Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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A tale of two leaders

Published 23 February 2012 13:52, Updated 24 February 2012 09:18

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What will disillusion voters most about the latest dramatic chapter in the Gillard-Rudd leadership showdown is that none of this is about them.

However it is portrayed by his supporters and the man himself, Kevin Rudd’s decision to resign as foreign minister in a dramatic Washington press conference on Wednesday night was about one thing only: the deposed PM wants his job back.

And just as Rudd’s decision to retire to the backbench has nothing to do with bringing this unedifying spectacle to a close, the decision by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who wrenched the prime ministership from Rudd almost two years ago, to hold a leadership ballot on Monday will settle nothing. This bloody fight to the death has some way to go yet. And you thought you were sick of it now.

The Gillard government deserves to be unpopular and Gillard cannot escape blame for its low standing. But there is something unsettling, even indecent, about this political stoush and the frenzied climate in which it is taking place. Gillard’s standing is so low that it has given license to an unprecedented level of personal vilification that demeans not just Gillard and her office but all of us.

While Gillard has been the architect of much her political misery – the poor judgement, the policy fumbles and a curious relationship with the truth – Australian politics has entered a deeply disturbing and ugly phase that has exposed Gillard to an unprecedented level of personal attack. This is best exemplified by radio shock-jocks who know no boundaries in their vilification of Gillard.

Putting an end to this festering environment should become the priority of whoever ends up with the reins of power – before it becomes the norm for evermore.

The trend to personal vilification is a matter for concern. But so is the quality of government and political leadership Australians have had to endure.

Australian democracy has always been robust and it should remain so. Our distinctive adaptation of the Westminster system has not spared us fools and rogues, but it has mostly served us well. Even when incompetent governments have found themselves in power, the democratic cycle has ensured that they are swiftly dispatched and a period of renewal prevails.

But there is something disturbing afoot in Canberra. Something deeply ingrained. There is a hardening moral lethargy that now forms the basis of politics in this country. We all feel it. The cynicism, the manipulation, the absence of values and guiding philosophies, the increasing sense that what goes on in Canberra is completely divorced from the best interests of the rest of Australia.

And then there’s the bitter Gillard-Rudd rivalry, which is taking place at a time of deep economic turmoil around the globe, the unsettling transformations being wrought by our own two-speed economy and deteriorating consumer confidence. No wonder that business is demanding leadership and bold policy resolve from the government (and the opposition for that matter). Yet Canberra is in a state of paralysis and is likely to remain so for the duration of this government.

The latest instalment of the internecine battle between Gillard and Rudd has laid bare deep, festering divisions in the Labor Party. Public and bitter denunciations of Rudd by senior ministers, Simon Crean and Wayne Swan in particular, which forced Rudd’s midnight resignation in Washington – coupled with a better understanding of the destabilisation efforts by Rudd and his supporters – reveal a party that will know no peace or electoral support for years to come irrespective of who wins this leadership battle.

Gillard didn’t create this stinking environment; but she has played a sorry role in perpetuating it. Most damning of all for Gillard, when she became prime minister on June 24, 2010, it was expected that she would provide the renewal that Australians so desperately yearned. It did not come.

What ultimately condemns Gillard’s prime ministership is not that she wrenched the prime ministership from Rudd mid-stream, it’s the fact that the disagreeable aspects of Rudd’s prime ministership that were the premise for the change of leadership remain intact and undisturbed. Australians are not getting better government and the Gillard government has been every bit as dysfunctional as Rudd’s. The reality is that we are getting more of the same. One might argue much more. The double-crossing of Andrew Wilkie and the trumped up circumstances in which coalition turncoat Peter Slipper was appointed Speaker are just the latest sorry hallmarks of Gillard’s prime ministership.

In other words, there has been no point to Gillard deposing Rudd. Nor has there been any point to the Greens or independents being “honest brokers” in the hung parliament. They have shared in befouling Canberra. And the Opposition has done nothing to suggest that they are the breath of fresh air that will cleanse the capital or restore good public policy as the focal point of government.

So, where to from here? Gillard has taken the initiative against Rudd by calling for an immediate leadership ballot. If she loses, she says she will retire to the backbench; if Rudd loses, she expects him to renounce his leadership ambitions. But politics is rarely given to such clean endings – especially in the prevailing political climate.

Rudd says he has learned from the error of his ways and has promised a new “KRudd”. Can we believe that? There is merit in Simon Crean’s assessment that the more we see of the “new” Rudd, the more we are reminded of the old one. It remains to be seen whether Rudd’s caucus colleagues believe he has changed his ways.

Assuming she is confirmed as leader, Gillard has the option of going to the polls early – the next election must be held by November 2013 – and let the cards fall where they may, either winning herself a mandate or consigning herself to history.

Winning a leadership ballot would win Gillard some rare breathing space, giving her the opportunity to redeem herself and her government. We have not seen Gillard at her best for some time – with the exception of a brief window late last year when she seemed to find her mojo, then she defenestrated herself with her hamfisted ministerial reshuffle.

After Monday, Gillard has her last chance to show herself as a plain-speaking, competent, inspiring, policy-focused leader with a vision for Australia. Even if we take it as a given that Gillard cannot win the next election, we can still hope that she fronts that election as someone who is worthy of the title Prime Minister.

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