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Gillard makes serious error of judgement

11 February 2012 2,816 views 2 Comments

JULIA Gillard’s misguided attempts to shore up support for her leadership have virtually guaranteed that she will not lead Labor to the next election, and may not survive until this year’s budget.

Her decision to break the written contract she signed with Andrew Wilkie is clearly driven by backbench disgruntlement with the mandatory pre-commitment scheme for poker machines demanded by Wilkie in return for his support after the 2010 election.

This was not some inconsequential agreement – it was an agreement struck by the Prime Minister to allow her to form government and to deliver a one-seat majority on the floor of the House of Representatives that enabled the passage of the government’s legislation.

The fact that Gillard was willing to betray Wilkie speaks volumes about her precarious hold on the Labor leadership.

In her desperation for short-term survival, Gillard has made a serious error of judgment.

There was already great cynicism about the Prime Minister’s lack of honesty, mostly due to her betrayal of Kevin Rudd and her infamous pre-election declaration ruling out a carbon tax. That negative perception has been reinforced once again by her broken commitment to Wilkie.

It is entirely counterproductive for her to attempt justification of this betrayal by arguing that Wilkie’s plan did not have broad support and she could not deliver on her promise.

She appears not to understand that is irrelevant.

After agreeing to terms with Wilkie and formally signing what is in effect a contract, she was honour-bound to make every possible effort at introducing legislation into the parliament.

If the legislation was defeated on the floor of the parliament, she could then argue that the numbers could not be delivered and that Wilkie shared part of the responsibility. It is now crystal clear that Gillard is more concerned about a short-term challenge to her leadership than she is about the survival of her government.

If they have not already, Labor backbenchers will quickly come to the realisation that Julia Gillard cannot lead the party to the next election.

It is simply untenable for any political party to be led by someone who is so widely regarded as untruthful and untrustworthy.

If Gillard remains as leader, the Coalition will be able to run campaigns on virtually every issue of concern to the electorate.

Imagine a campaign where the Coalition alleged that Gillard secretly planned to increase the carbon tax and levy it directly on households and Gillard responded with what would be interpreted as “there will be no carbon tax directly on households under the government I lead.”

In the world of brutal politics, there is no credible statement the Prime Minister could possibly make to counter these claims.

The Coalition would be free to run campaigns about income tax increases, cuts to health and education, poker machine reforms, wasteful spending and much more.

Every shadow minister would be able to raise issues within their portfolios where a Gillard Labor government would engage in either increased taxes or cuts to services.

Faced with a torrent of accusations, Prime Minister Gillard would ritualistically deny each and every one and while many accusations would not bite with the voting public, there would be numerous niggling doubts in the minds of many voters.

Every promise or denial will be seen through the prism of that commitment that, “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” The Coalition would be able to credibly say that Gillard was prepared to lie through her teeth about the carbon tax and is therefore prepared to lie through her teeth about every other issue.

This situation is simply untenable, and Labor MPs and senators must know they cannot possibly go to an election with a leader so fundamentally damaged in the public perception of her honesty and integrity.

This leaves two questions for the Labor caucus: when to remove Gillard as leader, and with whom to replace her.

Rumours have swirled around Canberra for some time that Labor backbenchers are actively seeking a new leader who is a “safe pair of hands”. That would appear to rule out Kevin Rudd for many of them.

The concern is that Rudd would provide Labor with a short-term and short-lived rebound in the polls but they could quickly end up in the same position as they are now with Gillard.

Bill Shorten has significant appeal but his current lack of experience hardly makes him a “safe pair of hands” to lead the federal Labor Party in 2012.

This leaves Stephen Smith as virtually the last man standing.

Smith, who usually appears solid and sure in the media, is widely regarded as having performed competently in the foreign affairs portfolio under the micro-managing of Rudd, but there are serious concerns about his performance as Defence Minister.

Many in the Defence establishment are furious at what they see as his politicisation of the Skype sex scandal at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

The report into that scandal is rumoured to be highly critical of Smith’s conduct. If so, it is little wonder that he has been sitting on it for weeks. The best way for a minister to distance him or herself from a damaging report is to move portfolios as quickly as possible and hand responsibility to the incoming minister.

