Julia Gillard should sack Kevin Rudd.
She should have done it around 10.30pm on Monday night when his breach of the Cabinet principle of collective responsibility was being digested by the Q&A audience.
Of course, not only has Gillard not sacked Rudd, she hasn’t even shown any sign of slapping him down.
Asked about Rudd’s comments last Monday, government ministers have been at pains to say that they don’t want to rake over “history”. Gillard said she would leave discussion and analysis of the matter to “the historians”.
But it’s not history – not yet. The matters in question are as relevant now as they were exactly a year ago. As they were then, a carbon price and an emissions trading scheme are front and centre of today’s political debate. The Gillard government’s fate hinges on its handling of these issues.
On Q&A, Rudd spoke about divisions in the Cabinet last year over the ETS. With the exception of one minister – Lindsay Tanner, now retired from politics – all of the relevant players from a year ago remain in the government today. The then prime minister, Rudd, is a senior Cabinet minister.
Rudd was careful not to name names, but he acknowledged “there was a massive conflict of views within the government”. There were three lines of argument. Some “people were concerned” about the effect of a carbon price on family incomes. There were “some who wanted to junk it” and others “who wanted to sail straight ahead”.
Rudd argued that he “tried to find a path up the middle of that” in order to “preserve the unity of the government”. He acknowledged it was “the wrong call because we should have simply tried to sail straight ahead”.
It sounds refreshingly honest. But Rudd was the prime minister. He was uniquely placed to guide the government along the path he believed was right. As many have argued, he could have called an election in early 2010 to resolve the issue. His mea culpa may warm the cockles of some hearts but it obscures the failure of political judgement and nerve.
It also obscures Rudd’s motivations for speaking out now. Some suggest Rudd is “positioning himself for a return to the Labor leadership” by appealing to the public over the heads of his caucus colleagues.
It is just as likely that he is simply bent on revenge.
Whatever it is, the nature of Rudd’s relationship with Gillard and the Labor caucus is a corrosive and pernicious force eating away at the government. Imagine what a Cabinet meeting is like these days with Rudd sitting there alongside the people he once presided – many say lorded – over.
His presence weakens Gillard. His presence highlights her powerlessness over him. His presence is a continual reminder of the political calamity last year’s leadership change wrought on the government.
Yet Gillard has the perfect means at her disposal to eject Rudd from her ministry.
The collective responsibility of cabinet ministers is one of the bedrock conventions of executive government. The principle holds that ministers meet and debate in private. A good ministry is one where ministers argue their case in front of their colleagues but accept the collective judgement of the group. But the principle works only if cabinet discussions remain secret. It works only if all ministers accept the collective wisdom of the cabinet and support its decisions in public, including the decisions they disagreed with.
The convention of collective responsibility has taken quite a beating in the past year. In constitutional terms, Gillard’s response has been exemplary. The election campaign leaks about her positions on a number of issues were met with a refusal to discuss the inner workings of Cabinet. That was the position she reiterated this week. It may suit her politically not to discuss what happened back then but that is not the point. The principle of collective responsibility should outweigh personal political considerations.
Rudd’s comments on Q&A represent an attempt to place himself above the conventions and processes of Cabinet government. As the former leader, it may be felt that he should be cut some slack and allowed to defend his actions as Prime Minister. However, as a senior minister still in the Cabinet, this surely does not apply. A cabinet, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.
It gets worse. The faux candour of Rudd on Monday night is exemplified by his refusal to put names to the divisions. In so doing, only one conclusion can be drawn. Rudd is in effect pointing the finger directly at the Prime Minister and her deputy. He is contributing to the ongoing discussion about her credibility and the suggestion that she lied to the electorate. He is fuelling the doubts about her commitment to action on climate change. He is challenging a prime minister who is struggling to exude authority anyway.
Dismissing Rudd from the ministry would rid Gillard of a destabilising influence. It would bolster her authority inside and outside the government. The Cabinet would probably stand as one and applaud her. The discipline of the government would be strengthened.
Of course, it almost certainly won’t happen. Gillard wouldn’t dare sack Rudd. She wouldn’t dare risk a by-election. The principle of collective cabinet responsibility won’t get a look-in, no matter how many self-serving interviews Rudd gives.
Rudd’s position is safe because he IS a special case. Any other prime minister disposed of in his first term would be dead meat by now. Rudd’s anarchic administrative style and his disregard for established Cabinet processes should disqualify him from any serious consideration for the party leadership. That some people – aside from Rudd himself – see him in the hunt is indicative of the deep malaise this government is in.
If Gillard had shown some real leadership on the climate change issue, nothing Rudd says now would be given a second look. If voters really believed she had a long-standing, consistent, principled and visionary approach to climate action, Rudd would be irrelevant.
That some of the opinion polls show more people would prefer Rudd as Prime Minister than Gillard is an indictment of her leadership to date. Her approach to climate change is a key ingredient of that indictment.
The Prime Minister’s repeated protestations of her commitment to “price carbon” are weakened by her earlier vacillation, and undermined by her promotion of policies such as the Citizens’ Assembly which was rightly seen as a means of doing nothing.
Climate change, an ETS, Rudd and Gillard: what a Gordian knot this is. Who or what will break it?
This article first appeared on The Drum.