- From: The Australian
- October 01, 2011
Towards the end of 1991, I asked a grizzled member of the right wing of the NSW Labor Party what the prognosis was for the leadership of Bob Hawke, whom Paul Keating was openly stalking from the backbench.The Delphic reply was: "Bob might meet George but he won't greet Liz."
The Labor oracle was suggesting Hawke might survive through to Christmas as prime minister to host the visit of the US president George H. W. Bush during the new year period, but he would not be leader for the visit of the Queen, scheduled for February 1992. As it turned out the campaign to dislodge Hawke, which was assumed to be a foregone conclusion, rapidly accelerated and Keating became prime minister on December 20, 1991, in time to give Bush the honour of being the first foreign head to address a joint sitting of the Australian parliament in January 1992 and, in February, to warmly usher the Queen into the Great Hall of Parliament House.
After the long and debilitating Keating campaign to supplant Hawke, Labor's prolonged poor polling and the public expectation that Hawke's days were numbered, there was almost a relief the switch occurred when it did.
Today, with the 11-day royal visit to Australia starting in Canberra on October 19 as the Queen prepares to open the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, and the visit of US President Barack Obama on November 16 and 17, the "meet and greet" test could be applied to Julia Gillard's leadership today.
But despite the best efforts of Tony Abbott and the campaign of destabilisation against the Prime Minister from within the Labor caucus, it is almost certain Gillard will pass the test and meet and greet both the Queen and Obama. This is not to suggest there isn't a push to undermine Gillard and install Kevin Rudd, or that there aren't others positioning for leadership if the Labor caucus isn't panicked into sudden action.
The destabilisation campaign is already under way, the Foreign Minister is being presented in the best possible light across portfolios and some ministers are trying to play down the impact of the internal campaign, but they concede it exists. For a variety of reasons the strategies of those intent on removing Gillard and those intent on defending her position are coalescing with the same aim, that Gillard will remain Labor leader until at least December and then through to February next year.
One Labor MP, who is working to have Rudd's leadership resurrected and was surprised by the sudden, positive reaction to reports Rudd was gathering numbers, told Inquirer: "We don't want to go too early, everyone's quietening down now until November at least and probably until next year."
Another senior Labor MP said this week: "We're in no rush to go to an election." Put simply, those who want to replace Gillard with Rudd, and even those who may take advantage of a Rudd campaign to make their own bid for leadership, don't want to act in haste. For a start, there is an ever-present danger that any attempt to tip Gillard out of her job will spark an immediate election that Labor would lose horrendously based on recent polling.
Polls showing the Foreign Minister could "save" Labor are viewed sceptically, even by Gillard critics, and no Labor MP wants a poll now. Second, Gillard will be expected to absorb all the odium attached to the broken promise on the carbon tax, the power-sharing deal with the Greens, the failure of her plans to send asylum-seekers to East Timor and Malaysia, her agreement to limit poker machine gambling and in clearing up the mining tax at last.
Finally, Labor strategists are now convinced a lingering death for a leader, as was the case with Hawke in 1991, is more acceptable to the public than a clinical assassination without warning. As explained on Monday by Labor campaign manager and strategic guru Bruce Hawker: "You can make the case for a change in leadership. Obviously, changes in leadership happen quite regularly on both sides of politics these days," he said. "So, if you are really trailing in the election, then that's a big plus.
"One of the things, as I have said before, [that has] always been a problem for the Labor Party is the way in which Kevin Rudd was removed. It was more akin to an assassination because it was done so clinically [unlike] the sort of leadership changes we normally see where there is a challenge, the leader staggers on for a few months and falls over and everyone says, 'Thank God the poor bugger is dead', and moves on with a new leader. That didn't happen in this case."
There are those who are determined it will not happen in Gillard's case, even though Labor MPs supporting Rudd argue that he is the only logical choice to replace the embattled leader because voters would accept Labor MPs and the "faceless men" had made a mistake last year and were rectifying it.
