The Mutterers Mutter: Labor Party Leadership Brawl, Round 2

“People don’t like her; they don’t trust her; they don’t believe anything she has to say; and they certainly don’t support her.” These were my comments on Julia Gillard, after the first ALP leadership brawl in February. It now seems the second is about to start.

It was only a matter of time; in the three months since Julia Gillard decisively beat Kevin Rudd by 71 votes to 31 the ALP has lurched from crisis to crisis, with opinion polls stubbornly pointing to a landslide Coalition win at the looming election, and the Prime Minister either unwilling or unable to deal with even the simplest of the multitude of problems and scandals affecting her government.

Reports have appeared this weekend — across the mainstream media — that government whip Joel Fitzgibbon is openly canvassing his caucus colleagues for a return by Kevin Rudd to the Labor leadership.

At the time of her win in February, I wrote that the caucus vote was not an endorsement of Gillard, but an emphatic rejection of Rudd; I still believe that to be the case, and this opens some interesting possibilities. But more on those later.

Despite the lengthy list of the Labor Party’s woes in just the three months since the last caucus ballot, it seems the catalyst for the renewed outbreak of tension centres on a decision — authorising mining magnate Gina Rinehart to import 1700 foreign workers, made by Immigration minister Chris Bowen and Resources minister Martin Ferguson — which has elicited outrage from the union movement.

Gillard was purportedly unaware of the aware of the decision prior to its announcement, and is believed to have further inflamed tensions by publicly saying so in an attempt to mollify union leaders with an assurance Australians will be offered the jobs first.

In so doing, the perception is that the two ministers — who both voted for Rudd in February — have been hung out to dry.

And in what can be seen partially as a defence of the government and partially as a defence of the arrangement with Rinehart, Climate Change minister Greg Combet was quoted in today’s Herald Sun, in Melbourne, urging colleagues to “stay calm” about the plan, thus:

“Have a look at the facts…we have unemployment under 5% nationally. The labour market is fairly tight…particularly in WA. Interest rates are coming down, inflation is under control. We’re delivering budget surpluses, the economy is very strong.”

Combet is right — insofar as Western Australia is concerned. But the rest of his analysis doesn’t stack up.

Interest rates are falling simply because the overall economy is at a near-standstill, and rates had been kept too high for too long in an economy that is near stall point rather than “very strong;” overall inflation may be low but cost of living items are rocketing; and it is already accepted that the pencil-thin surplus announced in this month’s budget will be a further deficit of at least $5 billion.

His analysis unwittingly sums up one of the key problems facing this government: the economy is actually in the toilet. Take away the mining sector — as we have discussed many times now — and what is left it heavily in recession and haemorrhaging money to the point foreign borrowings by government are running at $100 million per day.

Add in the scandals that simply won’t go away, Julia Gillard’s inability to get a grip on anything or to sell a message, the horrific opinion polls and the overall perception of dishonesty, unaccountability and so forth, and there is a tinderbox sitting right there, waiting for a spark.

Now it has arrived; the Rinehart announcement and the predictable response from union types has given dissident forces in the ALP the pretext to strike the match.

Fitzgibbon — in his role, nominally a spearhead for support of, and a barrier to moves against, a party leader — was also Defence minister under Rudd who was sacked early in the government’s first term; a Gillard supporter in the last ballot, he is believed to have recently shifted his allegiance away from her.

Fitzgibbon is reported to be quite open in his pitch for change in the Labor leadership, telling colleagues that “We need to make the switch. This chaos is killing us” and proffering the opinion that the government needed to move to “an election footing.”

Yet when the story broke, Fitzgibbon responded cryptically via Twitter, saying “I thank my colleagues for the publicity but no one does more to support the PM and the Government than me!”

This, of course, can be interpreted in one of two ways.

Gillard — publicly at least — has chosen to accept it as a reiteration of support, saying Fitzgibbon’s words “speak for themselves” and suggesting that “I’ll be happily leading Labor to the next election.”

But happily — or otherwise — Fitzgibbon’s tweet denies nothing; and crucially, it does not rule out the counting of the numbers, canvassing of colleagues, or any of the other subterranean activities normally associated with the planning of a leadership coup.

Rudd and the people around him are, unsurprisingly, keeping their heads down and themselves out of sight, which is to be expected after the bollocking he received in the February ballot, and the undertakings he was obliged to provide in the aftermath of that event.

Rudd won’t put his head above the parapet until a) he is certain it is safe to do so, and b) he stands a realistic chance of regaining the leadership.

And there is apparently a timeframe on all of this: unnamed sources have said that just prior to the commencement of the winter recess — late next month — would be ideal, as it would give a new leader time to get established, make changes to the government, and begin the process of winning back public support.

And, presumably, to have a couple of months’ clear air without the threat of an immediate election being forced on him: even if someone spits the dummy and resigns from Parliament, such a leader would still be safe in office until Parliament reconvenes.

So what does all of this mean in practical terms?

For starters, it means that in addition to the daily and residual crises that have consumed this government for so long and rendered it dysfunctional, there will henceforth be constant leadership tension, bickering and infighting for the foreseeable future.

Whether the activities ascribed to Fitzgibbon in the media are being undertaken or not, the effect of these developments will be, at the minimum, to set in train within the ALP caucus a more concerted attempt by the Prime Minister’s detractors to get rid of her.

If and when those activities come to pass, and if and when they bear fruit, it is by no means certain that Kevin Rudd will be the candidate around whom they coalesce; despite the popularity he enjoys with sections of the electorate and in spite of a small number of caucus votes switching to him from Gillard, the fact remains that a large number of his colleagues simply refuse to deal with him on any level whatsoever.

Despite the public bravado, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that inside the government the mood is one of near-panic, with many MPs fearful that almost all of them face the prospect of wipeout at an election — even those in “safe” seats — and that election, now, is just over a year away from being called if on schedule.

So, here we go again: don’t expect anything to happen too quickly, but it will happen; in the meantime, the undignified spectacle of the Labor Party tearing itself apart is about to recommence with gusto.

A first pointer will be tomorrow night’s Newspoll for The Australian; the last Newspoll showed a slight improvement for Labor, but over the past 18 months every slight improvement in the ALP vote in Newspoll has been swiftly followed by a further collapse in support.

And that is where we will reconvene tomorrow night — assuming Monday’s events don’t throw up something else more worthy of discussion in the interim.