The thing that has been fascinating me about the last week in politics is the evidence of the herd mentality (psychologically speaking). The herd doesn’t move direction until one person breaks ranks, and then suddenly everyone is following the new direction. I’m talking, of course, of the sudden political demise and dethroning of KRudd.
A year ago even, this scenario would be almost unbelievable. KRudd was sailing high in the opinion polls, and could apparently do no wrong. I had actually heard about KRudd’s personal character flaws (swearing, anger, dogmatism) but none of that was being reported widely in the press. The Liberals were regrouping, having experienced their own divisive leadership spill.
Then things started to go wrong with the insulation scheme and with the BER scheme. As I see it, the press became disenchanted with KRudd at this point. They turned.
I’ve been thinking about why I also became disenchanted. I knew about KRudd’s character flaws, and never particularly warmed to him (despite the glowing opinion polls). To be honest, the positive opinion polls poleaxed me somewhat, as I saw KRudd as smarmy, a person who pandered to populism. But I didn’t say anything. Perhaps I wanted to give KRudd the benefit of the doubt. One mistake, well…everyone makes mistakes. Two mistakes, not so good… Plus, I’m not a political commentator, and I only rarely write about domestic politics. I’ve charted my own progress of disenchantment in a previous post. If the government had stopped and fixed the things that went wrong, I think that would have been better, but instead it brushed the wreckage of the old schemes into the corner, and hurriedly started piling new initiative on top of new initiative.
Suddenly the knives were out. It wasn’t just the “right wing” opinion writers who were criticising the guy. Media commentators which had traditionally been regarded as “left wing” started in on the action. The press salivated when KRudd got angry after he was questioned on The 7:30 Report. David Marr opined that KRudd was driven by anger. We heard from Marr that KRudd had publicly described the Chinese as “rat-f**kers” at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. We heard about KRudd’s penchant for using swear words off the record. Humans are social beasts, and we take our cues from the behaviour of other people. It’s like we looked at each other and thought, “Hey, it’s okay to criticise and question this guy, everyone else is doing it.” We also take our cues for what is appropriate behaviour from others. There are sound reasons behind this behaviour, and it has some very positive aspects. To use a crude example, people are unlikely to defaecate in public in Australia because of the herd consensus is that this is utterly inappropriate behaviour.
Now, from what I hear, what I like to call the “Labor machine” had been waiting for this moment. Alexander Downer (former Liberal opposition leader and former Liberal Foreign Minister) said in The Spectator:
It has taken an incredible three years for the Australian public to realise who their national leader really is. I sat with a Labor luminary having a late-night drink in June 2008. He turned to me and said: ‘Mate, one day the Australian public will grow to hate Kevin Rudd as much as I do.’ That day has arrived.
The Labor machine had kept schtum while KRudd was riding high in the polls, but once he’d fallen from grace in the eyes of the media and the public, the cogs whirred and it started into action. There was no way it was going to let a personally unpopular leader lose this election for them. I do wonder when the plan to remove KRudd was initiated. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t an impulsive decision (contrary to the way in which it was portrayed last week). After all, Gillard’s new hair-do and colour was evident a few days before the putsch, and it seems odd to have it done then, rather than in the parliamentary recess…unless she knew what was coming. Of course, she does have a hairdresser as a partner…lucky thing…
An informal poll of my friends after the putsch indicates that many are more satisfied with Gillard as leader than KRudd, and they are disposed to respect her, but they remain uncomfortable with the ruthless way in which it occurred.
Even though I’d lost confidence in KRudd totally by the end, I did find the sight of him crying on national television heart-rending, and I couldn’t watch it. I’d feel the same for any person of any political stripe in his position. (One of my early political memories is of seeing Malcolm Fraser crying after losing to Bob Hawke, and feeling puzzled and very sorry for him, even though I loved Hawkie. I asked Dad why Fraser was crying — I think I had actually thought men were incapable of crying — and Dad said, “It’s understandable that he’s crying; he’s just lost a very big and important contest.”)
Then KRudd was sitting despondently in the backbenches during Question Time with an expression of bewilderment and devastation: you could tell he was thinking, “How did it all go so horribly wrong?” His failure to realise it was going horribly wrong is in part the reason for his downfall. Once the herd turns against you, particularly those who were formerly on your side, you’re on a slippery slope downwards. KRudd’s failure was that he did not realise that the zeitgeist had changed for many (although to be fair, not everyone followed the herd on this — see, for example, LP posts here and here). KRudd did not take his cues from the herd and amend his actions accordingly. In fact, he’s still not taking his cues from the herd. Reportedly, he asked Gillard for a frontbench position twice and was rejected. I wouldn’t have had the cheek to do it once, myself. I would have slunk off to the backbench to hide.
The fascinating thing for me now is watching people who formerly avowed support for KRudd now disavowing him, and claiming that never supported poor old KRudd in the first place. Tim Blair has collected a few. Samuel J at Catallaxy has wondered if the government would indulge in the Roman practice of damnatio memoriae if it were allowed.
Personally, I’m left a little uneasy by the whole thing. To be honest, I’m glad KRudd’s gone. I think Lorenzo’s observation that KRudd was like the Pointy Haired Boss from Dilbert is spot-on. I hope sincerely that Gillard will be a better Prime Minister. But I remain uncomfortable with the ruthless method of dispatch, and I’m a little freaked out by the power of the herd (the media herd in particular). It’s not so much that they turned, it’s the way in which the attitude of the media from the beginning to the end of KRudd was so extreme. The progressive media herd thought KRudd was beyond reproach at the start. I don’t think that’s acceptable. Surely he was the same man from beginning to end, and surely we should have heard critical analysis about any flaws or problems in KRudd’s leadership from the start.