Want To Understand Just How Screwed The Labor Party Is? ‘The Killing Season’ Is A Must-Watch
"Picking who comes out worst, Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard, is like choosing between a turd sandwich and a piss milkshake."
Determining who comes out of the ABC’s new documentary The Killing Season looking the worst is like choosing between a turd sandwich and a piss milkshake. Is it Kevin Rudd, whose self-perception is stunted by his enormous and exquisitely fragile ego? Is it Julia Gillard, who must burn at least 20% more calories than the average human from the effort of failing to acknowledge her infamous act of political brutality?
It’s hard to say, but one thing’s for sure: the ALP’s General Secretary Sam Dastyari was on the money in more ways than one when he said “we’re bloody stuffed”.
Sarah Ferguson’s three-part series about the coup against Kevin Rudd in 2010 is a series of revelations on the topic of just how stuffed the ALP was. Spoiler alert: extremely stuffed. Stuffed on every conceivable level. If the show hadn’t been named The Killing Season it would’ve been called Stuffed: A Portrait of the Australian Labor Party.
Why any of its participants agreed to be filmed is a mystery, because all any of them do is incriminate themselves, each other and the entire party. It’s a classic he-said-she-said format in which we have key events leading up to the leadership challenge narrated by both Rudd and Gillard, as well as a supporting cast of staffers and other politicians. Rudd is clearly still beside himself at the memory of being the victim of such a heinous betrayal, so all his recollections have the tenor of a school bully crying with shock when the other kids finally form a coalition and dak him during recess. In both cases the emotional response is genuine, but the reaction it invites is: sucked in, mate.
The ever-inscrutable Gillard, on the other hand, has learned nothing about communication from her time as PM and still speaks in maddening evasions. These sound all the more pissweak because she’s one of the few modern politicians who is able to forcefully defend her principles when the mood strikes.
“He was tired,” she says when describing Rudd’s mental state after Copenhagen. Since we know Rudd was so incandescent with rage during the climate change summit that he screamed about “Chinese ratfuckers,” this seems very much like she’s praising him with faint damnation. Put your back into it, Gillard! You rolled a sitting Prime Minister! “He was tired” is not going to cut it!
But all this is quaint historical trivia compared to the overall picture the show paints of the ALP’s internal machinations. The words ‘toxic’ and ‘dysfunctional’ spring to mind, but don’t fully capture the dynamic. The party was riven with mistrust; secretive, atomised. How can a long-term policy agenda be pursued with any kind of solidarity in that atmosphere? Oh, wait: elect a ruthless dictator who doesn’t need or understand consensus or community, that’s right.
When you’re part of a system where nobody trusts anybody else, where everybody is a potential enemy, it’s very difficult to conduct yourself with integrity, because that makes you vulnerable. Even people who understand why those arrangements are destructive find themselves unwilling to pursue genuine reform because of the high chance they’ll be stabbed in the back by people who personally benefit from such a system. There may even be a critical mass of actors within the system who recognise how bad it is, but they’re prevented from doing anything by fear and isolation.
This seems to be why Rudd was such an attractive prospect for the ALP: his cheerful sociopathy made him seem like a shortcut to political efficacy, without the need for all that messy cultural change. His leadership briefly slammed a lid on the party’s internal tensions, but of course they continued bubbling away inside the jar.
But the appeal of his demanding, autocratic style waned somewhat when everyone realised that they’d have to actually, you know, work with him. An election campaign is a very different thing to running a stable government: everyone inside the party agrees on winning the election. It’s an easy goal to unite around; you don’t have to convince anyone it’s important, or negotiate compromise. There are no heated party room meetings where different factions argue over how much election they want to win, or whether winning the election is really the direction the party should be moving in. It’s an election. Win it.
On the other hand, government must be about a shared goal or vision. Each individual has to believe in that shared goal or vision. Each individual has to be able to trust that everyone around them also believes in that shared goal or vision. That’s the basis of a good-faith negotiation: I trust you not to be a ratfucker, because I know that you know that being a ratfucker will be ultimately detrimental to our shared goal. Let’s put aside our differences and try to out-ratfuck our common enemy.
That can’t happen in an absence of trust, and it especially can’t happen when you’ve got a giant Harry-Potter-lookin’-ass technocrat setting the policy agenda according to his own beliefs, without consulting anyone else. Thus the fundamental dynamics of the system re-assert themselves, and we get a sneaky, cowardly plot to turf Rudd out on his bum rather than an attempt at compromise or honest confrontation.
Rudd and Gillard’s common mistake in agreeing to participate in The Killing Season was to assume that if they showed how they, personally, were each victims of circumstance, their actions would appear defensible to observers. They both, having become irreversibly acculturated to the norms of a totally fucked up ALP culture, miss that the general public find those norms repellent. ‘I had to do this bad thing, because the alternative would’ve been even worse!’
Yeah, well, I hate to tell you guys, but that’s bullshit. You’re humans with brains, you could both have done anything you wanted to. Your options were only constrained by the limitations you chose. Nobody had guns to your heads. Quit politics and go farm escargot. Defect to another party. Start your own party. Choose to act with integrity and see how long you last, and how much change you can effect, before you get booted out. Do anything that doesn’t involve accepting a perverted, organisationally evil set of rules. Now that you’ve got some distance from the event, choose to honestly examine yourselves and your roles in a broadly rooted system.
Use your imaginations, for God’s sake.
Eleanor Robertson is a writer living in Sydney. Her work appears regularly in The Guardian, Daily Life and Frankie Magazine. Follow her at @marrowing for crap jokes and drunk tweets.