For months, the undeclared war between the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and Kevin Rudd, the man she deposed in 2010, has been simmering.
Julia Gillard’s personal popularity has plummeted with her credibility, and the polls suggest that the next federal election and, before that, Queensland’s March 24 state election, will decimate those two incumbent Labor governments.
Despite the unprecedented public attacks by former leader Simon Crean and former ALP national secretary Bob Hogg on their party leaders, both the Prime Minister and Mr Rudd are still pretending that the conflict is a media invention.
As one of Australia’s most senior journalists, Mungo MacCallum, observed recently, “Gillard is now being urged to step down by Darren Cheeseman, a humble backbencher from her home state of Victoria. Rudd is openly claiming to have rehabilitated himself in preparation for another go. And both sides are engaged in a vicious no-holds-barred campaign of leaks, smears and destabilisation. A confrontation can no longer be avoided, but even in the short term it is unlikely to bring peace in our time.”
If Gillard defeats Rudd in a Labor caucus ballot, she will continue to be undermined by her own ineptitude as much as by sniping from her party enemies and her own backbenchers who face electoral oblivion.
On the other hand, if Rudd defeats Gillard, the Greens and Independents who have given Julia Gillard the most marginal majority in the House of Representatives could walk away, bringing down the government. And even if they stick with Rudd, Gillard’s supporters would undoubtedly resume the destabilisation which forced his resignation as Prime Minister in 2010.
Despite all this, there are deeper currents at work behind the leadership struggle. The fact is that the federal Labor Government is deeply unpopular with the electorate because of the policies of both Rudd and Gillard.
Take the following examples, to mention only a few.
Labor squandered the Budget surplus it inherited in 2007 by wasting tens of billions of dollars, after the onset of the global financial crisis, in cash handouts to millions of people, then in “building the education revolution”, while educational standards in Australia have continued to go backwards.
The dismantling of the former Howard Government’s “tough love” approach to boatloads of arrivals from Indonesia has led to an influx of thousands of asylum-seekers on Christmas Island and other destinations off the north-west coast. Labor has abandoned the policy that Australia should have secure borders.
Billions of dollars have been spent on futile programs run by the Orwellian-titled Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and a plethora of other government-funded bodies, in a bid to stop climate change.
Labor’s restructuring of the industrial relations system has caused deep apprehension in business circles, at a time when business confidence remains subdued due to events overseas.
And at a time when thousands of jobs are being lost in such diverse industries as manufacturing, retailing and banking, the Federal Government is about to embark on the imposition of a new carbon tax and a mining tax which cumulatively will ratchet up the cost of electricity, cripple Australian manufacturing, and deliver a body blow to the industry which bankrolled Australia through the global financial crisis.
For those living in rural Australia, even the end of a 10-year drought in eastern Australia has not resolved the issues of access to water in the Murray-Darling Basin, the nation’s food bowl, while the supermarket duopoly continues to force down prices for many of those farmers who survived the drought years.
On social policy, the Gillard Government is apparently committed to putting a vote on same-sex marriage to the Parliament, after the ALP last year reversed a policy which had been in place since the party was formed in the 19th century.
It is now clear that Labor’s policy is being driven by extreme environmentalists in its own ranks, as well as the Greens and Independents who put it into power.
The fact is that on all these issues, Labor is no longer the party of the working class, or even the middle class, but rather, it is dominated by the radicalised intelligentsia, the offspring of the 1960s cultural revolution that transformed Western society.
Their agenda is fundamentally at odds with the aspirations of most Australians, and very nearly led to Labor’s defeat in the 2010 election, after only one term in office.
Despite some signs of soul-searching in Labor ranks, there is a distinct lack of awareness of the depth of the crisis of ideas inside the Labor Party.
Shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic will neither delay nor solve the party’s problems. Only a period in opposition will force a re-evaluation of the political, social and economic foundations of the party, and perhaps point to a way back.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.