The fact remains that Smith’s best hope to take over the leadership is for Rudd to unsuccessfully challenge Gillard and for him to come through as the compromise candidate.

But that strategy may be cast aside if Smith needs to evade the fallout of a report into his conduct.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, most recently the co-authored political satire Fools’ Paradise. The Weekend Australian, February 11-12, 2012, Inquirer p. 20

2 Comments »

  • Christian Kerr (author) said:

    Flawed pitch that never added up

    Kevin Rudd moved to the back bench to sit alongside Anthony Byrne during question time yesterday.

    LAST Thursday morning The Australian put Kevin Rudd’s support at 31 votes. When caucus members cast their vote yesterday, they had not budged.

    Rudd had won no support, despite the appearance of a Newspoll on Saturday that showed him preferred as leader of the ALP over Julia Gillard 53 to 30 per cent and the preferred leader of the nation over Tony Abbott 48 to 40 per cent and weekend Galaxy and Nielsen polls that told similar stories.

    A rock star reception in Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall on Saturday had convinced no caucus waverers. They all split the Prime Minister’s way.

    “Rudd can’t be too confident about his numbers,” former Labor leader Mark Latham said on Sky News in the wake of his startling 1am resignation press conference in Washington last Wednesday.

    That had left observers expecting a challenge, but also left Rudd’s intentions unclear.

    “The normal practice would be to resign and challenge in the one motion,” Latham explained, urging a closer examination of “Rudd’s form guide” for these Labor leadership contests. “He put his hand up in 2003, had eight or nine votes and dropped out,” Latham continued. “He put his hand up in 2005 when I left, had about a dozen votes and dropped out.

    “He won the leadership in 2006 off the back of Gillard’s numbers, his running mate — he probably only had a dozen, not a big amount — and in 2010 as a sitting prime minister he faced the humiliation of not even contesting a caucus ballot knowing he’d be heavily defeated. It was said he only had 20 votes, even though he’d been a winning Labor prime minister.”

    And yesterday the numbers did not go Rudd’s way.

    One Labor figure says Rudd had no new pitch to make. Unlike Paul Keating when he challenged a sitting prime minister, Rudd had occupied the Lodge before.

    Arguably, he was ambushed by Gillard while his campaign was only just developing momentum.

    Just days before, Rudd had responded to the YouTube posting of his foul-mouthed outtakes from the recording of a Chinese community greeting with a late-night appearance on Sky News that allowed him to tell the caucus and the electorate he had changed.

    He then headed off on a trip that was scheduled to take him to Mexico, the US and Britain. Happy snaps of him and Hillary Clinton on the first leg of his journey, the G20 meeting in Los Cabos, appeared. But just days into his travels, Gillard moved.

    At midday on Wednesday, The Australian reported she was set to sack her foreign minister on his return. A spill would be held to settle her position, but ministers said the Prime Minister was so confident in her numbers she would remove Rudd for “disloyalty”. A similar story appeared on news.com.au. Hours later Rudd resigned. But he did not declare.

    His Wednesday press conference was followed by another on Thursday morning, Australian time. “The reason for calling this press conference this morning is, as you know, I’ll be in the air for the next 24 hours or so returning to Australia,” he said. “Overnight I’ve had many conversations with caucus colleagues and with ministerial colleagues. I’m very pleased by and encouraged by the amount of positive support and encouragement of me to contest the leadership of the Australian Labor Party. I have many more calls still to make.”

    Rudd did not declare. He spoke to media at a stopover in Dallas later that day, then on his arrival in Brisbane on Friday morning. His formal announcement of a challenge did not come until Friday afternoon.

    But he put his pitch at the second Washington press conference. His colleagues, he said, had told him “they regard me as the best prospect to lead the Australian Labor Party successfully to the next elections, to save the Australian Labor Party at those elections and to save the country from the ravages of an Abbott government”.

