29/02/2012 - 11:21

Gillard needs to get on front foot

29/02/2012 - 11:21

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Uncertainty the only sure bet throughout 2012 as Labor shows faith in Julia Gillard.

Uncertainty the only sure bet throughout 2012 as Labor shows faith in Julia Gillard.

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard’s clear victory over Kevin Rudd in Monday’s leadership ballot should be the end of the matter, if for no other reason that it is in the national interest. But history shows that is unlikely to be the case. 

The surfacing of the bitterness that had been festering within federal Labor’s ranks since it won office in Canberra in 2007 is unprecedented. It’s probably asking too much for such resentments to be kept under the surface despite appeals they would harm Labor’s re-election chances, let alone loftier national matters.

The Rudd story is a fascinating exercise in how politics can play out; and once having got to the top, how it’s very hard to relinquish the job to a rival prematurely, regardless of which side of politics they might be on.

My first meeting with Mr Rudd was in most unusual circumstances. It was at a private dinner party in suburban Perth six years ago. He had come to be the after dinner speaker at the WA Labor Party’s annual conference dinner.

After his speech, Mr Rudd excused himself to join our group at the invitation of one of the guests who knew him reasonably well. I was delighted to be able to meet the rising star of Australian politics away from a formal, news conference setting. He also did most of the talking on issues he wanted to talk about. He was less interested on what the guests thought of the Howard government, the Labor opposition or even Western Australian politics.

After being elected in 2007, of course, Mr Rudd was riding a wave of popularity. That’s not unusual for new governments, but it can be a dangerous time if hubris sets in. And it seems it did.

It surfaced during his visits to Perth. Previous PMs such as Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard always made themselves available to visit the studios of the two talk radio stations, ABC 720 and 6PR, for interviews and to answer listeners’ questions. It was considered a good opportunity to talk directly to voters, despite the best efforts of the presenters, and take questions on the hot-button issues of the day.

The exercise inevitably produced news stories – national and local, and occasionally international – which kept the news cycle turning. And the PM’s media advisers, who were mostly former Canberra press gallery journalists, generally had a rapport with the local media.

Not so with team Rudd. Visiting talkback radio studios was the exception rather than the rule. Sometimes he would do a phone interview from his city hotel or office, an on the car phone, without taking listeners’ questions. You might be able to get away with this kind of behaviour when you are on top, but that is always transitory.

The much-vaunted community cabinet meetings are also worth assessing. Bringing 25 or more ministers to all parts of the nation for consultations is laudatory, on the surface. But I attended two in suburban Perth and it appeared the forum sessions had curiousity value and little else. Perhaps the direct meetings with individual ministers that followed were more productive.

And I did not detect a great deal of enthusiasm from many of the ministers, especially those who sat there like dummies and failed to get any questions during the forums, which were inevitably truncated because key people seemed to be running late. 

It appeared many of the ministers and their staff believed their time could be better deployed.

The concept of community cabinet meetings has great merit, especially in a federation like Australia, and a state like WA. The implementation needed considerable fine-tuning, however.

At least three issues will influence how the leadership plays out over the next 12 months. 

The first is the opinion polls. The unedifying events, especially during the past two weeks, will need to wash out through the polls before any semblance of normality can effectively be restored within Labor ranks. While the party’s primary vote continues to hover around 30 per cent, doubts will continue to linger about the leadership, especially among the Rudd supporters and the ‘soft’ Gillard backers.

The second is the Queensland election on March 24. Anna Bligh’s Labor government is facing defeat, if for no other reason than Labor’s shelf life in power there has run out. Nothing Ms Bligh can do in the next three weeks will save Labor; the only uncertainty will be the extent of the Liberal National Party win.

An overwhelming LNP victory will exacerbate the nervousness within Labor’s federal ranks. And MPs in marginal seats will start to feel increasingly vulnerable. The question becomes whether they are prepared to go down with the ship as the iceberg gets closer, or whether they seek a new skipper and new direction.

And then there is the Treasurer Wayne Swan’s May budget. Can he avoid any nasties, which might delay a possible comeback in the polls?

Up to this point the Liberals, and Tony Abbott, don’t have to lift a finger; but that would be too hard to expect. Mr Abbott will be aiming to turn the knife at every opportunity, as he has done since being elected Liberal leader in 2009.  

An unknown factor will be the introduction of the carbon tax on July 1. The government has astutely ensured that compensation for the tax, especially for low-income earners, will start to apply from May, well before it actually comes in. Theoretically, battlers won’t be out of pocket.

But don’t expect Mr Abbott to sit back and wait for the complaints. That is not in his DNA. He will be on the front foot, determined to magnify any chink in the government’s armour. Even minor errors will become catastrophes.

This is partly related to the third point – the impact of the ministerial reshuffle. Paul Keating’s resignation as treasurer effectively destabilised Bob Hawke’s ministry. New Hawke treasurer John Kerin didn’t cut the mustard, despite being an able minister. It could happen again.

That would cause Labor MPs to look around again, and possibly start closely examining the credentials of a cleanskin as leader. This is where Defence Minister Stephen Smith, Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten and possibly Climate Change Minister Greg Combet come into play.

Mr Smith’s political savvy is undeniable. He is rarely wrong footed, and is widely respected in his portfolio. Mr Shorten has enjoyed a meteoric rise and has ambition to burn, allied with the capacity to explain policy decisions. Mr Combet, a former ACTU secretary, is articulate and competent.

Ms Gillard must cement her grip on the top job to survive. The one certain thing about the political year will be the uncertainty.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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