There was no mistaking the danger the Gillard government faced yesterday.
That there is someone inside the government, someone “close to home”, who is leaking damaging allegations to the media, brought intrigue and treachery to the election campaign. It wreaked havoc with the political messages Labor has been transmitting for the past two weeks.
The allegation that the Prime Minister spoke out in Cabinet against pension increases and the parental leave plan fed into the most damaging impression of all, that she is not what she seems.
It is especially dangerous because it’s the very same allegation that hovered around Kevin Rudd before Gillard deposed him a month ago.
The most significant advantage a government has over an opposition is incumbency. The government is there, it’s governing, it’s in charge, and it represents certainty and stability.
Incumbency is a powerful tool of campaigning for re-election. In Australia, most governments are re-elected most of the time. They are known quantities, safe, settled, reassuring. Destroy that sense of security and all bets are off.
Gillard’s actions on the mining tax, her language on the question of asylum seekers, and her position on climate change have been designed to allay fears. They have been designed to position her as the leader who understands the concerns of the people. They are meant to indicate that she is a safe pair of hands, not moving too fast, not over-reaching.
Those messages have alienated many erstwhile Labor voters. These people see Gillard as a cynic without commitment to Labor positions. They may vote for the Greens in protest. The re-election strategy depends on these people returning to the ALP via their second preferences.
The leaks from inside the government threaten the re-election strategy in a far more fundamental way. Division and instability are almost always punished by the electorate. Ask John Howard about the Joh for Canberra campaign in 1987. Ask the NSW government about their chances in the state election next March.
Peril also brought with it opportunity. Julia Gillard rose to the occasion with an impressive performance at her early morning press conference in Adelaide. The droning monotone was gone, the “moving forward” blather disappeared, the girlish smiles and giggles evaporated.
As one commentator wrote, the nation got a Prime Minister back with that performance. “Let Gillard be Gillard,” chanted the aficionados of “The West Wing”.
As always, there was another story that didn’t get told yesterday. It was the story that could educate the electorate about our system of Cabinet government. At their heart, if true, the charges against Gillard showed that she argued in Cabinet about spending proposals. She disputed priorities and challenged the thinking of other ministers.
In other circumstances, she would be praised for this.
Should it come as a surprise that the Cabinet and the Caucus might debate and disagree about policies before taking a vote, reaching a decision and then sticking to it?
In the Politics 101 textbooks that’s known as the principle of collective responsibility. It’s based on the idea that ministers all hang together or they will surely hang separately. It’s the principle that ministers debate policy behind closed doors. Once a decision is reached, all ministers support it. If any minister feels unable to support government policy, he or she is obliged to resign.
It’s the principle that’s served Westminster democracies pretty well for a couple of hundred years. It brings order to what would otherwise be chaos. The confidentiality of Cabinet discussions ensures that ministers will debate, discuss, dissect, question and generally interrogate any proposal put before the Cabinet.
From what we know about the last couple of years, the real villain in this piece is not Gillard but Rudd. He’s the man who bypassed Cabinet processes and concentrated decisions in his hands and the so-called Gang of Four, admittedly also including Gillard.
By this measure, it should be reassuring that Gillard urged caution in implementing parental leave, pension increases or any other policy. If she wanted to be persuaded, if she hesitated to rubber-stamp the proposals, then we should be congratulating her for doing her job.
That was her message yesterday. I’m not a soft touch, she said.
But a theoretical discussion like this goes nowhere when the story is that someone wants to undermine the Prime Minister, especially a Prime Minister barely a month old, a Prime Minister who took the job in controversial circumstances. The conflict and personal drama of politics will always trump a dissertation on cabinet processes.
We assume the leaker is Rudd, or someone close to him. But it may not be so. It’s so easy to speculate about his former staff. It’s so easy to point to ministers or parliamentary secretaries passed over for promotion. It’s easy to wonder about old animosities, old battles and their lingering resentments. It’s so easy to conjure conspiracies about ambitious politicians clawing their way to the top.
We often hear talk about “media frenzies”. Yesterday, people who had been debating Gillard’s earlobes and the nature of her private relationships suddenly had something more substantial to sink their teeth into.
The strange symbiotic relationship between the media and the politicians was also on display yesterday. These people need one another.
The morning newspapers, radio and television had the Laurie Oakes leak to chew over. The “doyen” status assigned to Oakes gave the story legs.
By mid-morning, Gillard had held a press conference, quickly followed by Tony Abbott who also announced a policy on company tax. The morning and lunchtime news programs now had their material. Media websites were updated accordingly.
Just after 1pm, Gillard appeared to make an announcement on water policy and funding for stormwater capture and usage. Then the Consumer Price Index figures were released and Wayne Swan and Joe Hockey did battle over inflation and interest rates.
The afternoon and early evening news programs now had their material.
In the evening, Wayne Swan duelled with Kerry O’Brien, whilst Andrew Robb and Chris Bowen appeared on “Lateline” to refine the final messages for the day from each side.
These people all feed off one another. The relationship was on full display yesterday. Newsprint, the airwaves and online space which is blank at the start of every day is filled via this relationship.
Through all the frenetic activity and media drama of a day like yesterday, I wonder what people are taking in as they bustle about, go to work, take the kids to school, and live their lives.
We know that more of them preferred to watch MasterChef than last Sunday’s debate. We know that most of them are already committed to vote one way or the other. Some say they aren’t committed but we know they will eventually drift over to the party they usually vote for.
It’s only the genuinely disinterested voters, the disengaged, who are yet to decide. And they’re the ones who are most certainly not weighing up the manic coverage of the “leak”.
They’re the ones who are more likely to be persuaded by a casual conversation with a family member or a work colleague. They’re the ones who might absorb a message from a television commercial. They’re the ones who might do a quick assessment of their job prospects, their mortgage or their bank balance as they head into the polling booth.
If these people decide that the ALP is indeed the “dysfunctional” outfit that Tony Abbott says it is, then Gillard could be finished. Abbott’s masterly verbal restraint yesterday signalled that he understands the significance of what has taken place and its potential to propel him into government.
In time, the stories of what happened in 2010 will emerge. One thing we know from the histories, memoirs and analyses of other political times is that the real stories won’t be quite the same as the ones we’re all being fed now.
This moment may galvanise Gillard and the Labor machine. Nothing so concentrates the political mind as an impending electoral decapitation. It may be the making of Gillard.
But what if this moment of peril is not over?
This article first appeared on The Drum.