Gillard Rallies The Loyalists


The Gillard Government has a new cabinet, the fifth in only three years (some say the sixth). It sets the final cabinet configuration for this term of Government, we think. Given the instability of the federal Australian Labor Party, who can really say? The last reshuffle occurred only weeks ago, when Nicola Roxon and Chris Evans resigned.

This reshuffle has been brought on, of course, by the events of last Thursday. With the miserable failure of this latest putsch, Gillard and her allies are left in an unassailable position (at least in the short term). She has moved to punish the disloyal and reward the stalwart. Most of the Rudd forces fell on their swords, including Chris Bowen, Martin Ferguson and Kim Carr. Simon Crean was sacked. Gillard has replaced them with loyalists, and loaded up existing lieutenants with extra responsibilities.

Perhaps the most notable new entrant is Gary Gray, a party functionary from Western Australia who has long been a player in the party's right. He takes on Martin Ferguson's Energy portfolio, where he will have his hands full keeping a restive mining sector quiescent. Gray's former experience as an executive at oil and gas company Woodside will give him some cover in this respect; he has quickly distanced himself from comments of a distinctly climate-sceptical variety made earlier in his career.

Also new to cabinet is New South Wales Justice Minister Jason Clare. Busy Environment Minister Tony Burke adds the Arts portfolio, Trade Minister Craig Emerson takes on Chris Bowen's old responsibilities of Tertiary Education, Skills and Science, and left factional leader Anthony Albanese adds Simon Crean's old Regional Australia portfolio to his existing job as Infrastructure Minister. A number of Gillard loyalists have also been promoted to the outer ministry and to Parliamentary Secretary positions, such as Sharon Bird (Higher Education and Skills), Don Farrell (Science and Research, Tourism), Michael Danby (Arts) and Andrew Leigh (Prime Minister's Department).   

Now Julia Gillard and Labor merely have to deliver a budget, pass a bunch of important legislation (for instance, schools funding reforms) and put together a plausible platform for re-election in September. It's just as well the Prime Minister is so determined. The scale of the challenge confronting her party is historic.

Today's Newspoll, for instance, has Labor's primary vote at a devastating 30 per cent, leaving the party at 42-58 in two-party preferred terms. Polls go up and down, and Newspoll in particular has been very volatile lately. But Labor's performance this year has been consistently disastrous across all published polling. The government's self-inflicted wounds will take time to heal, and in the meantime the election looms large. Literally millions of voters will have to change their minds between now and 14 September for the party to win a third term.

There's no getting around it: Julia Gillard is unpopular. Gillard's personal approval ratings in today's Newspoll are now running at only 26 per cent approval, versus an amazing 65 per cent disapproval. Whatever your view of her personal qualities, the brute fact is that nearly two-thirds of the electorate disapproves of the Prime Minister. Some of this is undoubtedly related to profoundly sexist treatment she has received at the hands of much of the media. But voters are also clearly fed up with Labor's ongoing leadership soap opera.

Some reflection on the broader significance of Labor's self-immolation is in order. While it's too early to start writing obituaries, I think the events of last week represent a new nadir for the public's trust in party politics in this country. Whatever the constitutional niceties, the government is widely seen as illegitimate.

As Mark Bahnisch pointed out last week in a fine post on the newly-reconstituted Larvatus Prodeo, “it’s important to remember that the concept of democratic will goes beyond the results of elections”.

While I happen to think Julia Gillard's prime ministership will be seen as an unusually active and reforming period in Australian public policy, her legislative achievements have not translated into public understanding, let alone support. The Gillard Government's signature policy achievement of pricing carbon, for instance, remains demonstrably unpopular. More broadly, there are declining levels of trust in most aspects of our entire political system – including the media and its role in reporting on it.

The public disdain for this minority government, which is so good at passing legislation and yet so riven by internal conflict, is one manifestation of that. As Bahnisch writes, “it doesn’t matter how many bills have been passed. Voters don’t care about that … the whole show is held in disregard”. As we've pointed out here before at New Matilda, the New South Wales Right faction that helps guarantee Julia Gillard the prime ministership is the same organisation that presided over the malodorous reign of Eddie Obeid. Labor desperately needs to become more open, transparent and democratic. Labor knows this: a committee of wise men, one of which was Bob Carr himself, told it so back in 2010. But under Gillard's leadership, internal reform has stalled; indeed, the party has moved even closer to its union power base.

Not all of this is Julia Gillard's fault. A steely pragmatist, she has played the cards given her with remarkable nerve. Indeed, if we simply look to the progressive policy achievements of her government, her record in office will in time be seen as substantial. But if Labor loses the election in a big enough landslide, the Coalition may well win the Senate as well. That will allow Tony Abbott to wipe away much of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard's record, from carbon pricing down.

Nothing lasts forever in politics. Just six years ago, the Coalition was out of office federally and in all the states and territories. Labor could reinvent itself under a new leadership and eventually move forward successfully in electoral terms, even while the factions retain their feudal privileges.

But the long-term trends are only accelerating. Party membership, especially for Labor, is dwindling. Young Australians see no relevance in political parties as a way to exercise their democratic will. Non-government organisations and social enterprises are increasingly where idealistic members of our community seek to make a difference. Nor do the Greens seem any closer to winning lasting support from the nine-tenths of the Australian electorate that constitute a mainstream.

The risk for Labor, and for progressive politics in general, is that this process of steady disillusion cedes legislative power for a generation to a narrow elite, and the mostly private-sector interests that fund and control it. Of course, for many on both the left and the right, Labor's current power structure looks a lot like a narrow elite too. 

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.