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The Big Spill: All the Wash-up

This morning the ballot for the ALP leadership overwhelmingly confirmed that the ALP want Julia Gillard to continue to be the Prime Minister to take the Labor Party to the next election. This comes after a prolonged period of terrible polling dating back almost to the August 2010 federal election where the ALP Government swiftly lost its majority after Gillard wrested the Prime Ministership.

The Prime Minister won the leadership ballot today 71 votes to 31 for Kevin Rudd, a strong victory, though one that will continue to raise questions about the ongoing unity of the Gillard Labor Government nonetheless.

The lead-up to this big day was incredibly ugly, one of the most de-stabilising times for any party in my living memory (27 years).

The ugly, strong and vitriolic words started to accelerate a week or more before the Minister for Foreign Affairs decided, at a snap press conference at 1:30am in Washington DC to resign his posting, with Simon Crean coming out and declaring open warfare on Mr Rudd.

Those hurtful and damaging words and claims only intensified after that early morning press conference which signified the likelihood of a leadership challenge being brought to the Member for Griffith. This challenge came late last week with the Prime Minister calling for a spill with the former PM on his way home to announce his future, which was always going to be a tilt at the Prime Ministership.

Simon Crean continued his strong words against the former Prime Minister with notable contributions, for all the wrong reasons from Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy, Nicola Roxon and others.

The Rudd camp could quickly count in its corner the likes of Kim Carr, Doug Cameron, Martin Ferguson and Robert McClelland, both of whom came out publicly and supported Mr Rudd. They were followed slowly by Chris Bowen and in an emotional weekend announcement, Leader of the House Anthony Albanese.

It was very clear, almost from the outset of the spill announcement, that the Rudd camp would struggle to get close to the numbers required to take back the leadership of the ALP Government. The Rudd camp thought that they would have around 40, but of course ended up on the comparatively low 31 votes.

So with the vote now dispensed with and the hostilities finally quelled, at least from the public view, what happens now for the Gillard Government, to borrow a phrase, in “moving forward”?

This afternoon one of the factional heavyweights, Mark Arbib resigned his post as Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Sport and as a Senator for NSW, citing the need to heal the party and also family reasons for his shock decision. This will lead to at least one new face in the Gillard ministry.

More importantly, the Government need to find a new Foreign Minister, with Craig Emerson, the Trade Minister acting in the portfolio until a replacement is announced. Dr Emerson was in the frame for the job in the wake of the Rudd resignation from the post, but you would think him acting in the portfolio means that someone else would be chosen to take on the role full-time.

I have maintained for over a week now that Simon Crean was behind the scenes angling for the job in the event of Rudd going to the back-bench or leaving the parliament altogether. I said this for dual reasons, one that Simon Crean was the first to come out strongly against Kevin Rudd for backgrounding and causing de-stabilisation and two, because Mr Crean has had a long history in parliament and was Trade Minister under Kevin Rudd in fact, a portfolio under the same department as the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

On the Foreign Affairs front still, the other option being put forward in the media is for Stephen Smith to go back to the role that he held under the leadership of Kevin Rudd, though this seems unlikely as he has much work left to do in defence.

The Prime Minister will also need to work out whether she will replace any of the ministers that spoke out against her leadership and who, if any Ms Gillard would replace them with.

On that front, one Rudd backer, the Infrastructure and Transport Minister and Leader of the House, Anthony Albanese in his teary, heartfelt speech offered his resignation from the front bench which was not accepted by the Prime Minister. This signals that the Gillard Government will try to portray a sense of unity within the Government.

Other Ministers, like Robert McClelland, Chris Bowen, Martin Ferguson  and Kim Carr, all Rudd backers, according to some commentators, may face demotion or replacement in a reshuffle in the wake of this damaging time in the ALP. The former and the latter both faced demotion in the last ministerial reshuffle which occurred last year.

It is arguable that for the sake of maintaining the last shred of a facade of unity within the ALP caucus that Gillard should keep all of the key Rudd backers there in their respective places.

This challenge today has also shown that there is a not insubstantial percentage of the Labor caucus that think the Prime Minister is doing a bad enough job to be replaced with the peoples choice, Kevin Rudd and consequently does not shut the door on Rudd or another candidate taking the job if poor polls continue in the election year.

The damage is far from over and the Liberal/National Party Coalition will certainly be out to capitalise on all the material provided to them over the last few weeks in particular and undoubtedly events back to the successful leadership spill in 2010 and the goverment are certainly pedalling up a very steep hill indeed.

Where to Next for the Member for Griffith?

Kevin Rudd has now resigned as Foreign Minister to become again the Member for Griffith but the story is far from a conclusion and his resignation speech left more questions than answers. Basically his speech left open two possibilities, a challenge from the back bench in the near future or his complete resignation from the parliament.

In his speech from Washington the outgoing Foreign Minister said that he would be consulting his family upon his return to Brisbane sometime on Friday. This statement leaves open the possibility that he may quit the parliament, forcing a by-election. As I said in a post earlier today, this could see Griffith go to the Liberal Party in a by election, making political life all the more tenuous for Labor, like it was just a few short months ago.

In that very same sentence in the speech from Kevin Rudd, he also indicated that he would consult his parliamentary colleagues in the coming days as to his future as well. This could mean one of two things: one that he is seeking to mount a challenge or challenges from the back bench where he will be even more free to cause discontent within the party or, as I just outlined, these consultations may lead to him deciding to quit the parliament. If he did decide to quit parliament, this would be extraordinary from someone whom many see as having an insurmountable amount of ego.

There was one final element of the speech pointing to a possible challenge, when Mr Rudd spoke about the party needing to decide who was best placed to defeat Tony Abbott at the next election. Tellingly, the person best placed to defeat Tony Abbott at the next election, according to polls for a long time, is one K Rudd.

The only sure thing is that this saga will continue until at least Monday or Tuesday, with Friday, Saturday and Sunday turning out to be must watch days in Australian politics. However, my money is on the fun not being over yet and I wouldn’t mind betting a Keating style tilt at the leadership being a possibility now. Only time will tell.

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