05/09/2012 - 10:35

Leaders need to engage electorate

05/09/2012 - 10:35


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While Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are shaping up to fight out the next election, their more immediate fates lie with their party colleagues.

Leaders need to engage electorate

While Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are shaping up to fight out the next election, their more immediate fates lie with their party colleagues.

AUSTRALIAN politics is suffering from a leadership crisis. Neither Prime Minister Julia Gillard nor opposition leader Tony Abbott has the approval rating a leader needs to command real authority in the electorate.

Both sides of politics have an ‘heir apparent’ in their ranks who has stronger community acceptance, but the parties will not act because the leaders in waiting lack the majority support of their colleagues.

As history shows, timing is everything in politics. The closer the election, due in the second half of next year, the greater the risk linked with changing leaders. Yet the supporters of change will always point to Labor’s bold decision in 1983 – on the same day prime minister Malcolm Fraser called the election – to replace Bill Hayden with Bob Hawke in a bloodless coup. And the rest, of course, is history.

So how has it come to this?

The common factor here is Kevin Rudd; now a Labor backbencher but still commanding enormous public interest.

Mr Rudd led Labor to a convincing win in the 2007 election, ending both the coalition’s 11 year grip on power and the 33-year political career of then prime minister, John Howard. 

His energy and public profile knew no bounds. Committees were formed, studies were ordered, infrastructure programs identified and then supported with big licks of Commonwealth money. When the GFC hit, the Commonwealth reacted with extraordinary zeal. Taxpayers’ money was thrown around like confetti. There were reports of millions of dollars being wasted through mismanaged projects – often by state governments – but Australia largely dodged the GFC bullet. Mr Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan took the credit.

Behind the scenes, however, all was not well. Mr Rudd’s reportedly abrasive, and in some cases erratic, personal style quickly alienated many of the Labor MPs who enjoyed senior posts, thanks mainly to his effective campaigning in 2007.

With an election approaching in 2010, his internal critics dumped him overnight – to the total surprise of most Australians – and installed Ms Gillard.

Ms Gillard had the briefest of honeymoons, despite being the first female prime minister, and only hung on to power at the 2010 poll courtesy of a deal with the Greens. There has been little upside for her since then, despite scoring a comprehensive win over Mr Rudd in a leadership challenge earlier this year. 

That Mr Rudd attracts great interest was shown at the Africa Down Under ministerial dinner in Perth last week. A surprise replacement as speaker for Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, who was ill – and with ministers Bob Carr and Gary Gray already at the conference – backbencher Mr Rudd reportedly spoke with authority on a range of issues.

In one sense he was probably the ideal back-up speaker; but when it comes to the government pecking order, he is now well back in the field. There will be a lot of shaking of heads in the cabinet over how he came to be speaking in Perth at all.

The leadership web on the Liberal side is just as tangled; and two NSW Rhodes Scholars are involved in a tactical battle of wits, with only one winner.

Current Liberal leader Tony Abbott almost took out the main prize at the last election. He has been making Ms Gillard pay ever since, courtesy of an unrelentingly negative strategy, opposing almost every major measure the government has put up. New taxes – mining and carbon – and refugees (until recently) top the list. Then there is the challenge as to where the money will come from with the government’s big-spending plans in education, disability services and dental care.

Despite his seemingly boundless energy, which takes him to almost daily photo opportunities with groups more likely to be associated with Labor than Liberal voters, Mr Abbott has been unable to cut through with high approval ratings.

Enter Malcolm Turnbull, whom Mr Abbott replaced as Liberal leader shortly before the last election. Mr Turnbull is not your average politician, which can be both a plus and minus.

Before entering politics, it seemed everything Mr Turnbull touched turned to gold. He was a talented barrister, chalking up some impressive courtroom wins. He was very well connected in Sydney circles, being close to Kerry Packer. He also established a successful merchant bank with Nick Whitlam (son of Gough) and former NSW (Labor) premier, Neville Wran. And his wife, Lucy, the daughter of former Liberal attorney-general and one of Australia’s highest paid barristers, Tom Hughes, is a former Sydney lord mayor. 

In political terms, Mr Turnbull looks the complete package; how many times have you heard it said that: ‘If Malcolm Turnbull was the opposition leader, I would definitely be voting Liberal?’

There’s only one problem. Like Mr Rudd on the Labor side, it’s Mr Turnbull’s party colleagues who are holding him back. Without forgetting his error of judgment involving a disaffected public servant, Godwin Gretch, in a 2009 incident that became known as ‘utegate’, his leadership was marked by the term ‘one man band’. 

Senior colleagues often learned of decisions through the media, and he was a bit too ‘small l liberal’ on social issues for many. Eventually they became fed up, and dumped him, with his support for Labor’s emissions trading scheme the final straw.

However, like Kevin Rudd compared with Julia Gillard, it is Malcolm Turnbull who attracts public interest and acceptance, ahead of his leader Tony Abbott.

So the major parties have a king-sized dilemma. Do they stick with the incumbents, with their lacklustre approval ratings, or recycle their former leaders? 

In Ms Gillard’s favour is her apparent determination to get on with the job. For example, after a week of damaging allegations she confronted the 17-year-old issue that she had engaged in improper practice to help her then union boyfriend while she was with the Melbourne legal firm, Slater and Gordon. In the lengthy news conference on the issue the prime minister was firm and direct. Was that the ‘real Julia’? If so, her supporters want more of same.

This week she’s been promoting the new education plan.

Mr Abbott’s backers now want him to be more positive, to tell Australians what life would be like under an Abbott-led coalition government. Get on the front foot.

The question is: for how much longer will Australians continue to tolerate their second choices as national leaders? 

The answer, as always, will be decided by self-interest – of the MPs. If they think they are being led to defeat – that is, continue to trail in the opinion polls – they will act. That could result in Mr Rudd or Mr Turnbull, or both, being catapulted back to the leadership.

The timing? Remember Bob Hawke in 1983 … it’s never too late.


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