21 February 2012
By Dr Zareh Ghazarian
The current Gillard prime ministership now appears to be, as one backbencher described it on the weekend, “terminal”. The constant speculation about the top job is harming Labor and party strategists are clearly looking to stop the rot.
For many in Labor’s parliamentary wing, the question is who should lead them to the next election.
Should it be Julia Gillard who had the unenviable task of trying to govern from a minority position? Negotiating with the cross benchers in order to form government in the first place was no mean feat. Furthermore, Ms Gillard succeeded in implementing the carbon tax and recently implemented a means test for the private health insurance rebate.
Notwithstanding the electoral backlash and claims of deception, especially concerning the carbon tax, Ms Gillard has proved herself able to bring about significant policy changes. It must therefore be causing Labor insiders a great deal of concern that the Prime Minister, and her government in general, has been unable to present themselves in a more favourable way to the electorate.
If not Gillard, should it be Rudd taking up his old job again? This would be a remarkable return for a man who was dumped by his own party in 2010. Back then, however, many in the party saw Rudd as a micro-manager and difficult to deal with. A recent Four Corners episode highlighted the concerns many had with his leadership. And, as though to remind those who had forgotten, an expletive-filled video leaked on the internet showed that Rudd could become a bit of a hot-head. Returning to Rudd may therefore be unappealing to some Labor MPs.
Arguably, it is the phalanx of opinion polls that have brought about the current leadership debate in the Labor Party. The polls, which regularly show Labor languishing with about 30 per cent support, suggest that voters have turned off and are no longer listening to the government.
But would a leadership showdown actually change the party’s fortunes? On the one hand, it would once and for all get the leadership issue off the political agenda and allow the government to get on with the job of governing.
On the other hand, however, it would make the Labor Party look like it was treating the office of prime minister as its plaything, installing and removing leaders in the quest for popularity. If comments by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh on the weekend were anything to go by, voters would prefer Labor to sort out its questions about leadership sooner rather than later.
The Labor Party may be pondering other issues that will come about as fallout from a leadership spill. If Gillard was to win, she would carry on leading a seemingly divided party and be constantly open to public criticisms about her performance from Rudd supporters. If Rudd was to win, a question to consider would be how voters would respond to a re-heated prime minister who was overthrown by his own party in the first instance.
Perhaps the climate is now open for someone other than Gillard or Rudd to lead Labor. Names that regularly feature on the bookmakers’ boards include Greg Combet and Bill Shorten. Both men came into the party with the view of making a long-term contribution to Labor’s time in government.
Based on factional machinations, it would appear that Mr Shorten would be the best placed out of the pair to make a move. But if he was to present himself as a third candidate, he risks spending political capital that he may want to keep for another day. Furthermore, if he was to challenge and win the leadership, the aforementioned polls would suggest he faces an up-hill battle to avoid leading the party to a great loss. If he was to become leader and take the party to a loss Mr Shorten could become a bit of a spent force within a matter of months. With this in mind, it could be the case that he and perhaps others, elect to keep their powder dry and be spectators in the Gillard versus Rudd clash.
Clearly, the ALP is in a bind, but the constant barrage of speculation suggests the question of leadership must now be dealt with, one way or another.
Dr Zareh Ghazarian is a lecturer within the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University.