AS THE intrigue within the ALP intensifies over its leadership, pressure is piling onto the man seen as the heir apparent after an election loss — shadow minister and powerbroker Bill Shorten — to persuade Julia Gillard to stand down before the event. The tactics are abominable, and Shorten must resist.
In case anyone is wondering, I haven’t gone soft on Gillard or the ALP; I wish them no succour in the face of the political and electoral predicament in which they find themselves.
Shorten either, for that matter.
But as backroom machinations over the Labor leadership whirr up a notch, it’s instructive to make some rather obvious observations in light of what can only be described as bullying and thuggery now being deployed in Shorten’s direction.
It might be a truism to say so, but what the ALP is fighting over is the Prime Ministership of Australia; it’s not some cushy taxpayer sinecure to be doled out to a “ma-a-a-ate,” or a similarly ill-gotten bauble to buy someone off and/or purchase their silence and complicity.
And Labor has been openly warring over the Prime Ministership for at least three years, and for much longer behind the scenes before the coup against Kevin Rudd in June 2010.
Now, in rare evidence of a spine, “Independent” MP Tony Windsor — who for three years has sanctioned and waved through the entire farce of minority government — has said that if the Labor leadership changed now, the pact to support Labor would be “null and void.”
”The arrangement is with her, if she disappears for some reason, there is no arrangement, that’s the sum total of it,” he was quoted in the Murdoch press as telling ABC radio.
Of course, it could be a moot point: the agreement between the Independents and the Gillard government extends only to confidence and supply.
The budget has already passed the House of Representatives, and if a leadership switch occurs late in the final sitting fortnight before the election (which commences next week), there will be no prospect of confidence in the government being tested on the floor of the House.
So Windsor and his sabre-rattling may be irrelevant. Even so, he’s boasted of honouring an agreement with Gillard “in good faith” whilst ignoring the overwhelming mood for a change of government that has echoed across the country, for most of this Parliamentary term.
It would be an indictment on any so-called “Independent” with the ability to do something about it, and that indictment applies equally to Rob Oakeshott.
(Especially when it’s remembered that Windsor in 1992 — as a crossbench state MP in NSW — had little compunction about being party to the removal of Liberal Premier Nick Greiner before an ICAC inquiry into his conduct cleared him just days later).
But in Windsor’s case it is worse because he has bragged about it, taunted and sought to publicly belittle Tony Abbott with it, and made no secret of the fact his agreement is as much an anti-Liberal Party pact as it is one to support Gillard.
Even so, it should provide pause for thought for the mutterers and plotters in the ALP.
And this brings me neatly to Bill Shorten and the role he must play in the latest round of Labor leadership shenanigans.
Depending on who you listen to, Shorten — and the votes he can swing behind a leadership candidate, variously estimated at between seven and ten of the 102 ALP caucus members — is the pivotal link in any leadership switch.
Kevin Rudd has consistently stated he will not challenge for the leadership, and his refusal to contest the position in March (when Gillard herself declared it vacant) can be construed as honouring his pledge (even if it was also a consequence of a shortfall in support).
For Gillard to be replaced, then, two preconditions must be met: a majority of Labor’s MPs must overcome their visceral hatred of Rudd to restore him to the role; and someone has to convince Gillard to step aside.
Again, Shorten would seem the obvious candidate to do so — or so one might think.
I actually think Shorten, who is clearly conflicted as he considers the appropriate course to take, would be best served by standing firm. And so would the ALP in the long term.
Given Labor has stood behind Gillard so resolutely and for so long, it’s obvious that the party won’t entertain the notion of Rudd leading it for a nanosecond longer than it has to.
I have warned previously that were Rudd to be restored the leadership, and if — if — by some chance he were able to lead the ALP to an election win, the party would dispense with his services virtually immediately — and probably in Shorten’s favour.
Then Bill Shorten would really have something to agonise over.
But many commentators in the mainstream press over the long weekend have made the observation that in Gillard, Labor’s union wing has a leader who is one of them, with whom it can work, and who it can control.
