EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Why Julia Gillard faces winter of discontent
, February 16, 2013
As the federal parliament resumed after the summer recess, it seemed as if winter had already fallen on the Gillard government.
The Prime Minister, having spent the past couple of months travelling around Australia to support victims of natural disasters, such as bushfires and floods, wanted to begin the new year as she had ended the old: by continuing the recovery in her electoral fortunes which saw Labor’s stocks rise to levels which gave some hope that her government could be re-elected.
These hopes have now been dashed.
Over recent weeks, several senior Labor parliamentarians, including the dumped former attorney-general Robert McClelland, Senate leader Chris Evans and federal attorney-general Nicola Roxon, announced they were quitting politics at the next election.
This followed the coup against Northern Territory Senator Trish Crossin, who had been disendorsed by the Prime Minister. Julia Gillard wanted to parachute into the Northern Territory seat an indigenous celebrity candidate, the former Olympian Nova Peris, who was not even a member of the ALP at the time.
When Julia Gillard then appeared before the National Press Club to set Labor’s agenda for 2013, her speech was overshadowed by the announcement that she was setting the election date for September 14, 2013, effectively beginning a nine-month election campaign for which the Opposition leader Tony Abbott said he was ready.
Then came the bad news that NSW federal Labor MP Craig Thomson, first elected to the House of Representatives in 2007 and currently the subject of corruption allegations over his term as national secretary of the Health Services Union, had been arrested and will face 150 charges of criminal fraud.
Additionally, further extremely damaging allegations have been aired in the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), against a former NSW Labor power-broker, Eddie Obeid, and former NSW Labor minister Ian Macdonald.
Obeid stepped down from the NSW Legislative Council in 2011, following repeated allegations of impropriety, none of which was proven.
Last November, the ICAC began a series of investigative hearings relating to Obeid’s property and mining interests. Among other issues, this involved a decision made in 2008 by the then Mining Minister, Ian Macdonald, to open an area in the Bylong Valley for coal exploration. The Obeid family had purchased farmland in the area a short time beforehand, and made a massive windfall profit from the re-zoning.
While the decision relates to a former Labor Government, that government was led by Morris Iemma, who is now being touted as an ALP candidate for the seat of Barton, being vacated by Robert McClelland.
Not surprisingly, opinion polls published after all this showed that Labor’s vote had slumped to levels last seen in mid-2012. Newspoll, published in the Fairfax media, reported that Labor’s primary vote was just 32 per cent, and on a two-party preferred basis, trailed the Coalition by 44 per cent to 56.
The Obeid allegations are likely to continue to be aired throughout 2013, as will those against Craig Thomson, who continues to vote with the Gillard government in federal parliament.
There is now a deep-seated demoralisation in the Labor Party, reflected in a recent speech to Young Labor by the party’s national vice-president, Tony Sheldon.
He said: “There must be no understating of the gravity of the crisis in my home state, no blame shifting, and no dodging of the responsibility to set things right.… It’s a crisis of belief brought on by a lack of moral and political purpose.”
However, in neither of the recent addresses which the Prime Minister gave to new Labor candidates, and to sitting Labor MPs when they came together after the summer recess, did she exhibit any sense of awareness of the political disintegration around her.
The PM concentrated, instead, on the need for Labor to press on with its National Disability Insurance Scheme, its carbon tax and its unfunded promise to back the education reforms proposed by businessman, David Gonski.
In the meantime, there have been persistent reports that deposed leader, Kevin Rudd, who now sits on the backbench, is counting numbers for a challenge to Gillard’s leadership.
Geoff Kitney, parliamentary correspondent for the Australian Financial Review, said: “One bad opinion poll is flimsy evidence on which to conclude that Gillard has done herself and her chances of leading Labor back to power this year irreparable damage. But Monday’s Newspoll has sent shudders through Labor ranks that could easily turn into a collapse of confidence in Gillard and lead to a leadership crisis.” (AFR, February 5, 2013).
But with the inevitable reporting of Craig Thomson’s criminal charges, the continued corruption allegations in New South Wales and the criminal charges against ex-Liberal Peter Slipper, whom Gillard appointed Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Gillard government will continue to sustain damage.
Labor has a record of ruthlessness towards failing political leaders. Julia Gillard may soon face her day of reckoning.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.