Unlike with Howard, this time it's easy to write it's time for PM to go
A FEW years back I wrote a column that began with the words "This is one of the hardest columns I will write". It was time for then prime minister John Howard to go.Like most leaders, he did not see it that way. Howard was not short of self-belief. Neither is Julia Gillard. But, by contrast, this is the easiest column to write. It is time for Julia Gillard to go. If she does not leave now, her place in history will be marked by dishonour.
Many of us once admired Gillard for her tenacity, political nous and intellect. Those days are long gone. Branding herself as a fighter is all Gillard has left. When the PM described herself as a fighter at the recent NSW state Labor conference, it was telling that her punchy speech did not mention winning the next election.
A fighting spirit is a great virtue in many circumstances: for the soldier on the battlefield; for the victim of cancer; for the deserted wife battling to care for children; for the parents of a disabled child demanding better services from government. But for our embattled Prime Minister, it is no longer a virtue. Her fighting on has turned a virtue into a vice. Far from looking courageous, Gillard looks stubborn, arrogant and deluded. Her desire to pitch herself as the Rocky Balboa of Australian politics, another "new Julia" if you will, is seriously foolhardy. The new, new Julia looks more like the captain of the Costa Concordia. With poll numbers at 28 per cent, the party is sinking.
Even the notion of Gillard supporters is a misnomer. Those who support the PM do so because they loathe Kevin Rudd. On the political battlefield, Tony Abbott can be certain that his troops are in line. They are, except for the odd inner-city straggler, unified and loyal supporters of their leader.
Their eyes are dead set on Abbott to win the next election for the Coalition. When Gillard looks behind her, she is greeted by troops who can no longer look her in the eye; more and more are peeling off publicly and others are doing so privately. Not even shifting the goal posts has helped Gillard's leadership.
The Liberals have drawn up a long list of the shifts. In May last year, we were told that once the details of the carbon tax were announced, Labor's poll numbers would rise. That didn't happen. Then we were told the Queen's visit and CHOGM in October were, to quote Bill Shorten, "positive developments" for the PM. Nothing changed. Then it was the resolution of the Qantas dispute, then the visit by US President Barack Obama, then the passing of the carbon tax through parliament that would mark a shift in support for the Gillard government. That shift didn't happen.
Then it was Gillard's masterstroke appointment of Peter Slipper as Speaker. Then the ALP national conference. Surely Gillard's two-to-one win over Rudd in February this year would be a game-changer. No. Then, maybe her appointment of Bob Carr as foreign minister. And then, said weary Labor ministers, the introduction of the carbon tax this month would deliver a boost. Wrong again.
Gillard's authority has been terminal for a long time. That's why Julia needs to lie down. She needs to call it quits. Now, even her most fervent supporters in the media are calling for her to step down. Fairfax's bleeding heart lefty, Mike Carlton, did so over the weekend, with a "heavy heart", of course.
The Prime Minister has lost sight of principles far more virtuous than her own self-belief in fighting on to the bitter end. For the sake of the grand old party of Australian politics, a party that has given Gillard a great deal, she must resign. Her stubbornness to remain as PM despite irrefutable evidence of a record loss for Labor at the next federal election represents a tipping point: Gillard is now taking far more from the ALP than she has given in return. And she must resign for the sake of the country.
A decimated Labor opposition is in no one's interest. Good government depends on an effective opposition. Contrast the resignation of then Liberal leader Alexander Downer in January 1995 after a slump in the polls and a bitter period of destabilisation, leaks and leadership speculation. A few days before resigning as opposition leader, Downer said: "I have a responsibility and an obligation not just to the party but to the people of Australia to sort the problems out." He said he would do that by resigning. A few days later, Howard became leader and in a graceful display of unity and support, Downer said "I'll be kicking heads in the Liberal Party if they don't support Howard and win the next election".
Then-Liberal federal president Tony Staley said Downer put aside his aspirations "for the greater good of the party and the country". This was, Staley said, "the true measure of the man. He has assured his future as one of the real heroes of the Liberal Party." As this newspaper reported at the time, what Downer did showed "a lot of courage, a lot of guts".
The same might be said of Bill Hayden, who resigned the Labor leadership in February 1983, securing for himself a smaller, but honourable place in the party's and nation's history. Gillard is now facing the prospect of looking dishonourable if she fights on. She and her party face something more severe than the baseball bats that ousted Paul Keating in 1996. If you find someone who genuinely thinks Gillard is doing a good job, you are probably listening to a member of her family. The NSW Right is distancing itself from her. Reports suggest members of the Victorian Right are doing the same. In Queensland, the party is having problems getting candidates to stand even in marginal Coalition seats.
When John Howard refused to step down as prime minister, he had cause for hubris. He had helped create conditions for the emergence of a whole new class of aspirational Australians, he had confronted the scourge of terrorism, established a sensible immigration policy premised on building trust from voters to encourage further immigration. From education policy to indigenous politics, Howard fundamentally realigned the political landscape of the nation.
Gillard has little reason to bat on. She took the reins from Rudd in 2010, when the Labor government had "lost its way". Instead of getting the government back on track, she has tacked Left to appease the Greens and the unions. For more than a year, Australians have registered their displeasure. If Gillard was fighting for a genuine cause, her fighting spirit might count for more. As Downer wrote last year, Gillard has "no program, no plans and no authority. She just loves the trappings of power." It's time, Julia, to fall on your oft-used sword. The same one you used against Rudd in 2010.
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