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A matter of judgment

If Julia Gillard was shell-shocked after what may well be the most bruising week of her turbulent prime ministership, she gave no hint of it on Thursday night when she appeared on the basketball court at Yeronga State High School in South Brisbane.

If Julia Gillard was shell-shocked after what may well be the most bruising week of her turbulent prime ministership, she gave no hint of it on Thursday night when she appeared on the basketball court at Yeronga State High School in South Brisbane.

IF JULIA Gillard was shell-shocked after what may well be the most bruising week of her turbulent prime ministership, she gave no hint of it on Thursday night when she appeared on the basketball court at Yeronga State High School in South Brisbane.

"We've got a lot to be thankful for as a country, a lot to be proud of," she told an audience of 500 who had been accommodated on a first-in, first-seated basis. "We're a peaceful nation, a prosperous nation. We've got an economy that's the envy of the world and we very much pride that [principle of a] fair go."

If those in the school gymnasium had lost all patience with their Prime Minister and her minority government, they too were circumspect. For more than an hour they asked questions, but none of them was overtly hostile and many were supportive. Applause invariably followed her replies.

It wasn't until the community forum, attended by Gillard and most of her ministry, was almost over that a young man in a suit rose and politely spoke of what he dubbed the elephant in the room.

"Don't we have an obligation to have a more humanitarian approach for the treatment of refugees?" he inquired. "And, with all due respect, Prime Minister, I'd prefer if you didn't talk about breaking the people-smugglers' business model. I think we've all heard that."

The response was polite and free of many of those jarringly familiar phrases, but is unlikely to have satisfied the questioner - or many in the Labor caucus who capitulated meekly when Gillard adopted a border protection policy at odds with the Labor platform.

After assuring the audience that the government had worked hard and methodically to get the right policy mix, she explained that it was working its way through this week's High Court ruling that the government's proposed Malaysia solution designed to deter asylum seekers from entering Australia by boat was illegal because people's rights were not adequately protected. "I do want to assure you that what guides us in this area is a genuine sense of Australia's national interest and our national spirit," she said.

The bitter irony is that the issue that first gave the Labor faithful cause to worry about whether Gillard was more attuned to focus groups in western Sydney than their own values is the one that many fear has sealed her fate.

It was in July last year that the newly installed PM insisted that people who wanted a hard line on asylum seekers should feel free to express their views and that "any sort of political correctness or niceties that get in the way, I think, need to be swept out of the way".

Having framed the issue in terms defined by the Coalition - that the number one aim was to send a message to the people smugglers - Gillard backed a policy that combined one key element of John Howard's Pacific Solution (reopening a detention centre on Manus Island) with the Malaysian "people swap", an idea that attempted to reconcile toughness with finding a regional solution.

The government knew that the policy would be challenged, but was convinced by its own legal advice that it would be upheld. Now, the Malaysia agreement is dead and the alternative of shipping asylum seekers to poor, aid-dependent states in the Pacific with no genuine interest in the welfare of refugees (much less in finding a regional solution) is also in grave doubt.

The damage is all the greater because this phenomenon has been all too familiar since Kevin Rudd toppled John Howard in 2007: bold announcements are made, but the implementation is botched or thwarted. As one close observer of the Malaysia plan remarked yesterday: "It's the failure to adopt a methodical and strategic medium and long-term approach to these issues in favour of finding a sharper quick fix for the electorate. That's what has happened."

Before Wednesday's decision, of course, Gillard and Labor were in diabolical trouble, with abysmal approval ratings and a primary vote in the 20s. Now there is open speculation about when, not whether, Gillard will be tapped on the shoulder and told to step down as PM.

Inadvertently, for he had no idea which way the court would lean, John Howard set the tone for much of the subsequent commentary when he appeared on the ABC's 7.30 on Tuesday and opined: "The biggest problem that the current Prime Minister has is that she lacks authority."

Howard, of course, has always had a capacity to zero in on the weaknesses of Labor leaders, infamously branding Kim Beazley a leader without ticker and observing that Kevin Rudd was simply too pleased with himself. Yesterday the Herald Sun borrowed the phrase, leading with a story that began: "Senior Labor figures say Julia Gillard has 'lost her authority' ? "

Similarly unsourced reports about the prospect of Gillard being urged to step aside and replaced by either Kevin Rudd or Stephen Smith were ridiculed by a cross-section of Labor MPs, with Joel Fitzgibbon telling ABC radio: "I would suggest to you that if she lacked authority, people who were quoted in that article would be putting their names to those quotes.''

One who was involved in installing Gillard last year was even more emphatic. "If MPs are clamouring for her to go, they're f---ing hard to find. I haven't found any," he told me.

