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Gillard And Her Caucus: Sink Or Swim Together

The Labor caucus has bound itself to Julia Gillard. It is impossible to imagine a Rudd revival.

Julia GillardWhilst disquiet will arise again if Gillard stumbles, it is equally difficult to imagine a so-called third candidate emerging.

The caucus and Gillard will sink or swim together.

The 71-31 vote in favour of Gillard is a handy reminder of the culture and prerogatives of the parliamentary party room.

“You need to target the right constituency,” Mark Latham said on television this morning, arguing that Rudd lost votes by campaigning in the media instead of concentrating on the caucus.

The message to the electorate is also stark and direct. Forget Kevin Rudd, he’s not coming back. June 2010 was then. Now it’s Gillard or Abbott. Make your choice.

The leadership ballot followed a week-long assault on Kevin Rudd that was so effective the only unanswered question this morning was how low his vote would be.

Someone in the Gillard camp dubbed it a campaign of shock and awe. Like that famous campaign, this one was also televised, and we marvelled at the open display of venom as ministers appeared in carefully timed appearances to paint a picture of megalomania, chaos and paralysis in the former leader’s office.

Anyone who might have been foolish enough to suggest the caucus should dump Gillard was encouraged to question their sanity in the face of overwhelming evidence that Rudd was a prime ministerial disaster.

Worse, every calamity to befall the Gillard Government was a result of Rudd’s destabilisation. Signs of his perfidy were everywhere. As the pigs in “Animal Farm” put it: “Snowball has been here. I smell him distinctly.”

The Trade Minister, Simon Crean, even went so far on Friday to claim that the Government’s polling numbers were down “because of a relentless campaign, stealth campaign, to undermine and destabilise the government”.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was busy repeating those lines this morning.

Over the weekend I pulled out my copy of “Shitstorm”, the book written by Lenore Taylor and David Uren. It recounts the actions of the Gang of Four – Rudd, Gillard, Swan and Tanner – during the spring and summer of 2008 when the global financial crisis threatened real disaster.

Rudd comes out of it more than well. There’s bold, decisive action in the face of economic crisis. There’s a close working relationship with senior public servants. All in all, it’s a picture of a prime minister animated by the crisis and propelled into action.

But Rudd is now Snowball, the banished pig and scapegoat in Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. Everything is his fault.

The ferocity of the campaign against Rudd over the past week tells us a lot about the modus operandi of Gillard and her supporters. It makes you think the hapless young pup who inflamed the Australia Day demonstration probably got a dressing down for not going far enough.

Rudd’s former press secretary, Lachlan Harris, described the Rudd demolition as a “neo-nuclear” strategy, a suicide attack on the former leader. To others, it was reminiscent of the rhetorical excesses of student politics or the florid accusations bandied about in Labor’s internal elections. It was overkill.

The willingness to not just defeat Rudd but to crush him, like so many of the stratagems dreamed up by the cabal of right-wing faction and union leaders who prop up Gillard, sets a dangerous precedent. One day the favour will be returned. As that old Labor war-horse Fred Daly liked to point out: “Do unto others as they would do unto you, only do it sooner, quicker and better.”

Unsurprisingly, what went around came around on the weekend when fire was returned by Maxine McKew, the woman who took the seat of Bennelong off John Howard in 2007, a reminder of happier times for the ALP. Gillard is nothing more than a political operator, she said. Her willingness to dump the ETS because of its electoral reception cast doubt on her convictions.

Gillard and her supporters are having none of it, of course. I’m the leader who gets things done, Gillard said repeatedly last week. I’m the leader with determination and method who got the carbon tax done. I’m the one who rescued the Government from paralysis and inaction.

It was a strong and angry performance by the Prime Minister last week. Her supporters cheered her aggressive attack on Rudd. Gillard is never more authentic than when she is fighting to hold her job.

Out in the electorate, though, nothing has changed. The Government’s ratings have been in the doldrums ever since Gillard announced the carbon tax a year ago last Friday. They may like to blame Rudd but the public debate on the carbon tax was lost by Gillard and her ministers over the course of last year.

Other issues have contributed to Gillard’s plight and, as Rudd pointed out last week, he wasn’t responsible for the Government’s failure on asylum seeker policy. He wasn’t responsible for the poker machine agreement with Andrew Wilkie.

He WAS responsible for the broadband policy, the parental leave policy and other programs the Gillard Government touts as its own.

But historical revisionism has taken hold. A positioning is underway. The Government is dying a slow death and Rudd represents a convenient scapegoat. He is a means of denying the mistakes of the past year.

Now voters have been told emphatically that the popular favourite will not be returning. It may focus their minds on the real choice in the next election.

Standing apart from the popular thinking of the time is difficult. The 31 members of the caucus who voted for Rudd today represent those who are most willing to confront the failure of the Gillard leadership.

It has become popular to attribute Gillard’s electoral difficulties to anger and confusion about the means of her ascension to the prime ministership. Gillard acknowledged that in her comments this afternoon. Whilst clearly a factor, it is only part of the story.

At the time, she had much goodwill in the community. The disappointment began to set in within a fortnight of her taking office. It was centred on issues as diverse as asylum seekers, population and climate change. It was helped along by the banal “Moving Forward” campaign and “the real Julia” debacle”.

Rudd’s role in the 2010 election campaign was raised again during the leadership contest. But the view so frequently propagated that the campaign leaks were to blame for the Government losing its majority does not withstand close scrutiny. The Labor voters who peeled off and went mainly to the Greens were concerned about matters of much more substance.

Those defectors have now been joined by others who have moved straight over to the Coalition during the 18 months of Gillard’s leadership.

After a week of demolishing Rudd’s reputation and denying his achievements, Gillard told her press conference this afternoon that he should be “honoured” for what he did as prime minister. She said she was impatient to get on with governing after the “ugliness” of the past week.

Her comments can only be confusing to an electorate that is increasingly at odds with the political caste that backs Gillard.

This article was first published on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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