    Whatever the case, both Rudd’s spiel and strategy were flawed.

    As yesterday’s figures showed, his campaign never gained momentum. And his loss has left him out in the cold.

    In Rudd’s absence overseas, his wife Therese Rein and daughter Jessica came out in his support. They were joined by veteran Labor campaign consultant and former lobbyist Bruce Hawker, who was in Rudd’s home town of Brisbane helping Anna Bligh’s re-election bid.

    Hawker soon emerged as a key member of Rudd’s team, appearing on Sky on Wednesday saying caucus members needed to ask themselves ‘Who is best positioned to lead us to a win against Tony Abbott?’.

    “I don’t think anyone should doubt Kevin Rudd’s strength and determination,” Hawker said.

    Hawker became the Rudd campaign spokesman. He was also the man behind the Saturday street walk that dominated that evening’s television news.

    ANU academic Norman Abjorensen, a veteran of frontline politics as both a political adviser and a journalist, calls it “a campaign the likes of which we’ve never seen before”.

    Rudd, Abjorensen says, took an internal party clash out from the backrooms of Canberra and into the public arena.

    Since he formally declared he was challenging for the leadership, the former foreign minister, Abjorensen believes, ran something similar to an American primary campaign, pitching to party powerbrokers by demonstrating his public support.

    “This is what we see in US politics,” Abjorensen says. “Saturday’s street walk in Brisbane was an extraordinarily orchestrated event that had all the hallmarks of a PR campaign. It had Bruce Hawker written all over it.

    “The images were clear. It was transmitting the message to the waverers or the undecided ‘Look at Kev out there. Look, he’s loved’.

    “It’s pretty basic stuff, but it can be powerful in the right context.”

    But there was more. Abjorensen says Rudd’s pitch to people power mirrors an unprecedented challenge to Labor power structures and traditions, saying in his pitch his leadership ambitions were “totally twinned to big reforms in the ALP”.

    Both challenges — the challenge to the Prime Minister and the challenge to the traditions of the party — missed the mark and have left Rudd stranded.

    Former NSW minister and now Labor historian Rodney Cavalier says he moved too early: “If Rudd had resigned and gone to the backbench he would have been in a far more formidable position,” Cavalier says. “He would have been formidable as a spectre. He was formidable as a spectre. He started to mess up with the insides of the Prime Minister’s head, but that has been broken and pretty much broken totally.”

    Long-term Rudd-watcher and executive director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University, Scott Prasser, is more blunt: “Rudd’s shot his bolt,” he says. “He’s finished.”

    Prasser says Rudd’s pitch was wrong: “He went public, too public, and was trying to use the rhetoric of people power that does not fit with the Labor Party or any political party in Australia.

    “It’s not the way we operate in Australia.”

    Prasser adds that caucus members would have found Rudd’s use of his family “unprecedented” and Hawker’s role in his leadership bid “inappropriate”.

    “He would have been better off having a John Faulkner-style person as his spokesman,” Prasser says, referring to the veteran NSW senator, former minister and leading light of the Left, often seen as a conscience of the party.

    Labor members would have been horrified by Rudd’s actions last week, he says. “No other minister has ever resigned overseas as a public act to get attention, which is what he did. He misused his position as foreign affairs minister in Washington to get attention. Caucus would have winced.”

    Another academic and observer of Queensland Labor, Griffith University emeritus professor of history and politics Ross Fitzgerald, sees yesterday’s vote as the final step in the breakdown of the relationship between Rudd and the party he once led to victory. “He wasn’t called Dr Death in Queensland for no reason,” Fitzgerald says of his bid to return to the leadership. “He was absolutely ruthless as an apparatchik in Queensland and he has proved himself to be equally ruthless now. He’s a narcissist, suffering from delusions of Ruddness and in the Labor pantheon he hardly counts.

    “He’s as unsatisfactory a Labor leader as Mark Latham, although in different ways,” Fitzgerald says. “I can’t see him coming back.”

