The new PM sends all the wrong signals

Well, one in particular that I regard as unforgivable. Andrew Leigh, my friend, co-author and up until yesterday the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister has been dropped from that role entirely with no reasonable substitute offered. From the signal it sends to the economics community in Australia, it is no less than the absurdity of the US Senate not confirming Peter Diamond to Fed Board in the very year he won a Nobel prize for economics. Andrew had, during his first term as an MP, won the Economic Society of Australia’s Young Economist Award given to the best economist under the age of 40. To realise how significant that is, the Society declined to offer that award to anyone in the year following Andrew’s prize.

We have been long told that the mire of Australian politics was discouraging talent from entering. Instead we have people who play party games and that is increasingly not a young person’s game. Why should it be when there are so many professions in Australia that reward talent? Indeed, being an academic researcher is one of them and Andrew was one of the finest there was. Unlike many of us, he was deeply devoted to Australian policy and pursued research that was designed to provide the very evidence politicians needed to make the right decisions. He stood between academia and policy debates. He was invited to Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit but I could already see there that he was frustrated that just doing good work would not be enough. To get real evidence on policy he would have to get on the inside. So he spent a stint at Treasury before later having an opportunity to represent the people of Canberra in Federal parliament.

This past week we have seen Andrew at his best. While the rest of his party were fighting with each other, Andrew was in the press and media talking about the true believer labor issue of inequality. He was expressing an evidence-based vision that things were going too far towards billionaires rather than battlers. The book was not some CV padding should he want to return to academia some day. Instead, it was a vehicle to get these deep issues out into the public debate. To stop that debate being hijacked by in-fighting and contests. And instead to inspire others to the ALP cause.

And so what was his reward? He was let go. The poster-child of what the future of Australian political leadership ought to look like was taken out. Why? Seemingly because he stayed out of the political fray. He had only served under Julia Gillard and presumably saw no reason to turn his back on her. In other words, a simple view of loyalty. A simple view of giving someone a fair go. He never voted against Rudd the first time and so clearly wasn’t seen as someone to keep on-side.

Of course, that is one theory. The other is that it is Andrew’s very public stance against billionaires and a wonderful accounting of the CEO pay of BHP and how it is changed over time that side-lined him. That latter theory is testable. Will the new PM shift the economic policy mix sharply towards the rich or not?

Anyhow, this post is written as I am in a mood of profound disappointment. Even as this happened Andrew was on Sky News, as he often was, campaigning away for the ALP and applauding the one good change in the cabinet — the increase in the number of women even though it is hard to believe that any historian will look upon this change as some watershed moment for gender equality. He still has his eye on the long-term. I wish I could be so bold but if some pollster asked me today who I would be voting for in the next election, it would not be Labor.

13 thoughts on “The new PM sends all the wrong signals”

  1. Looked at from another point – What fraction of the electorate is sufficiently engaged with Canberra politics to judge the difference between the Rudd Ministry and that of Gillard? Is there any evidence engagement is improving?
    Seems to me the public is more likely to judge leaders on superficial characteristics.
    So, why would Andrew Leigh want to act as a lightening rod for the forces about to be released against Rudd by the likes of Gina Rinehart? That “contest” would be just another blood sport providing fuel for partisan commentary in the mass media.


  2. Completely agree, Josh, This development also provides further evidence that whatever Rudd says has little meaning. When he chickened out a couple of months ago, he promised not to contest the ALP leadership again. Ever. When he did, he promised there would be no retribution. This certainly looks like retribution and whether he likes it or not, perceptions do matter. Of course, that politicians are opportunistic is hardly news and seems par for the course.

    More importantly, maybe, in this latest leadership upheaval the ALP has lost a lot of talent. Rudd was ousted in 2010 because, by many accounts, he was out of control and ran a chaotic government. See, for example, here: Also, by many accounts, Gillard — whatever her flaws may have been — ran arguably one of the most productive governments that Australia has ever seen. A minority government, for that matter. See here:
    Passing legislation is not necessarily a good proxy for good legislation but it seems to me these numbers are a better start for a discussion of the merits of various governments than others.
    It seems to me that the ALP can ill afford that massive loss of institutional knowledge and talent that it currently experiences.


  3. Andrew Leigh just spoke on ABC RN & seems pretty positive about his situation. He would have some Bahasa from his childhood in Aceh, that’s going to be handy. Is there anyone near PMC with fluent Bahasa?


  4. Andrew was a Parliamentary Secretary to the previous PM. Not a big deal. No less significant than the Diamond controversy? You don’t sound like you are joking!!!!

    Andrew was not a Minister or a Cabinet member.

    Are you seriously suggesting Rudd might have not wanted him to be his Parliamentary Secretary because he criticised billionaires??? That’s not sensible.

