It was an experience too painful to endure.
Monday’s (13 February) Four Corners program – “The comeback kid?” – which explored the Rudd-Gillard battle for the Labor Party leadership, should have been a routine political “doco”.
But by agreeing to be interviewed by Andrew Fowler, Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a fateful decision. She turned a merely interesting, workman-like program into a major political event and a personal debacle.
On two occasions Fowler asked Prime Minister Gillard questions which probed whether she was part of a conspiracy to overthrow her predecessor in the office, Kevin Rudd, on 24 June 2010.
Had the right-wing faction leaders shared with her their private polling which tracked Gillard’s rising credibility in the electorate against Rudd’s decline?
Had her staff begun drafting her Prime Ministerial acceptance speech a fortnight before the coup?
Gillard’s pedantic, tortured evasions were too mortifying to sit through. Twice I had to get up out of my chair and leave the room. If I felt like that, how did Labor’s long-suffering backbenchers feel?
Denis Shanahan told us in yesterday’s Australian that he believes the PM. I’d expect nothing less from Shanahan. He has the milk of human kindness in his veins. So let’s take our lead from him: let’s give Julia Gillard the benefit of the doubt. The problem is thousands of voters in marginal Labor electorates won’t be so kind to her – and Labor’s backbench knows it.
But going back to Kevin Rudd?
It is hardly believable that those who have worked under Rudd the Prime Minister want to “go there” again. The experience was too terrible; and there are no signs that Rudd has undergone a personality makeover.
During brunch last Sunday I pontificated that Rudd was dreaming because he just didn’t have the numbers. But who can say, right now, how the numbers might have begun to shift since Monday night’s Four Corners? A lot of Labor MPs would have every reason to feel betrayed by Gillard’s blunder in agreeing to be interviewed and by her performance on camera. When numbers begin to shift, they can change overnight. We have already seen an example: when Rudd’s support collapsed overnight on 23-24 June 2010 between the first news that a leadership challenge was underway and his capitulation the following morning.
Also against the re-election of Rudd to the leadership is that it could trigger an early election. The alliance between Labor and the Greens and Independents is a personal agreement between those parties and Gillard. Re-install Rudd and all bets are off. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.
What people tend to overlook, however, is the visceral hostility of the Independents Tony Windsor (New England, NSW), and Rob Oakeshott, (Lyne, NSW), to the Coalition and to Abbott personally.
Furthermore, the last thing these fellows want is an election. No matter what they might say about a new Labor leader not being able to count upon their support, they are vectored, by political necessity and personal animus, toward doing some deal with Labor rather than face the voters.
Green MP Adam Bandt, Member for Melbourne, will not want an early Federal election either. At the next election he won’t get Liberal preferences like he did at the last. So Melbourne might go back to Labor with Abbott’s blessing. In any case, as a Green, and therefore as a member of the ALP’s unofficial left wing, he will always support a Labor Government – any Labor Government – rather than see one fall.
Andrew Wilkie, the Member for Denison (Tas), is a different kettle of fish. He is a mercurial character and is feeling burned at present by that terrible old beast the ALP. It won’t buy his pokies reform; it just refuses to interrupt the smooth flow of funds from Labor-aligned clubs into ALP coffers. So Wilkie, officially, has withdrawn his support for the Government.
But does that really amount to much?
Yesterday Wilkie supported the Government’s legislation on means testing the Private Health Insurance (PHI) rebate. Given that health insurance - and attitudes towards it – is a defining issue for the ALP and the Coalition, I’d say that Wilkie is more in the ALP camp than in the other.
So it’s no “dead cert”, it seems to me, that all bets are off and that a revolt of the cross benches would drive Rudd Redux - or, for that matter, any alternative Labor leader - to the polls.
I can imagine, moreover, that a new Labor leader might wish to attempt to govern without any formal alliance with the Independents and Greens. With a potential three-vote margin over the Coalition, it’s tight but do-able for a canny operator. Just gather in their votes issue by issue, bill-by bill. It’s the strategy Gillard should have pursued all along. And, then, if the whole thing should come unstuck, go for broke and an early Federal election.
A prudent, patient Labor Prime Minister could do it. Beside his virtues, the biggest asset he would have in his favour is that Wilkie, Bandt, Oakeshott and Windsor, in the final analysis, would have every motive to make the most of their own cross bench power and influence upon government. They’d be plain mad to trigger an election when they could play cabinet-ministers-without-portfolio for another 18 months.
The problem here is whether Kevin Rudd would have the necessary prudence and patience to make it work. I reckon he could. When he wants to, he can charm. But would he have the personal discipline to maintain it for very long?
If, however, Labor cabinet members were looking for a more predictable pair of hands to tackle such a delicate mission, then they might contemplate, not an overthrow of Gillard, but an agreed succession to Stephen Smith, the Minister for Defence. He appears to have just the right personal characteristics to make a post-Gillard minority government work.
All these fine calculations could end up counting for nothing, though, if Craig Thomson, the Labor Member for Dobell (NSW) were forced to resign and a by-election for his seat were held.
In that event, Labor would likely lose the seat and the Government’s margin would be reduced to a single vote - assuming it could gather the support of all four of Bandt, Wilkie, Oakeshott, and Windsor on no confidence and supply motions.
That looks untenable.
Gary Scarrabelotti is Managing Director of the Canberra-based consulting firm Aequum: Political & Business Strategies.