CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Can Labor learn from the Rudd and Gillard fiascos?
, September 17, 2011
It is now almost inevitable that Julia Gillard’s tenuous grip on the prime ministership will be prised from her hands and a new Labor leader installed in her place.
It will happen quietly or it will be protracted and possibly ugly, but it will surely happen.
Barring a miracle recovery or a national emergency which would necessitate keeping Ms Gillard in the Lodge for an extended period, Labor’s Caucus will soon be considering appointing a replacement for her.
As traumatic and difficult as that prospect may be, however, Labor’s much more overwhelming problem will be whether it has learned any lessons from the woeful and dysfunctional management of the Gillard and Rudd periods.
Any change of leader will be a waste of time unless there is a serious change in thinking, strategy and policy.
The odds are suddenly firming for Kevin Rudd, but the next Labor leader could be any one of four or five MPs, with a long-shot choice of enlisting former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie.
Could Beattie be the Labor candidate for the seat of Dobell in the event that Craig Thomson’s union credit-card problems result in his being forced out of federal Parliament?
Such a move might stave off an otherwise certain defeat for the Labor Government at a by-election, according to senior figures inside the New South Wales right.
This would seem to be a highly fanciful scenario, but in the bizarre world of federal Labor politics anything seems possible.
Consider, for instance, that among Ms Gillard’s strongest defenders in the Parliament are now the former “conservative” rural MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Even Andrew Wilkie, with an eye to the long term, has begun to distance himself from Ms Gillard’s policies and decisions.
Ms Gillard’s popularity has sunk to an all-time low and the electorate has lost respect for the government.
The High Court 6-1 decision to reject Ms Gillard’s very own “Malaysian Solution” was the final straw for the electorate, confirming the public’s doubt about her government’s competence coupled with an assessment by the political class that Labor is simply incapable of delivering on a major policy.
The real question is whether the Labor brand has been trashed so badly by the ineptitude of the Rudd-Gillard governments, that, no matter who replaces Gillard, the party will still face a rout at the next election.
It is important to recall that Ms Gillard’s stated reason for knifing Kevin Rudd on the night of June 24 last year was: “I came to the view that a good government was losing its way.”
Ms Gillard’s new course consisted of a threefold pledge which included a promise to fix the mining resource tax, a promise to get the Budget back into surplus, and a promise to stop the arrival of asylum-seeker boats.
All three promises have been botched, and none is ever likely to be delivered by Ms Gillard.
But she gave the people something else — something they didn’t actually want and something which she promised not to do — a new tax on carbon dioxide emissions. This more than anything else has sunk her prime ministership.
Yet, now that her future is looking shaky, she has decided this is her only hope.
Sensing the urgency of the situation, Ms Gillard has moved to bring forward Parliament’s vote on the carbon tax, forcing the Labor Party to lock into the policy before an alternative leader comes forward with a proposal to abandon it.
Among the things a new Labor leader would have to do to achieve some kind of reconciliation with the voting public would be to postpone or shelve the carbon tax indefinitely.
It would be a simple proposition to argue given the current international economic uncertainty.
Second, the next Labor leader would have to cut the government’s ties with the Greens. Negotiate with them in the Senate where necessary, but offer them no special treatment whatsoever, and put them last on the ballot paper at the next election.
Finally, the next Labor leader will need to focus on the things Labor governments have been traditionally good at — improving health and hospitals, getting more people into jobs, building proper infrastructure rather than quick-fix solutions such as school halls and pink-batt installations, and dealing with the real difficulties of an economy which is booming in some parts, but hurting people in other parts.
Such a switch in direction is possible, but is unlikely to work. A government can be unpopular, but once it has lost the trust of the people it is ultimately doomed.