CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Lacklustre Gillard under fire from her own party
, November 27, 2010
Julia Gillard is coming under unprecedented pressure from the NSW Right of her party to lift her performance, clean out her senior staff and come up with a vision for where she wants to lead the nation.
It is unusual for the Labor Party to descend so quickly into public recriminations over its leader so soon after an election win. But it has also been decades since any Labor prime minister has been so captive to the factional chieftains who installed her, and so powerless to silence them.
Certainly, Ms Gillard's performance since being re-elected has been lacklustre, and there is disappointment that she has been unable to articulate a defined picture of where she wants to take the country.
In her defence, Ms Gillard has had the enormously difficult task of pulling together a coalition of competing political ideologies and interests in order to form and then run a government.
But the rapidity of the collapse in Ms Gillard's authority in the wider party is still something of a surprise.
In essence, the demands from the likes of Australian Workers Union (AWU) boss Paul Howes, NSW Senator Mark Arbib and former power-broker Graham Richardson are about power and their concerns about the coming election in New South Wales.
Labor expects to be wiped out in every marginal seat in NSW, but fears it may also lose several inner city seats to the Greens - a result which would well and truly symbolise the abandonment of Labor by the cultural left.
Losing the seat of Melbourne was one thing, but losing several seats to the Greens would constitute an historical political shift.
While the Gillard Government bleeds on the left to the Greens and bleeds on the right as working and middle-class Australians drift toward the Liberal Party, Labor's right-wing power brokers are demanding that this supposed left-wing prime minister whom they installed show that she believes in "something".
What this intangible something is remains unclear.
Ms Gillard appears to think her best tactic in this regard is to pursue an Australia-only impost on carbon dioxide emissions.
Such a policy, which would almost certainly put upward pressure on electricity prices and the cost of living, is going to be that much harder to deliver following President Barack Obama's decision to walk away from a cap-and-trade policy for the United States.
The second policy Ms Gillard is being asked to pursue is a reversal of Labor policy on same-sex marriage.
It is bizarre that the NSW right is now pushing this, but a sign of the ideological desperation in which the party now finds itself in the fight for votes with the Greens.
Both Senator Arbib and Mr Howes, who helped install Ms Gillard as PM, have strongly backed a dismantling of the traditional institution of marriage and have urged the party to debate the issue at its next national conference.
Senator Arbib described it as a human rights issue. "We are meant to be a progressive party and we should be fighting against discrimination in all its forms, not protecting it," Senator Arbib told News Limited newspapers.
It is a dubious proposition that backing same-sex marriages will stop the rot in the Labor Party's support-base. Embracing such a policy is hardly likely to win any new votes, but will potentially alienate tens of thousands of swinging voters in socially conservative suburbia and regional Australia.
The right-wing power-brokers have also made it clear in recent newspaper columns that Ms Gillard has to get rid of the advisers who have served her up until now, and replace them with experienced operators over whom they can presumably exercise influence. The group believe Ms Gilllard's office does not have the political smarts or the experience required to run a PM's office.
Loyalty is one of Ms Gillard's best traits and she is unlikely to tumble to this kind of intimidation.
There is also still significant lingering disappointment about Labor's performance at the federal election and fallout from the loss of 16 seats.
While Ms Gillard cannot be blamed for the near loss, she has to carry the responsibility for her share in the decision to knife Kevin Rudd. Labor has still not come to terms with the collapse in support from the 2007 election.
On the other hand, the party has also finally woken up to the reality that the Greens are a threat to its voter base. Dealing with this problem is going to be a serious issue for the party over the coming term and beyond.
For years, Graham Richardson's strategy of appeasement, co-operation and preference deals with the Greens has been accepted as the most sensible way to deal with the minor party.
Others in the party, such as former Finance Minister Peter Walsh, consistently warned that such a strategy would ultimately spell disaster. And so it has, with the Greens striking at the Labor Party's inner-city heartland.
Now, in a column in The Australian
, without a hint of remorse or shame, Mr Richardson is demanding that Ms Gillard stand up to the Greens and expose their irresponsible, uncosted policies.
Imitating the Greens on social policy and forming a broad alliance on climate change will not solve the fundamental problem of identity and direction that federal Labor has been suffering for a long time.
Ms Gillard has to stare down the mini-revolt in the party, but she also has to come up with some ideas. Otherwise, she won't make it till the next election.