PLEASE NOTE: The following editorial piece was written before News Weekly went to print on June 26, a few hours before Julia Gillard lost the leadership of the Labor Party after a leadership spill.
In a sense, the ongoing speculation about a leadership challenge to Julia Gillard by Kevin Rudd is an irrelevancy. Both Gillard and Rudd support the policies which have brought Labor to its knees, including its extravagantly wasteful spending, its imposition of the carbon tax and mining tax, its climate change agenda, and its failure to deal with the flood of boat-people from Indonesia.
But, given the high level of personal disenchantment with Julia Gillard, it is probably inevitable that disaffected Labor voters and much of the left-wing media, who fear the defeat of a Labor government and the patronage it dispenses, would cast around for any alternative — even the person forced to resign as Prime Minister three years ago.
Gillard’s failure to admit to any Labor failures, and her attempts to reintroduce the gender issue — including the “Women for Gillard” campaign, the announcement of an inquiry into workplace discrimination against working mothers and her reference to her rivals as males with blue ties — has led to a further collapse in support for her leadership.
Even her hardcore feminist support-base has been unconvinced. They have reminded the public that, earlier this year, Gillard shafted a long-term Labor senator from the Northern Territory, Trish Crossin, in order to support an indigenous candidate, Nova Peris, who until then had not even been a member of the party. Similarly, Gillard is currently supporting a male candidate for the safe Labor seat of Batman, Victoria, ahead of a high-profile woman, ACTU president Ged Kearney.
Yet after weeks of frenzied media speculation, targeted “leaks” and a widely-publicised national pre-election campaign by Kevin Rudd, it seems that Julia Gillard will serve out her term as Prime Minister, despite Labor’s disastrous standing in the opinion polls.
For months, the polls have been telling Labor MPs and senators that they face a wipe-out in September’s election, with Labor’s primary vote below 30 per cent nationally, and the Coalition having a lead of around 14 to 16 per cent on a two-party preferred basis.
In states such as Queensland and Western Australia, Labor’s parliamentary representation could be almost eliminated, while it faces heavy losses in New South Wales, particularly in Labor’s heartland in the western suburbs of Sydney.
The same polls have repeatedly said that if Julia Gillard were replaced by Kevin Rudd — the man she ousted as Prime Minister months before the 2010 election — Labor’s prospects could immediately recover … and it might even win September’s election.
What stands in the way of Kevin Rudd’s return to the Lodge? There are three issues:
First, a number of senior ministers, including the Treasurer Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy, Stephen Smith and Craig Emerson, fell out with Rudd years ago, and will not serve in a Rudd government. A number of junior ministers are expected to join them.
Added to this, a number of others led by party elder Simon Crean, who resigned from the Gillard ministry after Rudd failed to contest the leadership early in 2013, believe that Kevin Rudd has failed the test of leadership, and could never be trusted again.
This means that Mr Rudd, if returned to the prime ministership, would lead a seriously weakened and deeply divided government into the election.
Second, some members of the Labor caucus believe that, since Kevin Rudd returned to the backbench in February 2012, he has destabilised the Gillard government through backgrounding journalists and media “leaks”.
This view was expressed most forcefully by former Labor leader, Mark Latham, on ABC television’s Q&A program, and repeated on Sydney radio station 2UE.
Latham said, “Let’s make it absolutely clear. Rudd knows that every time he gets in the media, he knocks Gillard a notch or two down in the polls. This is deliberate, an absolute recharge of what happened in 2010…. Some people wanted to expel him for that, and maybe they should have, because what we have now is a deliberate re-run of that sabotage that we saw three years ago.”
Latham described recent events as “the disintegration of the modern Labor party”.
Finally, there is a widely-held view that the replacement of Rudd as prime minister in his first term in government by factional leaders set a dangerous precedent which should never be repeated.
If Gillard had led a strong and successful government, the factional leaders who were responsible for Rudd’s demise in 2010 would have been vindicated. The fact that she has failed, and her standing is now lower than Rudd’s was in 2010, inevitably reflects on their poor judgment and credibility.
The last time federal Labor faced electoral oblivion was in 1975, when Gough Whitlam urged voters to “maintain their rage” at his dismissal. They didn’t. But, even then, Labor was united behind its leader.
The present impasse, in which the federal Labor government is deeply divided but cannot resolve the issue, is unprecedented in modern Labor history.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.