Saturday, February 4, 2012
The sharks are circling.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is finished and now the sharks are circling for the kill. Gillard will not survive the continuing poor polls and moves are on to replace her. This will be a blow for the opposition as any replacement will be more difficult to dislodge from office than the unelectable Gillard, Kevin Rudd is the probable replacement but he is intensely disliked by most of the senior Labor MPs and a third candidate may emerge. Unfortunately the iniquitous carbon tax will not go away with a leadership change.
The primary vote was still a major concern, but the Prime Minister's personal numbers had steadily improved in the final months of the year and the hope was that the party vote would follow. Labor optimistically called it momentum.
Instead, Gillard has had the worst possible start to 2012. She broke her commitment to Andrew Wilkie to attempt to legislate his preferred version of poker machine reforms. It was a straight-up case of not honouring her word. An affirmation of everything Tony Abbott has attacked her for since the carbon tax backflip after the last election. Voters - at least those already switched on to the political contest - must be shaking their collective heads wondering if there is anything or anyone Gillard won't sell out in order to achieve what she (incorrectly) perceives will leverage her a little political advantage.
The Prime Minister tried to claim that she only let Wilkie down because there was no chance of the reforms passing through the parliament. What rubbish. That may be a parliamentary reality, but it wasn't the reason she broke yet another promise. Gillard didn't want to dictate poker machine reforms to nervous backbenchers at a time when the clubs and pubs were on the offensive and Kevin Rudd's supporters were working the numbers.
Then we had the Australia Day fiasco, caused by the stupidity and skulduggery of the PM's own office no less. Inciting a riot - intentionally or otherwise - on our national day highlighted how easily political manoeuvring can backfire when children, not adults, are running strategy.
You would not have seen such sloppy antics from John Howard's office during his time as PM, which is saying something because no one could deny how hard they played the game. Rudd's prime ministerial office was manned by a youthful brigade of staffers who didn't have the worldliness or political experience to survive tough times. But they look positively masterful compared with the strategic (or lack thereof) approach coming out of Gillard's office.
Labor has one thing going for it and one only (other than the potential for a short-term popularity boost attached to a Rudd return to the leadership). That's Abbott. While the Opposition Leader deserves absolute credit for putting his foot on the government's throat since he became Liberal leader, dramatically changing the political fortunes of both major parties, the truth is Abbott is not popular, especially with women. And I suspect voters are on the lookout for reasons to deny him the prime ministership. Labor's dilemma, however, is that so long as the deeply unpopular Gillard and her incompetent strategy represents the government, Abbott presents as a lesser of evils. That reality is reflected in the primary and two-party polling numbers.
Gillard's poor start to 2012 has robbed the government of any hope it might have had of building early momentum. Next week's return of parliament will be a feeding frenzy for the opposition. Government MPs will have to work hard not to stoop their shoulders as they navigate the corridors. Even the PM's strongest backers concede this point. They equally concede that she is surviving on borrowed time now, something they rejected late last year. Her biggest saving grace appears to be the difficulty of knowing who to support to replace her. It's complicated because of internal hostilities.
The most startling thing about the convergence of a summer break in which Rudd's supporter group swelled to about 30 MPs and the PM started the year so badly, is that there is no easy (or clear-cut) way forward for Labor.
Returning to Rudd is messy, not to mention risky. Sticking with Gillard is a near guaranteed recipe for failure. Searching for a third candidate is probably too late, and might exacerbate Labor's problems. Gillard backers remain deeply concerned about Rudd's ability to unite the party or succeed in anything other than the short term if he were to return as leader, and they wonder whether he has learnt anything about what made him so internally disliked while he was leader. They also hate the idea of rewarding his open hostility towards Gillard since he was deposed, although on this point I have one simple message: "Get over it."
Gillard supporters know she is on borrowed time because of the way she has started the year. Powerbrokers have admitted to me that they have received calls from the backbench letting them know if a ballot ensues, some MPs won't be doing as they are directed. They will vote for Rudd.
But there are at least 40 members of Labor's 100-plus caucus who say they will never vote for Rudd's return, with Wayne Swan the unofficial leader of this group. Historically, Rudd has shown reluctance to step into a bloody battle (the only time he ever did so was when Gillard was running as his deputy against Kim Beazley in 2006). This suggests ongoing instability (with perhaps a mad rush to block Rudd with another candidate once realisation of Gillard's terminal status sinks in) is more likely than Rudd's return; at least this side of the winter parliamentary recess. And this is despite the obvious populist advantages a Rudd return might yield.