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Fitzgibbon Airs the Obvious and Again Opens Wide the Leadership Question

Leadership rumblings: they’re like a perennial thing in politics these days unless it seems you’ve had the same Prime Minister or Premier in for more than a term or so and doing consistently well. Comments last night from Chief Government Whip, Joel Fitzgibbon, whilst not explicitly suggesting or admonishing Julia Gillard to depart from the top job have added fuel to the leadership fire. This fire began smouldering basically on the day Ms Gillard snatched the leadership from Kevin Rudd 2 years ago with the public not taking particularly kindly, especially in Queensland, to the move to oust Rudd from office. Throw in an array of political and policy failures along the way, some neglected under Kevin Rudd and not dealt with or attacked in the wrong way by Julia Gillard and that inferno is now well and truly alight.

The appearance of Joel Fitzgibbon, a key Gillard-backer just months ago during the February leadership spill brought on by the Prime Minister on Q&A raised not just the question of who would be leader at the next election, Gillard, Rudd or a third candidate, but also exactly what qualities and appeal that leader would need to possess to be electorally enticing.

From the outset, it is important to point out that the next election for Labor, despite leadership choice will surely be a lost cause for the ALP. Not only will it be a loss for the government, but on polling numbers for months on end, it has the makings of an epic defeat where the Labor Party could be all but wiped out in Queensland.

To lose an MP or two in Queensland, without gaining any elsewhere would be a big enough worry for the ALP Government so on the nose with the public and enough to seal their fate. But the government also look likely to have trouble saving seats in New South Wales too which due to it’s population has a number of seats on offer that the Coalition failed to grab, but could easily have won in 2010.

Staying with Prime Minister Gillard will almost certainly lead to a massive defeat, with the current Prime Minister seen by the public as the face of the credibility crisis that the Labor Party faces at the present time. Out of the three leadership options of Gillard, Rudd or anyone but Rudd and Gillard it is the one likely to lead to the biggest electoral defeat.

Were Labor to go with the second option, a return to Rudd, they would need to mend the massive wounds caused by the Rudd-Gillard spat which has been continuing even since the PM secured 2/3 support of her party room in the February ballot for the ALP leadership. That would mean countless ministers either resigning their posts and as they said at the time, refusing to serve under Kevin Rudd or it would mean a reconciliation of sorts between these senior figures and the reinstated PM. The latter would be hard for the public to buy with the harsh words splashed across the news just months ago and the former would just add to the electoral rot.

That said, in spite of the immense problems a Rudd return would bring, it would serve at the moment as the best option that the ALP have to at the very least save some of the furniture and perhaps do a bit more than that. But it would also give the Liberal and National Party much more electoral fuel to run with and ultimately likely still end up with a Labor electoral loss.

This is where Mr Fitzgibbon’s comments about populism mattering in politics come to the fore. Kevin Rudd is by far the most popular person in politics in Australian in just about any poll that is realised and that is despite the Opposition under Tony Abbott enjoying such an extensive lead in the race for The Lodge. It is true though that a Rudd return has been shown to translate into a winning position for the ALP but this would have to be accompanied by policy backdowns and reversals at the very least.

The idea of populism mattering in politics doesn’t just apply to leadership too. Populist politics as far as policy development and implementation goes is also smart politically, at least in limited use over ideologically pure politics and is common practice of just about any democratic government anywhere in the world.

A third candidate would probably be the most disastrous option with none of the floated alternatives, be it Stephen Smith, Bill Shorten, Simon Crean or otherwise polling anywhere near competitive in preferred leader stakes. It would be best to save one of these candidates until after the election to lead the Labor Party in a process of rebuilding rather than to waste them on an election they would lose and not admirably.

All in all it looks at least for the foreseeable future that the government will persevere with Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, but you would have to think that Kevin Rudd or a third candidate, regardless of the pitfalls are still options that are being canvassed, surely with electability being foremost on the collective mind of the caucus.

Labor have a lot of questions to ask inwardly of themselves over the next 12 months before the 2013 election but basically every answer will be a completely negative one with the most important question then being “what do we do to help put us in the best position to rebuild in a fast and efficient manner”. Also, a little dose of populism despite the ugliness of the term in politics might just help a little.

Question Time Ahead of Time

The life of this tense, predictable and too unpredictable 43rd parliament enters another week as it screams even closer to the long winter recess with this week and then another two week sitting period left in June before over a months break. But for now there is still another 3 weeks of sitting before the parliamentarians and viewers of it get some respite from the rowdiness and almost formulaic approach to Question Time that has emerged over a period of time. Our parliamentarians might be having a winter break from parliament, but they won’t be going into political hibernation, the thirst for power and political momentum precludes that.

As always there is a small combination of areas which the Coalition will use in their pursuit of the Gillard Government during Question Time. It is quite likely to be full-on attack strategy today in the hour and a bit of Question Time, though shock and awe it will not be because the subjects of focus have been discussed and debated for some time in the broader political debate.

