Choose Your Own Labor Disaster


Another weekend, another round of leadership speculation. It's a depressing time for the progressive cause, with Julia Gillard and the ALP seemingly headed for a massive defeat. As we observed last week, the apparent inevitability of wholesale catastrophe has contributed to a breakdown in party discipline, in a federal Labor party scarcely known for its team spirit in the first place.

Labor's predicament is parlous. The party's situation has been compared by some to a bus driving over a cliff, and by others to a terminal illness. Whichever overstretched metaphor you prefer, it's clear that the Government's crushing deficit in the polls is contributing to yet more leadership instability, despite the fact that this disunity is itself one of the key drivers of the government's unpopularity.

Last week, I argued that the time has come to start rethinking progressive politics in Australia. There'll be time enough for that after the election. But Labor is still in office, and the Government still has an election campaign to fight. This looming deadline is part and parcel of Labor's agonising purgatory. So can anything be done before 14 September? Let's run through the unpalatable scenarios.

Broadly, the party has three choices. As we'll see, none of them are particularly optimistic.

The first and most likely scenario is to retain the status quo. Julia Gillard remains the Prime Minister, the factional warlords somehow keep a lid on incipient leadership tensions, and the party marches towards election day with its head held high – or, more likely, with an ataxic zombie shuffle. The Government continues to campaign on its signature policy issues, like the NBN, schools reform and disability care. Some attempt is made to focus on the perils of an Abbott government. Even so, Labor loses, and loses big.

The second scenario is to replace Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd, preferably after Gillard resigns, but if necessary after yet another night of the long knives, with factional leaders abandoning the very leader they replaced Rudd with. The Government effects a minimal reshuffle, and Rudd embarks on a frenetic 90-day campaign to save the furniture in as many safe Labor seats as he can. Rudd continues to campaign on Labor's signature policy issues, like the NBN, schools reform and disability care, with the health of the economy thrown in. Attention is focused on the perils of an Abbott government. Labor loses, and loses big, but perhaps not as badly as it might have under Gillard.

Scenario three sees a handover to a third leader, someone who is neither Gillard nor Rudd. Bill Shorten is the most plausible candidate. It's possible to construct even farther-fetched gambits, such as Greg Combet or Simon Crean. Under the new leader, the Government attempts to wipe the slate clean on the last three years of leadership instability, and hopes against hope for a small honeymoon period under the new boss. Shorten campaigns on the Government's signature policy issues, like the NBN, schools reform and disability care. Some attempt is made to focus on the perils of an Abbott government. Labor loses, and loses big.

What's the common thread in all three scenarios? Labor loses big. It's almost impossible to construct a winning scenario for the government which starts with a primary vote in the low 30s, three months from election day. There are indeed polls which show Rudd will lift Labor's vote substantially, and maybe that's all Labor's caucus needs to think about. This thinking is pretty simplistic, but it has a certain logic to it. Gillard equals massive defeat, Rudd equals merely very large defeat. End of story.

Certainly, that's been the thrust of much of the political commentary, which argues that Labor is behaving suicidally in not bringing back their proven campaigner to at least try and mitigate the scale of the defeat. “Rudd has again demonstrated just how effective he can be on the campaign trail, and he will go on doing that around the country,” Barrie Cassidy wrote over the weekend. “He does in all the circumstances represent the better chance for Labor to maximise its return in seat numbers.”

I'm not convinced it's quite so simple. A return to Rudd would hardly be bloodless or neat. Even if Gillard bowed out gracefully, there would still be a need for a minor cabinet reshuffle, because there is every chance other ministers would also resign. Could Wayne Swan really remain Treasurer? What about Gillard loyalists like Stephen Conroy? And what about Gillard's own supporters? Could they be expected to remain silent and fall in behind Kevin Rudd? Some would be tempted to try and sabotage Rudd's election campaign, just as Rudd did to Gillard in 2010.

And what about all the staffers in Gillard's office? Gillard's staff would all have to go. We're talking about a wholesale change-over in the Prime Minister's Office just three months out from the election. That's a scenario almost guaranteed to generate damaging anti-Rudd leaks to the media.  

Then there's the matter of the independent members, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, who remain essential to safeguard the government's numbers in the House of Representatives. Windsor has stated repeatedly that his agreement is with the current executive – that's Julia Gillard – rather than with the Labor Party more broadly.

Further, changing the prime minister this close to an election raises some thorny constitutional issues. Should Quentin Bryce simply accept that Kevin Rudd has the confidence of the House? What if she simply asked Tony Abbott to form a government instead, with a view to calling an election immediately?

Of course, some might say that's the whole point of the “Get Rudd” strategy. In this gambit, an incoming Kevin Rudd calls the election straight after leaving the Governor-General's residence; Parliament dissolves and the campaign commences. The logic is that Rudd then maximises any small poll bounce he might receive. But this sacrifices most of the Gillard government's remaining legislative agenda, like the Gonski schools reforms, which have yet to get backing from most of the states.

Is this scenario even realistic? Who can say with the Australian Labor Party in 2013?

And what about the broader electorate? Labor's credibility is already shredded with many voters. How would swing voters in the supposedly safe seats that Labor hopes to sandbag react to such turbulence? It's hard to believe they would reward Labor under such circumstances. After all, they haven't rewarded the government for instability so far. Some of the Coalition's most effective talking points are about the chaos and incompetence of the current government. A return to Rudd solely for the purposes of calling an election rather plays into the Coalition's argument that Labor is unfit for office.

There would also be blowback in Labor's base. A return to Rudd risks alienating some of its remaining supporters, such as inner-city female voters, many of whom would undoubtedly see such a move as an attack on Gillard's gender. 

That's the hard truth for Labor in 2013. After deposing its first-term leader and then suffering years of internal conflict as a result – not to mention all the broken promises and foolish budget surplus commitments – the party has no good options left. That's why its death throes are so public and so agonising. For Labor, just like many political observers, 14 September can't come soon enough. 

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.