Gillard makes serious error of judgement
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