Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Politicians in Oz go 'mongrel'

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BRISBANE -- The whiff of a banana republic rose from Down Under this week as Australia unleashed its political "mongrel'' and sent it out for a destructive romp.

On Monday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard fended off a bitterly contested challenge for the leadership of her party and government from her own former foreign minister, Kevin Rudd.

The vote was won convincingly by Gillard, 71 to 31, in an internal ballot inside the ruling centre-left Australian Labour Party.

But this latest chapter in a drama that began when Gillard deposed Rudd in a June 2010 coup featured bruising internal clashes that will ricochet around the party like political shrapnel for years to come.

Buffoonery is the only way to describe the events leading to the leadership vote.

Australia's leaders behaved like tropical tin-pot dictators. The only things missing were military uniforms with gold braids and goons with chests lined with fake medals as naked ambition overran parliamentary accountability and responsible governance.

This was not a contest of principle but of pride, and its noxious fallout looks certain to erode the ruling Labour government until 2014, when it will almost certainly lose power.

For those Canadian political addicts fascinated by democracy's ebbs and flows, Labour's self-destruction can be traced back to the morning of Dec. 4, 2006, and the portly person who today is Australia's ambassador to the U.S., Kim Beazley.

Beazley, widely regarded as the best prime minister Australia never had, led Labour in opposition on and off for much of the decade between 1996 and 2006.

In 1998, he lost to the incumbent Conservatives but won more than 50 per cent of the popular vote and secured the largest swing to a first-term opposition leader since the 1930s.

But in 2006, after another election loss, his party, which loved him, tossed him aside and replaced him with Rudd, whom it did not love.

The ensuing five years have provided a parable of the folly of trading your soul for power.

Beazley, a Rhodes scholar, was highly intelligent, a little sentimental, perhaps slightly lacking in personal discipline and certainly devoid of the haughty arrogance of those who believe themselves born to rule.

But he was indisputably kind-hearted, loyal and fiercely determined to help those less fortunate than himself.

In summary, he was the living, breathing embodiment of the century-old Australian Labour Party. Party hard heads, however, noted a fatal flaw -- he didn't have enough of "the mongrel.''

The mongrel is an Australian euphemism for a naked lust for power and the capacity to behave in an unconscionable manner to obtain it.

And so Beazley was replaced by Rudd on that fateful December morning, only hours after Beazley's beloved brother David died suddenly at the age of 53.

Beazley wept during his concession speech, no doubt more for David than himself, before being dispatched to Washington.

There he no doubt indulges his interest in the American Civil War and relishes his distance from those more vicious spirits dwelling in Australia's political world.

As for Australia, it was left in the hands of Rudd, so despised by his colleagues, they politically executed him little more than 30 months after he handed them the power they so craved.

Rudd's replacement, Gillard, proved a worse disaster in the polls than Rudd, who relentlessly began plotting his return.

The public added to the spiralling chaos by favouring Rudd over Gillard while Labour's membership numbers plummeted to historic lows.

And so we arrived at Monday morning's showdown as this allegedly compassionate movement of social progressives descended into a back-biting, spiteful, malignant herd of political savages.

Labour rejected the better part of its nature, went looking for a mongrel and found a whole pack of them baying within their ranks.

And those snarling curs, far from banished by Monday's vote, will soon chase the ALP all the way to the Opposition benches, where it could well remain for a generation.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2012 A17

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