One of the basic lessons in politics is never to waste a crisis. On September 11, 2001, as the World Trade Centre's twin towers collapsed, governments across the world rushed to announce bad news and unpopular decisions.During the global financial meltdown in 2008, politicians of all stripes took the opportunity to dump or modify profligate policy commitments.
Last Sunday, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan were asked whether financial instability in Europe and the US would have any influence on the timing and implementation of a carbon tax in Australia.
The Prime Minister said: "In terms of timing, the change that we need to make for a clean energy future, the time to act is now. The sooner we act then the easier the transition will be, and we do come to this with a strong economy."
The Treasurer told the Ten Network there were no circumstances that would force Labor to delay rolling out the carbon tax.
"No, we need to introduce a carbon price because we need to give business certainty so that it can drive the investment in renewable energy and particularly in power generation. Now is the time to put in place this fundamental reform because if we delay it gets costlier and costlier by the year."
Just imagine how John Howard would have answered the same question.
He'd have said it was hypothetical and that he was committed to the policy.
Then he'd have said no responsible government could entirely rule out the possibility that external shocks, if they were large enough, might affect the design and implementation timetable of an emissions trading scheme.
In other words, he would have left himself room to move.
Gillard and Swan, clearly acting in concert, gave away their one remaining get-out-of-jail-free card. It might have boosted their image of dogged determination among the dwindling band of true believers, but it did nothing to enhance their reputation for gravitas.
Gary Johns, a former minister in the Keating government, urged them to reconsider the matter in his column in The Australian on Thursday.
"Federal Labor has three choices," he wrote. "It can try to tough it out, it can ditch its leader or it can ditch the tax.
"There's no point in changing the leader because the tax is the problem. Changing the leader, for example, in a bid to lose less badly is too cute a strategy. No one, two years out from an election, plans to lose an election less badly."
I beg to differ with him here because the polling evidence suggests Gillard has become as much of a problem as the tax.
In fact changing the leader may be the only way left for Labor to regain the attention of voters who've stopped listening to her.
I'll return to the question of the leadership shortly, but first it's important to note what Johns, one of the Labor Right's shrewdest analysts, recommends.
"Gillard should withdraw the tax, using the looming European financial meltdown as an excuse, and maintain those aspects of her package that match Abbott's direct action plan.
"Once the carbon tax is cast out the Greens become irrelevant. Labor and the Coalition will rule by consensus. Gillard gets to keep the job; to some extent Abbott is disarmed and sent away to do his homework on other policies."
Within the Labor Right in federal caucus, there are plenty who think these are realistic options and are mightily attracted to the idea of severing the grand alliance with the Greens.
However, they're posing the question: if a delegation went to Gillard with a ditch-the-tax-or-else proposition, which way would she jump?
Johns says: "Faced with a choice between remaining Prime Minister and a carbon tax, believe me, she will choose the former."
It's the logical outcome but I'm not so sure. Gillard is extremely stubborn and might prefer going to the back bench to abandoning the issue that has come to define her premiership.
Besides, she may not be offered the choice.
In the space of a week the online betting odds on Simon Crean becoming the next Labor leader have shortened from 100 to one down to eight.
This may or may not mean anything, of course, and the sums being wagered are not huge, but let us note it as a straw in the wind.
In some ways Crean's the obvious choice.
He's the last cabinet member with experience as a senior minister in the Hawke and Keating governments and a former leader nearing the end of his career. He has developed into an effective communicator, has performed well in his regions portfolio and is a man of some charm.
During his tenure, Labor's primary vote in Newspoll at its highest reached 41 points and at its lowest fell to 34 points. It will not be lost on many that under Gillard it has just fallen to 27 points.
There are other attributes Crean would bring to the job. He's accomplished enough politically to reset the government's agenda quickly and ditch or defer and amend the carbon tax, and he has said relatively little on the subject, so he's less a hostage to fortune than the younger contenders.
He's also a longstanding ally of Gillard and could be expected to manage a leadership transition to minimise the humiliation.
I cannot imagine Crean winning the next election against Tony Abbott and neither does anyone else. His real job would be, as the saying goes, to save the furniture. His hardest decision would probably be deciding when to call the election, unless it's decided for him by the exigencies of a hung parliament.
Despite the view inside the beltway - and in Johns's thesis - that there are at least two more years of the present term still to run and that no government willingly surrenders the Treasury benches, the assumption that the election will inevitably be in late 2013 seems to me mistaken.
The recent experience in NSW, where there are fixed four-year terms and the Keneally government's position just kept deteriorating, is one Labor will think long and hard about before repeating.
A primary vote of 27 per cent with no relief in sight poses the grim question: are the longer-term interests of the party best served by clinging to office?
Whoever next leads Labor may well decide they're not.
Maybe the best course of action would be to provide six to nine months of stable government to show the party's still capable of it, to reclaim its traditional heartland and then take the electoral drubbing it's expecting with as much grace as it can summon.
Author | Source | Christopher Pearson The Australian