- From: The Australian
- July 16, 2012
OPERATION return Rudd to the leadership is a delicate affair with many variables. Despite an increasing number of senior Labor Party figures referring to a Kevin Rudd comeback as "inevitable", they are universally uncertain about how it might happen.But how it happens will be all-important to just how successful it would be at turning around Labor's woeful standing in the polls. Even though the polls show Julia Gillard to be deeply unpopular, tearful scenes at a media conference immediately after she has been blasted out of office aren't the sort of start to a leadership honeymoon Rudd is looking for.
Nevertheless, it may yet come to that, so desperate is the parliamentary party to improve its standing within the electorate. Few regard the Prime Minister's personality as suited to going without a fight. And animosity between Gillard and her predecessor is so toxic that the notion of putting the Labor Party first by avoiding a bloody showdown may not be possible. Yet polls continue to show Rudd as a two-to-one favourite over Gillard as PM.
The whole situation severely undermines Gillard's standing as Prime Minister, and hence her capacity to improve Labor's political fortunes now that the carbon price has been put into practice - a key promise during the February spill.
Left-wing elder statesman John Faulkner used the NSW state Labor conference to point out that the party's primary vote was at record lows and likely to continue falling. It was the second part of his observation that turned the most heads - hardly an endorsement of Gillard's ability to improve the situation.
Rudd backers have been remarkably quiet since the February challenge saw Gillard overwhelmingly re-endorsed as leader. They wanted Gillard to own her failure to improve the government's position, free of excuses that leaking against her was to blame. But silence has been replaced by discreet activity, as the survival instincts of MPs increasingly start to kick in.
Chief government whip Joel Fitzgibbon, also the convener of the Right faction, backed Gillard in the February ballot but has switched his support to Rudd. Fitzgibbon has factional clout and the time necessary to devote to building caucus support for Rudd, which he is believed to be quietly going about doing. When Gillard easily beat Rudd in their February showdown (71 votes to 31) she mistakenly believed that gave her the authority she needed in the aftermath to punish Rudd backers. Robert McClelland was dumped from the frontbench and Kim Carr demoted to the outer ministry. All that such moves did was increase animosity.
The character assassination of Rudd engaged in by numerous ministers was designed to veto any chance of a second strike by Rudd.
But the attacks instead lowered the standing of those who engaged in them among sections of Labor's back bench, at least on the issue of leadership. It brought out into the open a sense of chaos within the government that makes it harder for desperate MPs to win re-election. And the fact that polls went on showing voters continued to prefer Rudd overwhelmingly over Gillard despite what was said, highlights Rudd's comparative popularity and the disregard the public have for the opinions of senior ministers.
This latter point coupled with the difficulties such ministers would have in working for Rudd, were he to return as leader, mean that opportunities on the frontbench may also open up if Rudd returns - which is perhaps added self-interest for some MPs to shift support to Rudd.
The return of parliament next month is being discussed so far as timing for a Rudd comeback is concerned. So are the final sitting weeks of the parliamentary year, often referred to as the killing season because of the number of leaders who have met their end during that time.
Rudd is believed to be in no rush, however. He is more interested in a smooth transition (so far as that is even possible) than a quick return to the prime ministership. Rudd's lack of desperation about how to seize back the top job may be Gillard's last advantage in their increasingly inevitable showdown.
The Prime Minister is understood to have lost the active backing of figures such as AWU national secretary Paul Howes and NSW Labor secretary Sam Dastyari. "While neither of them are going to turn on her because of their public comments, they won't lift a finger to defend her", one senior figure in the NSW Right points out. His reference to "lifting a finger" refers to threatening MPs' preselections: "What's the point of winning preselection if you can't hold your seat?" he wryly adds.
"Pushing for a Rudd comeback has been a bottom-up phenomenon for some time now," another MP tells The Australian. "That's starting to change." A key figure in convincing Gillard to minimise the fallout from an orchestrated change back to Rudd is Simon Crean. He and Gillard have long been close, and Crean was one of the first voices to attack Rudd which precipitated Rudd's resignation as foreign minister.
But Crean's rhetoric in February was not as scathing about the job Rudd did as prime minster as was that of other ministers. And Crean's status as a former leader would elevate his capacity to play a role in any transition, were he to be convinced that a Rudd comeback was in the best interests of the Labor Party. In terms of setting the government up for a good start in the aftermath of a showdown, bringing back Faulkner into the ministry would be an important move. It would send a message to the electorate that wiser heads were back running the government. If called on, Faulkner is unlikely to say no. Beyond such a move, room on the frontbench would be determined by the manner in which Rudd came back. The more bloody it was, the more likely it would be that wholesale changes would happen.
