FRESH from unanimously re-endorsing Julia Gillard as its leader, the ALP is seemingly more in need of a circuit-breaker today than it was just a few short weeks ago. And hot on the heels of his one-man stand against Gillard then, Simon Crean is pretty obviously up to something now.
This column, ever since I started publishing it, has followed the rather farcical history of the Labor leadership: the intrigues and the rumours and the muttering, all inextricably linked to a politically inept incumbent, the machinations surrounding a publicly popular but internally-detested alternative, and a record in government that is truly shocking.
I have consistently stated that Julia Gillard remains leader of the ALP mainly because of the deeply ingrained hatred of Kevin Rudd in the Labor caucus.
Whilst I don’t disagree with some of the assessments of Rudd that have been freely offered by Labor types, it says something about the state of the ALP that seething personal hatred of one man has led to a situation in which a majority of its MPs would prefer electoral defeat to a leadership change that might — might — at least save some of their seats.
So much for the party that brought Australia the idea of “whatever it takes.”
Even so, politicians being prepared to accept defeat instead of giving their leader the boot? And in the Labor Party indeed, the outfit that gave NSW four Premiers in six years?
We have canvassed the prospect that a change in the Labor leadership may well involve a third option beyond Gillard and Rudd; the most spoken about names belong — in no particular order — to Bill Shorten, Stephen Smith and Simon Crean.
Shorten can be discounted; aside from simply not being ready, he gives every indication of being prepared to wait until the smoke clears from the post-September election carnage.
Smith, it seems, will stay loyal to Gillard (which is a pity, putting partisanship aside).
Is Simon Crean mobilising, therefore, as the “third option” to give the ALP one final roll of the electoral dice, and to try to save some of its doomed MPs?
As readers will recall, the “non-spill” that took place in the Labor Party a few weeks ago was brought on by Simon Crean’s remarkable press conference calling for change, a vote on the leadership, and urging Kevin Rudd (whom Crean himself was happy to sledge a mere 12 months earlier) to stand in such a vote.
It was widely assumed that Crean was acting as a stalking horse to invite the candidacy of a more substantial figure: Kevin Rudd.
But events since that fateful doorstop press conference suggest otherwise.
In the end, Kevin Rudd didn’t stand of course; faced with certain defeat he decided he couldn’t, and so Julia Gillard was reselected — unopposed.
This was no definitive endorsement for Gillard, despite the jubilant triumphalism some of her acolytes have engaged in; simply stated, the alternative candidate knew he would lose, and that that reality rendered the contest pointless.
Gillard got off the hook.
Even then — despite some of them having to clench their teeth — Rudd would have scored at least 40 of the 51 votes* he needed to win a contest in March: again, the endorsement Gillard received was hardly a ringing one.
Yet the criticisms made of Julia Gillard’s leadership — internally by her own MPs, in the press and opinion pages like this one, in the business community and in the electorate at large — are all, fundamentally, every bit as valid today as they were a month ago.
Rudd has ruled himself out of ever contesting another Labor leadership vote, and made a great deal of noise about holding to his word from last February, when he pledged to never challenge Julia Gillard for the ALP leadership again.
On one level, he had to do that; to have his name near a third prospective leadership vote in a little over a year would stink of desperation and wilful divisiveness, and cruel what is left of Rudd’s political career forever.
But on another — more basic — level, had the votes been there to support him in a winning bid, nobody believes Rudd would not have stood against Gillard when the opportunity presented itself last month.
Naturally, this means Gillard will either lead Labor to the election, or be replaced by someone other than Rudd beforehand.
This is essentially a good and decent man in the “old Labor” tradition, when the party actually stood for something (even if it was wrong), and its footsoldiers didn’t just pay lip service to “Labor principles” — they were diligent and loyal servants to them.
True, he was an abysmal failure as leader, even if he never led his party to an election. But failure as an opposition leader is neither new nor a bar to the future prospect of a second, successful stint at the helm — just look at John Howard and Jeff Kennett.
But what at first looked to be a dummy run to bring Rudd out of the shadows now seems to be something else altogether.
With the debate over superannuation reforms now occupying (domestic) political centre stage — presumably because leaks, to road-test those reforms, have placed them there — Crean is again leading a very public revolt against the measures, speaking what many others in his party think but will not say, and drawing plenty of attention in the process.
“This (the mooted changes to superannuation) has got to be opposed,” Crean thundered a few days ago.
The suggestion has been made that he might cross the floor of the House of Representatives to scuttle the changes, voting with an opposition and at least one of the other crossbenchers who are resolutely opposed to them in their reported form.
Crean has allowed the suggestion to circulate, making no attempt to kill the speculation, although it is unlikely he would ever vote against his own party in Parliament.
And as someone who was resolute in his support for Julia Gillard until very recently, Crean would not be taking such an overtly suicidal political path for no reason.
The press conference that led to the aborted attempted coup, it has since transpired, was based to some degree on a false premise; Crean had understood Rudd would stand if there was a vote, whilst Rudd had privately committed to do so only if there was “a sufficient majority” of the votes in caucus guaranteed him if he did so.
So if you are Crean, and you are resolved to enact top-down change in the Labor Party in one final attempt to stave off electoral oblivion or at least to save five or ten additional seats — and your first attempt involving Rudd failed — what do you do?
Significantly, most of the other Rudd supporters followed the sacked Crean out of Gillard’s ministry; Albanese remains, of course, because without his tactical smarts and parliamentary direction of the ALP attack, Gillard’s government wouldn’t survive for the metaphoric five minutes.
Of the others, Kevin Rudd, Martin Ferguson, Kim Carr, Chris Bowen and Joel Fitzgibbon are some of Labor’s best performers, languishing on the backbench; they, and others like them, constitute what has been popularly described as “the government in exile.”
Murdoch press columnist Andrew Bolt got it about right, when he described Labor’s backbench as being stronger than its frontbench, a contention all the more credible for the fact that the likes of Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy and even Gillard herself remain on the frontbench in the first place.
Certainly, the replacement of Gillard — accompanied by a wholesale cleanout of the ministry — could hardly reduce Labor’s political effectiveness or competence below the dismal level at which it presently stands.
A government with Crean as Prime Minister, Bowen as Treasurer, Rudd in Foreign Affairs and Trade, Kim Carr in Education, Ferguson in Industry, Infrastructure and Workplace Relations, and Fitzgibbon in, say, Tourism and Regional Development would start with a solid nucleus of reasonably competent people in many of the key roles around which a full ministry could be constructed.
And it would remove Labor’s single greatest electoral liability after Julia Gillard — the legend in his own mind, Wayne Swan — from any position of further influence.
By way of extra reading, I have included a link to a related article by Bolt here for readers’ interest; I also include a link to an excellent article by Graham Young (publisher and columnist at On Line Opinion) here that deals with the very same subject — but from a different perspective altogether.
(I also saw an article in The Australian earlier in the week by Ken Wiltshire, in which he advocated Crean and his mates setting up a totally new party to contest the looming election; I think this is fantasy-land stuff — for the moment — but depending on the scale of the ALP defeat, we’ll revisit it in the aftermath; I have long opined that reform of the Labor Party could transform it into a proper social democratic party along the lines of the mainstream Left in Europe, but it won’t happen this year).
I think there is one more attempt at a leadership change left in the Labor Party, this side of the election.
It is easy to forget that the bloc of votes that supported Crean as leader against Kim Beazley, and which made Mark Latham leader against Beazley, also forms the nucleus of Gillard’s support base; times change, and so does personnel, but there remains a solid core within the Labor caucus that was once loyal to Crean, and may again be so.
If the votes of the hardcore Rudd adherents, combined with those of disaffected MPs who have supported Gillard until now, reach 52 of the 102 votes in the Labor caucus, my bet would be on a leadership challenge from Simon Crean.
And with the Rudd consideration among Labor MPs removed, it is difficult to see Gillard prevailing over Crean in such a scenario — irrespective of how unlikely a Prime Minister Crean may seem at first thought, and as at today’s date.
It’s the only realistic circuit-breaker left for the Labor Party to try, and confronted by the prospect of posting its worst election loss in history, we know the ALP will try something.
*Two of Labor’s 102 MPs were overseas during the March leadership confrontation; had there been a ballot 100 MPs would have voted, making 51 votes a winning tally.