Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Three Bullets


American historians wax lyrical about the ‘Summer of 1968’. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5th halfway through the Democratic Party Primary race to elect their Presidential candidate. Kennedy’s death left his party bruised, battered and weak. This allowed Richard Nixon to rise from the ashes and obtain the Presidency five months after Kennedy’s death. Historians have speculated that he would have trounced Nixon in the general election. If that had happened there would be no Watergate, probably no Reagan, which by extension means no Bush dynasty: the fate of the modern world would be changed forever. The three bullets that killed Robert Kennedy altered everything.
As a political historian I often like to ponder such hypothetical questions for fun. There is so many ‘what ifs?’ in life that often at times they can do your head in: the ‘what ifs?’ do not only apply to history, but to life as well. Chief among those for me is ‘What if I could walk?’ I’ve pondered this question before because I have never been totally content with my disability for a variety of reasons. Sometimes I feel as if due to my disability I could never live up to my full potential whatever this may be. That’s why I work tirelessly to demonstrate that I’m not only competent, but also that I excel.
Yesterday my favourite footballer retired, and I’m grieving. Warren Tredrea is and will always be a champion. He played Centre Half Forward for Port Adelaide, the most difficult position on the field of Australian Rules Football. Coupled with the resignation of long time coach Mark Williams this represents the end of an era for my football club. Tredrea is less than five years older than me. At 26 I could be in the prime of my football career. As I watched Tredrea’s press conference I remembered the time I went to see his first ever game with Dad at Football Park, the time he destroyed Carlton off his own boot, watching his signature pack marks constantly, and laughing with joy at his bow during the 2007 Preliminary Final. I had one thought through all of this: that could have been me. I wanted it to be me.
I love my football. For more than 20 years I have woken early on Grand Final Day to watch eight hours of continuous coverage (much to my mothers annoyance). I regard myself as a skilled strategic analyst of the Dean Laidley ilk, and I think I could be the next coach of the Power (and that I would do a much better job than Matthew Primus). When I was in high school my Health Education teacher (who coached the football team) said that despite not being able to play the game not only did I know much more than he did, but I knew more than anyone he had ever seen.
That could have been my life. I could have been the next Warren Tredrea if my brain got the required amount of oxygen. But it didn’t. This is my ultimate ‘what if?’. If I became that footballer would I become someone that my current self detests despite my superior athletic skill? Would I be the type of guy who has a girlfriend with more plastic in her than a kit bag of footballs? The type of guy who gets drunk regularly? The type of guy who has no self confidence beyond the sporting field? Would the imaginary me give the real me a second look?
I am unorthodox and unique due to my disability. My disability has been the driving force in creating a personality that sets me apart. Society instructs people to generate sympathy for me, suggests that I should be compensated at every opportunity, and indicates that I should be treated differently. Over the course of my life I’ve met people with disabilities who have taken these concepts to extremes: one who refuses any help of an equitable nature, and another who exploits the system at every opportunity. I realise that I am different, that I may need to use different means to achieve the same ends. I may need to adopt unconventional approaches that may not necessarily correlate with mainstream values but I think I am entitled to do that.
I don’t have any answers as to why my life has altered so drastically from the norm. Doctors it seems will never know the exact reason for my impairments. There is no definitive turning point that alters the course of my history, just as there will be no AFL flags, nor best and fairest awards. I know that I won’t be the next Warren Tredrea. I struggled with that for a long time. There weren’t three bullets that ruined this opportunity that I can definitively point to and there never will be. That to me is the hardest thing of all.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Joint Press Conference

I was going to blog about last night’s election debate, but even for me it was so uninspiring and so devoid of actual content that it’s not worth the effort. Congratulations to Karl Bitar for making this contest a non event: exactly what the ALP would have wanted.

Bring back Paul Keating I say!

This campaign is proving to be so uninspiring I might curtail my initial plans and save the next post until Election Night.

More exciting things are happening instead...

Friday, 23 July 2010

Soulless or Stuck?

