Labor Leadership: Is Crean Mobilising As The “Third Option?”

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.

Enter Crean.

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.

Gang Of Four: ALP Resignations The Start Of The Bloodshed

CONTINUING fallout from yesterday’s leadership shenanigans in the ALP has seen three more Gillard government ministers join the sacked Simon Crean on the backbench; with dismissal the alternative to going quietly, it sounds a sinister note of what lies ahead — for this is only the beginning.

Day One of Julia Gillard’s Brave New World Of Control over at the Labor Party has seen the number of frontbenchers aligned to Kevin Rudd and moving to the backbench swell to eight, with Martin Ferguson, Kim Carr and Chris Bowen joining Simon Crean — sacked immediately after his press conference yesterday for disloyalty — and four parliamentary secretaries and whips on the outer.

It has been made clear during the day that all of them (Crean aside, obviously) were expected to jump ship — and that if they didn’t, they would be pushed.

There are other Rudd supporters remaining in the Gillard ministry tonight — Anthony Albanese and Mark Butler most notably — and it remains to be seen whether they, too, are confronted with the choice between resignation and the high jump.

As the leader of her party — and especially one unanimously re-elected to the role — it’s true that Gillard is, nominally, free to manage personnel issues as she sees fit.

But for all the talk of a fresh start, and of leadership questions having been “conclusively ended,” these early moves are suggestive of a more sinister undercurrent.

It is probably true that Gillard has decided that she will brook no more; that having battled against forces loyal to Rudd — whether openly or behind the scenes — for the best part of three years, she has decided that enough is enough.

It probably speaks to an insecurity in Gillard that she does so: after all, her own midnight murder of her predecessor was plotted in secrecy and sprung without warning, and faced with the reality that she would be forever targeted for retribution, the prospect has likely haunted her ever since.

And it is certainly true that with the exception of Crean, all of the frontbench departures have been resignations, not dismissals.

Yet anyone with the most rudimentary grasp of how these things work knows that resignations can be sought and obtained, or are offered as a more palatable option to taking the metaphorical bullet on someone else’s terms — in this case, Gillard’s.

And it is clear that anyone identified as loyal to Kevin Rudd will be in for a rough time in the ALP, at least for the foreseeable future.

I tend to think the resignations can be taken at face value in terms of the words of each departing minister along the lines of honourable courses, appropriate actions and so forth.

It is clear that many people in the Labor Party are in vehement disagreement with its leadership, but not all are prepared to say so; those that have done so, however, really do have the one honourable option, and that is to give Gillard a free run.

It is difficult to disconnect from a leader whose entire agenda is regarded as anathema whilst nonetheless remaining in the parliamentary party; even so, sitting on the backbench does represent the strongest action these people can take without the added histrionic step of quitting the party.

But in terms of the looming catastrophe the ALP faces at the ballot box, it remains to be seen whether it will do them any good: I will be watching with great interest how the likes of Crean, Ferguson et al fare relative to others in the Labor Party on election night, but ultimately, they’ll be just as much in opposition as the remainder of the Gillard cabinet after 14 September — those of them, of course, who retain their seats.

Even so, the methods that Gillard appears to intend to use leave everything to be desired.

As I said, it may well be that she wishes to see out her term unencumbered by those allied to a man intent on bringing her down, and exacting his revenge.

But it also says a lot about the mean-spirited and brutal (and short-sighted) way Gillard and Labor play their politics that the purge has to extend so far down the ranks, and to otherwise reasonably effective personnel.

Experienced veterans like Crean, and effective ministers like Ferguson, are the exception in the Labor Party, not the norm; and the continuing Gillard cabinet will be the worse for their absence.

To compound the issue, incompetents of the ilk of Wayne Swan remain where they are, with the perverse reality that electoral liabilities are part of the Gillard plan, whereas less-supportive but competent ministers (who might bolster the government’s case) are not.

I reiterate again that those resigning have done so in the face of being tossed overboard if they didn’t — which doesn’t strike anybody as the actions of a leadership paying anything more than lip service to notions of healing, a fresh start, and the rest of the rhetoric deployed by Gillard and her coterie yesterday.

I also note that in one of the many debacles that have been self-inflicted by the Gillard government of recent times, the Prime Minister exercised her so-called “captain’s pick” to disendorse another known Rudd supporter — the NT’s Senator Trish Crossin — and replace her with a “star” candidate who is resented by the local rank and file, and little-known at close range in what is intended to be her electorate.

God knows who is next, but even the most conservative estimates of Rudd’s support before yesterday had him commanding 37 leadership votes; with eight gone so far, that leaves a lot of additional targets for the Gillard people to hassle.

As the next few weeks progress, it will become clear that the eight frontbench scalps that Gillard has taken with her new-found “authority” are merely the tip of the iceberg.

There will be a great deal more bloodletting and internal retribution in the ALP; hardly healthy at the best of times, but especially now, with the party in the deeply divided and highly charged state it is in.

And I reiterate a point from yesterday: to paraphrase, what the electorate thinks of all of this doesn’t seem to matter; after all, they’re only voters.

I have said before that I really don’t know why Labor continues to endorse Gillard’s leadership; after all, it’s been stunning only insofar as its incompetence, and for pure electoral appeal it has none — as the ALP will soon learn to its enduring cost.

The final word — for today, at least — belongs to Joel Fitzgibbon, who has resigned as Chief Government Whip; asked on Triple J whether he thought the ALP had yesterday chosen to lose the coming election, his answer was succinct: “I do.”

As ever, we’ll follow this issue, but it’s not likely to get any prettier.

And remember — we’re only voters, so why should our opinion of what the Labor Party is doing matter?

I’ll see you all tomorrow…