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Democratic legitimacy in the Gillard period

By Dilan Thampapillai - posted Friday, 27 August 2010

The 2010 election is over and the Australian electorate has sent a very clear mixed message to the political classes. On the one hand the electorate as a whole has stopped short of returning Labor but on the other hand it has not elected the Coalition. Depending on negotiations with the independents we will see over the next few days who will govern Australia for the next three years.

There are some fascinating aspects to the 2010 election results. The Rudd dismissal is still very much in play. Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership has not been decisively legitimised at the ballot box. As a result, the validity of the coup in the first instance is still very questionable.

This has in turn given rise to a furious struggle to shape the narrative concerning both the Rudd demise and Labor’s election campaign. The leaks obviously hurt Labor’s campaign. But the dismissal obviously prompted the leaks. Already some Labor luminaries have made pointed remarks about the wisdom of removing an elected Prime Minister in such a clinical fashion.


The comments on some discussion forums and in other arenas clearly evince a degree of public anger towards Bill Shorten, Mark Arbib, Paul Howes and the others who were involved in the events of June 24. The appearance of Paul Howes on Lateline on June 23 to argue the case for Rudd’s dismissal was puzzling for most Australians given that he’s not an elected member of Parliament nor  were all members of Labor’s caucus aware of what was going to transpire the next day.

Removing Rudd meant that Labor could not run hard on his achievements in office. Thus the stimulus package was not effectively discussed. Nor was economics, an Abbott weakness, greatly in play during the campaign. This left Gillard with little to really say in defence of Labor. The awkwardness of the Rudd-Gillard rapprochement was palpable.

It is a sad situation, but Labor’s ills are all self-inflicted. Dropping the emissions trading scheme (ETS) cost Labor core votes. It appears that Rudd was forced to make this decision by Gillard and Arbib and, at the time, it greatly damaged his credibility. Pushing for the mining tax probably cost Labor votes in Queensland and Western Australia. Introducing a huge mining tax in an election year was a baffling decision. Removing Rudd in such a brutal fashion cost Labor legitimacy and most likely more core votes.

Tony Abbott ran a strong and sincere campaign. Abbott offers the possibility that a post-Howard Liberal Party, minus Howard’s tendency towards dog-whistling and narrow-mindedness, could actually be a Liberal Party for all Australians. Abbott’s book Battlelines offers some useful insights into his general philosophy in terms of both his conservatism and his general scepticism of exclusion-based politics. Given the result he’s achieved, if Abbott was a political risk when he became leader, then Labor should be very grateful that neither Turnbull nor Costello was the opposition leader in the 2010 election.

Labor will need to think very carefully about the way it has conducted itself in the past few months. Democratic legitimacy depends not just on the constitutional rules governing political office but on the degree of trust between the people and their elected representatives. Labor has not handled that trust very well.

Given that Arbib, Gillard and their ilk are professional politicians their decision to force Rudd to push back the ETS demonstrated a lack of understanding of their core vote.


Similarly, little thought appears to have been given to how Rudd’s dismissal would play out with the voters. Particularly given the way in which Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees were removed from office in New South Wales it does seem a strange oversight. Somehow the NSW Right’s “win but don’t govern” ethos seems to have made its way to Canberra. That left a lot of voters wondering about Labor’s loyalty and intentions. It certainly wouldn’t have helped when Gillard, standing next to Keneally, promised the Epping-Parramatta rail link. Bob Carr promised this to Sydney well over a decade ago.

The upshot of Labor’s carelessness with the public’s trust is that now it remains to be seen whether Julia Gillard will be Australia’s shortest serving non-caretaker prime minister. Her tenure might be a brief period in time or with luck it could be a defining era. If things go badly it could well be that certain members of the Labor Government have advised and plotted their way out of government.

If Labor does survive with the support of the independents it will need to work quite hard to re-establish itself. In the interim, the quirk of fate which has a Labor minister related to the Governor-General has thrown up another constitutional issue. There are interesting times ahead.

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About the Author

Dilan Thampapillai is a lecturer with the College of Law at the Australian National University. These are his personal views.

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