There are few things more entertaining in the world of politics than watching one of Australia’s main political parties airing its dirty laundry in public. This week we get to see this spectacle at its finest, as Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, steps down from his position and challenges the Prime Minister (PM), Julia Gillard, for the leadership of the party. If he wins, of course, he will become Prime Minister. He was PM before, until 2010, when Julia Gillard overthrew him in a figurative night of the long knives. On that occasion he did not even take his position to a vote, so weak was his support, but this time around he is going to take it to a vote on Monday at 10am. That’s gripping viewing for those of us who enjoy our politics done dirty and Machiavellian, and this time, in the public eye. And nobody in Australian politics (or, probably, in the democratic world) does politics dirtier or slimier than this mob.

The vote in question is not a ballot of the people of Australia, or anything so silly. It’s a vote of the the representatives (MPs) who make up Gillard and Rudd’s party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP). For the benefit of my American reader(s), in the Westminster system that your benighted republic so sadly decided to dump, the PM is not elected by the people, but chosen from the parliament. When Australian politicians try to appeal to populism as part of this process – as Rudd is known to have done – they are referred to dismissively as “running a presidential-style campaign.” For people like Rudd and Gillard, the mere act of getting elected is something to sniff at – they are usually installed in safe seats and get an easy run into parliament. The hard work does not lie in convincing ordinary people that they might be good representatives, but in convincing their colleagues that they should be given high office. Usually this means being in parliament as a nobody for years, slowly building up the support of a faction within the ALP, and then climbing through ministries until finally you have the experience, the reputation, and most crucially the numbers to be able to backstab someone and take their job. That’s what we’ll see at its bloodiest best on Monday.

Usually all of this happens quietly behind closed doors, but for complex reasons that seem to have a lot to do with Rudd’s personality, this time it’s all being done in the open. If you believe the journalist who has done the most work on the matter, Rudd was dumped from PM in 2010 because he was losing control of the government and the policy-making process, alienating his colleagues and slowly destroying the ability of the higher offices to function. But publicly they didn’t want to smear him, so they didn’t mention any of this, although what really went on behind the scenes may have been summarized in this article from just before the coup. Because in Australian politics disunity is death, the plotters kept all the internal troubles quiet and claimed that Gillard toppled him in order to change policy direction. But by undermining the narrative of the government’s policy direction over the previous 3 years, this probably contributed to the ALP’s poor performance in the 2010 election, which saw them lose a lot of seats and forced into minority government with some independents and (shock!) the Greens. In fact it now appears that Rudd was already planning his vengeance, undermining that election campaign with leaks and “backgrounding” journalists. Since that election the media has run constant stories of leadership tension between Gillard and Rudd, who was given the position of Foreign Minister. It now appears tha a lot of that tension was being created by Rudd himself, and in recent days it reached such a peak that something had to be done. This time around, though, it looks like Gillard’s supporters intend to be frank about what happened then, and to poison the well so that nobody is willing to risk Rudd in the leadership position. They have been very publicly and aggressively bad-mouhting him, making sure that his reputation and legacy are in tatters and any election campaign featuring him as leader will be dominated by the opposition quoting his own party members’ poor assessment of his character.

Nobody does this stuff like the ALP, which is why it’s a joy to watch. Rudd’s knifing in 2010 was a shadowy business of meetings behind closed doors, over almost before we knew it had started. The last time a leadership struggle happened in a sitting ALP government was between the two greatest politicians the Westminster system has thrown up since the war: Hawke vs. Keating (whose colourful contribution to political life can be found here)[1]. But that was a tame affair compared to this, fought as it was on the basis of ability to win elections and policy vision – no one would ever claim that either of those men’s considerable personality flaws rendered them unfit to run a government. This time around, the government rests on a knife-edge of marginal seats in a coalition with free-willed independents and the battle is over personality, so whatever damage is done in this very public battle could well poison the chalice for the winner. They’re flinging so much poo that some of it is going to have to stick.

The battle is probably decided already, in reality, because it involves lining up the numbers for the caucus vote. ALP politicians don’t vote by conscience (this is explicitly banned when voting in the parliament!), they vote according to the dictates of whatever faction of the ALP they are a member of. The factions in turn are composed roughly along union lines, with different trade unions supporting different factions, and the key to success in the ALP is to get along well with your faction and to be able to negotiate deals between factions. Rudd, famously, eschewed this system in his run for PM, supposedly intending to “reform” the ALP’s systems. Gillard is a great negotiator and apparently has an inclusive style, so it’s likely that she’s been doing what all sensible ALP leaders do: keeping one eye on the opposition leader and the other eye firmly over her shoulder, on her factional “allies.” If the stories about Rudd are true, he will have alienated all the factions and will be left swinging in the breeze when it counts. Unless he has some very, very nasty tricks up his sleeve…

Many people say that this faction system is a bad idea and an undemocratic disaster, and Rudd was supposed to reform it to reduce its alleged bad properties, but I’m not convinced this is true. The ALP has been around for 100 years and the faction system has operated for at least 50 as far as I know, and in that time it has thrown up a great many highly talented politicians. Hawke, Keating, Whitlam and Chifley were all products of this faction system, as were some of the lesser, but still brilliant, members of the cabinets of yore. Any system that can produce the leadership team of Hawke and Keating, and keep them in office for 13 years, has to be doing something right. Recently the quality of the ALP reps has started to decline and there have been a few famous and regrettable mistakes in leadership (e.g. Mark Latham) but these mistakes and the thinning of talent I think might represent a much deeper problem with the ALP: its membership is declining rapidly, and its dependence on unions and an industrial working class base is no longer as relevant as it used to be, depriving it of the deep pool of talent it once had at its disposal.

It may or may not be bad for the party, but the faction system makes great theatre. This time around we are not just being shown a glimpse of the ALPs seedy inner nature, but may be offered the chance to look right into the depths of its soul. And I think that’s compelling viewing for anyone with an interest in how nasty politics can be. So grab the popcorn and gather round, kids, because the palace coup is underway …

fn1: I guess the third greatest is Thatcher, who probably should go at the top of the list for her singular achievements against the run of British expectations about class and gender, but she’s not as funny as Keating, not as educated as Hawke, and anyway she eats babies and her policies were crap in comparison to theirs.