Quite by chance, I found myself in the working corridors of Parliament on the Thursday of the audacious coup de Crean. Admittedly, my attention was on a plate of taxpayer-funded jellybeans when the news broke. Only that evening would we learn a handful of ministers had resigned from their posts—part of the latest wave of casualties in Labor’s war on cohesion.
Rewind a couple of days, the Prime Minister breathed a sigh of relief as she emerged from an uneventful caucus. At least until the May budget, the Gillard government was secure. Even so, the halls of power were abuzz with nervous energy.
Cloaked in black, a combative Gillard faced an indecently gleeful Abbott in Question Time on Wednesday. The frontbenchers sparred over boat people and the National Broadband Network, and impersonated pirates when Adam Bandt asked the Attorney-General about Sea Shepherd. In the crossbenches, a bored Peter Slipper sat alone, while Craig Thomson cracked jokes with Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, as if to prove he still has friends.
Two figures stood out: both former leaders knifed in their prime. Whilst his colleagues derisively hooted at the government, Turnbull was relatively subdued, and sat apart from the cheer squad formed around Julie Bishop. A quiet Rudd likewise spent much of his time in the backbenches browsing through an iPad.
Part of a Global Voices delegation funded by the USyd Arts Faculty, I was fortunate enough to meet with Rudd that day. I spent the time marvelling at the size of his head. It is literally enormous, and the man projects an aura of immense intellect. He tends to talk at people rather than with people—which likely exacerbated his reputation as a difficult Cabinet leader—but his charisma is irresistible. Nevertheless, no one has ever looked so tired and forlorn as Rudd did in that meeting. Simon Crean’s abortive challenge, less than a day later, thus came as a surprise.
The public claims ownership of party leaders even if, strictly speaking, we do not vote for them. When they are deposed by the party, and not by election, we intuitively feel it is illegitimate.
It should not be so. In a Westminster democracy, parties should feel that policy-making is consensual enough, and impersonal enough, that their brand can survive the departure of a leader. Reality is very different: careerist Cabinet ministers orbit heliocentrically around potential allies; the media sells a narrative of presidentialism which ignores all but Gillard and Abbott; and voters, scarcely remembering the name of their local member, go to the polls like it is a presidential primary. The unhappy result? A Parliament fixated with vitriolic recriminations about personal trust and personal leadership.
If this is the reality, Crean’s incipient spill was devastatingly ill-advised. Cycling through leaders is no longer viable, if it ever was. An incontinent Cabinet is falling apart at the seams and, come September, Parliament will resemble my plate of jellybeans: lots of tasteless blue, with a small portion of deformed reds.