat praised because, despite his obvious quirks, he managed to unite the coalition, in contrast to Turnbull’s (divisive) principles. We need strong leaders, apparently, so they can enact reform, in order to be more like Asia (read into that what you will), and so we can sustain rising living standards. The Australian people are naïve about the state of our economy, says Kelly, and were surprised about Hockey and Abbott’s “reality check” budget. Unfortunately, the budget was nothing of the sort. While we may be complacent about the economy, the budget was simply in tune with the well-documented modern conservative war on “entitlement”, and the ideological push for polarisations, particularly in the gap between rich and poor. What Kelly is really talking about is a rise in living standards for some, at the expense of a drop for others. He is critical of minor parties, the Greens in particular, as economically irresponsible, and would perhaps argue, with many, that ideology is no good if the budget is shot. And both Labor and Liberal seem to now agree there. However, some, in turn, may ask what good a healthy economy is if it is simply for the rich getting richer, and at the expense of moral right. This is why minor parties, particularly on the Left, are making up ground. Some voters want an alternative to the major parties who agree on money and power as the only standards for judging success.



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