Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Labor rifts widen as PM ducks the leadership chaos

Julia Gillard

The Prime Minister, with School Education Minister Peter Garrett in Canberra yesterday.
Picture: Ray Strange Source: The Australian

Julia Gillard has refused to be baited into a Labor leadership ballot, insisting she has strong caucus support and placing the onus for any spill on Kevin Rudd.

Rejecting advice from colleagues to sack or discipline her rival over his leadership ambitions, the Prime Minister swept the issue aside yesterday, focusing instead on education and boasting of her determination to continue to deliver "nation-changing" policies.Her comments came as her backers, having checked her support levels in caucus, assured Ms Gillard she had the numbers to crush Mr Rudd in any leadership contest.

They also came as angry backbenchers told The Australian they were in despair about the ongoing instability, while Rudd supporters attacked Ms Gillard as an "inside-the-beltway operator" who was becoming increasingly unpopular with voters.

Tension flared on Saturday after Victorian Labor MP Darren Cheeseman called on Ms Gillard to quit for the sake of the Labor Party, and video images of Mr Rudd delivering a foul-mouthed rant when he was prime minister appeared on the internet. On Sunday, Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie revealed Mr Rudd had discussed his leadership aspirations with him in November. The combination of the events sparked uproar, with angry Gillard supporters calling for a ballot to clear the air when MPs return to Canberra.

Yesterday, Mr Wilkie clarified his comments, saying that he had raised the leadership with Mr Rudd in their November meeting and that the Foreign Minister had not canvassed his support in the event of a leadership change. But as Gillard supporters, including Trade Minister Craig Emerson, appealed to colleagues to stop the public bickering, Regional Australia Minister Simon Crean, a former Labor leader, threw fuel on the fire by demanding Mr Rudd show loyalty or resign.

In three interviews, Mr Crean urged Ms Gillard to confront Mr Rudd and hold out "the option" of dismissal. "The assertion that his forces are building is nonsense," Mr Crean told Sky News. "I do not believe that he has anywhere near significant support to challenge and that's why the campaign by his supporters, presumably with his sanction, is being ramped up."

Speaking to ABC radio, Mr Crean said of Mr Rudd: "He's either got to put up or shut up."
Ms Gillard refused to be drawn on leadership when she briefed reporters in Canberra on the government's Gonski review into school funding. "I've got the strong support of my colleagues and I'm getting on with the job of delivering the big changes and reforms the nation needs," she said.

Asked whether she should sack Mr Rudd for disloyalty, she said the Foreign Minister had denied lobbying Mr Wilkie as well as reports that he had been briefing journalists about plans for a leadership spill. "I'm getting on with the job, with the strong support of my colleagues," she said. "Kevin Rudd is overseas getting on with his job too as Minister for Foreign Affairs."

Ms Gillard said her record showed she had been delivering nation-changing policy outcomes including carbon pricing, the new mining tax and a significant range of reforms across education. "As Prime Minister, I will continue to show my - I think - characteristic determination to get the job done." Special Minister of State Gary Gray backed Ms Gillard, but said it would be "silly" for anyone to assert that Mr Rudd did not want to return to the leadership.

Senior government sources told The Australian it would be a mistake to assume Ms Gillard had ruled out a ballot, particularly given that she believed she would win any contest with ease. But they said the Prime Minister, having appealed to colleagues to stop fuelling leadership stories, had been anxious yesterday not to drive the issue at the expense of discussing the Gonski report.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten told ABC's Q&A last night he had no doubt Ms Gillard would "sort out" the leadership issue, but not in a way that detracted from other government issues. Praising her as a strong person, Mr Shorten said she had yesterday focused on education policy rather than leadership.

"We will support her in the way that she chooses to handle these matters," Mr Shorten said in a comment that appeared to leave open the possibility the Prime Minister could take on Mr Rudd at a time of her own choosing.

Pressed on whether he would be prepared to serve under Mr Rudd amid rumours he could be offered the Treasury role, Mr Shorten said Labor MPs served the party, and described the question as hypothetical because Ms Gillard had strong caucus support.

Victorian Labor senator and right-wing figure David Feeney told ABC radio the "frenzied" level of leadership speculation was unsustainable. "Kevin Rudd, I think, has reached something of a crossroads where he must either emphatically present his loyalty to the Prime Minister and put this question behind him and behind all of us, or alternatively he needs to challenge," Senator Feeney said.

Mr Rudd also played down the discord. In Mexico for a meeting of G20 foreign ministers, he said there was no leadership spill in prospect and Mr Crean's "disappointing" comments were based on "an untruth" that had been clarified by Mr Wilkie.

Backbenchers are expressing frustration the leadership issue is paralysing the government. One said Labor supporters were despairing at the damage speculation was doing to the party's support and worried Labor was handing votes to the opposition. While Rudd supporters believe Ms Gillard is refusing to confront the Foreign Minister because she does not have the numbers, the Gillard camp accused the Rudd camp of inflating its support to gain momentum.

A key Rudd supporter last night argued that there was a hard core of MPs who would not make up their mind until the last minute.

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