NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The legacy of Labor's leadership fiasco
, April 13, 2013
Despite the adverse sentiments of backbench members of the parliamentary Labor Party, most of the media and a clear majority in successive the opinion polls, Julia Gillard was re-elected unopposed in a leadership spill before Parliament rose for the winter recess.
The events which unfolded on March 21 began with high drama. After days of speculation about Labor’s dwindling political fortunes, the fiasco of Labor’s media reform laws and the withdrawal of Labor’s planned legislation to consolidate anti-discrimination laws, there was widespread speculation, fanned by Labor’s whip Joel Fitzgibbon, that Labor would turn to Kevin Rudd to lead the party into the next election.
The day began when Labor’s elder statesman, the Minister for Regional Development and the Arts and former party leader, Simon Crean, visited the Prime Minister, and asked Ms Gillard to declare a “spill” of the Labor leadership.
According to Crean, Gillard refused to call a meeting to re-elect the Labor leadership, so he held a media conference to say that he had called on Gillard to step down, and that he would support Rudd as party leader, if he stood for election. He also urged Kevin Rudd to offer himself for the leadership.
Later that morning, Gillard announced that there would be a spill later that day, and that she would re-contest her position. She also dismissed Simon Crean from the ministry.
A few minutes later, a Tweet purporting to come from Kevin Rudd announced that he would be contesting the leadership. The Tweet was later shown to be fraudulent, as Rudd later issued a statement saying that he had long promised that he would not stand against the Prime Minister for leadership of the party.
He said before entering the party room that he would stand only if he were drafted by the “overwhelming majority” of Labor MPs. “Those circumstances do not exist,” he added.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott then moved a no-confidence motion in the House of Representatives. After a debate to suspend standing orders, the vote was 73:71 in favour, but without an absolute majority (75), the motion was declared lost.
In the event, Julia Gillard was returned unopposed as parliamentary leader, and Wayne Swan was unchallenged as her deputy, despite Crean’s earlier statement that he would contest the deputy leadership.
Tony Abbott described the events as “a bizarre day in the life of this Parliament”. He said that the people deserved a stable government committed to advancing the interests of Australia.
He remarked, “Regrettably, the message that the people of Australia have heard is that the civil war in the Labor Party will continue to go on.” He said the people were entitled to ask, “How much longer will this circus go on?”
Former Labor Senator Steven Loosley said, of his 41 years in the Labor Party, that he had “never seen anything like this”. He described the events as “a farce with a capital F”, and “a free kick” for the Opposition.
He expressed the hope that things would settle down, and that Labor would get its act together for the Budget session of Parliament, beginning in May.
However, this was far from the end of the affair. After Gillard sacked Simon Crean, six other ministers and government whips resigned — Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, Higher Education Minister Chris Bowen, Human Services Minister Kim Carr, former chief Labor whip Joel Fitzgibbon, parliamentary secretary Richard Marles, and party whips Janelle Saffin and Ed Husic — without Gillard attempting to stop the bloodletting.
Despite Kevin Rudd’s categorical statement that he would “never” again seek the leadership and his call for all members of the parliamentary Labor Party to unite behind Julia Gillard, the parliamentary party is more deeply divided now than at any time since Gillard became Labor leader in 2010.
The recriminations over who was responsible for the botched challenge have included criticisms of Simon Crean and Kevin Rudd, as well as statements by the departing ministers that they had acted on principle, implying that those who supported Gillard had not done so.
Further, the departing Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, spoke out against the mining tax débâcle and the Gillard government’s “class war rhetoric”. He called for a return to the direction of the Hawke-Keating governments.
This comment in turn was promptly criticised by the Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, who said that the Hawke-Keating era should not be idealised, as it was characterised by policy divisions and by what union leaders described as a period of collapsing union membership.
It is clear that the reverberations inside Labor will continue for weeks, if not months, and possibly even until the next election.
What must be of concern to Julia Gillard is that the backbench now contains a number of former senior ministers united in their hostility to her, and preparing for the day in September when she no longer leads the party.