As has been said previously, the carbon price is nearing commencement, due to come into effect on the 1st of July, pretty much just a month away and will likely be the major focus during Question Time, perhaps, though this is the slightly unpredictable factor, being the matter of the focus of most Opposition questions.

Events surrounding Craig Thomson, the MP for Dobell are also likely to bear some focus during Question Time from the Coalition despite the fact that the subject and avenues of action around it have been exhausted and this goes to the very nature of this minority government with power being the main game in the halls of Canberra.

Leadership and confidence is also quite likely to enter the Question Time debate with whispers flaring up over the weekend, thanks to a policy announcement by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen on Friday which has brought divisions in the caucus out into the sunshine again.

There were also reports over the weekend in relationship to the leadership issue that Joel Fitzgibbon, the Chief Government Whip, a Gillard supporter had openly been counting numbers for a Rudd return to the Prime Ministership, a post he lost so unceremoniously.

Further to these areas of debate, a question or two, perhaps more to mix things up and keep them slightly different may well be on the believability of the predicted budget surplus and the spending contained within the budget.

A question or questions from the Abbott-led Opposition in relation the operation of the Fair Work Act, as well as Fair Work Australia, not in relation to the Craig Thomson/HSU matter will also be a distinct possibility.

The ALP Government, for its part will almost certainly continue its effectively sole focus since the budget and that is, selling the budget. The government will use the Dorothy Dixer to attempt selling aspects of the budget that will provide low and middle income earners with extra money for educating their kids and for their families.

The Government may choose to talk about the Clean Energy Future (read, carbon tax, carbon price) but this is likely to have much less of a focus given the controversial nature of the policy and is likely to focus on the compensation package provided in an attempt to blunt the inevitable costs of such a policy.

Events will be borne out from 2pm today and they are not for the faint-hearted.  Indeed only the masochistic political wonks around this fair rock of ours should delve into the frustrating wonder that is Question Time. But seriously, politics is really cool.

Joel Fitzgibbon Has it Almost Right on Afghanistan

One time Defence Minister and now Chief Government Whip, Joel Fitzgibbon today uttered the awkward but necessary reality that some Australian troops, probably special forces, may and should remain in Afghanistan well after the already stated withdrawl date of 2014. These comments come less than a day after Taliban militants struck urban areas across Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, attacking government buildings and diplomatic missions as well as a NATO facility.

The government have already stated that the majority of Australian troops will be coming home within the next two years, but that there is a real possibility that elite soldiers may remain well after the planned withdrawal date.

Mr Fitzgibbon, on his return from visiting the NATO headquarters in Brussels, stated that the attacks which were quelled today after more than half a day of fighting proved that “the peace in Afghanistan is at best a fragile one”. This is very true, whilst the attacks  in the major urban cities of Afghanistan have been rare in recent years, aside from a similar one last year, the fact that they are still occurring and not being smothered, or even discovered beforehand is a cause for major concern regarding the real level of readiness of Afghan security services post combat troop withdrawal.

At the outset it is important to note that the ongoing effort in Afghanistan will be one more of harm minimisation as opposed to the ideal outcome of crushing Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The events over the last 24 hours or so provide some evidence that a greater level return of troops to the major cities is a necessity both to train and supplement Afghan police and army stationed in these cities.

The attacks also point to the need for greater border security, particularly around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas where, in the worst kept secret of the conflict, many Taliban fighters are known to have fled and to have even been welcomed by elements of the military and intelligence community in the neighbouring country.

Greater intelligence efforts of both the Afghan and international community need to be deployed into these border regions to help identify, prosecute or eliminate border crossings by known Taliban fighters and this kind of intelligence building and effort cannot occur overnight as many members of the Taliban may just wait out international forces before returning to the country when it is safer for them to do so. In the case of intelligence cooperation, an ongoing cooperation between Afghanistan and particularly US intelligence services is a necessity.

Where Fitzgibbon starts going wrong is suggesting that, in his view the mentoring task force would have returned home by the end of 2014, like the artificial timetable created suggests. If any part of the Australian commitment had to remain in Afghanistan post 2014, it predominantly should be those tasked with mentoring the Afghan National Army and police. It is the security forces that we as a nation have been partially responsible for mentoring that weren’t ready yesterday wasn’t it?

It is certain that the security situation in Afghanistan is tense and that the threat of combatants returning from Pakistan through the porous borders is a certainty, regardless of the timing of an exit and needs to be responded to with continued security and intelligence cooperation between nations. The question is, will a war weary and debt-ridden international community be able to stomach continued commitment to peace and security in Afghanistan? Equally so, will the Afghan Government, increasingly weary of the international presence and occasional misadventure be happy for this to continue to occur? That is far from definite.

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