    One influential Labor figure who asked not to be named says that the fact that Rudd challenged, let alone the platform he based his challenge on, shows the remoteness that always existed between him and the party. He believes neither will feel anything approaching warmth for the other again.

    Prasser agrees that the relationship between Rudd and Labor has irretrievably collapsed, but still believes it will not end in divorce.

    Rudd, Prasser imagines, will serve out his term, rather than resign from the parliament and force a by-election the minority government could well lose. He has enough of an eye on his place in history not to want to end up among Labor’s greatest villains.

    “It would be too much of a betrayal,” Prasser says. “He doesn’t want to be known as a rat.”

    But even if Rudd spends every day between now and the Queensland election on March 24 stuffing how-to-votes in letterboxes in Labor marginals, no one expects much in the way of rehabilitation.

    “I can’t see him making a comeback,” Fitzgerald says.

    Prasser adds: “He’s no longer a minister. The people who supported him in the ballot will fall away. He’s not going to be the centre of attention. He will be a backbencher. As a backbencher you can have a press conference every day at 12 o’clock and nobody will turn up for it.

    “I don’t think he’s got much standing now to do damage to the Prime Minister. It’s your boat now, Julia. Start steering.”
    The Australian, February 28, 2012

  • ALISON CALDWELL (author) said:

    Will Bob Carr help boost Labor’s appeal?
    ABC AM Saturday, March 3, 2012

    Those who know him well on both sides of politics say he’ll make a good representative for Australia on the international stage.

    The question is, can he help lift the Government’s standing in the opinion polls?

    Professor Ross Fitzgerald has written extensively about the Labor Party.

    He says choosing Bob Carr for Foreign Minister was inspired, but he’s not sure it’ll help the Prime Minister in the long run.

    Professor Fitzgerald is speaking here to Alison Caldwell.

    ROSS FITZGERALD: I think it’s a very good appointment, but whether it helps Julia Gillard is something else altogether again.

    I think the way that she appointed him further undermines her credibility with the Australian electorate.

    But if you’re asking me about Bob Carr, I just think he’ll be an excellent Foreign Minister.

    ALISON CALDWELL: Why do you say that?

    ROSS FITZGERALD: Well he’s a man of great sophistication, he’s got tremendous knowledge of international affairs. I couldn’t think of anyone better to be our Foreign Minister.

    ALISON CALDWELL: He’s very much into American politics; he’s a great student of American politics.

    ROSS FITZGERALD: And a great friend of Gore Vidal.

    ALISON CALDWELL: Indeed, and he’s an admirer of Henry Kissinger. Do you think that – I mean in terms of the region that Australia is in, do you think that could put him at a disadvantage?

    ROSS FITZGERALD: I wouldn’t have thought so. He’s a very strong supporter of China in some ways. He understands the region.

    The fact that he has a very warm relationship with America, surely is to our advantage. Although he has been quite critical of the Republican nominees for the president for example.

    ALISON CALDWELL: So if a Republican was to win the elections at the end of the year?

    ROSS FITZGERALD: If a Republican was to win the election at the end of the year, I’m sure he’d accommodate them.

    But the big question politically is, is it going to help Julia Gillard? And the manner of her appointment of Rudd is very, very dubious and will further undermine her credibility in the eyes of the Australian electorate.

    ALISON CALDWELL: Though, I mean it could be said that in the end she, whatever was happening earlier in the week, she prevailed and she got what she wanted, which was Bob Carr, Foreign Minister.

    ROSS FITZGERALD: But she said it was totally untrue that there were any overtures to Carr. It seems absolutely clear there’d been negotiations with Carr for days.

    ALISON CALDWELL: How influential do you think Bob Carr will be for Labor?

    ROSS FITZGERALD: Well as a senator he can be influential in the way that Senator John Faulkner was and is influential. But he won’t be playing a pivotal role in Australian politics; he’ll be working hard as a Foreign Minister. So whether he helps Gillard improve her position, I’m quite doubtful.

    ELIZABETH JACKSON: And that’s Professor Ross Fitzgerald speaking there to our reporter Alison Caldwell.