Having for the first time been able to log in at home, I thought it worthy to talk about Julia Gillard’s government in the historical context of leadership coups and their consequences.
Previously, I described Gillard’s government as being in deep and deepening trouble. I won’t cover that in one post. However, the problem logging into my blog has had an unintended consequence: it has rendered the recent federal budget irrelevant.
And politically, irrelevant it is. The issues with Gillard’s government are identical after the budget to what they were before. Reinforced, but identical.
Looking through the history of federal government in Australia, what happened in the ALP in 2010 is an anomaly.
Since the two-party system stabilised 100 years ago, a coup attempt against a Prime Minister by a member of the same party has only ever succeeded outright once: in 1991, when Paul Keating beat Bob Hawke.
There were only three other attempts: in 1982, Andrew Peacock’s challenge was defeated by Malcolm Fraser, but the consequent blow to Fraser’s authority was one of many factors that led to his defeat the following year.
In 1969, after a swing of 7% against the government — which survived the election despite losing most of the (then) largest majority in Australian history — Bill McMahon unsuccessfully challenged John Gorton for the Liberal leadership.
Of course, McMahon succeeded on his next attempt (by virtue of Gorton’s dubious casting vote) eighteen months later, which probably put the last nail in the coffin of the ageing Coalition government and helped gift power to Gough Whitlam.
In recounting history, a pattern emerges: the voting public don’t go along with this sort of thing.
In Australia, whilst we don’t vote for a Prime Minister directly, we know what we’re signing on to when we wander into the polling booth and mark the paper. It’s the reason “preferred Prime Minister” polls exist.
People vote for a government and a leader. Whilst the relationship isn’t what, say, the Americans feel for their President, there is still a passive, unspoken consent that the elected Prime Minister is just that.
The concept of tearing down a Prime Minister mid-term, wilfully, with forethought and intent, appears not to sit well with the Australian electorate.
History will judge Billy McMahon on many criteria, but he did himself, and the Liberal Party, no favours in his naked pursuit of his ambition.
Andrew Peacock, by contrast, had reasons rooted, rightly or wrongly, in his view of the conduct of Fraser and saw it as his duty to challenge. He failed, Fraser lost the ensuing election, and Peacock later led the Liberal Party to two election defeats in 1984 and 1990. The latter was the first of two so-called “unloseable” elections.
Keating is a different. Consensus dictates Bob Hawke was finished by mid-1991. In the face of what the commentariat deemed a young and talented liberal leader in John Hewson, he was wrong-footed.
Faced with Hewson’s “Fightback!” package, Hawke was gazumped, and clueless as to how to deal with it.
Enter Keating as PM on the second attempt. He correctly assessed Hewson as a political lightweight and set about dismantling Hewson piece by piece.
It is a matter of history that Hewson imploded under the pressure. A week from the 1993 election, he spent two minutes gibbering, unable to answer an interview question from Mike Willesee about whether a cake would be cheaper under GST.
Keating won in 1993 solely because he was faced by the worst political salesman in at least 30 years to have masqueraded as a Leader of the Opposition (Mark Latham, a decade later, would claim that mantle, but I digress).
The point is, whether by Keating’s guile or Hewson’s incompetence, Keating got away with something nobody had. Of course, not six months later, his treasurer presented the most electorally dishonest budget in Australian history with tax rises, vast public sector borrowings, and contempt for the mainstream in favour of fringe interests, and at that point the 1996 landslide against him was irrevocably sealed.
And Gillard…say what you like about Kevin Rudd (I detest the guy) but he was a first-term Prime Minister who’d won a modestly comfortable victory over arguably the best Prime Minister Australia has had in nearly 50 years.
Then the polls turned sour, the magic disappeared from the numbers, and the hatchet men emerged from the shadows…
Tony Abbott was ridiculed when he coined the term “Sussex Street Death Squads.” Yet to look at the recently-dispatched ALP government in New South Wales (four Labor Premiers in five years), he was right. The same ultimately unsuccessful tactics were transferred to the federal party.
The 2010 election result has much to do with contempt for the type of leadership change, within a governing party, that was ruthlessly executed by Julia Gillard and her minders.
Everyone gets a second term, don’t they? Look at 1931 if you think that. Tony Abbott is unelectable, isn’t he? Look at the polling numbers his predecessor posted for months if you believe that.
Add 1500 votes across three electorates, and Abbott would be Prime Minister today. He achieved a 7% swing on the six-month average poll results of his predecessor. Polls on their own are meaningless, but in a bloc, over time, they are a powerful tool.
Since last year’s election, Gillard’s government has shown itself as incompetent, incapable of communicating anything meaningful, out of touch with mainstream opinion, and guilty of extreme political ineptitude.
The point — long-winded, perhaps — is that mid-term assassins don’t win in Australia.
That possibly the most reviled cabinet-level politician to ever hold office in Australia — Keating — could pull the feat off and win a subsequent election speaks more to his opponent than it does to him or the merits of his coup.
Gillard is a dead person walking; an election would finish her. She knows it, and the independents who prop her up in office know that it wouldn’t just finish her, but it would finish them also.
If the truth be told, she’s already finished.
But there is more to this…and so next time, when I can access my blog at home, we’ll look at some of the other reasons Julia Gillard is in virtually irretrievable trouble.