Caucus fed up with Gillard’s wild goose chase
AT some point soon the penny will drop for most of the federal Labor caucus. Julia Gillard will not be leading them out of the wilderness into which she has taken them.
Like a doomed traveller lost in the desert, the Prime Minister is on a constant search for the oasis that might deliver her from danger, but her flawed judgment constantly takes her off in pursuit of yet another mirage.
Thus far, Gillard’s dispirited colleagues have trudged along behind her, glumly content with her constant reassurances that things will soon turn around.
But there are only so many times that parliamentarians will follow a leader through false promises of salvation.
Political leaders under threat traditionally resort to three tactics as they struggle to retain their grip on power.
The first tactic is to send subtle or not so subtle messages to rivals that there is no need to challenge for the leadership because retirement is imminent.
John Howard played this card superbly, time and again holding off any challenge from Peter Costello, who appeared so duped by this tactic that for years he did not bother to organise numbers.
However, this strategy works only where rivals believe that the leader’s retirement is a possibility, which generally applies to longer-serving or older leaders. Gillard has ruled out standing aside and her behaviour indicates that she intends to fight to the political death and is prepared to take her party down with her.
The second tactic is to undermine the legitimacy of anyone seen as a threat. One of the perennial favourites is to “reward” rivals with demanding and potentially career-killing portfolios such as defence or immigration. It is no coincidence that Stephen Smith and Chris Bowen hold these portfolios. Both have been touted as potential leadership contenders.
Bowen must feel particularly aggrieved to be the public face of the border protection and asylum-seeker fiasco that is arguably one of the greatest policy failures in a generation. The fact is that Gillard drafted Labor’s policy when she was opposition immigration spokeswoman, but it is Bowen who is taking the blame for its failure.
Strategic leaks are also often employed against rivals, with confidential policy discussions inside cabinet having the greatest effect.
Gillard was a victim of such leaks during the 2010 election campaign when it was revealed she had argued against pension increases, as there were no votes in it for Labor. Reports also claim that, such was her lack of interest in national security issues, she would skip national security subcommittee meetings and send her “bodyguard” in her place.
All highly damaging claims and no doubt the Prime Minister is now keeping tabs on statements made by her rivals in cabinet.
Attacks against others inside their own party are usually done far more covertly as leaders strive to be seen as working to achieve unity. However, that rule was thrown out the window earlier this year when Gillard unleashed on her nemesis Kevin Rudd a vicious character assassination.
Never mind that Rudd was overseas and on duty as her foreign minister; numerous frontbenchers lined up to vilify him. Several senior figures in the federal Labor government, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, publicly criticised Rudd for his autocratic, obscene and chaotic management style when in the Lodge.
Subsequent opinion polls indicate that the tactic largely failed to dent Rudd’s popularity, but it has provided the Coalition with a treasure trove of material for election campaign advertising should Rudd return to the leadership.
The third strategy of leaders under pressure is to urge their colleagues to hold their nerve because good times are supposedly “just around the corner”. The idea is that Australians will learn to tolerate Gillard as Prime Minister and the primary vote will increase by the 8 per cent to 10 per cent necessary to keep Labor in the game. This is the tactic Gillard has used most extensively, although it is hard to conceive that any of her colleagues still believe in miracles.
Since her disastrous decision to break her pre-election promise to not introduce a carbon tax, Gillard and her supporters have predicted numerous turnings in the polls. During the parliamentary debate on the carbon tax in the lead-up to the vote last October, the Labor caucus was assured that, after the legislation was passed, the public debate would turn in their favour, and that Tony Abbott’s pledge to repeal the tax would backfire. The polls did not improve after the vote.
Gillard set a new milestone of the May budget when people would see cold hard cash in their bank accounts in the form of carbon tax compensation. Yet the polls actually worsened for Labor in the wake of the budget, and so Gillard came up with yet another turning point of July 1 when the carbon tax came into effect. Gillard said the Opposition Leader’s “hysterical fear campaign” would then be exposed.
With the movement in the polls still within the margin of error and no significant gains in sight for Labor, Gillard has resorted to assuring her colleagues that it will be several months before things turn around and that they should not expect a sudden revival. These self-imposed, movable deadlines make Gillard appear increasingly desperate.
Fearful of a coup before the carbon tax came into force, the Gillard camp reportedly begged for one last chance to prove that she can turn around the bad polling. Even though many of Gillard’s colleagues have backed her up to now because they find it hard to support the return of Rudd, there can be little doubt that an increasing number are aware that they are being led on a misguided search for the elusive path back to electoral popularity.
When the end comes for Gillard’s leadership, it will be swift and brutal because that is the way of Labor. But believe me, the inevitable knock on the door is not too far away.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books.
The Weekend Australian August 4-5, 2012, Inquirer, p 18