Does the Australian Labor Party have a soul? This question was posed at a Queensland Fabian Society Forum I attended on Monday night. To me this is an interesting question, because it assumes a positive outlook, that it does (or did) indeed have a ‘soul.' Given this discussion though, this was a very wrong assumption. Ian McLean, a former Queensland State Party President and the current one, Andrew Dettmer acted as the forum’s main speakers. Whilst they provided commentary, they both used words like ‘class’ and ‘socialism’. Winning is everything to the Labor Party they said, dominated by party machine men primarily concerned with obtaining, or staying in goverment and not much else. Excuse me while I say bullshit.

Class as a political tool has long past its used by date. People who comprise the ‘lower class' refuse to think in such terms these days. Instead, they aspire to reach the ‘middle class’ while the people who occupy this category now believe themselves to be 'upper middle class'. Consequently, the political debate has shifted. As Clive Hamilton points out in his 2006 essay What’s Left: The Death of Social Democracy: ‘The shift in the 1960s from a politics of inequality to a politics of identity involved a new focus on the cultural and social domain, rather than on underlying economic forces.’ It was clear based on each speaker’s content that they both failed to grasp these concepts, and in doing so clearly misunderstand the current political climate.

Its true that the Labor Party has a well thought out clearly defined set of values that make it distinct from any other political party in Australia. However we no longer live with the looming ideological threat of the Cold War and terms such as ‘democratic socialism’ remain vague abstract notions to many young people. They see ideological terms as a way that academics can look sophisticated, or as a debating tool for the well educated. It’d be interesting to see the reaction of Andrew Dettmer as he walked around the Café J at the University of the Sunshine Coast and asked students how they would define ‘democratic socialism’. He would get plenty of quizzical stares.

But if he asked what each student stood for politically I dare say he would get many different and articulate answers. Should the government invest more or less in services? Should the government provide services so the socially disadvantaged can gain access to equitable treatment? How much influence should the government have in controlling the economy? These three questions are where the political battle is fought in the 21st century.

So how does the Labor Party (or any other political party for that matter) respond to this changing political climate? The answers are simple. Create a political narrative and make it personally identifiable. I had to laugh at this forum because one of the audience members said: ‘Your Rights At Work (A political campaign against WorkChoices, an industrial relations reform package) was successful because the Labor Party and the unions returned to class based politics’. In fact the opposite proved to be true. Your Rights At Work was an excellent grass roots campaign that tapped into the personal priorities of working Australians. They could care less that the power of the unions was being eroded. Instead they knew that WorkChoices meant that their overtime was being cut, and sick pay benefits were being slashed (amongst many things). They knew that this meant they might no longer be able to afford their repayments on their house, or they could not spend more time with their kids. Your Rights At Work was personal, not communal.

‘Politics is Personal’ is the political maxim for the 21 century. It is why ‘Moving Forward’ has replaced ‘Bringing Australia Together’ as the dominant campaign line of the modern era. As voters across all generations gain more and more access to information on political content, the opinion makers that McLean and Dettmar dismissed continually out of hand are vitally important: they provide people with information that allows them to connect with issues on a personal basis. Blogging achieves just that but was criticised as ‘a political fad’ on Monday night, when it is in fact a great political weapon. This page is just one example of the ability to put forward a cogent argument uninterrupted whilst allowing audience members (or indeed voters) to provide real time feedback, a wonderful asset for any politician. A failure to comprehend this highlights an enormous generational disconnect in the Labor Party.

I attended this forum with my colleagues, branch members and friends Carl and Rachael, the tripartite force of Generation Y Labor on the Sunshine Coast. We were not surprised that we were the only members of the forum who did not yearn for ‘…the good old days of Labor politics where we used to protest about protesting…' The Labor Party for the past week has been all about moving forward and yet it seems the greater portion of Labor’s members remain stuck in the past still fighting battles that no longer exists. The question should not be ‘Has The Labor Party Lost its Soul?’, but rather ‘Can the Labor Party Truly Represent Modern Australia?’

