CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Who might succeed Julia Gillard?
, June 25, 2011
Julia Gillard gave herself exactly 12 months for her colleagues to judge her leadership when she declared 2011 to be her year of delivery and decisions.
Halfway through the year the prospects of her long-term survival are fading, and the discussions — as opposed to actual agitation for a change — have started on a possible replacement leader. It would surprise no-one in Canberra if there was an attempt to unseat Ms Gillard toward the end of the parliamentary year.
Most Labor backbenchers remain solidly behind Ms Gillard, but if there is no upturn in the polls once the Government announces its carbon tax price, then reality will start to set in, followed by widespread panic as a lot of MPs realise that their political careers are coming to a close.
As things stand, several senior ALP figures and longstanding MPs will be thrown out of the Parliament, not just marginal seat holders.
There is no clear heir-apparent for Ms Gillard. In fact, the field is as wide open as at any time in memory, and half a dozen or so Labor MPs might consider themselves to be actual contenders.
It is a worthwhile exercise to list the current leading lights and their prospects. Some of the aspirants have already been quietly and subtly positioning themselves.
Treasurer Wayne Swan has made keynote speeches earlier in the year in which he discussed essential Labor values and his vision for Australia. In truth it was a fairly prosaic vision, but at least it was an authentic Swan vision and in keeping with the Treasurer’s lifelong philosophy of maximising the opportunity for work and participation. His book Postcode: The Splintering of a Nation (Pluto Press Australia, 2005) encapsulated the dry suburban but practical Swan view of the world.
Swan’s friend Stephen Smith has done a similar repositioning of his public persona in his defence portfolio, laying down the law with defence chiefs over contract problems and using an army cadet sexual harassment scandal (arguably in a too shrill over-the-top way) to display his toughness and concern for female military in the ADF.
Of course, the main contender (or one who sees himself as the main contender) is Kevin Rudd, who has used every opportunity to ingratiate himself with the media, the wider Australian public and even the grassroots membership of the Labor Party to plead on his behalf.
The problem for Mr Rudd is that his parliamentary colleagues will not have a bar of him, no matter how strongly the polls declare that he is the people’s preferred option for prime minister.
The Labor Government is currently riven on foreign policy with Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd running their own rival agendas and refusing to co-operate or communicate with each other on issues such as asylum-seekers.
Mr Rudd would garner some votes and in a multi-contender poll could conceivably triumph, but is still a long, long shot.
Others are being less overt in their ambitions, including former leader Simon Crean who would be seen as a back-to-basics candidate in a similar way with which the Liberal Party embraced John Howard after exhausting every other possibility in the early 1990s.
Mr Crean, who is a close confidante of Ms Gillard’s, would be unlikely to win a general election, but is experienced and capable and he would be seen as being able to “save the furniture” for Labor.
The New South Wales Labor right would be likely to put forward Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, but his reputation has been deeply compromised over recent times, in part by his own inept department which kept him in the dark about such small matters as rogue contractors and finding a bomb in a detention centre.
But, also, Mr Bowen has done himself a disservice by failing to stand up to Ms Gillard in finding the most sensible and practical solution to the asylum-seeker issue. Instead, Mr Bowen has fallen into line with Ms Gillard’s “anywhere but Nauru” policy — with disastrous results.
Climate Change Minister Greg Combet is well regarded as competent and intelligent, but, like Mr Bowen, is hamstrung by having responsibility for a policy which alienates him from the electorate. Mr Combet’s task is to “sell” a carbon tax voters were promised they would not have, at a time when Australians are finding that cost-of-living pressures are hurting them.
Mr Combet’s long-term rival is ambitious former Australian Workers Union boss Bill Shorten, who is popular with sections of the media, but has a lot of enemies inside the Labor Party.
Mr Shorten is new to the parliament, is still a junior minister, and would ideally need a lot more time to acquaint himself with the wide policy agenda required by a prime minister.
Probably the best performing, most competent minister in the Gillard Government is the one least likely to become leader.
Resources and Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson is well-respected on both sides of politics and by the mining sector. Yet he has no pretensions and has never attempted to rid himself of his old-fashioned Sydney/ACTU working-class accent and is, if anything, proud of it.
In days gone by (pre-Whitlam), Ferguson might have been seen as an ideal Labor leader — practical, considered, hardworking and in touch with the aspirations and problems of everyday Australians.
Regrettably for Labor today, the obsession with spin ahead of substance and “message” ahead of delivering actual results, Mr Ferguson is likely to be overlooked when the rush to find a new leader starts in earnest.