The Prime Minister Julia Gillard has Australia guessing as to her thinking in divulging so soon the proposed date of the next federal election. September 14 is the date she has nominated to keep faith with the Independents who enabled her to win and keep office against the odds. It will be an election for the 150 member House of Representatives and for half the 75 seat Senate.
Whatever her true thoughts, it is unlikely that it was just to provide certainty for businesses planning. Indeed a Clayton’s campaign could heighten uncertainty.
This past week saw South Australia’s Leader of the Opposition, and of the Liberal party since July 2009, Isobel Redmond, “Jump the gun” and resign the leadership. She had little choice, and bowed to the inevitable. Leaders who look winners succeed.
In 2010 she led the Liberal Party to a narrow loss despite winning 52% of the vote. The long serving Premier Mike Rann had come to be seen as duplicitous, highlighted by his indignant denial of a sexual affair with parliamentary waitress Michelle Chantellois. Redmond was a fresh new face, and one who was transparently honest. But her frankness and inability to counter media probing became her undoing. She was likeable but lacked enough venom to attack the government effectively, with the escalating state debt the obvious target.
For the Prime Minister 2013 looms as a critical year, a year that will test her political mettle. Thus far she has proved to be a winner for the Labor Party, underestimated by her opposition and their supporters. Too often they have resorted to personal denigration, instead of countering her policies.
Her leadership record
- She rescued Labor from certain defeat at the last election by deposing Kevin Rudd who in office had become too aloof and demanding to carry the party with him.
- In doing so she demonstrated an ability to be hard-nosed, and seize the moment in a way that Peter Costello couldn’t or wouldn’t.
- The opposition has erred in repeatedly harping on her alleged naked ambition. To have an ambition to lead your party is laudable. She was seen as hard-working, responsible, always available, and able to solve problems in a timely manner. It was her party that turned to her. She did not seek to undermine her leader’s authority but acted with clinical precision at her party’s request, and succeeded. It was no doubt hard for the talented Kevin Rudd who had won Labor the 2007 election so emphatically, but he became a liability, deferring with little consultation, implementation of Labor’s climate change policies, and announcing an inflexible punitive tax on the mining industry before seeking their views.
- When repeatedly probed by the opposition and the media, she skilfully defended her actions without becoming flustered.
- Perhaps her greatest strength as a leader is her ability to negotiate and compromise. Tony Abbott seemed to adopt the attitude with the independents that since their electorates traditionally had a bias towards the coalition, they were obliged to support the Liberal and Country Parties. Julia Gillard on the other hand listened and agreed to their demands. Against the odds, she won the Independents support, gained office, and repeatedly frustrated Tony Abbott’s at times contrived plans to unseat her.
- Like John Howard who won support for the GST by negotiating and compromising with the Democrats, Julia Gillard had to compromise with the Greens on a Carbon Tax instead of the preferred Emissions Trading Scheme. The opposition has castigated her ad nausea for this about-face but seem hypocritical in doing so. She at least re-instated climate change to Labor’s agenda.
- Julia Gillard also acted promptly in negotiating with the mining industry for a compromise tax.
- She has not only been effective in her defence of Labor, but she has also announced some visionary measures such as the Dental scheme, the National Disability Scheme, a National Financial Literacy Training program, and a policy to teach an Asian language in all schools.
- In the face of some offensive denigration from opposition supporters, she delivered a spontaneous impassioned speech labelling her opponents misogynistic. This really put Tony Abbott on the back-foot, having to defend his own relationships with women.
- Labor heavy-weights emphatically quashed a somewhat tentative bid by Kevin Rudd to regain the leadership. He lost the Foreign Affairs portfolio and returned chastened to the back-bench, replaced by high-profile Bob Carr, who was not then a member of the parliament.
The Year Ahead
Although she has retained office for Labor for two years, the tide is now turning against her. She misjudged in appointing Peter Slipper to the Speaker’s position, and has had to rely on the tarnished vote of the now Independent member Craig Thomson. Possibly the support of Independents Rob Oakshott, Tony Windsor, and Andrew Wilkie could waver as the election approaches, if polls point to a victory for the coalition.
The September 14 election date honours her agreement with the Independents to delay the election until full term, but it would seem quite possible that events could precipitate an earlier election.
Although Julia Gillard has demonstrated her fighting qualities and resilience to not only survive but outperform as leader, if the polls were to show her losing public support, her leadership position might be challenged.
In this event it is even possible that in the interests of the party, she could do an Isobel Redmond act, “jump the gun”, and make way for a new aspirant to the office. Refusal to allow for party renewal forever tarnished the image of John Howard. I would expect Julia Gillard would not be of this ilk.
Since announcing the election date two respected Ministers in Chris Evans and Nicola Roxon have announced their retirement from politics for personal reasons paving the way for her to invigorate the party with bright young talent well before the election. Should the need arise there would still be time for Labor to find a dynamic new leader to re-boot the Labor cause.
The coalition is now in the box seat to win office. It would be demoralising for Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party if they let this opportunity slip.
To succeed, they should now stop re-visiting old issues, have a clear vision, and reaffirm without appearing arrogant, their superior record of fiscal responsibility.