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Kafka and Cocaine: The Fall of the Australian Labor Party

It would be odd to find parallels between the Australian Labor Party’s behaviour during the week, one which saw a meandering and vain attempt at self-destruction, and a central European writer with a sense of the apocalyptic. But the parallels are there – the absurd situation, the words that mean little and the sheer arbitrariness. Odder still is that this is a party in government presiding over a country that has seen 21 years of uninterrupted economic growth, with an unemployment rate of 5.4%. Australia is a nation bored by luxuries and governed by brats and prats. Its political classes are hollow. Its visionaries are permanent absentees.

The party that has made self-destructive cannibalism its own poem, purging and suicide its own stanza, made a monumental effort to irritate the Australian electorate into voting it into oblivion on Thursday. Now a very much ex-regional minister Simon Crean had expectorated all day, with the eventual push for a ballot at 4.30 that afternoon. This party of madness was going to decide if its leader, Julia Gillard, would remain in office. (Yes, this is the Westminster system, not a democracy with an elected executive.)

“Rudd’s not going to challenge,” said one journalist on the live feed on the ABC website, a murmuring that fell on deaf ears. A bit of scampering ensued. The other journalists gathered in the room with their recording paraphernalia hosted looks of addled bemusement.

Then, the political factions started to come out, as if drugged. It was official: Kevin Rudd, the deposed former Prime Minister of Australia, would not stand against the person who ensured his downfall. Certain victory was going to be impossible – at least for now.

While Gillard survived, as did her clownish treasurer and mindless deputy Wayne Swan, many of Rudd’s supporters did not. They had been outed. They too have a suicidal streak, an inability to know when to cross the Rubicon. An understanding of one’s own forces is essential to success in battle. To win the war, it may be necessary to lose the odd battle.

The casualties have been considerable: Crean himself, the minister for tertiary education Chris Bowen, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, chief whip Joel Fitzgibbon, Ed Husic, Janelle Saffin, and junior minister Kim Carr. There were even possible rumblings of treachery from the foreign minister Bob Carr, who has persistently expressed his undying “loyalty” to Gillard.

Bowen himself claimed that the Rudd supporters within the cabinet “advised Kevin Rudd that the ballot would be close, that it would come within a few votes…and he made the right decision not to stand.” This is certainly not the story from Crean or Carr. Saffin expressed her own bitter disappointment that Rudd refused to run. Rudd is being criticised for not being gallant, for having handed out a “mixed message” to his supporters, the putative saviour who turned out to be false. Crean himself suggested after the miscalculation that one would have to be very careful in future when speaking to Rudd about deals and such like. Caveat emptor.

Now, the Australian Labor Party has gone into its default position, an endless repetition that things are well, that all is good despite the patently obvious fact that they have written themselves into history as narcotised incompetents. “This matter is resolved,” claimed Bowen. “The matter is settled,” claimed Gillard. “It’s time to draw an absolute line under it,” added Rudd.

The fact is that Rudd’s refusal to run was faultless. He would have been foolish to have taken the helm of a sinking ship, and would be forever handicapped by the Gillard virus. The rot is too far entrenched, the toxic hue too engulfing, for him to have an effect now. No, best leave the Australian Labor Party to its deserved doom, one it has managed with unstinting remorselessness.

When they are reduced to a rump at the elections come September, Rudd may well return. Australian politics is filled with stories of revival and redemption, of the fallen who pass through the door of leadership only to then return. This story is by no means over.