A Ruddy chapter in Australian politics: on the anniversary of the coup and faceless men

Do Australians have any reason to trust politicians and their ability to solve problems, 10 years on from “the coup”? A recent exposé of corruption in the Victorian Labor Party shows that the same dirty tricks and power politics continue to be at play.

23 June 2020 marks the 10th anniversary of “the coup that killed Australian politics.” The removal of a popular first-term prime minister from office by “dark forces within his own party” has left a stain on Australian politics. In The PM Years (2018), former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd framed the coup as an issue of trust. He said, “My biggest mistake…was in the level of trust I extended to my closest colleagues. Until the evening of the coup, I did not believe Gillard and Swan would betray me…My faith in them was abused. I doubt I will be as trusting of anyone in politics ever again. Nor will the Australian public” (p. 380). Politicians’ lack of trust in each other has implications for their ability to progress policy and secure public trust. 

“Rightly or wrongly, the people elected me as their prime minister. The factions then set about un-electing me” (Rudd, p. 385).

Both major parties have learned from the fallout of power-grabs at the highest level and implemented rules to provide consistent leadership and strengthened party voting to be more democratic at the national level. However recent events with “explosive” allegations of branch stacking in the Victorian Labor Party show how the addictive nature of political power, combined with ‘backroom’ tactics can tarnish a party or its leader. In swiftly berating branch stacking and removing former Minister Adam Somyurek from office, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has sought to retain trust in his government.

In his 2018 memoire, The PM Years, Rudd goes into detail about “the anatomy of a coup,” describing methods and characteristics of the “faceless men” and how his other colleagues in government reacted. After the coup while still in government, he seemed to frequently question whether he could trust colleagues who suggested he put forward a leadership challenge. Were they solely seeking to bolster their own position, and did they support his policy agenda over Julia Gillard’s? 

“Power…has a narcotic appeal which he finds hard to resist” (Rudd, p. 385).

This year the country is at a pivotal moment in its history, responding to and seeking to recover from multiple cascading and compounding hazards. It is still grappling with issues faced by the country in 2010, which perhaps are perpetual issues for federal politics: influence of specific sectors (e.g. housing/construction, mining, agriculture) on local and federal politicians, taxation, health and hospital reform, internet connectivity, Closing the Gap and effective environmental policy. 

In Rudd’s words, “Australia would be a much different nation today were we able to complete those reforms. The coup cut all this short. It is a story of opportunities lost. For the party. And the country” (p. 386).

And not just lost opportunities, but according to Rudd, the greatest impact could be the coup’s “assault on public trust in the Australian political process.” 

 According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, for Australians, no institution is seen as both ethical and competent, with government at the lowest level for both categories. Australians’ trust in government hit all-time lows in 2019 and early 2020, but the way the government and media responded to COVID-19 has led their trust levels to increase. 

The Edelman Trust Barometer proposes that a partnership approach between government, business and not for profit sectors to solve policy challenges – which we have seen this year to manage bushfire recovery and the pandemic with roundtables and the National Cabinet –  is an opportunity to build trust. The hope for the National Cabinet is that it may provide a more evidence-based and collaborative approach to national policy. 

The anniversary of the coup gives us a moment to reflect on a key turning point in Australian politics. It was a time when Australia could have made significant policy interventions in health and the environment. Instead, we had leadership cut short with a decade of political instability, declining public trust and opportunistic, reactionary politics. 

Later this year, the Australian public will get another chance to think about the limits of Australia’s political structure with the release of ‘Palace Letters’ that will shed light on the ‘coup’ that removed former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and replaced him with the opposition party. Let’s hope exposing how power is wielded and giving name a to the ‘faceless men’ is a first step to repairing trust in government.