The lingering death option is bolstered by the view that the Labor caucus will have to be seen to be turning to Rudd as a saviour, apologising and drafting him to the leadership. Rudd has a cautious and canny history of not entering the leadership lists unless he's sure of the outcome as when he successfully destabilised Kim Beazley. Rudd also witnessed Beazley's strategic mistake in 2003 when the latter prematurely sparked a challenge against Simon Crean, failed and then failed again when Mark Latham was put up against the former leader with Crean's support.
Rudd is deeply aware of the danger going into a challenge early and under-prepared. While the carbon tax appears set to pass the parliament, as will the mining tax, and while the asylum-seeker offshore processing bill is likely to fail before Christmas, the deadline for the real problem - the limits on poker machine gambling - will not be resolved until next year.
Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie demanded the gambling limitations in return for supporting a minority Labor government and insists he will withdraw his support if it fails.
Labor MPs in marginal seats are feeling the extreme heat of the clubs' campaign against the limits in NSW and Queensland, with some telling public forums they don't support the idea.
Senior Labor MPs have believed for some time the poker machine bill has overtaken the carbon tax in anti-Labor intensity because it threatens the clubs' support for social services, sporting teams and help for retired people at a local, personal level.
One Labor MP, who is directly affected in a marginal seat, told Inquirer he believed Labor's primary vote in Newspoll, now at a record low of 26 per cent, could go "below 25 per cent" while others cite the worst long-term trends in ALP history. What's more, there is the question of whether a leadership change would trigger an immediate election and how long Rudd's projected second honeymoon would last, or how successfully another candidate such as Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan, Bill Shorten or Greg Combet would handle going straight into an election campaign.
This is where Tony Abbott's role in the destabilisation comes in. The Opposition Leader desperately wants an election while Labor is in the depths of despair and he has an overwhelming lead in the polls. He also senses the public wants an election to resolve uncertainty.
Abbott is making it known that he fears Rudd more than Gillard, and that a switch of leadership won't necessarily lead to an election. Abbott points to Greens leader Bob Brown's statement last week that his support is for the ALP, not an individual leader, and that Queensland independent MP Bob Katter, who supported the Coalition after the election, has stated he may have supported Labor if Rudd had been leader.
It's subtle encouragement to remove Gillard earlier rather than later, as the Liberal leader known as "'Mr Rabbit" plays the role of Brer Rabbit pretending to be thrown into Rudd's "briar patch", only to reveal later he has no real fear of facing the former leader. Certainly Abbott wants as long as possible to face Rudd a second time, to wear down any sympathy vote he may attract, but there has to be a question about the extent of the sustainability of a "second honeymoon" if an election were held any time soon.
A change of leadership also means cabinet heads would roll as Rudd returned and he would be forced to shuffle Labor's team. Already there are tensions between Rudd and his colleagues as well as suspicions between Gillard and some of her colleagues, who seem prepared to preen and eye off her job.
Whatever Labor MPs make of Abbott's claims, the number who believe Rudd should not move until much closer to an election adds weight to the argument for leaving Gillard in place for as long as possible. For her part, Gillard has little choice but to deal with crises as they occur. She must try to change the focus to positive policy and reforms after warning her colleagues that the polls could remain bad for Labor until after the carbon tax is implemented in July next year.
The Prime Minister's announcement of a white paper on Australia's future in Asia kicks off a two-month period dominated by foreign affairs, official visits and world summits. At the end of this month Gillard will greet the Queen, host CHOGM for a week in Perth, go to the G20 global debt crisis meeting in France, go to Hawaii for the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation leaders' forum on trans-Pacific trade, host Obama's visit and attend the East Asia Forum in Bali before presiding over the last sitting of parliament for the year in the first week of December.
The odds are Gillard will battle on through to next year, but then again Rudd had his room booked at the Toronto G20 last year and lost his job two days before he was due to leave.
_______________ | _______________