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Note: Readers who live in South East Queensland that are interested in attending Fabian Society forums should contact Joff at japlelliott@hotmail.com

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Focus Tested or Untested? The 2010 Federal Election

Elections are to me like several weeks worth of Christmas Days. The heightened sense of theatre and the pure political blood sport of it all are what make them so entertaining. When new Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today that the 2010 Federal election would be held on August 21st I was really, really excited.

Although I have an obvious stake in the outcome of wanting my beloved ALP to be returned to government this election is different. Unlike the three other Federal Elections I have followed closely I feel as if I don’t have a particular affinity with the ALP leader for reasons previously discussed on this blog. In that sense I feel as if I’ll be able to judge the respective performance of the leaders more objectively then on any other of the previous occasions, particularly given my research area for my PhD.

The phrase ‘moving forward’ dominated Gillard’s opening statement, continuing the modern tradition of political campaigns being overwhelmed by ubiquitous catch phrases. In 2007, Rudd used ‘New Leadership’ to great effect in order to limit the power of John Howard’s well defined incumbency. In the election prior to that John Howard used the phrase ‘Who Do You Trust?’ to crucify Mark Latham in 2004. Gillard used the phrase ‘moving forward’ or a variation on that theme at least 28 times today during her half hour long press conference, ‘moving forward’ so often it was enough to give me motion sickness. If it wasn’t obvious enough already it was clear from Gillard’s opening statement that she will utter no phrase without it being work shopped in a focus group first. Voters may well and truly be sick of the message, but at least we know what the message is.

In contrast Abbott had no definable message. Crikey Political Correspondent Bernard Keane points out:

Tony Abbott gave a similarly content-free press conference, using a short – too short – announcement (in a poorly-prepared venue in Brisbane, with no backdrop and bad lighting) to attack Julia Gillard and particularly her apparent obsession with “moving forward”.

This to me highlights the essential problem of Abbott’s truly inept performance. He failed to articulate any vision for the future: instead preferring to cede ground to Labor. On the very first day of the election campaign, arguably one of the most important, the Coalition is fighting on Labor’s turf. Labor has been able to set the agenda without being challenged. Consequently voters will remember the ‘moving forward’ slogan, but they won’t remember anything that Abbott had to say. As Mark Bahnisch observes at Larvatus Prodeo:

Julia Gillard’s performance was assured. Tony Abbott, by contrast, speaking from Brisbane where he’d ambiguously promised to embrace Labor’s Fair Work Act (but with a bit of “tweaking”), got off to a very shaky start, with a surprisingly quick address to the media. He didn’t convince as an alternative PM, struggling to move beyond the posture of carping opposition leader. He also emphasised trust, pointedly asking whether Julia Gillard could be trusted by the people if Kevin Rudd could not trust her. Abbott has a parallel problem to Gillard: just as she needs to both embrace and distance herself from her predecessor, he wants to claim that the Howard government gave us competence and security, while avoiding the very real negatives which led to its rejection in 2007

What does this mean for the rest of the five week campaign? It’s hard to say but perhaps the best analysis so far belongs to Peter Brent at Mumble:
Labor “hardheads” may reckon that in a campaign the Gillard hooplah will end and Abbott will come under scrutiny. But Julia is still the centre of attention. Tony may remain under the radar.

Under normal circumstances Abbott would be all but unelectable from opposition.

But this campaign isn’t normal because Gillard has contrived to make it a contest between two opposition leaders. In deliberately eschewing her government’s record, she may find she carries its negatives but none of the positives.

Gillard is not the safe, boring option and Abbott looks less risky by comparison.

This opposition leader is a proven gaffe-maker and says odd things on occasion.

But the prime minister’s political instincts are also open to question. She seems susceptible to big stories about “values”, “cut through” and “momentum”. That way lies danger.

As I wait to see which of these predictions come true, check back to this blog for semi regular coverage of the 2010 Australian Federal Election. I will be providing analysis on the key showpiece events of the campaign: the debate(s), the launches, other major events and of course the night itself. I will be looking at the election from a national perspective, so I encourage those of you who are interested in this election to comment and encourage your friends to join the fun too. Also, If you are not following me on Facebook or Twitter, please do so for access to constant updates.

Strap in, and buckle up because the fun has only just begun.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Thesis Outline: A Party of One?: A Study of ALP Leadership

Note: Due to the demands of a highly valued reader, I present to you an edited version of my PhD thesis plan. It significantly differs from the earlier version I posted last year.

The thesis seeks to study the relationship between party and democratic leadership. It aims to explore the ways in which the practice of political leadership is subject to a tension between the need to be responsive to a party’s hard core supporters that the leader represents, and as a party leader who needs to be responsive to the electorate at large. This study will focus upon the inherent tension of what the public wants in a Prime Minister, and who a party will elect to be its leader—a topic that in spite of its obvious importance, especially now that the Australian system of government seems to become increasingly presidentialised, has not been adequately covered in the literature.

The research throughout the thesis will be of a theoretical and analytical manner, using secondary source data to ascertain how the tensions in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) between democratic leadership (leading the Australian electorate) and party leadership (leading a party’s organisational wing, and in particular managing its factions) and how these play out in the course of the party’s decision making processes. The study will investigate the tenures of three different ALP leaders: Simon Crean (2001-2003), Mark Latham (2003-2005) and Kevin Rudd (2006-2010) These leadership tenures will be examined to explore, as well as to compare and contrast, how each leader represented three different types of leadership paradigms within the party. All of which were unsuccessful for different reasons, skewing the delicate balance between democratic and party leadership.

Crean, in many respects was an underestimated leader of the ALP. During his leadership, he was able to harmonise the internal mechanisms of the party, and was able to instigate much needed and overdue internal party reform. However his major and fatal failing was that he could not translate his positive internal standing to the electorate at large, unable to convince the voting public that he had the necessary characteristics to be leader of the Australian nation. His direct successor’s rise to the leadership was a direct result of this failing. This thesis argues that Latham was elevated to the leadership of the ALP as a direct result of a factional power play, and as a consequence there was not sufficient consideration of Latham’s potential strength and weaknesses as a figurehead of the ALP. Latham was installed to the leadership at the last minute in order to appease Crean’s factional backers within the party, so that they could ward off a challenge by their factional rivals that were under the leadership of Kim Beazley. The impact of such a hasty decision would have far reaching consequences for the ALP throughout the next parliamentary term.

Initially Latham’s pitch as a populist political leader that was the antithesis of Crean was highly successful. His first few months in the leadership were an example of how the needs of the internal structure of the ALP, and the Australian constituency can work in harmony. However as the political pressure increased and Latham’s unusual personality characteristics began to surface, it became clear that his leadership style was becoming increasing unilateral and autocratic, thus alienating important parts of the ALP’s internal hierarchy. That this process occurred under the intense scrutiny of a Federal Election campaign only increased the damage to both Latham’s leadership and the party in both the short and medium terms.

If both Crean and Latham used the party’s internal machinations to their advantage, Kevin Rudd was able to skillfully bypass these restrictions initially, though this would lead ultimately to his downfall. Rudd is perhaps the purest definition of a populist leader Australia has seen. Yet, ironically his leadership could only be secured through a factional alliance, something that, as this thesis will argue, Rudd seemed to take for granted. Rudd’s trajectory as leader is marked by extraordinary volatility, a fact that indicates that his support as leader was contingent upon his popularity with the electorate. Belonging to the relatively small Queensland Labor Unity faction, he underestimated the power of the bigger and more influential factions had in securing him the party leadership. Up until his resignation as Prime Minister, he still remained popular with the electorate at large, but during the latter stages of his term in office he was an extremely divisive figure within the organisational wing of the ALP, as he managed to put all the major factional bosses offside, thus precipitating the eventual challenge to Rudd’s leadership by his deputy Julia Gillard.

Chapter Structure

1. Introduction

2. Democratic Leadership vs Democratic Leadership
• What Is Democratic Leadership?
• What is Party Leadership?
• Combining the two concepts to create a theoretical framework

3. The Labor Party Structure
• What is the structure?
• Why is it unique?
• The power of the factions

4. The Crean Leadership
• Internal Master
• It’s The Polling!
• Downfall

5. The Latham Leadership
• Shock Leader?
• Honeymoon
• Implosion

6. The Rudd Leadership
• An Uneasy Alliance
• Election Win
• Collapse

7. Conclusion

Friday, 9 July 2010

The Power of Mark Williams

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First Kevin Rudd, now Mark Williams: a month of tearful goodbyes. The two organisations I love the most have lost their leaders, both to bloody coups. One changes the country forever, the other changes a community forever. The Port Adelaide Football Club is a community that thrives on its culture of tradition. Williams, 51, has been a part of the Port Adelaide Football Club since birth. His father Fos, was arguably the club’s most successful coach having led the Magpies to nine premierships in the 1950s and 60s. Mark played in four premierships for the Port Adelaide Magpies, (1979, 1980, 1990, 1992) having played for both Collingwood and Brisbane in between. As Port Adelaide moved into the AFL he joined the Power as assistant coach in 1997, taking over as senior coach the year after, having coached the team to a Premiership (2004) and leading them to another Grand Final (2007).

Few who read this blog are remotely interested in AFL, most don’t even know what it is, so it is hard to describe my current emotions accurately. It is unlike the Rudd experience where I can share it with others across the nation and the world. People who don’t follow AFL. or sport in general, might think that losing the coach of your team is nothing to be upset about. Although I do agree it was time for ‘Chocco’ to move on, it still hurts. If losing Kevin was divorce, losing the coach of your beloved football team (Especially one as iconic as Mark Williams was), is like having a relative die. Watching footy for me is a ritualistic past time, its one of the things that bonds me to my father, to my brother, to my grandmother and to my best friend, all for different reasons. Watching Port Adelaide Power for the past 11 seasons, every single week, seven months of the year was to watch the communal embodiment of Mark Williams.

The most that defines Mark Williams as a coach, and as a human being is that last minute of the 2004 Grand Final. In my Moments of the 00s blog I describe it this way:

Even now I tear up watching the final moments as coach Mark Williams walks down the stairs of the MCG in tears as the ‘choker tag’ is finally defeated. It’s the most emotional sporting moment of my life thus far.

Walking down those steps descending the Northern Stand, tears in his eyes as he finally realises the dream of his life, to follow in his father’s footsteps and coach a Port Adelaide team to premiership victory, you could not help but be emotional. As a Port Adelaide supporter I knew how carthardic that moment was. Others who fail to understand the Port Adelaide culture thought he carried on a bit too much, that there was no need to make a choking signal to the MCG members (who taunted the club by calling us ‘chokers’ after finishing top of the ladder, but failing to make the Grand Final in the two previous seasons) or deliberately calling out the club’s major sponsor during the presentation for his lack of loyalty. But that was ‘Chocco’ and we loved him for it.

Mark Williams coached Port Adelaide Power the same way he played: tough, uncompromising but fiercely loyal to his team. This will be the first time a Williams family member has not played or coached either the Magpies or the Power in nearly six decades. This is not only the end of an era, but the end of a tradition.

There are only two players left at the Power who were there when Mark Williams took over as coach. Personally, one of a only a few of my non familial links to my home town is now gone. The day that Mark Williams would no longer coach Port Adelaide, was always going to come soon, but in conjunction with Kevin Rudd’s resignation, it really is further proof that time marches on to its own beat, and there is no room for sentimentality in either football or politics.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Dear Kevin: My Name Is Todd, I'm From Queensland, and I'm Here to Help (You)

Dear Kevin,

You have been a former Prime Minister for less than 12 days. It’s been the saddest 12 days I can remember since I have been involved in politics. I really feel like I’ve been kicked in the guts. I coped when our party struggled for 12 years in opposition, confident that one day the majority of Australians would hate John Howard as much as I did. That day came care of you. But I am really and truly struggling with the current political climate. While the rest of the country welcomes Julia with open arms, I greet our new PM with a mixture of scorn and derision. The flame haired Prime Minister, standing behind YOUR podium in YOUR courtyard, standing where you should be standing, flirting with the press corps, the same mob who were co-conspirators in your demise.

