Sunday 28 August 2011

Labor should take the risk and dump Gillard

Labor has to decide whether it is prepared to risk dying on its feet or is content to survive (only just) on its knees. That may require a radical move.

If it chooses the latter, Julia Gillard survives as prime minister with the increasingly unlikely hope that once the carbon tax is legislated her political fortunes turn around. If, however, Labor wishes to give itself a positive chance of improving its polling quagmire and exploiting the greatest weakness on the Coalition side - Tony Abbott's unpopularity - it must seriously consider replacing the deeply unpopular Gillard.

Even as I write this I find it hard to countenance such a move. Moving against another leader seems improbable for Labor. "Hold your nerve while bedding down tough policy" is what government MPs would be telling themselves. Removing Gillard risks the federal party descending into the same murky zone NSW Labor found itself in during its final term in office.

The risky scenario for removing Gillard goes something like this. She would need to agree to step down, which is the most difficult part of any change. Gillard's natural tendency is fight, not flight. But Labor hardheads would need to appeal to her sense of loyalty to a Labor brand being tarnished by hers. They need Gillard to see the value of differentiating how she exits from how Kevin Rudd did. A new leader would not survive the tag of having "politically assassinated" a PM any more than she has.

Gillard could stay in parliament; indeed, she should. As a minister she was an effective performer. In announcing her resignation she would need to concede that she lost the trust of the people over her carbon tax U-turn, recognise she has become a liability for the government and was too quick to throw her lot in with Thomson.

Under such a scenario the new leader should be West Australian Stephen Smith. Rudd is a more popular figure and probably has more chance of winning the next election, but there is no way his Labor colleagues would have him back, certainly not now. Simon Crean is being talked about by conservative commentators, but recycling someone who was so unpopular as opposition leader isn't an option. Smith, on the other hand, is a cleanskin. He has done reasonable jobs managing the senior portfolios of foreign affairs and defence. He could elevate Labor's standing in the west, where it holds only three of 12 seats. And the fact he hails from a resource-rich state also could lift Labor's fortunes in Queensland.

Smith is a right-wing operative who gets on well with Wayne Swan (Mark Latham famously dubbed them "the roosters"), which means he could rearrange or maintain the hierarchy at the top without the risk of instability.

Smith's first order of business should be to sack Thomson, making it clear that if he is cleared by Fair Work Australia he could be welcomed back into the Labor fold. Labor shouldn't fear that this step would bring down the government. First, Labor just can't continue to live in fear. Second, Thomson is unlikely to resign from parliament or vote against the government. In short, he needs the job. Third, a strong move such as this sends an important message that the government is cleaning up its act.

Besides, with rising unemployment and global economic uncertainty, now wouldn't be such a bad time for Labor to lose office in the event the minority parliament didn't allow it to correct its problems. Abbott would receive a poisoned chalice - required to enact a set of promises that don't add up. Labor just might rehabilitate for a fresh tilt at government in two years.
Smith could declare that while he believes an emissions trading scheme is in the nation's best interests, he is going to take Abbott up on his idea of a plebiscite to determine the issue. He will campaign in favour of action but respect the judgment of the people and abide by the result for this term and the next.

Holding a plebiscite is far from an ideal precedent to set, but these are desperate times for Labor. The plebiscite would undoubtedly fail and Smith would be free from the poisonous carbon tax debate. He could then make clear that his government intended to bed down the many important reforms it had in train, including the National Broadband Network, which is so crucial to holding on to the support of the rural independents. Smith should tell Greens leader Bob Brown that if he doesn't like this course of action he should go ahead and force an early election, which would install Abbott in the prime ministership.

Smith should also end their formal alliance and start appealing to the centre ground. Strategically, battles with the Greens are no bad thing for Labor. Importantly, Smith would need to make it clear to the public that he doesn't believe the change of leadership is a solution in itself. It simply gives Labor a chance to solve its problems and reclaim the trust of the electorate.

The only thing this government has in its favour is Abbott's 55 per cent disapproval rating, and it needs to find a way to exploit it. The hope was that Gillard's numbers would improve, and perhaps they will. But it seems likely voters have switched off and aren't switching back on.

Gillard's demise - if it happens - would be more than a little sad. As Australia's first female PM most people wanted her to succeed. Her abilities inside the beltway have held together the minority government for a year now. Legislation is being passed, even if the perception is one of chaos. In my election day column I urged voters to give her the benefit of the doubt and re-elect her.

But her compact with the public is toxically nonexistent. Will replacing Gillard, even if done smoothly, save Labor? Probably not. Does it carry the risk of causing support to spiral even further downwards? Absolutely. There are many holes in this scenario for Labor. But risks may soon become the lesser of evils for a desperate party. Party strategists often look to do what their opponents would least like to see. Talking to Liberals, they fear a change of leader exercised in the right way. Some of Abbott's closest supporters worry a fresh face would contrast with an unpopular Opposition Leader. They want Gillard as their opponent at the next election.

Why wouldn't they? She is the most unpopular Prime Minister in our history.

Peter van Onselen is a Winthrop professor at the University of Western Australia.

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