Worlds apart, but the pain's the same when the axe falls
Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
For once, it seems Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott agree on something. Both contend there are no parallels to be drawn between th epolitical asssassination of Kevin Rudd in 2010 and Ted Baillieu's decision to fall on his sword this week. And why? Because it is politically convenient to ignore the very real similarities between the two events.
''There's a world of difference between what happened to Ted Baillieu and what happened to the Labor government a few years ago in Canberra,'' Abbott told reporters in Sydney. ''Ted resigned. He resigned and he was replaced by a supporter as premier.''
Really? Is Abbott seriously suggesting that Baillieu had lost the desire for the role, when he declared so movingly that he loved being premier during that brief, emotional and gracious resignation speech on Wednesday evening? Is he really asserting that Baillieu's party room was not mobilising against him?
When the Prime Minister was asked about the similarities, she initially deflected the question, telling reporters: ''You would have to speak to someone from the Liberal Party about the ins and outs of it.'' Her impression, though, was that Baillieu walked simply because Victorians were angry over government cutbacks.
But the parallels are there. Both Rudd and Baillieu led their parties back into power after more than a decade in the political wilderness. Both were elected by the people and should, for that alone, have been elevated to hero status by their parties. And both were forced out by their party rooms during their first term in power, before the voters had the opportunity to cast a judgment.
And there's another similarity, too: the suddenness of the fall. Just as Rudd had no inkling that his colleagues were about to turn so emphatically against him that long winter's night in 2010, Baillieu had every intention of dealing with the series of challenges that confronted him this week.
There are, of course, important differences. Rudd secured a decisive, and much anticipated, victory in 2007 (his opponent John Howard even lost his seat); Baillieu's win in 2010 was narrow and defied expectations. Rudd was knifed some seven months out from an election; Baillieu had nearly two years before facing the people, surely enough time to recover. Rudd had been operating from a position of strength; Baillieu had his internal critics from the moment he became Victorian opposition leader in 2006. Rudd had a comfortable majority and generally capable cabinet; Baillieu led an inexperienced, unprepared team with a one-seat majority (before Geoff Shaw moved to the crossbenches). Rudd made a point of listing all of his achievements as PM in his tearful media conference after being toppled; Baillieu opted for modesty.
Then there is the most important difference of all: Rudd's determination to regain what was taken from him was apparent, even palpable, from the moment he surprised his colleagues by announcing his intention to stay in politics; no one suspects Baillieu harbours any thoughts or dreams of a comeback. As he joked to friends at the pool this week: ''Not campaigning, not governing. Swimming!''
The question that will not be able to be answered until the next state election is whether the change will improve the Coalition's prospects of being returned. Here, federal Labor's experience is not one to inspire confidence.
While Gillard achieved an instant bounce in the polls, it proved temporary. One of her biggest problems - and there have been many - is that she struggled to explain why she turned on the man she had served loyally as deputy. Her line that the government had lost its way didn't wash, and undermined Labor's biggest boast: that it had handled the global financial crisis better than any other government in the world.
Similarly, the absence of any public explanation whatsoever for Baillieu's departure is certain to make Denis Napthine's task of rebuilding public confidence all the more daunting. Without a plausible and compelling reason for what happened, the only takeout for voters is that the government was performing badly, and therefore is undeserving of support.
The national implications of Baillieu's departure are more nuanced. While the federal election is much more likely to be decided in western Sydney, where as many as 11 Labor seats are under threat, and in Queensland, Abbott's hopes of picking up three Victorian seats are reduced by the perception of division and chaos in the Liberal Party.
Moreover, the termination of Baillieu's leadership has neutralised one of Abbott's key lines of attack against Gillard and Labor - that Rudd was ''assassinated'' by Labor's faceless men and that Gillard lacked legitimacy because of the manner in which she came to power.
Conversely, Baillieu's decision to go without a fight, and without turning publicly on the forces that worked against him, is the bloodless outcome those agitating for Rudd's return are seeking in Canberra.
Just as the polls played a role in the demise of Rudd and Baillieu, they have the potential to heighten pressure on Gillard to surrender - not that she shows any sign of buckling.
The move against Rudd came a little over two weeks after the Abbott-led Coalition secured its first election-winning lead of 53-47 in two-party-preferred terms in the Age/Nielsen Poll. Though Baillieu's demise followed Shaw's betrayal and the leaking of damaging phone conversations involving others, another factor was the publication of the latest Newspoll. It appeared in The Australian under the heading ''Baillieu slides as Labor's lead safe'', and reported that dissatisfaction with his performance was up, despite the two-party-preferred gap narrowing from 10 points to six.
The next two weeks will see Parliament sitting in Canberra before rising until the May budget. The next Newspoll will be released next week and the Age/Nielsen Poll on March 17. A repeat of the diabolical numbers of last month will be very bad for Gillard; a slight improvement should give her a respite.
Those close to the Prime Minister are satisfied with her week in western Sydney, insisting she cut through with her key messages, including the line about stopping ''foreign workers being put at the front of the [job] queue''. Others are dismayed at the resort (again) to divisive politics and class warfare, seeing it as a repudiation of the Hawke-Keating model of an open economy and an inclusive society. The imperative, they say, is to rebuild the Labor brand, a task that transcends changing leaders.
Polls, of course, are a fact of life and a useful tool in ascertaining the public mood. So are focus groups. But the experience of the past decade shows they have been a factor in the premature demise of many a leader. When combined with the voracious appetite of the media, in all its forms, the challenge of leadership has never been greater.
What tends to be overlooked is the impact on those who are torn down. ''There's a lot of people who have been destroyed by political setbacks and I could have been,'' is how Malcolm Turnbull expressed it, reflecting on his loss of the Liberal leadership on the ABC's Q&A last month. ''It was very, very gut-wrenching. It was devastating. It's a devastating business, a terribly cruel business, politics.''
Rudd, of course, knows this better than anyone. When I spoke to him in Melbourne this week, he asked me to pass on a message to the former premier. ''Tell Ted, whatever they say, never let it occupy your head space. It's important for your health.''
Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.