In Rudd they would have no such thing — indeed, they would be saddled with a figurehead almost determined to give the metaphoric finger to the unions, in jubilant defiance of those of their number who were so instrumental in ripping him down in the first place.
Shorten, remember, is a union man through and through.
There is no guarantee Kevin Rudd will lead Labor to victory. In fact, the only way he might do so is if the Liberal Party were to panic and replace Tony Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull.
Such a scenario might seem implausible, but it bears noting that just as opinion polls have consistently shown Rudd to be a public favourite as Labor leader, they have recorded similar sentiments — in almost identical numbers — about Turnbull and the Liberals.
Rudd might have led a shambolic and ineffectual government, but his poll dominance over Turnbull and the issues that underpinned it are the reasons Turnbull was replaced.
And Abbott, let’s not forget, has already torn Kevin Rudd’s political position apart once; strategists in the Liberal bunker are almost certainly sharpening their knives to ensure any second crack they get at the job inflicts terminal damage.
And there is another consideration in rolling Gillard that few people have picked up on: unpopular she may be, but there is a sizeable contingent of Left-inclined female voters who would be outraged at the notion of the first female Prime Minister being dispatched from office in what would amount to a coup against her.
Never mind the circumstances of Gillard’s own ascension.
These are votes that will be lost to the
Communist Party Greens if Labor dumps Gillard; and whilst they mightn’t be a huge chunk of Labor’s remaining base, however many of them there are constitute the number of additional votes Rudd would need to win back simply to start off on an even keel.
Publicly, Shorten is resisting the pressure, so far, to intervene. But it is well known that privately he is considering his options.
With that in mind, The Australian reported yesterday that “a strategy” was being acted upon, threatening to sheet home blame to Shorten for electoral annihilation under Gillard by claiming he could have prevented it.
“He has to be part of it, he has to be the one to tell her,” one MP close to Shorten was quoted as saying. “He will now be the one responsible for whether Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister or not.”
Needless to say, whoever the MP was didn’t have the balls to go on the record.
And that’s part of the point: the faceless, nameless thugs and hacks who’ve made the Prime Ministership of this country their plaything for six years need to get back in their boxes.
Presumably, these are the same people who have tried to sheet home blame for Labor’s failures in government to Kevin Rudd, and tried to personally crucify him over them; now they seek to apply the same treatment to Shorten to get what they want which, idiotically and unbelievably, is the return of the very man they have spent years trying to destroy.
Something Shorten might consider is that irrespective of how many MPs the ALP is left with after the election — be it 30 or 60 — a majority are either likely to have remained loyal to Gillard outright, or to have supported Rudd only to save their own necks despite their private hatred of him.
In other words, Shorten could be rendering himself an injury by turning on Gillard now.
If Gillard takes Labor to an election and the magnitude of the slaughter is such that it loses 40 of its 72 seats — as private and published polls now suggest — there will be more scope for Shorten to act as a reformer of his party than there would be if a modest defeat left open the prospect of a return to office within three years.
Such an outcome would probably also buy Shorten two chances to win back government, rather than just the one he would almost certainly be restricted to if this year’s election leaves the ALP with 60 or more seats, and thus within striking distance on paper.
It is true that Gillard leading Labor into an abyss would well serve the Liberal Party’s objectives, and I am mindful readers will recognise that I relish such a prospect.
But Labor is broken; it needs a thorough overhaul, not a spell in the paddock simply to wait for the tide to turn back in its favour.
The past six years have proven that that is all it did between 1996 and 2007.
The failures that have beset the ALP in minority government will resurface, if left unaddressed, when it next forms majority government: and if anyone doubts it, they need look no further than the 2007 election result, and the relative state of the parties when Gillard engaged in the midnight murder of a sitting Prime Minister.
Bill Shorten might have his faults, and only time will tell if he makes a reasonable fist of the job as leader of the Labor Party — and opposition leader — that awaits him.
But whether he does or not, he is nobody’s fool; which is why, as he contemplates which way to jump now, he must ignore the thugs and hacks and their threats of “accountability” and ensure that Gillard leads Labor to the electoral bloodbath its conduct in office has earned, and ensure his party deals with the defects it has papered over for far too long.