02/05/2012 - 11:12

Embattled Gillard will try to tough it out

02/05/2012 - 11:12


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Insiders argue the prime minister faces four key options as she battles to revive her leadership and Labor’s fortunes.

Insiders argue the prime minister faces four key options as she battles to revive her leadership and Labor’s fortunes.

Julia Gillard-led Labor remains in more trouble than Ned Kelly, with Ms Gillard the most to blame.

Ever since her rise to prominence during the 2004 election campaign, she has  demonstrated a knack for taking the party, she joined at the age of 16, into troubled waters.

During Labor’s brief and disastrous Mark Latham leadership year, she talked him into going into that campaign with her costly Medicare Gold ploy that most voters promptly concluded was a recipe for disaster for the hospital sector.

Notwithstanding this contribution to Labor’s loss, she was turned to, on Brian Burke’s advice, by the ambitious Kevin Rudd, who asked her to become his running mate. They easily won the 2007 election.

Ms Gillard has therefore not only witnessed tough electoral times but also celebrated a turnaround and was acclaimed an asset. 

That’s crucial in understanding her now, as Labor’s polling, at about the 30 per cent approval mark and as her personal ratings move towards trailing Liberal leader Tony Abbott’s.

Several of my long-time Canberra informants, when pressed on her likely future, say she’s got four options which, for brevity, can be dubbed: governor-general; caucus, anointing of new leadership and to stick it out.

The first envisages Ms Gillard simply calling up her driver after contacting Governor-General Quentin Bryce to go to Yarralumla and recommend an early election so the political air can be cleared.

This, of course, would be tantamount to suicide, something her predecessor, Gough Whitlam, would not countenance throughout 1975, which was why governor-general Sir John Kerr’s hand was forced.

Of the four options, this is the least likely, unless two or more independents – Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie – who have kept Ms Gillard in power decide to withdraw support and at the same time refuse to transfer their backing to help create an Abbot-led government.

The caucus option simply involves Ms Gillard announcing, at a scheduled caucus meeting, that she intends stepping aside, like speaker Peter Slipper and Labor MP Craig Thomson to join them and her former comrade, Mr Rudd, on the backbench. And the reason for doing so is the good of the party she so cherishes.

That would, of course, be an act of great magnanimity, which is not a virtue Ms Gillard has demonstrated to date, as well as a public admission of failure.

Could she, we must ask, set her life on a course where she eventually departs Canberra with partner, Tim Mathieson, knowing she will forever be judged as having removed a one-time ally from the Lodge and then repeated his failed performance?

To rub salt into such wounds, Mr Rudd may well succeed her.

Remember that at the last leadership contest he gained 31 to her 71 caucus votes, which suggests he remains a possible replacement.

That likelihood, of course, leads smoothly into option three – the anointment of a new leader or even a new leadership team, meaning her deputy, Wayne Swan, would also voluntarily stand aside for a pre-arranged duo to take over.

What this would require is Ms Gillard and her current trusted advisory team – Bill Shorten, Greg Combet and Nicola Roxon, all of whom have leadership or deputy leadership aspirations – to secretly knuckle out who is best qualified to take Labor into an election in a bid to lose fewer seats than she and Mr Swan.

Clearly, this night watchman option cannot be discounted.

Whenever any leader is confronted with the prospect of losing power, and doing so as badly as she is set to do, it’s understandable and sensible, to say the least, to seriously evaluate whether their party would lose fewer seats with someone else leading rather than remaining with those presently in charge.

We know Mr Rudd is chaffing at the bit to become that successor.

But he’s not exactly her or Labor’s current leadership team’s favoured one for the top job.

Furthermore, within caucus there’s a solid core of members who are adamant that he should never again take charge of their party, no matter what the polling figures show.

During his three years as leader and two as prime minister they witnessed some of the quirkiest behaviour ever displayed by anyone in those positions.

This therefore suggests the next rank of leadership contenders would be seriously considered by the party if it ever decides Ms Gillard must step aside for the good of all.

By which, I mean a leadership team of Simon Crean-Martin Ferguson, or Stephen Smith-Bill Shorten, or Greg Combet, plus a woman, like, say, Ms Roxon or Tanya Plibersek, would be considered.

And if, after confidential nationwide polling, it’s decided that one of these teams would mean losing fewer seats in August 2013 than the Gillard-Swan team is presently set to lose, then option three must be given a good chance of being grasped.

That said, I am presently of the view none of these options will be embraced.

Instead option four – sticking it out – is the most likely, despite the dispiriting ordeal of having to endure Labor’s bad polling for many more months.

Much weight is being placed on next week’s budget, which was tailored to come in with a surplus. However, whether a surplus is actually realised is, of course, another matter.

But at least that’s to be, to use a currently fashionable term, the aspiration. And it’s hoped this aspiration will lead to uplifting polling outcomes.

What must, however, be remembered is that this budget is not the last before election day in 2013. 

The strategy set is thus, firstly, a harsh or horror budget, especially for higher income earners, in 2012, followed by the most innocuous and appealing pre-election budget ever tabled by any federal government in May 2013.

And either in the 2013 budget or just before an announcement will be made stating that the present outrageous $23 a tonne carbon tax is to be slashed to about $10.

It is hoped these moves will help smooth the way for Gillard-led Labor to retain power with the crucial help of Greens preferences.

The big unknown for this strategy to survive for a whopping 16 or so months – a long time in anyone’s language – is whether the majority of Labor MPs have the nerve not to sneak off for a chat with Mr Rudd, who needs just 21 of them, to conclude he, rather than Ms Gillard, can be their saviour.

Remember that the MPs least likely to risk, meaning endure, a Gillard survival option, are those with marginal seats since they are the ones risking being unemployed, receiving scaled-down pensions and markedly altered lifestyles.

Furthermore, with so few state Labor governments around these days, they won’t be able to count on obtaining a well-paid part or full-time job on a state ‘quango’ board.

Ms Gillard’s slump and Labor’s state losses therefore not only threaten their parliamentary careers but also their future job prospects.

Let’s sit back and calmly watch which option she takes, and why.



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