The homepage of Samuel Ellemor

Triumph and Demise - The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation

Paul Kelly
Melbourne University Press (2014)

Triumph and Demise is the most authoritative account of the tumultuous years of the Rudd-Gillard government written to date. Based on over sixty interviews with insiders, Paul Kelly tells the story of how a government that came to power with such optimism managed to destroy itself, leaving office six years later disgraced, riven with internal discord and unsure of what it stood for. But, in true Kelly fashion, Triumph and Demise is as much about the future as about the past. Kelly argues that behind all the political intrigue that so characterised this government lay an institutional crisis within modern politics that we are yet to surmount. The recent leadership turmoil and ongoing speculation about Abbott’s position within the Liberal Party shows that this crisis is not unique to Labor, but is haunting the Coalition as well.

The termination of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership by Julia Gillard on 23 June 2010 destroyed the partnership that made the Labor government and doomed it to defeat. Kelly sees this as the defining event of the Rudd-Gillard years. It prevented Gillard from gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and it ensured Rudd would do everything possible to undermine her and take back the leadership.

Deftly handling the competing accounts of what happened in the lead up to that fateful night, Kelly paints a persuasive picture of the events that drove the Labor caucus to axe its first term prime minister. What is remarkable is that the cabinet was not pushing for change, but the momentum started by the factional leaders calling for Rudd to be removed was insurmountable. Key figures in the government were caught off side. No strategy to manage the transition was in place. Before Rudd knew what was happening, it was all over. Labor had destroyed the prime minister that had so successfully defeated John Howard less than three years earlier.

The book looks at the major issues that defined the Rudd-Gillard years, including the emissions trading scheme, the mining tax and asylum seekers. Kelly gives the government credit for its economic management during the global financial crisis, but the government failed to capitalise on this politically because of the debacles over school halls and pink batts. Kelly sees Swan as a capable treasurer, but argues that Labor needed to restrain its spending once the economy started to recover from the GFC. Though based on Treasury advice, the promises to return to surplus were overly optimistic and will have damaged Labor’s economic credibility for years to come.

Labor’s challenge was that it had to fight a two front war. It had to fight the Greens on the left and it had to fight a populist Coalition opposition on the right. Kelly is scathing of the Greens. He draws attention to the fact that they helped kill the ETS under Rudd. Their ideological purity on asylum seekers saw them ‘display ... a rarely analysed contemporary phenomenon – the debasement of human rights on the altar of human rights ideology.’ The issue for Kelly is that of responsibility. Because they are not a party of government, he believes that they are not held accountable for their promises, which they don’t need to deliver on. Kelly concludes that the intransigence of the Greens helped the Coalition to defeat Labor. 

Kelly compares the Gillard and Rudd era to the Hawke-Keating government. The author of The End of Certainty and The March of the Patriots sees the period from 1983-2003 under Hawke, Keating, Howard and Costello as the age of economic reform. Since 2003 Australia has been a victim of its own success, with politicians unable to sell essential reforms in a climate where the nation is wealthy and comfortable. Kelly believes that Labor has squandered the Keating legacy and is facing an identity crisis. Gillard especially, though she was a capable leader, represented the ‘old Labor’ that was tied to unions and suspicious of business.

This view is contested. Robert Manne accuses Kelly of judging Australian governments solely on their economic management and ignoring their social reforms. Rudd’s apology to indigenous Australians was an important step for the nation and Gillard’s National Disability Insurance Scheme will be enduring. However, there is no way the nation will be grappling with the Rudd-Gillard legacy in the way that it continues to grapple with the often competing visions of Keating and Howard. 

What this means for the Labor party remains to be seen, but Labor’s electoral success depends on it winning the support of affluent progressives, its traditional working class base and the aspiring classes, including small business owners and ethnic voters. It is losing progressives to the Greens and the others are being wooed by the Liberals. The challenge for Labor is to create a narrative that can hold these diverse groups together.

The bane of writing political history so soon after the event is that it lacks the longer term historical perspective. This book will need a sequel once we know the fate of the current Coalition government. Abbott belongs to the same post-Howard era that Rudd and Gillard belonged to, and the challenges he faces are the same that they faced. Structural changes to the budget are required since a government can’t run deficits over the long term where the nation’s economic growth is slow. Neither side of politics has come up with a serious response to the Henry tax review. We are stuck with an expensive ‘third rate’ policy for addressing climate change that is not viable in the long run.

There is no doubt that Abbott was a highly successful opposition leader, but he must ultimately be judged by what he and the Coalition achieve in office. Beyond bemoaning the lack of bipartisanship shown by Abbott, Kelly gives Abbott a fairly light run. This is a book about Labor. However, that Abbott’s leadership is in a critical condition shows that the challenges Labor succumbed to are also breaking the Liberals. Kelly’s warning is serious: ‘there is no guarantee that politics can emerge from its current trough to meet the challenges of the next decade.’ Kelly’s book is a rallying cry for the major parties to provide ambitious leadership that puts the long term national interest first. It remains to be seen whether the current generation of political leaders can deliver.