But this is not to understate the scale of Labor's problem. As one MP, who has long been resigned to a massive defeat, put it: "We have never been in this situation before. Under normal circumstances, however regrettable, the caucus would have to contemplate changing the leader. But everyone is so scarred and damaged by what we did last year that change is almost too horrific to contemplate. We're paralysed."

Several Labor MPs interviewed yesterday argued that Gillard was performing well against all manner of obstacles: unrelenting attacks from sections of the media (especially within News Ltd) a difficult economic environment the selling of a controversial plan to put a price on carbon and, out of the blue, a High Court that rejected her solution to uninvited boat arrivals.

There is also the reality of minority government. "We are continually hamstrung by the perception that we're run by a [Andrew] Wilkie or a [Bob] Brown or a Rob Oakeshott," is how one MP expressed it. "We're fighting a battle with one arm tied behind our back."

Even before the court's ruling on Wednesday, this week was shaping as a testing one for Gillard. It began with veteran News Ltd columnist Glenn Milne predicting in a column in The Australian more fallout from what he called the "alleged brothel creeping scandal surrounding Craig Thomson".

Milne quoted another News Ltd columnist, Andrew Bolt, as predicting in his blog last Saturday that new information on this story "could be the last straw for Gillard's leadership''. Milne also included incorrect information in the column, which prompted Gillard to complain directly to News Ltd chief John Hartigan. That morning, The Australian removed the column from its website and issued an unqualified apology that was reprinted twice in Tuesday's newspaper.

The predicted revelations failed to materialise, though Bolt felt compelled to write a column accusing Gillard of an attempt at censorship in approaching Hartigan. "You see, Gillard could have simply pointed out the errors and ridiculed the accusers as muckrakers," he wrote, as if this was a suitable remedy.

Then came tension with union leaders covering manufacturing workers and the convenor of the Left in the caucus, Doug Cameron, over her refusal to hold an inquiry on the future of this sector of the economy. The officials included Paul Howes, the Australian Workers Union secretary who played a key role in the removal of Rudd last year.

Howes and others had left a meeting with Gillard on Monday believing she had agreed to an inquiry, only to be told the next day that there had been a misunderstanding. Gillard said there would be no inquiry, and the government would focus on what action should be taken in response to job losses in the sector.

Howes insists there is no ill feeling. "She's ruled out an inquiry. C'est la vie," he told The Saturday Age. "You win some, you lose some, but I still think there are a lot of mechanisms that the government can use to push a forward agenda for manufacturing and we're going to be talking to them about it."

All of this was a prelude to the High Court's ruling that has not only scuttled the Malaysian people swap, but raised serious doubts about the Coalition alternative of reinstituting the Pacific Solution.

While some critics believe the court stepped into dangerous territory, Gillard erred in her response by delivering a stinging rebuke to Chief Justice Robert French who, she told reporters, "considered comparable legal questions when he was a judge of the Federal Court and made different decisions to the one that the High Court made yesterday".

So where to now? There are three uncertainties - the future of asylum seeker policy, the future of Gillard and the future of the government. But in the minds of many Labor MPs, there is one solution: to re-dedicate the government to Labor values.

On the question of boats, there are two choices. As one insider put it: "We can try to neutralise it and go down the Nauru path, or we become a proper Labor government again and go down fighting, rejecting policies of offshore processing. That is, we do what the High Court has suggested we do."

The Labor Left has already declared its preference for a return to onshore processing and there is scope to retreat here while still pushing for a regional solution. At the end of next month, Gillard will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, which represents a perfect opportunity to push more countries to sign up to the refugee convention and address the problem before people feel compelled to risk their lives on leaky boats.

On the question of leadership, it is fair to say Gillard retains the respect and regard of the majority of her MPs, but the polling says only a miracle will save her.

As one Labor veteran put it yesterday: "It's a nasty, messy, horrible situation and the party would hate to do it, but no professional party can confront an election, near or far, with a vote with a 2 in front of it, and no prospect of getting rid of the 2, and knowing that the main reason for the 2 is the leader."

The problem of who to turn to was underscored by the audience reaction on talkback yesterday. As Media Monitors' Patrick Baume remarked: "Simon Crean got a few nods [but only in Melbourne] there was [fanciful] support for Malcolm Turnbull to cross the floor and Kevin Rudd was mentioned [mainly in Queensland] - but there was certainly no single leading contender that came through in the calls."

The only near certainty as things stand, barring the death or forced retirement of a Labor MP, is that the government will go full term, which means this drama has a long time to play out. Gillard's future, in the first instance, hinges on whether her MPs hold their collective nerve, which seems a safe bet for now.

"She's actually prosecuting things and following through," is how one influential figure expressed it. "This year has been ugly, with stuff-ups galore, but we'll be able to look back on it and say she's delivered in a pretty bad political environment. My view is she goes on and we have the fight."

But if things don't get better, the onus will be on the unflappable, inscrutable Gillard to make the hardest call of all.


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