Published in The Australian Financial Review on 24 June 2020
Ten years ago, the faceless men of the factions decided to remove Australia’s democratically elected prime minister. In the decade since, they have unsuccessfully sought to construct a narrative that their motives were noble.
They weren’t. It was a crude grab for factional power, which Julia Gillard was happy to accommodate to secure the prime ministership. The rest is history.
To my surprise, these last few day the faceless men decided to give it one last burl – both in on-the-record interviews and background briefings. You would have thought, given the Adem Somyurek debacle, they would have had the good sense to just shut up. But arrogance is a defining characteristic of factional thugs.
So what of the Labor government they happily put to the sword that night? The policy record is substantial.
Our response to the global financial crisis was independently reviewed as the best in the world: keeping Australia out of recession, avoiding mass unemployment, defending our financial institutions and preserving our AAA credit rating.
We cut withholding tax to 7.5 per cent for funds managers to help transform them into a major new export industry.
We established Infrastructure Australia to advise on national infrastructure needs and launched the biggest investment program in 50 years in rail and ports, and four-laning the Pacific Highway.
We launched the full-fibre National Broadband Network, although it was later sabotaged by the Liberals’ mad decision to replace it with copper.
We ratified the Kyoto Protocol, legislated a mandatory renewable energy target now delivering 20 per cent clean energy, and legislated twice for a carbon price, only to be defeated by the Liberal-Green coalition.
We co-founded the G20 summit which, for the first time, secured Australia a seat at the world’s top economic table. We won a seat on the UN Security Council for the first time in 26 years. We launched the biggest naval expansion program since the World War II. We brought our troops home from Iraq and established a clear-cut mission statement in Afghanistan that enabled our withdrawal from Uruzgan in 2013.
Our balanced China strategy enhanced two-way trade and investment while simultaneously blocking Beijing’s takeover of Rio Tinto, banning Huawei from the NBN and defending human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet. And we stopped Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean by taking Japan to the International Court of Justice.
Consistent with our election mandate, we abolished WorkChoices and restored balance through the Fair Work Act.
We increased the age pension to take pensioners out of poverty. We increased the superannuation guarantee to 12 per cent, despite the Liberals’ best efforts to kill it. We introduced the first paid parental leave scheme, doubled the childcare rebate and launched the National Disability Insurance Scheme on the recommendation of the 2020 Summit.
We negotiated a landmark National Health and Hospitals Agreement to reform federal hospitals funding.
We amended 87 federal laws to end legal discrimination against same-sex couples.
And we advanced reconciliation through the national apology and the Closing the Gap Agreement, although the Liberals have since defunded it.
These were collective achievements of an extraordinarily hard-working cabinet and caucus under my leadership. The positive impact of these reforms continues.
Imagine if under COVID-19 shutdowns we hadn’t commenced building the NBN (despite the Liberals’ copper botch-job).
My government was far from perfect and I’ve been the first to admit things I got wrong. But by the standards of any firstterm government – be it Hawke-Keating, Howard, Abbott, Turnbull, all of which went through major crises – ours was a government of policy achievement and political stability.
I lost only one minister in three years. Howard lost seven in one year.
The core public argument of the faceless seven (Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar, NSW Right; David Feeney and Stephen Conroy, Victorian Right; Don ‘‘the godfather’’ Farrell of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association; Bill Ludwig and Paul Howes of the Australian Workers Union) has been that my government could not have won the 2010 election.
Well, there’s a problem with that. I’d been ahead of the Liberals for 86 of the 87 opinion polls since I became leader. On the day of the coup, we were ahead, 52-48, and I was 10 points clear of Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister. By contrast, the Gillard government trailed Abbott in 50 consecutive polls. Even my greatest detractor, John Howard, has stated I would have easily won in 2010 on the sole basis of keeping the country out of recession.
But through their coup, the factional brains-trust kissed good-bye to all that.
So what were the faceless men’s real objectives? As always, it was ‘‘power in Labor’’ first, and ‘‘Labor in power’’ second. They resented the fact that I had removed their power to stack the cabinet with factional favourites, and instead appointed ministers on their merit.
And by installing their candidate as prime minister, they would all be politically rewarded, as were the factional followers who helped execute their orders – perhaps the faceless boys? – including Bill Shorten, Wayne Swan and, in time, Jim Chalmers.
But the coup culture then spread to the Liberal Party. Ironically, it was my leadership rule changes in 2013, to make it impossible to remove a sitting PM or party leader in a midnight coup (as opposed to a lengthy ballot of party members), that delivered Shorten six years of leadership stability. And then Morrison did the same for the Liberals. Factions are a cancer in both parties, and therefore our democracy.
Aaron Patrick’s touching defence of factionalism in these pages yesterday is just naive. Factional power is transacted in secret, as Somyurek demonstrates. The signal virtue of democracies is that they’re designed to be conducted transparently through an open, parliamentary process, reinforced by a fair, balanced and independent media.
Within parties and governments, there are regular processes to resolve disagreements: the cabinet and the regular meetings parliamentary party. The faceless men avoided both in the lead-up to the coup. These were the proper forums for any matters of substance to be raised.
Instead, they launched a midnight coup, known only to the faceless seven (and Graham Richardson, by his own admission), then set about threatening people’s future political prospects, disseminated concocted market research, coupled with a disinformation campaign through selective media briefings during the night, to create a fait accompli by the morning.
And they won because members of Parliament feared them.
So instead of a long-term, reforming Labor Government and an orderly transition to Gillard around 2015, which I had already discussed with her, the faceless men secured their objective: power in Labor, but Labor no longer in power.