Is Rudd Really The Better Option?

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On reading about politics in this country, sometimes you have to stop, pinch yourself, and remind yourself that Julia Gillard is actually the Prime Minister, and that Labor is actually in government.

It certainly hasn’t been behaving like it is. Labor has been behaving like a disorderly, unelectable rabble. Which is precisely what it currently is. On recent poll figures, Labor would be soundly beaten in a general election. Many MPs would lose their seats. Tony Abbott and the Coalition would be handed a thumping majority, and probably two terms while they’re at it.

The current leadership soap opera is not the cause of that unpopularity, but rather a consequence. However, it goes without saying that the orgy of media reportage about a potential Kevin Rudd challenge is hurting the Government. How could it not? The party that cannot govern itself is in poor shape to explain to voters why it deserves a third term.

Labor has many problems, but the most important is that it has comprehensively lost control of the leadership narrative. It may be true that no leadership challenge by Kevin Rudd is imminent. It may be true that only a few disaffected Rudd supporters are responsible for the relentless media backgrounding that has been working the Canberra press gallery into a lather in recent weeks. It certainly is the case that much of the media coverage is of dubious newsworthiness at best, as I’ve argued elsewhere.

Unfortunately for Labor, in the Cloudcuckooland of the modern 24-hour news cycle, perception can quickly become reality. This is especially true for the many voters only vaguely engaged with day-to-day developments in federal politics, who might gather most of their news about politics from the occasional glimpse at a free-to-air news bulletin or the front of a tabloid newspaper. The long cascade of febrile media coverage about the Labor leadership has been so constant and so unrelenting that it is driving its own reality — which is that federal Labor is in crisis.

There are no good options for Julia Gillard. Toughing it out has been the strategy up until now. You have to admire the Prime Minister’s determination to keep fronting up to media conferences, knowing she’s going to have field a half-dozen questions on leadership. Fronting up to a Four Corners interview to face such questions was similarly courageous, even if the end result was typically damaging.

The reality must now be dawning on Gillard and her staff that toughing it out isn’t working. It simply can’t work in the face of the constant dripfeed of speculation and rumour, fed by poor polls, a hostile media and the supporters of Kevin Rudd.

The alternative is to bring matters to a head by calling a spill or sacking Rudd from the Cabinet — as advocated by Simon Crean this week. Gillard must now be considering this. But that may not work.

Assuming Rudd can muster enough numbers in a leadership vote to not appear ridiculous — and for this he would probably only need the 30 or so votes that the media is suggesting — then holding a vote merely crystallises the status of Labor’s disunity. It also releases Rudd from his responsibilities to the Cabinet, and allows him to openly campaign against Gillard from the backbench. We only need to cast our mind back to the 2010 election campaign to recall much damage a rogue Rudd can inflict.

This is, of course, assuming that Rudd doesn’t win the ballot outright, in which case Gillard’s career is effectively over.

There are some questions for Kevin Rudd and his supporters to consider too. The first is whether taking back the leadership will be worth it. When it comes to revenge, Labor politicians have especially long memories. The enmities he has already created are real and divisive. In his imperious arrogance and in his astonishing inability to work the numbers to his advantage as one of Australia’s most popular prime ministers, he is chiefly responsible for the parlous situation this Labor government is now in.

After all, if you want to pose the hypothetical, as many Rudd supporters do, that Labor would have won the 2010 election had Rudd been the prime minister, then you also have to explain why it was that his colleagues hated him so much that his support base had completely crumbled away by the third year of his leadership. Blaming the factions is not the full story. Even Rudd’s loyalists had drifted away by the end. In effect, Rudd got himself into struggle to the death with the entrenched power bases within the Labor Party. It’s a struggle that neither Rudd nor the factions can ever truly win, and the cost has already been terrible.

Even worse, the leadership speculation is eroding the electorate’s support for Labor’s policies, many of which remain quite popular. Just this week we discovered more evidence that the NBN enjoys widespread support in the electorate. I suspect a number of other Labor policies, on things such as schools funding and health reforms, also enjoy wide support, and that the carbon tax may eventually fade in unpopularity as an issue dogging the Government. The economy is also improving. It’s quite possible, in fact, that if the government could keep its head down for a few months and acquire a bit of clean air, that the current woeful poll figures could start to improve. That eventuality would really begin to concern some people in the Opposition, who have been enjoying the spectacle of Labor tearing itself apart with undisguised glee.

But there can be little positive thinking while the Rudd-Gillard saga rolls on — and it will continue to do so until one or both of them are completely destroyed as viable political figures. I agree with Annabel Crabb that the situation is worsened by the sheer pettiness of the issue. There is no great principle or policy disagreement at stake — as Bernard Keane rightly argued yesterday, Gillard and Rudd have governed on almost identical policy platforms, and neither figure is likely to take Labor in a markedly different direction philsophically.

In any case, until the leadership issue is resolved, no one will talk about policy anyway. We saw this yesterday, with the release of the most important review of the nation’s schools funding system since the Whitlam government. Some sections of the media covered it, and covered it well, but the political coverage remained dominated by the leadership.

The worst outcome of all for Labor is that the current instability rolls on, poisoning the party in the way that the Howard-Peacock rivalry did in the 1980s for the Liberal Party. That’s quite possible.

And remember, this is the Labor Party we’re talking about. Hatred tends to germinate. Animosities bloom. For those wondering if it can it get any worse for Labor, the answer is yes. After all, Kevin Rudd hasn’t even formally called on the challenge yet. Assuming a long, drawn-out battle, he could end up in charge of a party wrecked by internal warfare. Even if he becomes Kevin13, the sunny days of 2008 will not return.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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