    Andrew will do well in politics and this molehill is a big nothing. Nhil, Nhil,…


    1. Yes, that’s the “thing” with Joshua’s posts. It’s easy to miss the flag when he is going for the satirical angle. The Peter Diamond stuff is definitely the give-away on this article. But if you missed that one, the last sentence of the blog seals the deal.


  5. I’m always intrigued that most of the media and commentators always blithely ignore the fact that krudd is part of partnership that makes him one of Australia’s richest.


  6. (Rob Ford is all the rage with Brisbane’s high society, chuckle)

    Rudd in his previous term as PM made insane choices about which economists he listened to I hope this time is different, and indeed this looks promising.

    Andrew Leigh: “I told the Prime Minister I was willing to serve, but in the circumstances of last week, in having supported the incumbent, I felt it was ethically the right thing to do to offer my resignation. The Prime Minister has accepted that and has asked me to help advising him on issues in international economics, which I’m very happy to do and which I think are important to Australia as our economy rebalances, and commodity prices come off.”


  7. Good to read your commentary Joshua. Australian politics has been very depressing over the last few years! Marg A


  8. Joshua,

    I accept your friendship with Andrew, obviously shared by Paul. Andrew is a mere baby in politics, having been elected in 2010. However, his public profile, even as a parliamentary secretary has been miniscule. Which suggests he lacks some necessary skills for a politician.

    Academic qualifications alone are not a prerequisite for politics. Unfortunately other skills are also required. One must query whether Andrew has these skills. Also he is inside the ALP. From my own experience academics do not do well, as they are invariably resented.

    His demotion by Rudd should have not been unexpected. Narcissists surround themselves with lackeys, not with individuals of superior intellect.


  9. Joshua Gans, I think it is a bit unrealistic to expect the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister to be kept around for long after a leadership spill. Gillard kept the incumbent parliamentary secretary when she ousted Rudd, but only for the few months until the election. In the other prime ministerial spill in recent(-ish) Australian political history, Keating’s ousting of Hawke, the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary was replaced immediately. I understand that this is surely cold comfort, and I share your disappointment that Andrew Leigh wasn’t given another position, but it’s not the end of his political career.

    More generally, I find the response of Gillard’s supporters to her ousting rather bizarre in its denialism about Labor’s predicament, and hubristic in its failure to recognise that what we’ve seen is essentially a repeat of 2010, with roles reversed: the short story is that voters really liked Rudd, then they turned on him and decided they preferred Gillard; now, they’ve decided that they hate Gillard and want Rudd back.

    Actually, a comparison between 2010 and 2013 is overly generous to Gillard: the polling (comprehensive coverage of which is available on Wikipedia, by the way) shows that, under Rudd, Labor’s two-party-preferred share (which is, of course, what matters in the end) fell below 50% for only a few months, reached 47% in only a single poll, and had climbed above 50% before Gillard took over. Under Gillard, Labor’s share was consistently below 50% for over two years, and had flat-lined at a scary 45% before Rudd challenged.

    To maintain that Gillard should not have been replaced because she was a good prime minister who achieved a lot, whilst Rudd’s government was chaotic, is to proffer a most absurdly fallacious argument, since it assumes that there was even a remote possibility that Gillard could have won the election. Even if you maintain that widespread hatred of Gillard was irrational (and I would mostly agree), it is foolish not to recognise that it had become an intractable obstacle to a Labor victory.

    To that end, I would argue that the main message Rudd has sent the economics community is that he is not prepared to stand by and watch his colleagues deliver power to a party that talks austerity, opposes tax reform designed to reduce economic distortions, blithely ignores the recommendations of advisory bodies such as Infrastructure Australia, and proposes a ludicrous “direct action” plan on climate change.


  10. Josh – Both examples in your first paragraph are evidence to the fact that – given the inability of economists over the last 30 years to offer any predictable, effective economic control of the national and international agenda to the political class – they are deemed of no real use to them.

    Especially not to a PM who makes anti-political capital out of the ineffectual nature of contemporary politics, as Shrike notes so accurately.

    Hence Leigh is discarded, as the labour movement was discarded once Hawke etc moved on the Accord and blew its membership to 15% of the workforce, meaning that in the end Rudd could stare down the factions. Unthinkable in Calwell’s time. C’est la guerre.

    And it’s as Nobel Memorial, not a Nobel. Small point, but indicative of economics’ efforts as a discipline to promote itself as effective beyond its real capacities. The ongoing misrepresentation is tiresome.

    Compare that attitude to computing, which proudly offers the natively-named Turing prize – and changes the world in far more profound and pragmatic ways than the dismal science could ever dream, for example through the infrastructure supporting this very blog.

    So, where are the Computer Science professors in the Reps? That’s the REAL disgrace, Josh.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: