Saturday, 15 October 2011

Sounds and looks like the playground merry-go-round

Push for Stephen Smith to head off Kevin Rudd in leadership battle

LABOR'S failure on offshore processing of asylum-seekers has galvanised leadership plans within the government, with Julia Gillard's supporters preparing to fend off a push from Kevin Rudd and key right-wing ministers coalescing behind Stephen Smith as a third candidate.

Policy divisions within cabinet and rising internal dissent over the Prime Minister's political strategy on offshore processing and her Malaysia Solution have intensified leadership jockeying within senior Labor ranks. Some senior ministers are defending Ms Gillard's position, others are arguing that the Foreign Minister is the "only option and only alternative", while some right-wing ministers are organising the Defence Minister as a "fallback" if Ms Gillard fails.

The increase in leadership planning came as Labor scrambled to finalise details of its new asylum-seeker regime amid fears that an expected influx of refugees after its dumping of offshore processing would threaten the nation's social cohesion. Government sources confirmed yesterday Ms Gillard had no "Plan B" to revive offshore processing, while Tony Abbott accused the Prime Minister of allowing her arrogance and stubbornness to leave the nation without effective border security.

Mr Smith has emerged as a popular leadership option for the Labor Party in new research that shows he is more highly regarded than Ms Gillard or Mr Rudd. In a survey of 1108 people conducted by website Online Opinion, Mr Smith won 58 per cent of voter support to Ms Gillard's 42 per cent on a two-candidate-preferred basis.

Senior sources within Labor's Right continued to express support for Ms Gillard's leadership but confirmed the Defence Minister would be their favoured candidate if supporters of former prime minister Kevin Rudd attempted a challenge. "Stephen is seen as a safe pair of hands and he's been around a long time so he's being seen as an alternative to Kevin," one senior minister told The Weekend Australian yesterday.

Another cabinet minister said Ms Gillard still had support but a third said it was not "logical" to consider replacing Ms Gillard with anyone but Mr Rudd. "There's one option and only one alternative," the minister said. "Some of the Right are forming around Stephen Smith because they fear retribution from Kevin Rudd. "There's no rush to challenge but everyone knows it will happen; whether it's this year or next year, it doesn't matter."

Ms Gillard's leadership has been under scrutiny for months, with her voter satisfaction in opinion polls consistently less than 30 per cent and some MPs convinced her leadership is terminal. The Right, which handed Ms Gillard the leadership in June last year after abandoning Mr Rudd, is strongly opposed to a Rudd comeback. However, in the past fortnight, even some MPs strongly supportive of Ms Gillard have admitted they do not believe she can recover and expect a possible spill next year.

Online Opinion's survey was taken among 1108 voters in its polling panel. The sample was normalised to reflect the findings of the latest Newspoll. While polls using random samples have consistently found Mr Rudd is Labor's preferred leader, the new survey, in which respondents nominated candidates in order of preference, found Mr Smith was preferred leader.

Writing in The Weekend Australian today, Online Opinion chief editor Graham Young, says he gave respondents six leadership possibilities: Ms Gillard, Mr Rudd, Mr Smith, Greg Combet, Simon Crean and Bill Shorten. Ms Gillard, Mr Rudd and Mr Smith together commanded 75 per cent of first-preference votes. "When we eliminated Shorten, Combet and Crean, in order, Smith streaked ahead, followed by Gillard with Rudd a touch behind," Mr Young writes.

Conducting the same exercise for the Coalition, Online Opinion found former opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull outpolled Tony Abbott by a margin of 59 per cent to 41 per cent.

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