The last day (Thursday March 21) the Australian government sat before the budget on May 14 was a memorable one on two accounts.
Firstly, there was a moving ceremony at which the Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, delivered apologies to the parents who were unwillingly separated from their babies because of adoption policies between the 1950’s and the 1970’s. This removed some 250,000 children from their parents.
The memorable political events that unfolded soon after quickly eclipsed this historical occasion however.
Prior to an election, the party leadership becomes a focus of concern. The critical judgement to be made is whether their leader has a winning persona? Despite protestations to the contrary, polling results do matter. They show how well their leader is faring, and their party under that leadership. They are not always a reliable guide to the election result, but the popularity trend is important.
Tony Abbott’s position after a one vote winning margin when he replaced the respected Malcolm Turnbull as leader of the Liberal party before the last election, has appeared tenuous at times. Despite the excellent performance of the Coalition in that election, the result was a minority Labor government dependent on Independent votes. It seemed just a matter of time before he would be able to force Labor to a losing election. This has not happened. Julia Gillard proved to be a formidable and evasive opponent.
Although he has been effective in Opposition he has not galvanized enthusiasm for his leadership in the electorate. With a less combative, more considered and statesman-like image he is gaining wider acceptance.
Some of Labor’s woes have been unavoidable with events such as the Craig Thomson scandal over his spending of Union funds, Peter Slipper‘s appointment as speaker for the House of Representatives, and now the stench from the disgusting activities of the corrupt former NSW Labor minister Eddie Obeid.
But most of Labor’s problems with Julia Gillard at the helm, are of their own making, and show insufficient thought and planning. The most recent example of this has been the failed attempt to change the media laws, with a demand that they be passed before the end of the parliamentary session now concluded. Why antagonize the media barons before an election?
Labor has tended to lack focus, and has failed on some fronts to deliver. It has too many reforms on the go. As a result of the pressure the Prime Minister is beginning to wilt. She seems more strident, unsmiling and combative.
Unfavourable poll results, back-room debate on the Prime Minister’s performance, and the pending two months autumn recess of parliament motivated Simon Crean to raise the leadership issue, hoping to arrest the decline in Labor’s popularity in the polls. He called for a leadership spill to bring dissent to an end.
The Prime Minister’s response was to call for a spill that very afternoon denying the opponents time to muster support. Opposition collapsed; no one stood up to contest the leadership. It was pathetic. Although her leadership is now beyond dispute, will she be able to lead the party to electoral success in September? Dissenting members have submitted but may be less than enthusiastic supporters.
It might have been different.
The Labor Caucas would have been wise to choose a compromise candidate. Recycled leaders rarely succeed. As able as Julia Gillard undoubtedly is, her star now seems to be fading. Many voters are disappointed that Labor is failing to meet their expectations.
A perfect leader will prepare the next generation of leaders. Is Julia Gillard too pre-occupied with her own leadership to do this? She obviously believes she is the best person to pull-off an unlikely victory in September. But is she?
Another candidate might well be better able to restore consensus within the party, re-invigorate it with new talent, and build for the future.
There are options. The person I think who could best quickly reboot Labor’s prospects is Bob Carr. Admittedly he is in the Senate, and getting towards the end of an illustrious political career; but he has a high and respected public profile, and might well quickly restore Labor’s battered image. He is a proven winner.
Against this proposal would no doubt be Anthony Albanese who spoke for many other Labor members in saying that they would never again replace as leader an incumbent Prime Minister. Will this resolution waver if the opinion polls deteriorate further?