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Gordon Campbell on the Rudd vs Gillard contest

Gordon Campbell on the Rudd vs Gillard contest

In its last suicidal spasm this morning, the Australian Labor Party caucus seems certain to choose Julia Gillard to lead it to annihilation at the next election. True to form, Gillard and her supporters have been blaming almost all their failures of the last two years on challenger Kevin Rudd, for his – irony of ironies – alleged disloyalty. The Australian electorate, who has seen plenty of Gillard (and made up its own mind about her credibility) will be left watching on the sidelines as their clear preference – Rudd – gets hammered, and heads off to the back benches.

The only puzzle is why even on grounds of naked self interest, the Labor caucus isn’t making a choice that would be more likely to soften the blow, and see more of their MPs in marginal seats remaining in Parliament after the almost inevitable loss to Tony Abbott occurs in 18 months time. True, there is at least one poll today that suggests the unpopularity of Labor has finally hit the bottom of the trough, in that it was only six points behind the Abbott-led coalition in that particular poll. Yet an election victory after the electorate had been through sustained exposure once again to Gillard – whose own popularity continued to plummet by six points in the same poll - would be a quite extraordinary achievement.

The charge that Rudd has “destabilised” the Gillard government seems especially rich, given that the most destabilising event for Labor since it toppled John Howard was the U-turn on climate change. According to former Labor MP Maxine McKew, the main driver of that U-turn was Julia Gillard.

Gillard, in her first statement after taking over from Rudd, said ''a good government had lost its way''. Gillard was painting herself as the saviour, when in fact she had been a prime architect of the decision that caused a reversal in the fortunes of the Rudd government.

What was ''lost'' was Gillard's faith in the government's ability to prosecute the case for an emissions trading scheme. She wanted it junked, and from the beginning of 2010 never let up in putting the point. There was strong backing from Wayne Swan and Mark Arbib, the latter armed with focus group research showing concerns in New South Wales about electricity price increases.

Even before Parliament resumed for the year, Gillard was telling senior ministers that the ETS should be dropped because it was electoral poison. This was not the view held by others in the ministry, many of whom were prepared to fight the good fight on an issue that had been central to the government's election pitch in 2007. Some saw it as such a totemic issue for Labor that they argued for an early double-dissolution election. Had Rudd acted on the dissolution trigger, the government would have been re-elected comfortably.

The election option was still there as Gillard continued to wind up the pressure on Rudd to abandon the ETS. At some point the advocacy turned into a threat. It was made clear to Rudd that the survival of his government was conditional on his abandonment of the ETS. This was a case of a deputy shirt-fronting her leader with an ultimatum and forcing a decision that would come close to wrecking the government's environmental credibility.

The climate change backflip changed the public’s perception of the Rudd government virtually overnight. As McKew went on to point out, the episode was not only the biggest miscalculation of Rudd’s prime ministership, but one that puts the lie to the current campaign against him:

If Rudd is such an autocrat, how is it he allowed himself to be persuaded by his deputy? And on an issue that was central to his political persona?

McKew can of course, be written off as a disgruntled Rudd supporter who has blamed the Gillard coup for having contributed to the Labour loss in Bennelong in August 2010 that ended her own very promising political career.

Across the Tasman, analysts at the Australian newspaper are already calculating that a Gillard victory is inevitable, but winning will resolve few of her problems. Moreover, they have been assessing Rudd’s options for a second leadership bid after the next election, with such a bid being somewhat dependent on how close Rudd gets in today’s vote.

In Gillard's case there are many problems; even her supporters realise that. Record low opinion polls, for the party primary vote and her personal ratings. A challenger popular in the electorate if not inside the party room. A litany of poor judgment calls. Nervous MPs in marginal seats. A Left faction concerned about policy aspects of Labor's agenda, not least asylum-seekers. And courtesy of this past week, a number of disagreements and policy controversies that have been publicly aired, including claims that Gillard demanded Rudd drop the ETS when he was leader. That arguably damages her credibility selling the carbon tax…..

[If] Rudd's challenge nets him 35 or more votes out of a caucus of 102 his case for a second strike at a timing of his own choosing will be substantial, at least in Rudd's mind. Even if Rudd's campaign fails miserably, and he nets only about 25 votes, that's still a quarter of the Labor caucus prepared to vote against its leader.

In other words even if Julia Gillard wins today, she loses. As for the Australian public… Their choice is between continued governance under one of the most unpopular prime ministers they’re ever had, or a switch to what what looks being one of the most conservative administrations in its history. The Lucky Country seems to have just about run out of its inordinate share of luck…

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