Tuesday 27 September 2011

Rudd | will Labor go back to him?

Kevin Rudd a golden opportunity for Labor
Even though a majority of federal Labor MPs still quail at the prospect, Kevin Rudd's resurrection would give them a golden opportunity to break free of the grip of the Greens and independents.

There are two people above all whose fate Rudd will have to consider most carefully and neither of them is called Bob or Rob. They are Julia Gillard and her deputy, the award-winning Treasurer Wayne Swan.

As for the rest, the independents have made clear they will work with any other leader as long as his name is not Tony Abbott. Barely able to disguise their contempt for him, nothing would suit them better than to keep minority government and their influence over it alive.

The Greens will stick with Labor even if Craig Thomson becomes leader. If he plays smart, Rudd will not go out of his way to keep them onside. In fact, the opposite. Rudd could immediately void the deal with Andrew Wilkie on poker machines, which he signed personally with Gillard and which he threatens will cost his support if it is not implemented by May next year. It is causing Labor marginal seat holders considerable grief, and any issue that can unite Hawks and Magpies, Eddie McGuire and Jeff Kennett in a war against the government should be feared greatly.

Rudd's best interests, and probably Labor's only hope, lie in an election in the first flush of his second honeymoon to seek a mandate to govern in his own right and deny Abbott the luxury of time to cut him down.

A mandate to do what, is something for him to tell us. Nothing too flash or grand, though, maybe as simple as keeping the economy fireproofed (this time without the massive waste), securing the borders, perhaps even pledging to give Nauru a try now that it is the tough and humane option and, finally, allowing people a vote on the carbon tax in recognition of the gyrations, including his own, that preceded its introduction.

If Gillard continues to show no willingness to change, not even her praetorian guard will be able to save her. The self-preservation instincts of the backbenchers will mow them down.
A month ago I said Gillard was dead woman walking. Now it's like a remake of Weekend at Bernie's, where two men who think their lives depend on it fool his friends and enemies into thinking their dead boss is alive.

Weekend at Julia's isn't fooling anyone any more. In response to questions about Rudd yesterday, Penny Wong said "the Prime Minister" was very secure and would lead Labor to the next election. Of course he or she will.

Watching Gillard trying to blame the opposition for the multiple failures of her multiple asylum-seeker policies is excruciating. She will succeed in stripping some skin off Abbott but at a heavy cost to Labor's self-respect.

Last week she threatened the opposition with divisions on her amendments to the Migration Act. "Every vote will be recorded by every member," she said, either forgetting or not caring that half the MPs sitting sullenly behind her are appalled by the prospect of history showing how she will compel them to vote. She couldn't have been listening when John Faulkner warned her not to breach either Australia's obligations to the UN convention on refugees or Labor's asylum-seeker policy.

This is no small thing she is proposing. Caucus gives its prime ministers considerable latitude to preserve unity. It tolerates overturning of principles for the sake of good government, but what she insists on legislating, when the party is bleeding votes left and right, will shrivel its soul.

It's now not just a question of how low she can go but how far down the party is prepared to let her take it before it puts a stop to it. Abbott's immediate victory on the asylum-seeker issue could turn to dust if it precipitates an explosion in Labor tensions.

A resurrected Rudd, if he has genuinely learned from his time in the foreign wilderness, will treat Gillard and Swan with respect even if he does feel they have done nothing to earn it. She should be given a senior portfolio. Swan's removal, also to another senior portfolio, would be problematic but probably essential.

His crowning as this year's Euromoney's finance minister of the year will not stop the mutterings about Swan and it is unlikely the award will suddenly transform people's opinion of him. If he's so good, why is the government getting no credit for it, other than a gong from a magazine most Australians have never heard of?

That's an easy one to answer. The economy is arguably the government's best story and the person charged with selling it is one of its worst salesmen. Second, if the economy goes pear-shaped people blame the government, and if it goes swimmingly the government rarely gets credit unless it is able to stamp its signature on the success with some authority.

Third, Australians hate it when they are told they have never had it so good or, in its subtler form, that they are so much better off than anybody else. John Howard found that in March 2007 when he added an unscripted flourish in answer to a stock standard Dorothy Dixer, designed to elicit a union bash and recitation of the virtues of Work Choices. Dozing MPs and staff woke up with a start when they heard him say: "Working families in Australia have never been better off." It cost him big time.

Gillard said the other day the Australian economy was the envy of the world. She and Swan are forever regaling us with tales of how much better off Australia is than the rest of the developed world. The fact is Australians are almost always better off.

Only twice in modern times has that not been the case, in the early 1980s and during the recession we had to have in the early 90s. When the US economy went into recession in 2001, it was the first time Australia did not follow it down.

So Australians are very well accustomed to doing better than their overseas counterparts. They compare how they are with how they were, not with how they are compared with Americans, Italians, Greeks or Libyans.

Labor needs a better story and better storytellers.

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