Julia as PM is like an ex girlfriend. There are things I once liked about her. I studied her, thought she was a good sort, kept an eye on her, made plans for her, but now all that I liked about her has withered away as I am overcome with pain. I am sure you feel the same. I cannot take her seriously as PM because she does not deserve my respect. My heart aches for the days of 2008. You were the man. You said sorry (twice), you ratified Kyoto, you stopped the evil demon known as WorkChoices, and you worked bloody hard to make sure the national economy was ticking over in the midst of the greatest economic downturn in 80 years. In other words, you did more in 2.5 years than your predecessor did in twelve, and much more than I suspect your successor will do.

I am sure you have looked at the events of the past week with as much bewilderment as I have. Julia, after all has kicked you in the testicles with a shit eating grin. The Resource Super Profit Tax (RSPT) was one of your best ideas yet. Julia even agreed with you, and so did Wayne, and yet they have spent this week running away from the idea as fast as Carl Lewis with the breeze at his back. Unfortunately the problem was not the tax itself, but more about your inability to sell it. Your ability to communicate policies with the electorate at large was not your strong point. I’m sure you’ll agree that is a fair ‘shake of the sauce bottle', no? Yet Julia has caved in to the mining bosses by cutting the tax in half and renaming it! When you do your tax this year Kevin, make sure you go to your accountant and say you think your paying too much income tax, and demand it be cut in half. When your accountant asks you where you come up with such a fanciful notion, you tell them that you are just being a consensus builder like Hawkey.


Take a few days off shopping at Sunshine Beach, did you know that’s only about a half an hour drive from where I live? Come visit me Kev, now that your Chief of Staff has been vilified and sent to the political dungeon, I’d like to apply for the position. Together with your biggest fan, the three of us will plot your comeback. Here’s how:

  1. Take a cabinet position after the election, doesn’t matter which one, and work the media like you did in the middle of last decade. Go on Sunrise again, but stop trying to act like everyone’s best mate, and drop the oker language, because the public is not stupid, we know its bullshit
  2. Play to your strengths and use your intelligence, but don’t be arrogant. We all know you’re the smartest guy in the room, but you don’t have to prove it all the time
  3. Further to that point, quit acting like a ‘wonker’, communicate with the people using snappy, digestible language. Throw the thesaurus out, and take notes from Julia, she is the master of communicating the complex and turning it into either warm fuzzies or a kick up the arse
  4. Go back to Brisbane and start being a top notch local member for a while, like you were back in the day
  5. Mend some fences with people in Caucus, because if you are patient, your time will come again

Even if it doesn’t, its time to rebuild your personal brand. The press are already assessing your legacy and it is not pretty, but I don’t like the direction that Julia is taking YOUR government. Its not an ALP government at least one that I know anyway. The only thing that inspires me to volunteer at the upcoming Federal Election as much as I have done in the past, is not to reaffirm Julia, but to ensure Abbott never sets foot in that courtyard, its bad enough that Julia is there already. Whilst I doubt I’ll ever reach Phillip Adams type proportions, my faith in our party is wavering.

Whilst current historical comparisons may equate you with John Gorton, I am going to pay you the biggest compliment any ALP member can bestow. You are my Whitlam. Sure, you may not have ‘crashed, or crashed through’, but you Kevin represent the 21st Century ALP: intellectually rigorous, centrist, with socially democratic policies. While the public at large think you are yesterday’s news I have faith in you. You won’t recapture the days of 2008, you have the potential to do better. Kevin, the ALP needs you more now than it did in 2006. Will you let me help you accept the challenge?


In Solidarity,

Todd Winther