What happened yesterday

As you’d expect, everybody and their dog has had their say about yesterday’s goings-on in the federal ALP. I thought I’d add my contribution, not because it seems intrinsically all that important, but because it illustrates an interesting moral about modern politics.

The way it appears to me is that some time in the last week or so, Simon Crean decided that the then leadership situation was unsustainable: that the endless speculation, driven in particular by the Fairfax papers (News Ltd was more obsessed with the media reforms), had made Julia Gillard’s position untenable and something had to be done.

We can argue endlessly about whether that was the correct conclusion to come to or not. What I’d say is that it’s not obviously unreasonable – it’s a conclusion that an intelligent observer acting in good faith could well reach.

And Crean had a plan for what to do. The plan was that Gillard should yield the leadership to Kevin Rudd, but that instead of a wholesale change at the top, Rudd should be paired with a Gillard loyalist as his deputy. This would be a very public gesture of unity and reconciliation, and also, one might hope, provide a check on Rudd’s autocratic style.

The plan was not devoid of self-interest, since Crean intended that he himself should be the deputy. He may well have also hoped that things would somehow misfire in such a way that he might ultimately end up becoming leader.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t a bad plan. In the circumstances into which Labor had got itself, it was a reasonable compromise that might well have satisfied the competing claims as well as anything else could.

But it had two essential preconditions: both Gillard and Rudd had to agree to it. Given the first of those, the second probably wouldn’t have posed a problem, but the first was absolutely critical. Crean got neither.

Having failed to get Gillard on board, Crean should have given up on the plan altogether. It was obvious that a messy transition, with Rudd defeating Gillard in a caucus ballot, was the worst of all possible worlds – regardless of who ended up as deputy or anything else.

Moreover, at that point the plan became self-defeating: if Rudd had to win a leadership ballot against Gillard, and if Crean supported him, then Crean would ipso facto no longer be a Gillard loyalist, so would not meet the conditions of the plan.

Yet Crean persevered with the strange idea that you could have a compromise that wasn’t agreed to by the parties that it was supposed to be a compromise between.

It reminded me of the Victorian Liberal Party in the aftermath of the 2006 state election. Ted Baillieu, who had been leader for only a few months, had performed reasonably well and was re-elected unopposed. But the party’s leader and deputy leader in the upper house were both factional enemies of his, holdovers from the previous leadership of Robert Doyle and likely to prove a thorn in Baillieu’s side.

So Baillieu’s supporters concocted a “compromise”: upper house leader Phil Davis would be left in place but his deputy, Andrea Coote, would be replaced by a Baillieu supporter, David Davis. But instead of getting agreement with the other side on this plan, they proceeded to try to implement it unilaterally. Sure enough, it fell apart in spectacular fashion.

Out in everyday life, compromise is a matter of negotiation. To find a middle way between your claims and someone else’s, you talk to them, you engage in give and take, and eventually you come up with a position you can both live with.

But politicians don’t think that way – or at least not these days. The “macho” cult of never being seen to back down has such a hold on them that they prefer to be forced into complete reversal than to concede a little ground voluntarily. They might end up with a much worse outcome than they could have got, but at least they didn’t display “weakness” by negotiating.

Perhaps the best example of this way of thinking is the Republican caucus in the US House of Representatives, which, as Jon Chait keeps lovingly documenting, has repeatedly turned down the opportunity to negotiate an agreement with Barack Obama that would give it more of what it wants than it has a realistic chance of getting any other way. Instead it regards the very idea of negotiation as a greater evil than policy failure.

Because the Republicans treat their fight with the president as a zero-sum game, they end up with something that “isn’t a strategy at all but merely a kind of emotional catharsis”. And that’s not a bad description of what Simon Crean did yesterday.

4 thoughts on “What happened yesterday

  1. After some analysis and reflection, my lasting impression was that this was a way of ‘putting to rest’ the leadership speculation so that the media could shut the hell up and start paying attention to policy debate.

    Even if that wasn’t the intended outcome, do you think it could at least work in Labor’s favour? Julia is now unopposed, or ‘unanimously supported’ by caucus, her team is unchallenged, and the party is ready to roll out its election campaign.

    Obviously, not all of us are falling for that, but is the general public likely to swallow it? Could it have worked in their favour?

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  2. I’d also like to make the assumption that, if Tony Abbott is so committed to popularity polls determining party leadership, we can expect Turnbull to take over the Liberal Party sometime this week.

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  3. Yes, I think Crean’s objective was definitely to put the leadership issue to rest. I don’t think it turned out the way he expected, but nonetheless it has at least arguably resolved the issue. Will that help Labor? I think it might; particularly after Rudd’s statement yesterday, it’s going to be a bit harder to drum up leadership speculation.

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