10/06/2013 - 15:44

Labor needs to push Abbott

10/06/2013 - 15:44

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A change at the top is the only way Labor can hope to lay a glove on the opposition.

Labor needs to push Abbott

A change at the top is the only way Labor can hope to lay a glove on the opposition.

TWO people hold the key to whether the Labor government’s expected defeat at the federal election on September 14 turns into an annihilation – Julia Gillard and the man she deposed in 2010, Kevin Rudd.

All the signs point to the coalition scoring its most comprehensive victory in modern times if Labor goes into the election with its current leadership team.

After a prolonged honeymoon period as Australia’s first female prime minister, voters have turned away from Ms Gillard. And male voters have walked away in droves.

Added to this, the credibility of deputy prime minister and treasurer, Wayne Swan, is at rock bottom. Virtually no-one, except the rusted-on faithful – and even then it must be hard for them – is listening.

Labor’s concerted attempts to damage opposition leader Tony Abbott have failed; he has proved to be far more resilient than they thought. The continued personal denigration of him as untrustworthy and anti-women has fallen on deaf ears.

The strategy of wheeling out female ministers such as Nicola Roxon, Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, Jenny Macklin and Kate Ellis to attack Mr Abbott with the orchestrated lines crafted by ‘communications central’ showed the government had taken its eye off the ball. It is policy and performance that counts.

And with Labor bemoaning the fact it appears to have lost its former heartland of western Sydney – and similar locations in other cities – perhaps it should look no further than ministers lining up to appear on Annabel Crabb’s ABC TV cooking show in their designer kitchens with elevated views. The ‘heartland’ voters must have wondered what wavelength their political representatives were on.

So with just 13 weeks before the poll, and two more weeks of parliamentary sittings, what are the options for Labor?

Mr Rudd explained his position on ABC TV’s 7.30 last week. He will be out to “argue the government’s case for re-election, to undermine Mr Abbott’s untruthful case for election”.

Will he challenge for the leadership and attempt to emulate Bob Hawke’s effort when he replaced Bill Hayden on the day the election was called in 1983, or even Colin Barnett’s victory in 2008 when promoted by a desperate Liberal Party?

“Last time I said in February of 2012 that I would not be challenging the prime minister,” Mr Rudd said on 7.30. “The prime minister won that caucus ballot by two-to-one. It was a convincing and strong win. I’ve accepted that result.” 

Forgetting the chaos earlier this year when Simon Crean attempted to provoke a leadership spill and ended up being sacked from the ministry when Mr Rudd failed to respond, is there a way out for Labor?

First, Mr Rudd can’t mount another challenge, based on what he has repeatedly said. The only option is for Ms Gillard to step down. That means she would have to acknowledge that Labor is facing a cataclysmic defeat, and that her departure might act as a circuit breaker and regain votes.

Standing aside wouldn’t be easy for any leader – ask Mr Hayden – let alone the nation’s first female prime minister. The public justification would be to give Labor a chance of winning, but the subtext would be to limit the extent of the coalition win so that Labor might just have a chance of success in 2016 and a real chance in 2019.

Logic indicates she should go, but the people close to a leader are often the last to be convinced of the realities. The message would no doubt be ‘stay and fight’, and not hand power back to Mr Rudd, whose supporters continue to destabilise the party, despite denials to the contrary.

The extent of Mr Rudd’s role in the constant leadership speculation is open for debate, but what’s clear is that, based on anecdotal evidence, plenty of his caucus colleagues despise him. They refer to his apparent arrogance and bad temper when he was in the job, and journalists recall similar qualities of his media team.

Still, when you are riding high, these things don’t matter. It’s when you’re on the slide that they start to count.

But when Labor MPs in electorates with margins between 5 and 8 per cent, which usually meant they were considered safe, now find they are under threat, it becomes a new ball game. It’s all about survival.

That is particularly pertinent for Labor’s three MPs in WA: Stephen Smith in Perth (margin 5.9 per cent); Melissa Parke in Fremantle (5.7 per cent) and Gary Gray in Brand (3.3 per cent).

It’s one thing for a leader to be mobbed by screaming schoolkids (they don’t vote), but it’s another to be able to communicate to Australian voters, promote your side’s policies, and critically analyse those of your opponents.

Only dyed in the wool Liberal voters would want to see Mr Abbott slide into The Lodge without being thoroughly tested in a hard-fought campaign.

Labor must bite the leadership bullet, in the national interest.


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