15/02/2012 - 10:37

Leadership talk hurting Labor

15/02/2012 - 10:37

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The prime minister would do well to flush Kevin Rudd’s leadership ‘challenge’ into the open.

The prime minister would do well to flush Kevin Rudd’s leadership ‘challenge’ into the open.

THE continuing speculation that Julia Gillard’s position as prime minister is under threat is the last thing the nation needs amid growing uncertainty in the world economy, let alone problems at the national level, especially in manufacturing.

Wherever the prime minister goes she seems to be hounded by questions about her grip on the leadership and what she intends to do with her foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, who is said to want his old job back.

Mr Rudd is being particularly coy. When pressed on the issue he simply says he is intent on serving the Australian people and has his hands full in a highly demanding portfolio. That means he spends a lot of time outside the country, which is welcomed by a big number of his ALP colleagues.

But it’s claimed he has a core of support in the 103-member Labor caucus – including in the cabinet – which is sure to build if the government, and Ms Gillard herself, continue to struggle in the opinion polls.

The current dilemma has its origins in the manner in which Mr Rudd was dumped as prime minister in 2010 in a swift overnight coup, and being denied the opportunity to lead Labor to a second election. While his autocratic style had managed to alienate a majority of his colleagues, that hadn’t carried through to voters, many who still hold him in high regard.

In fact, I saw Mr Rudd at an invitation-only function in the Perth Town Hall in January 2010. He and Western Australian premier, Colin Barnett, spoke to an audience of 200 and the prime minister was on top of his game. It appeared to me that Labor would be short-priced favourites for re-election.

How wrong I was. The unprecedented dumping of a prime minister later that year, and the apparent rush to the polls, left many voters bewildered. 

Even the historic election of a woman prime minister was not enough to prevent the first hung federal parliament in living memory. Hopefully it will be the last.

One important factor the Gillard backers overlooked was the resilience of Mr Rudd. Far from retiring hurt from public life with his tail between his legs, he has enjoyed a particularly high profile as foreign minister. He’s a regular guest the television news, rubbing shoulders with international figures at major gatherings. And he looks prime ministerial.

At the same time, Ms Gillard is faced with big challenges on the domestic front, some partly related to the impact of the booming resources sector – concentrated in WA – and the strong Australian dollar. Can she help save Australian jobs at risk in the manufacturing sector? Does that mean government assistance, or protection?

In the meantime, the internal head counting and manoeuvring linked with the understanding that Mr Rudd wants his old job back is a constant distraction for the government.

There’s an old saying in politics – ‘never apologise, never resign’.

In this case, though, if the leadership stalemate continues, Ms Gillard must flush her opponent out and put her job on the line. Such a move is in the national interest. The current uncertainty is destabilising when stability is essential. She should bring it on and resolve the issue once and for all.

Colin’s cranky – again 

SYNERGY’S decision to contract work overseas is not the first time Colin Barnett has been embarrassed by a government department or instrumentality; and it won’t be the last.

On this occasion, the electricity retailer – spawned by the breakup of Western Power under the last Labor government – contracted work related to the utility’s billing system to an Indian company because it said the necessary skills weren’t available in WA. The arrangement was said to be temporary.

Mr Barnett appeared less than happy when told of the Synergy decision on radio 6PR, saying that utilities often forgot they were publicly owned. The clear inference was that their first obligation was to WA industry; and this related to enterprises such as Synergy, which had been corporatised, and run by a chairman and board.

Earlier problems with the enterprises had been linked with salaries of senior executives. Some accepted very handsome increases on the basis their pay needed to be comparable with the private sector, usually supported by questionable grounds linked loosely with ‘competition’.

These events had caused the premier to blame the previous government for the extraordinarily generous pay provisions. And it became harder for the government to hold the line on pay claims from tens of thousands of public sector workers.

Such problems are not new. I remember well my own experience as media secretary to Mal Bryce when he was deputy premier in the mid-1980s.

The Department of Industrial Development had devised a promotional campaign for WA industry under the banner ‘Proud to be West Australian’. 

I had just returned to Perth after some years in Sydney and Canberra and been confronted by the campaign, which initially struck me as being somewhat jingoistic.

The launch involved me liaising with the department as to what was required of the deputy premier. 

The department was also very enthusiastic about a song, with the same title as the campaign, which would provide the backing for television and radio advertising. Of course the whole exercise had to have a generous budget to be effective.

When I asked about the merits of inviting the musicians to the launch, the expressions on the faces of the departmental people became very serious indeed. ‘Can’t be done,’ they said. Asked why, they replied: ‘Because the group comes from the east. They were so much better than the local talent. They have done a really good job.’

I thought the reasoning naive to say the least. The public servants didn’t appear to be aware of the possible problems for the minister and his government once their astute move became public. ‘Local musicians snubbed in government promo’ was one potential headline, with the Musicians Union of Australia being less than impressed by a Labor government’s judgment. 

The deputy premier was duly briefed about this little time bomb, which had the potential to derail the impact of the campaign.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Fortunately the reporters didn’t see fit to ask about the group singing ‘Proud to be West Australian’, and the launch went off smoothly. 

But if ever there was a reason for the government of the day to keep an eye out for public servants using their initiative in potentially sensitive areas, that was it.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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