The Australian Labor Party had another very ordinary week last week. They have had a lot of ordinary weeks over the last two-and-a-half years, but the events of last week made that period of time for Labor one that they would surely rather forget. The ALP have also had two other periods of time they would rather forget, so the spill which never went ahead was not exactly a unique event. Labor has now had three leadership spills since coming to office in 2007. The first one was successful and the last two unsuccessful for very different reasons.
The spill which never was, happened to be truly bizarre. One of Rudd’s detractors, Simon Crean called on the Prime Minister to bring about a leadership spill and in the process got himself sacked from the ministry. It appeared he was trying to bring the issue to a head at the very least and quite possibly attempting to portray at least a facade of unity. Why else would one of Julia Gillard’s most vocal supporters stick his neck out like that?
There were some definite winners and losers last week. Prime Minister Julia Gillard came out of the botched spill itself a winner, but still damaged nonetheless. But there were other big winners last week and they were conservatism and liberalism. Simon Crean was obviously a big loser from what transpired. His ministerial colleagues who have backed Kevin Rudd since he was deposed have also paid a price, except for Anthony Albanese. And of course the last week will take a heavy toll on the Labor Party.
Julia Gillard again emerged victorious from a period of destabilisation. At each attempted coup the PM has triumphed. That in itself makes the Prime Minister a winner, but unfortunately for the Labor Party, it leaves them without electoral hope.
Conservatism is clearly a winner after last week. The Coalition returning to government becomes even more of an electoral certainty than it was the week before the failed leadership ballot. Voters will certainly crave government stability and willingly forego a more policy energetic government after the last three years.
Liberalism is a winner on two fronts. Obviously the Liberal Party does subscribe, in part, to the liberal tradition, even though the party has long been hijacked by the conservative ideology. So of course liberalism is, in part, on an electoral winner.
Liberalism also wins for another reason. Senior Labor MP and now former minister Martin Ferguson gave a considered speech about the future of the ALP upon resigning his post. He said that the party must regain the reforming mantle of the Hawke and Keating governments. Both these governments, though Labor in brand, can be considered to have a not insignificant association with the liberal tradition.
Some talented ministers and whips have now resigned their posts, all because of their association with the Rudd camp. This seems counter-intuitive when there has been absolutely no question of ministerial wrongd0ing by any of those in question. They simply backed a man with an ego who, when push came to shove, failed to turn up. If showing unity is the game, then there should have been no resignations, whether they were pushed or took the plunge themselves.
In the case of Simon Crean it is not easy to argue he should have been spared. Sacking Simon Crean on the day was the only option available to Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, but she could consider bringing him back and that would not cost any political capital.
It is quite possible, even likely, that those ministers who have resigned do not wish to serve under Prime Minister Julia Gillard. But we will likely never know.
Some healing needs to take place within Labor to save some seats at the September 14 poll, but that cannot happen with former ministers heading to the back-bench.
That healing and quest for unity needs to go deeper than Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard electioneering together in August and September and it needs to start today.
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.
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.
As speculation continues as to just how much support former Foreign and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has in the Labor caucus, the thoughts of some turn to what major portfolios may be granted under either the Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard or perhaps Kevin Rudd.
It is increasingly likely that Kevin Rudd would not take back the Prime Ministership at the leadership spill which occurs on Monday. But it is still possible, were Rudd to pull around 40+ votes of the party room that a second later ballot could be successful a la Keating in the 1991.
Either way that will not stop me speculating just who might get some of the major portfolios vacated or made untenable in this ugly, toxic and likely terminal battle.
As already said, it seems very likely at this early stage, even before Kevin Rudd returns home to Australia that Julia Gillard will win the ALP leadership vote on Monday morning at 10am. That certainly leaves the vacated Foreign Affairs portfolio available to either a strong talent or a key factional backer or perhaps someone with experience in a similar area. Maybe all three.
I strongly believe, and have been stating on Twitter for days now, given his strong backing of the Prime Minister in the media in recent times, becoming the first to outwardly condemn the actions of Kevin Rudd, that Simon Crean will be the successful candidate for the position of Foreign Minister.
Not only do I base my views on that support, but Simon Crean is one of the most experienced members of the ALP party room, having even been one of the leaders of the party this millenium.
More importantly, the current Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts was Minister for Trade, ironically under Kevin Rudd. Trade is a very closely related portfolio to Foreign Affairs and indeed shares the same departmental home, so it wouldn’t be an unnatural step to make.
It is far from certain, with the Prime Minister calling for unity after a vote where she is expected to win, that those Ministers who spoke outwardly in support of Kevin Rudd would be dumped from their portfolios. Indeed unity would probably dictate that they were kept in those positions. However, in the unlikely event they are forced out, that would leave spots for junior backers, including parliamentary secretaries, to take their spots.
Speculation then turns to what positions would be gained by Rudd backers in the event of a successful spill now or in the future. I am not so sure there would be pardons for some of the key Gillard backers in the ministry were Rudd to become PM again.
I think Wayne Swan may be an immediate casualty along with Gillard who would return to the backbench of her own volition, though action against the former may not be a politically smart move.
Of the already announced key backers, I would not mind betting that Chris Bowen would be a candidate for Deputy Prime Minister and add to that the Treasury portfolio, mirroring the situation at the moment where Wayne Swan has both responsibilities.
There might also be some blood from some of the other portfolios, with Gillard supporters like Crean and Conroy possibly losing their responsibilities or being demoted.
Either way, Gillard or Rudd, it does not look like there would be wholesale changes as being so close to an election it would not give new ministers time to slot into roles properly in which they may not have had much background in their time in politics. Above all else, too much blood and collateral damage would not look like a party united.
It’s fun to speculate isn’t it?