Sunday 4 September 2011

Respected cleanskin might save the furniture

As the saying goes, two things are certain: death and taxes.  A third may be the demise of the Prime Minister, imminently or at the next election. Her dwindling band of supporters is pleading with people not to write her off. Given her fighting qualities, that's a fair position. But a straw poll I did with three of the most senior members of the press gallery of the past three decades suggests no prime minister has been up against it as seriously as she now is. Any comeback would be quite something.

Julia Gillard is under enormous pressure, as she has been since she replaced Kevin Rudd. But now the pressure is showing. Her swipe at the High Court decision on refugees being sent (or, rather, not sent) to Malaysia was emblematic of her problems. She has lost touch with the public and everything she says or does is now seen through the prism of her unravelling government.

Gillard's fall from grace has been as rapid as it is disappointing. She will always be Australia's first female prime minister, nobody can take that away. If she survives full term, of our 27 prime ministers she would move into the top half for length of service (sitting at lucky No 13).

But serving out a full term is looking less likely. If her internal party opponents don't move her on, or if she doesn't recognise the damage she is doing to Labor and step aside voluntarily, midway through next year Andrew Wilkie looks set to withdraw support from the government if his poker machine reforms aren't legislated.

Wilkie has made it clear it won't be good enough for Gillard to deliver only Labor votes on the floor of the house (a hard enough task, given the popularity of clubs and pubs in Labor seats). Gillard must also win over the rural independents, who aren't exactly rapt with the reform ideas.

But for Gillard the problem of poker reforms is a distant one. She has far more immediate issues to contend with, such as surviving until the end of the year. It is no longer just right-wing commentators who think she is in trouble. The mainstream media thinks so, too, and why not when Labor's primary vote is at record lows and Gillard's dissatisfaction numbers are lower than those faced by any prime minister in history.

Last week I wrote in this column that Defence Minister Stephen Smith should be considered as a replacement. A cleanskin from a mining state, Western Australia, with respect among his colleagues for his factional allegiances and his job as a minister, he is suited to saving the furniture. But the caveat still exists that for such a shift to work it needs to be bloodless.

Smith is hardly the front-line alternative to Gillard, so it important to establish why the other contenders aren't or shouldn't be in the mix. They include Kevin Rudd, Simon Crean, Bill Shorten, Greg Combet and Chris Bowen. And, given recent media reporting, it is worth pointing out why drafting former Queensland premier Peter Beattie into federal parliament is a fantasy.

The Beattie option can be dismissed because if Labor can't find an individual among its serving parliamentarians, what does that say? Throw in the complexity of trying to win a by-election in these tough times, just to get the retiree into parliament, and the move should be seen as fantasy. Any talk of Bowen can also be dismissed given the problems in his immigration portfolio.

Back to the serious options, and why none of them are as workable as a move to Smith. Rudd undoubtedly would have the best superficial chance of saving Labor were he to return as prime minister. He could keep the independents onside, even adding his mate Bob Katter to the numbers. But not enough of his Labor colleagues would wear a Rudd return; they remember his autocratic style. And it wouldn't be long before the voting public remembered why they turned off him in the first place.

Popularity derived from martyrdom doesn't last when you cease being an outsider. If Labor moved to Rudd it would be a case of the party once again thinking changing leaders is a solution of itself, rather than fixing systemic problems - the impression the government is too close to the Greens (Rudd in his last speech as leader said he would not be lurching to the Right on asylum-seeker policy) - or finding a way out of the carbon tax debate (Rudd described climate change as "the greatest moral challenge of our time").

Conservative commentators have favoured a return to Crean as Labor leader. And why wouldn't they: it was his record for unpopularity as Labor leader that Gillard surpassed recently. While Crean would be seen by business as a steady hand, he has little support in the caucus; and if Gillard needs replacing because she doesn't resonate with the public, Crean hardly improves the situation.

Shorten is a leadership option. His disability services scheme and championing of a lift in the compulsory superannuation rate are two things Labor has done right. But he is a junior minister and needs time to improve his parliamentary performances.

The Left likes to think it can replace one of its own with another in Combet. But as Climate Change Minister his fortunes are linked to the carbon tax and it remains unpopular. More likely Combet is a chance for the deputy's role if Gillard's stepping aside involved a double change.

Watching Gillard thrash around in the public domain (all the while continuing to work the corridors successfully in Canberra) is sad. She was cajoled into the leadership by a brutal factional revolt before her time. She had no choice. In politics you have to take your chances. Gillard did just that, but it hasn't worked out. Speculation about her future won't go away without a turnaround in the polls, which is looking less likely by the day. It's become a death roll.

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1 comment:

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