Bill Shorten is the person most likely to assume the position of treasurer following Wayne Swan's certain move to the back bench. After what the deputy PM said about Rudd, there is no way the pair could work together again.
Speculation abounds that Shorten and Rudd have already had a conversation about such a scenario, but Shorten denies this. Shorten's retail political skills would be important for the government to re-engage with voters after another leadership change. And a reward for the Victorian powerbroker in terms of ministerial promotion might be the only way to prevent him potentially blocking a return to Rudd.
It would also mean replacing one AWU-backed MP with another in the treasurership. A Swan departure also frees up the deputy prime ministership. A Rudd return would probably mean that position would go back to being the preserve of the Labor Left. While Anthony Albanese and Greg Combet appear as the most likely options to take on the role, Health Minister Tanya Plibersek's name has been mentioned as a possible way of insulating against a backlash among female voters.
Plibersek has only just moved into cabinet, promoted by Gillard no less. Because Rudd saw health as a central policy area during his time as PM, having the Health Minister as his deputy could help elevate the portfolio's importance in the political debate. Personnel movements aside, the most significant moves Rudd must make after a comeback are on the policy front.
The NSW Right's decision to start a debate about distancing Labor from the Greens has given Rudd a key point of difference to Gillard. She refused to endorse the Howes-Dastyari push (having not been told about it before the pair went public), even though senior ministers and MPs lined up during the week to do just that.
One senior figure in the Labor caucus pointed out that Gillard's brush-off that preferencing was an organisational party issue was a sign of weakness, given the role leaders have played in preferencing decisions in the past. He pointed to Kim Beazley's insistence that Labor put One Nation last during his time as leader.
Rudd was less than lukewarm towards the Greens when he was PM, and would be expected to immediately tear up the alliance Gillard signed with Bob Brown were he to return to the position. An increasing number of Labor MPs see such a gesture as an important way for Labor to re-engage with its traditional base, something Gillard has struggled to do during her prime ministership.
Sources close to Rudd say that he would be likely to take up Tony Abbott's offer to reopen Nauru without towbacks or TPVs being put in place. While it might not stop the boats, Rudd supporters believe that it should neutralise the issue as a political negative for Labor. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen - who voted for Rudd in February - is believed to be open to such a change of policy even though Gillard was not during negotiations in the final sitting week before the winter recess.
A Stephen Conroy departure is expected, if not certain, if Gillard falls - like Swan, because of the ferocity of his comments in February. That would free the government up to rethink its approach to media regulation. Some Labor MPs have doubts about the political value in the government seeking statutory oversight of the media. Two weeks ago Rudd backers Nick Champion and Ed Husic publicly questioned the need for media regulation beyond the existing constructs, and The Australian understands those sentiments run much wider within the party.
Conroy stepping down as communications minister would give Rudd the opportunity to recalibrate the government's policy on the media front, but the decision would need to be Conroy's to make. Like Nicola Roxon, Conroy may have said some vicious things about Rudd in February, but the pair are popular and respected within the caucus. "I could see them crab crawling away from what they said," one Rudd backer says. What Rudd should do to shift gears on climate change policy is the area most dividing his supporters. Some say he should immediately drop the floor price and not worry about the difficulties that might cause so far as achieving next year's promised budget surplus goes. Others suggest that he should introduce legislation to start the emissions trading scheme early, forcing the Opposition Leader to vote with the Greens to block the move.
Few think that he can stick with the carbon tax as it stands now. A more radical proposal is for Rudd to use the final sitting period of the year to try to legislate an ETS and, if doing so fails, pledge to bring the legislation back into the parliament in the new year and go to a double-dissolution election - what he should have done two years ago before Swan and Gillard talked him into walking away from the ETS. In Yes, Prime Minister parlance, that would be a courageous decision.
Gillard remains Prime Minister, but increasingly in name only. She presides over a minority parliament which saps her of authority, illustrated during the refugee stand-off. She has a backbencher in her ranks far more popular than she is with voters, and the caucus is getting over its aversion to giving him another chance at being PM.
And Gillard has now played her last card in the long list of promised political moves that were supposed to improve Labor in the polls - the start-up of the carbon tax.